Studying the Talmud is a most exciting adventure that introduces a person to a host of intriguing historic personalities who had a profound impact on Jewish life. With so many different sages spanning several generations, it is often hard to see these rabbis as individuals. Today’s Jewish Treat presents a brief biographical background of one such sage: Rabbi Tarfon.

If the name Rabbi Tarfon rings familiar, it might be because he is one of the five sages named in the Haggadah who stayed awake all night reciting the story of the Exodus. He is also cited twice in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers. In fact, Rabbi Tarfon is quoted close to 50 times throughout the Mishna, often in dialogue with Rabbi Akiva.

Part of the third generation of Mishna sages, Rabbi Tarfon was a kohen (priest) who was born before the destruction of the Second Temple and could actually recall witnessing the Temple service, even hearing the voice of the High Priest. He also came from a wealthy family and was known for his generosity. He accepted terumah (an offering/tithe given to the priests) in order for the mitzvah to be fulfilled, and when he participated in a pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn), he gave away what he had been paid.

The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah relays one interesting incident that seems to personify Rabbi Tarfon and his relationship with Rabbi Akiva, who was both his friend and his student.  Rabbi Tarfon accepted an offer from Rabbi Akiva to invest in some “durable goods.” Rabbi Akiva took Rabbi Tarfon’s money and gave it to poor Torah scholars. When Rabbi Tarfon asked about his investment, Rabbi Akiva brought him to a Torah study hall and declared that these were the “durable goods.” Rabbi Tarfon was delighted and declared Rabbi Akiva his teacher in wisdom and in conduct.”

Although not confirmed, it is believed that Rabbi Tarfon’s burial site is in a sealed cave on Mount Meron in Israel.

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