TARFON, tanna in the generation after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.; one of the leading scholars of *Jabneh. Tarfon was a priest. The Temple was still standing in his youth, and he recounts what he saw there (TJ, Yoma 1:1; 3:7; et al.). He may have studied under *Johanan b. Zakkai, but in any case it is certain that he already occupied an honored place among the scholars of the second generation of tannaim (Yad. 4:3), and his greatness is expressed in the designations given him: "the father of all Israel" and "the teacher of all Israel." On several occasions he appears as chief spokesman among the contemporary
Much is told of Tarfon's humane character. Possessed of considerable means (Ned. 62a), he betrothed 300 women during a year of drought in order that they should be able, as the wives of a priest, to eat *terumah (Tosef., Ket. 5:1). It is also related that on one occasion, when he went to eat figs on his own property, the watchmen, failing to recognize him, struck him. When they discovered his identity and asked forgiveness he replied: "As each stick came down on me I pardoned you for each successive blow" (TJ, Shev. 4:2). On one occasion he saved himself from assault by revealing his identity, and as a result was distressed all his life and used to say, "Woe is me that I made use of the crown of the Torah." He distinguished himself in the exemplary manner in which he honored his mother (TJ, Kid. 1:7, see also Kid. 31b) and his care to avoid transgression (Kid. 81b). In several matters he acted strictly in accordance with Bet Shammai, for which he was punished (Ber. 1:3; et al.). Tarfon was distinguished by his great erudition: "When a scholar came to him and said, 'Teach me' he would cite Scripture, Mishnah, Midrash, halakhot and aggadot; when he left he was full of blessing and goodness" (ARN1, 18, 67). He was methodical in his learning and once remarked to Akiva: "How long will you rake words together and use them against us, Akiva? I cannot bear it" (Sif. Num. 75; cf. his statement to Eleazar of Modi'in, Yoma 76a), but when he was convinced, he praised him greatly (ibid.). In his teaching he used the method of instructive dialogue; he put a question to his pupils who replied, "teach us, Sir," and Tarfon retorted: "You answer." Occasionally he began with "I shall ask" (Tosef., Ber. 4:16–17). A number of phrases were coined by Tarfon. When he wished to express his approval of a statement, he would exclaim, "kaftor va-feraḥ" ("knob and flower"; cf. Ex. 25:33); for disapproval, "my son shall not go down with thee" (Gen. 42:38); to express distress, "your ass has gone, Tarfon"; for an oath he would say, "May I ruin my son." His best known aggadic saying is: "The day is short, and the work is great, and the laborers are sluggish, and the reward is much, and the Master is urgent. It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it" (Avot 2:15). He also stated: "God did not cause His divine presence to rest upon Israel until they had worked" (ARN1 11, 45). On the question of whether study or observance is greater, he decided in favor of the latter (Kid. 40b).
There is no information about his death, but according to one aggadah (Lam. R. 2:4), he was one of the *ten martyrs. The Tarfon to whom *Judah Nesiah brought the firstborn of an ass (Bek. 11a) was not the tanna but a later amora of that name, nor is he to be identified with the Jew Tryphon who appears in the dialogue of the Church Father *Justin. For Tarfon's descendants, see Bava Meẓia 85a (with caution).
Frankel, Mishnah (19232), 107–12; Hyman, Toledot, S.V.; A. Orenstein, in: Sinai, 39 (1956), 182–8; J.L. Maimon (ed.), Yiḥusei Tanna'im ve-Amora'im (1963), 482–5; J. Neusner, in: Judaica, 17 (1961), 141–67.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.