Rabbi Tarfon or Tarphon, (Hebrew: רבי טרפון, from the Greek Tryphon), a member of the third generation of the Mishnah sages, who lived in the period between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the fall of Bethar (135 C.E.).
Origins and character
He is said to have lived in Yavneh, although it is evident that he lived also in Lod (Lydda). He was of priestly lineage, and he expressly stated that he officiated in the Temple in Jerusalem. As a priest, he would demand the heave-offering even after the Temple had fallen, while his generosity made him return to the father the redemption-money for the first-born, although it was his priestly perquisite.
Although wealthy, he possessed extraordinary modesty; in one instance he deeply regretted having mentioned his name in a time of peril, since he feared that in using his position as teacher to escape from danger he had seemingly violated the rule against utilizing knowledge of the Torah for practical ends.
Rabbi Tarfon was an adherent of the school of Shammai, though he was inclined toward leniency in the interpretation of those halakhot of Shammai which had not actually been put into practise; often he decided in direct opposition to the followers of Shammai when they imposed restrictions of excessive severity.
R. Tarfon engaged in halakhic controversies with Rabbi Akiva, with Shimon bar Yochai, and R. Eleazar ben Azaryah. He is mentioned briefly with regard to Bruriah. In the discussion as to the relative importance of theory and practise, Ṭarfon decided in favor of the latter.
Persecution of Christians
Some commentators have claimed this passage as evidence of persecution of early Christians by Jews.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the 1st-century Tanna, Rabbi Tarfon, swore that he would burn every book that fell into his hands of those Jews who had converted to Christianity (see Shab. 116a). Indeed, even though the word, "God," occurred in them, he acknowledged that he would destroy even the Gospels of the Christians.
However, some Jewish commentators explain that Shabbath 116a ruled on the question of what was expected of a Jew on the Sabbath in respect of putting out a fire. A Jew may neither put such a fire out, unless life is in danger, nor save any item from such a fire with the exception of any Torah scrolls written by hand on parchment. (Other Jewish books, for example literature, law and other religious books, would be left to the fire on the Sabbath.)
This led to the further question of whether such Torah scrolls should still be saved if the Jewish scribe responsible for writing them was held to be a heretic. Such scrolls would not be saved from the fire because the rules were not satisfied concerning who may write a Torah scroll, since the Torah scroll, including the divine name, may have been written with heresy in mind.
R. Tarfon contributed to this debate, according to the Tosefta, by affirming that the fire should take the copies of the heretics, even with the divine name in them, equating them with blank sheets of parchment (gilyonim). (Aruch HaShulchan YD 281, written by R. Yechiel Michel Epstein).
There is debate as to whether Tarfon's reference to the minim is to be taken as a reference to heretical Jews in general, or to a particular group of them, for example Jewish gnostics or Jewish Christians according to preferred interpretations of gilyonim and minim.
Gilyonim and minim
In connection with a proposed identification of gilyonim and minim with Christianity in particular, another thesis has been suggested, independently of Jewish scholarship. This is that the passage in the Tosefta refers not to the divine name in Torah scrolls but hypothesises the divine name occurring in early copies of the canonical gospels of the Four Evangelists of the Christian New Testament. This thesis is as yet unsubstantiated by the evidence of New Testament manuscripts, the divine name being absent from them. See Tetragrammaton in the New Testament.
There is debate as to whether Justin Martyr's dialogue with Trypho, a proof of Christianity from the Old Testament, should be taken as purporting to represent a dialog with Tarfon. The dialog itself has been held to be principally a literary device, and its claim to witness to a rabbinic perspective can be seen in that light (see Schiffman).
Two of his apothegms are especially noteworthy as indicating his intense earnestness: "The day is short, the labor vast, the toilers idle, the reward great, and the Master urgent" (Avoth ii. 15); "You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future" (Avoth ii. 17). These sayings remain in liturgical use as part of Pirkei Avot.
Legacy and death
Tarfon is mentioned in the traditional Haggadah of Passover in the company of other sages: "It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiba, and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining (at a seder) in Bnei Barak (in Palestine) and were telling of the exodus from Egypt the entire night..."
Lawrence H. Schiffman. 1998. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Ktav, Hoboken, N.J. (ISBN 0-88125-434-7)