Toledot: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Precision Is Not as Vital as We Might Think

Early in the parsha, 25;21, Yitzhak asks Hashem to alleviate Rikva’s infertility. The verse says va-ye’tar Yitzhak, with the positive reaction from Hashem phrased as va-ye’ater lo Hashem. Onkelos translates it in the commonly accepted way, Yitzhak prayed to Hashem (ve-tzali) and Hashem accepted the prayer (ve-kabbel tzelotei).

It becomes noteworthy when, a chapter later, 26;25, Yitzhak builds an altar where va-yikra be-shem Hashem, literally, he called out in the Name of Hashem. As he had done when Avraham “called out” in the Name, Onkelos translates ve-tzali bi-shma de-Hashem., he prayed in the Name of Hashem.

My eye caught by the overlap, I searched other uses of ve-tzalei in Onkelos, and found he used it to translate va-yitpallel in Bereshit 20;17 (where Avraham prays for Avimelekh after the latter returns his wife) as well as for va-yitz’ak el Hashem in Shemot 15;25. Tzalei, for Onkelos, is the proper word to render multiple Hebrew words.

I think it resonated with me because nuances of translation are a weakness of mine, a struggle to pay attention to and retain the nuances of difference among the many synonyms for truth we use right after the morning Shema, the ways we speak of elevating Hashem’s Name in the kaddish, or the types of joy we reference in sheva berakhot at weddings.

Here, Onkelos seems like me. Va-ye’etar, va-yikra, va-yitpallel, and va-yitz’ak are all close enough to “to pray” Onkelos does not choose to find the exact Aramaic equivalent of each.

Seeking Gd, Learning Torah

The longed-for pregnancy turns challenging, and Rivka goes lidrosh et Hashem, 25;22, to enquire of Hashem. Because Hashem speaks to her in response, we tend to assume she sought guidance from a prophet.

There’s room to think Onkelos thought so as well, because later in the parsha, where Rivka reassures Ya’akov about his fear his father will curse him if Yitzhak catches him attempting to take Esav’s berakha. She says (27;13) alai killelatekha beni, literally your curse will go on me (if it comes).

Onkelos translates it as ali itamar binevua dela yeitun levatay alakh, I received a prophecy telling me the curses will not go on you. Back in 25;22, though, Onkelos had written va-azalat le-mitba ulfan min kodam Hashem, she went to seek guidance from Hashem (as ArtScroll reads it). To fit our usual reading, we would assume he meant

prophetic guidance.

Except ulpana appears in Onkelos on this parsha in another, different, context. As the twins grow up, Ya’akov is described as a yoshev ohalim, to Onkelos a meshamesh bet ulpana, one who attends the House of Study (ArtScroll inserts the idea of attending his teachers in the House of Study, although they recognize Onkelos only speaks of the House of Study itself).

As ArtScroll has it, Ya’akov’s beit ulpana is some sort of Bet Midrash, where one finds intellectual insight into Hashem and/or Hashem’s Will. Rivka’s ulfan (same word) means prophecy to them, however.

I wonder whether they are allowing their knowledge of other parts of the story to influence their reading. Because we know Onkelos thinks she had a prophecy about the boys—despite the difficulties ArtScroll has connecting the words of Hashem to her to the idea Ya’akov is guaranteed not to be cursed), they assume her ulfan was prophetic. Where for Ya’akov, it was intellectual.

The problem would be solved were we only able to assume Onkelos thought Rivka had received some other prophecy about her sons as well, one the Torah did not previously tell us about informing her Ya’akov would not be cursed. With or without that, I think Onkelos saw a close connection between study and prophecy, both ways to achieve ulfan, learning and insight into Hashem.

Avimelekh Is Not Nearly as Righteous as He’d Like to Believe

In chapter 26, we have another version of the Patriarch in Famine story. During a famine, Yitzhak and Rivka go to Gerar, the inhabitants ask about their relationship, Yitzhak says she is his sister. Here (as opposed to Avraham’s time), the matter is then dropped. After they are there for a long time, the king of Gerar, Avimelekh, looks through a window and spies Yitzhak and Rivka acting as husband and wife.

Indignant, he reprimands Yitzhak in 26;10. Among his complaints, he says kim’at shakhav ahad ha-am, literally, one of my people could have easily slept with your wife. Onkelos writes ki-ze’er pun shekhiv dimyahad be-ama im itetakh, just a little bit longer and the most distinguished one in the nation would have slept with your wife. His version makes two points the text did not say explicitly.

First, ki-ze’er pun adds an element of urgency. The word in the Torah, ki-me’at, seems well covered by the Aramaic ki-ze’er. Pun has no Hebrew parallel, ArtScroll tells me; they quote Lehem VeSimlah to say it means barely. If so, Avimelekh is conceding the close call; Rivka might not have been taken right away, an improvement over Avraham’s time, but the people of Pelishtim did still take women without consent.

It’s not just the people, either. The nation of Pelishtim would have had to answer for their wrongs had it been only the rabble who acted this way, because worthy polities teach their citizens to reign in their worst instincts. In Onkelos’ reading, Avimelekh is confessing he was about to take Rivka (again, despite lack of consent). He is upset with Yitzhak about the personal danger, how close (ki-ze’er pun close) he came to serious sin, seemingly still oblivious to the failing he has ascribed to himself.

The Irritation of Esav’s Wives

Before the drama with the blessings unfolds, Esav marries two women. The verse (26;35) tells us they were a morat ruah for Yitzhak and Rivka, words ArtScroll translates as “a provocation of the spirit.” Onkelos accepts this as part of his translation, writing va-hava’ah mesarvaan u-meragzan, they were rebellious and provocative. Rashi echoes Onkelos, telling us all their actions were intended to anger and sadden their in-laws, in particular by worshipping powers other than Hashem.

However, Onkelos adds al memar Yitzhak ve-Rivka, rebellious and provocative against the word of Yitzhak and Rivka. ArtScroll points out how Onkelos is reading the word morat, rebellious, in two ways—their actions cause distress and they also refuse to obey parental/in-law directives.

Derivation aside, it seems to me Onkelos has added an element Rashi ignored: in his view, Esav’s ways deliberately and maliciously sought ways to get Yitzhak and Rivka’s goat, and also directly disobeyed what they were told. Beyond refusing to adjust their lives to be sensitive to their in-laws’ concerns, they confrontationally rejected these parental figures’ directives.

The Opening to Esav’s Ascendance

For our last example this week, after Ya’akov successfully wrests the blessings from his father, as Yitzhak carves out some blessings for his older son, he says (27;40) ve-hayah ka’asher tarid, when you are aggrieved, you will be able to overthrow him. Several pashtanim (I saw Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Bekhor Shor) relate tarid to Tehillim 55;3, arid be-sihi, I speak in my distress, and understand Yitzhak to be saying when Ya’akov’s rule gets too difficult, Esav will be able to overthrow him and find some respite.

Onkelos (followed by Rashi and Targum Yonatan) writes kad ya’aberun benohi al pitgamei orayta, when Ya’akov’s descendants transgress the words of the Torah. For them, Esav’s ability to overthrow Ya’akov depends on the Jewish people’s failure to observe the Torah.

I think it has become the common understanding of the verse, obscuring how Onkelos has shifted the conversation (I presume because he reflected the Oral Tradition he had been taught). The more literal reading would have Yitzhak giving Esav a breather whenever the submission got too bad; Onkelos tells us only our own shortcomings put the Jewish people at Esav’s mercy.

Onkelos to Toledot shows us ways to go right—seek guidance from prophets or study, following the Torah’s dictates—and ways to go wrong, failing to recognize what’s wrong in our actions, deciding to annoy our righteous relatives and even to flagrantly disobey them. All the kinds of big picture stuff where completely exact translation of synonyms is not needed, as with Onkelos’ frequent use of the word tzalei for various kinds of prayers.

About Gidon Rothstein

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