Translating God

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A long tradition exists of criticizing translators. The nuance of one language is often difficult to discern much less to transfer to a different tongue. Commentary, conventional wisdom has it, is inherent in translation.

Judaism has a quasi-official translation of the Pentateuch, and it isn’t Artscroll. It is Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic translation attributed to second century Onkelos the convert’s record of a tradition dating back to the biblical Ezra. Often just called Targum, which technically refers to any translation, particularly those in Aramaic, Targum Onkelos was more-or-less canonized in Jewish law as a weekly study requirement. (Oddly, as one scholar pointed out to me, Artscroll’s translation proudly follows Rashi even when he disagrees with Onkelos.)

As with any translation, Targum Onkelos contains commentary as part of its translation. One particular element captured the notice and imagination of Medieval philosophers. Onkelos regularly removes anthropomorphisms that imply God has a physical presence. God does not descend but rather reveals Himself (Gen. 18:21; Ex. 19:20). God does not pass by but rather his presence passes by (Ex. 34:6). God has no mouth but words (Num. 12:8) and no face but anger (Ex. 4:14).

Why did Onkelos change the literal text in his translation? This question, and Onkelos’ frustrating inconsistencies, engendered great debate over history. I present below five approaches to the issue, two of which may be explained as a linguistic debate.

1. Philosophical Approach

R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda (Chovos Ha-Levavos, Sha’ar Ha-Yichud ch. 10), R. Sa’adia Gaon (Emunos Ve-Dei’os 2:9) and Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:27) cite this translation activity as a precedent for their philosophical approach to divine unity (see also Kuzari 4:3). God cannot be divided or appear in physical form. While the Torah spoke in human parlance, Onkelos presented the true meaning to avoid philosophical confusion. Any exceptions to this approach in Targum Onkelos must be explained away.

For example, Onkelos translates Gen. 46:4 “I will go down with you to Egypt” literally, without removing the implication that God will physically dwell in Egypt. Rambam (ibid.) explains that this was a statement in a dream (Gen. 46:2) rather than a description of action. A prophetic vision of God can entail anthropomorphisms and therefore does not merit translational commentary. Additionally, Onkelos translates literally that God sees (e.g. Gen. 6:5), potentially implying that He has eyes, because the word means intellectual conception and not merely sight.

2. Kabbalistic Approach

Ramban (Gen. 41:1) disagrees at great length with the philosophical approach. Demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of Targum Onkelos, Ramban raises many examples that challenge the proposed translational rules. Why does Onkelos alter God’s hearing but not seeing, if both mean intellectual conception? Why does Onkelos translate literally “The Lord your God Himself crosses over before you” (Deut. 31:3) when that implies physical movement? And why does he allow for God’s hand (Ex. 14:31), finger (Ex. 31:18) and eyes (Deut. 11:12)? Ramban poses more challenges, too many to list here. Although note that some of Ramban’s examples do not appear as he claims in our texts of Onkelos, nor in most Medieval texts.

Rather, Ramban suggests that Onkelos utilized kabbalistic considerations in determining when to translate God’s descriptions literally and when not. Rashba (quoted by his student, R. Meir Abusaulah in Bi’ur Le-Feirush Ha-Ramban, Gen. 41:1) agrees. Neither explain these considerations but perhaps they intended what R. Chaim Volozhiner wrote centuries later (Nefesh Ha-Chaim 2:5 n. ve-zehu, tr. R. Leonard Moskowitz, The Soul of Life, p. 219):

And this is the context of all the descriptive names in the Torah that are applied to Him–eye, arm, leg and others like them–all are from the perspective of His relationship (blessed be He) to the worlds, that they are organized according to this organization in all these limbs/organs, and they are names reflecting essential characteristics of the powers and worlds, not metaphorical characteristics.

Later commentaries did not find Ramban’s critique of the philosophical approach compelling. Ritva (Sefer Ha-Zikaron, ch. 4) and Abarbanel (Commentary to Moreh Nevukhim 1:27) responded at length to Ramban’s detailed challenges. Onkelos changed God’s hearing, but not seeing or saying, because hearing implies that God is acted upon, an object of human activity in the physical world rather than an actor on his own divine terms. The Torah does not state that God crossed but that Moshe said that God would cross. Onkelos changed descriptions of divine activity, not human speeches about God. Onkelos did not allow for the sight of God’s hand but for viewing the glory of God’s hand, i.e. His might. God’s “finger” might mean a utensil used to write on the tablets and God’s eyes are clearly an allegorical reference. And so on, for each specific challenge.

3. Composite Approach

R. Yitzchak Arama (Akeidas Yitzchak, no. 31) took an entirely different approach to explaining Onkelos’ methodology. R. Arama identifies three of Onkelos’ terms for God that refer to three different aspects of his interaction with mankind. When the text means God’s presence or movement, Onkelos translates as His honor (yekara). He calls God’s providence His word (memra). And God’s continued involvement is called His presence (shekhinah). When a biblical should be translated into one of these three terms but for contextual reasons cannot, Onkelos renders the word literally.

God descending with the Jews into Egypt means His providence descends. However, Onkelos would have created an awkward sentence by translating it as His word descending into Egypt. Therefore, the Targum translates it literally, without altering it to remove the anthropomorphism.

4. Glorification Approach

Shadal (Ohev Ger, 1:19) quotes R. Arama. However, earlier (1:3) he proposes his own approach which focuses on the average reader (including converts). He suggests that Onkelos deviates from literal translation when doing so preserves God’s honor in the eyes of the average reader, who would lose respect for a God with body parts or physical presence. Similarly, he retains the literal wording when doing so does not detract from God’s honor. This seems to me a fairly vague and subjective criterion, although Shadal follows it through at length.

5. Linguistic Approach

R. Yosef Kafach (Moreh Nevukhim 1:27 n. 9) approves of Abarbanel’s specific answers to Ramban’s challenges but suggests a simpler explanation of Onkelos’ translational methodology. Rambam (ibid.) states that Onkelos was an expert in Aramaic. This statement of qualifications is unusual. R. Kafach suggests that Rambam meant that Onkelos knew which words in Aramaic have multiple meanings like in Hebrew and which do not. When a divine descriptor contains equal nuance in Aramaic, Onkelos translated literally to maintain the multiple meanings. But when the Aramaic translation fails to convey the rich Hebrew meaning, Onkelos deviated to avoid anthropomorphisms.

Language and Meaning

Perhaps we can explain the debate between Rambam and Ramban based on two of the many theories of language. According to the Idea Theory, language refers to ideas, mental concepts, that the words represent. According to Reference Theory, words represent actual objects. (Of course, I can’t claim to have even begun to adequately capture the nuances of the multiple theories subsumed under these broad categories. But this rough dichotomy should suffice for our purposes.)

If the Rambam accepts Reference Theory, then we can understand his profound concern for anthropomorphic language about God. The words actually refer to the Almighty as if He really has parts. If the Ramban accepts Idea Theory, he can easily say that the same words used for man refer to similar concepts on a different plane when used for God. He would therefore be content with kabbalistic meaning in anthropomorphic terms.

We can perhaps see a similar debate between Rambam and Ramban regarding the Hebrew language. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8), Hebrew is called the Holy Language because it lacks obscene terms. It is an entirely clean language, thus rendering it holy. If Rambam accepts Reference Theory, then he would believe that inappropriate terms must refer directly to inappropriate objects.

Ramban (Ex. 30:13), on the other hand, disagrees that Hebrew lacks obscene terms. Additionally, he is unimpressed with the entire claim. This would be understandable if he accepts Idea Theory, in which case he would not identify the words directly with profane acts and objects. The words would not be inherently impure.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. I think one should reference the Rambam’s extensive discussion of homonyms in the beginning of the Moreh.

  2. IH thanks for the shout out, though article does deal with any of these issues directly.

    As I learned Bernard “Berel” Septimus, the fundamental machloket between the Rambam and the Ramban regarding language is that the Rambam holds that all languages, including Hebrew, are merely human conventions. As such Hebrew cannot have any special metaphysical significance. The fact that it is called “holy” must refer to more mundane characteristics of Hebrew like the fact that it ihas no obscene words. For the Ramban Hebrew has deep metaphysical significance. and is it self a direct conduit to God. I dont think that this is directly realted to the question of anthropomorphism.

  3. When we get to the parashah, I’ll share an approach that the debate is about the nature of holiness.

  4. That was me.
    Also, if Onkelus was the authoritativ eTargum going back to Ezra, why did the Tannaim and AMoriam in Eretz YIsrael not use it? They clearly didnot think that their very different Targum tradition was inferior.
    Also, Why would a Roman Nobel undetake translating the Torah from Hebrew into Aramaic, a language that was not his native tongue? there was no shortage of learned aramaic speaking Jews back then.

  5. 1. Have you see this book?

    2. The first 2/3 of the post was interesting enough without the last bit. Not everything has to fit into a chakirah, and when you say outright that you can’t precisely define the terms you’re using, it really defeats the purpose of Brisker analysis.

  6. Well, as long as we’re being picky, we can point out that in all likelihood, Onkelos translated the Torah into Greek, not Aramaic (unless he did both, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility).

  7. Nachum: Why would you say he probably translated it into Greek? He was an individual, not a statistical slice of his generation. It seems very possible that after mastering the Aramaic taught by his rabbinic teachers, he put it down in writing for other newcomers lacking the rabbinic access he had.

    Moshe: Presumably a lot was lost and reconstructed in the Targum tradition. Hence the differences among Tannaim and Amoraim.

  8. Yehudah Mirsky

    Rafael Binyamin Posen’s new book on Onkelos, ‘Parshegen,’ is reportedly magnificent. See Professor Hananel Mack’s recent review in Haaretz

  9. Another useful reference is Prof. Schiffman’s short 2008 paper Translation as Commentary: Targum, Midrash and Talmud available at:

  10. Gil: Because someone named “Aquilas” translated the Torah into Greek, and “Onkelos” is a form of that name. In the Yerushalmi, the stories the Bavli tells about Onkelos are told about Aquilas. The Maharatz Chajes deals with this, if one needs a “kosher” source.

  11. My impression is that even historians generally reject the equation of the two.

  12. Lawrence Kaplan

    Moshe shoshan: see, as well, menachem Keller.

  13. Nathan: I don’t know the context but I’ve seen such terminology used frequently in philosophical language as a convention, even when it is clearly not intended as a person.

  14. “Person” doesn’t mean you have a body. It means you have an identity and personality.

  15. I have translated the shaar yichud to english along with some of the classic commentaries. see

  16. Gil,

    No, what Nachum is saying is the standard academische rede, The yerusalmi’s Akilus, the Bavli’s Aquila are one and the same. Note that we have frangments of the Greek translation attributed to “Aquila”, which seems to have rabbinic influence,

    You also have not addressed my question. This has nothing to do with Tannaim verse amoraim. Its eretz yisrael versus Bavel. In Bavel they used a targum which they held to be definitive and not prefered which was “reconstructed” by Onkelous in the land of Israel in the time of the Tanaim from a tradition going back to Ezra or perhaps even Har Sinai.
    Yet the Tanaim and Amoraim of EY did not use Onkelous and indeed reject the notion that there was a single authrotiative Targum. They allowed signifcant leeway for translator in shul to put his own spin on the targum. How can we explain this?

  17. Moshe: I defer to your knowledge of the latest scholarship. In my defense I quote Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Bible, p. 146: “Although the name Aquila and Onqelos are indeed closely related, there is no evidence that it was one and the same person who translated the Torah into Aramaic and revised [the Septuagint].” Maybe a scholarly consensus has emerged since Tov’s writing.

    I am not aware of your claim that there is a difference between the practices in Israel and Bavel. Off the top of my head I can think of multiple ways to explain it. To the point that I don’t even understand what your question is. We need that historical speculation to prove the diversity in Aramaic translations??? We have manuscripts of many Targumim! Clearly there was permission to translate freely just like there is permission to comment freely on the text. How does that in any way undermine the tradition about Onkelos?

  18. Gil, I think you’re misreading Tov. He’s saying that it wasn’t the same person who did both translations (although they have some similarities). He’s not saying that someone named “Onkelos” wrote the Aramaic. He would probably agree that the Bavli applied that name (and the stories connected to it) to the Aramaic incorrectly, confusing it with the Greek (which the Yerushalmi gets right). I see the Maharatz Chajes proposed that the Aramaic is a translation of the Greek, but I’ve never seen that elsewhere, and indeed it seems a little unlikely.

    “it ihas no obscene words”

    Sure it does. It’s just that most probably never made it into Tanach, and those that did we actually replace with a K’ri. This was illustrated to us memorably by Dr. Elman once.

  19. I don’t think your reading of Tov is viable. He is saying that they were two people. However, I checked R. Aharon Hyman’s Toledos Tannaim Va-Amoraim (sv. Onkelos) and he says that there is no doubt that Aquila and Onkelos are the same person.

    Of course Rambam knew that there are obscene words in Hebrew! He anticipated and answered that question by arguing that such words were later accretions, based on the names of people who behaved improperly.

  20. A useful kosher summary of this old debate can be found in R. Kolatch’s Masters of the Word on Google Books:

  21. Clearly this was a reaction against Messianic Judaism which believes in G_d made man.
    In both the Tanach and the Brit Hadashah, HaShem is not afraid to compare himself to creatures (Lion, Eagle, Mother Hen, Lamb), and he’s constantly appearing in a human form (visiting Abraham’s tent, visiting Yehoshua) etc.
    Jewish theologians should now re-examine prejudice-based bad theology and give consideration to the Messianic Jewish propositions.

  22. Thank you for the Christian propaganda, Wally. Let me just point out one aspect of your ignorance: It is, of course, angels who visit Avraham and Yehoshua. Let me point out another: Christianity really wasn’t on the minds of the people writing Targum.

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