Miketz: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Yosef, a Prophet?

Yosef impresses Par’oh with his interpretation of the dreams. To explain to his advisers his decision to elevate Yosef to second in command, Par’oh points out (41;38) there’s no one else in the kingdom asher ruah Elokim bo, literally who has the spirit of Gd in him.

Onkelos writes di ruah nevua min kodam Hashem bei, who has in him a prophetic spirit from Hashem. ArtScroll finds Onkelos’ idea of prophecy in Yosef in verse 16, where Yosef says bil’adai, the dream interpretation does not come from me, it comes from Hashem. To ArtScroll, Onkelos thought Yosef was telling Par’oh he would understand the dream by nevuah, prophecy.

Yet in verse 39, as Par’oh assigns Yosef his new position, he tells Yosef ein navon ve-hakham kamokha, words Onkelos renders sakhletan ve-hakim, discerning and wise. Par’oh seems to be saying Yosef figured out the dream intellectually, not prophetically. ArtScroll does cite the Gri”z, who said Par’oh referred to wisdom and discernment because they are prerequisites for prophecy. It seems odd to me, however, for Par’oh to focus on wisdom and discernment if the prophecy was what caught his attention. More important, Yosef never says it was a prophecy.

To me, I wonder whether Onkelos extends the idea of nevu’a to include remarkable intellectual achievements (or, at least, to think Biblical characters would). To Par’oh (and maybe to Rivka, as we saw in Toledot, when she told Ya’akov she had been told prophetically no punishment would come his way for taking the blessings from Esav), someone with Yosef’s insight counted as a sort of prophecy, regardless of whether his experience involved direct communication from Hashem or angel.

Tosafot in Yevamot claims Eliyahu could have decided to offer sacrifices on Mount Carmel as an hora’at sha’a, a temporary abrogation of the Torah for a higher purpose, even on his own intellectual account. While we know the Sanhedrin has the power to issue such rulings, and prophets can do so based on a prophecy, Tosafot seems to see the prophet’s level as also giving him the intellectual insight to do the same, on his own account.

Maybe Onkelos, too, thought it not incorrect for Par’oh to speak of a certain kind of purely intellectual experience as a prophecy.

Focused on the People

As Yosef implemented his plan, the Torah tells us the land during the seven years of plenty was likmatzim, made grain by the handfuls. Onkelos instead writes u-knashu dayrai ar’a…ibura le-otazrin, the inhabitants of the land gathered the grain into storehouses.

He may have been bothered by the anthropomorphism of speaking of land as “making” grain, as I believe we have seen enough to think Onkelos resisted attributing acts to inanimate objects. Without the land as an actor, the idea of handfuls became less than fully sensible, so he switched it to what the people would have done. It also fits somewhat better with the coming verses, where Yosef is described as doing exactly that, gathering the grain into cities for storage.

Neutralizing a Metaphor

On their second trip to Egypt, the brothers are brought to Yosef’s house to dine, events they at first take with suspicion. In 43;18, they worry they have been brought there le-hitgollel alenu u-le-hitnapel alenu, translated in various ways, usually along the lines of “to overpower us and take us as slaves.” Onkelos has u-le-istakafa, which ArtScroll tells us means to bring a libelous charge. Rashi thinks the Hebrew parallel would be le-hit’olel, and that Onkelos strayed from the literal meaning, I assume because Rashi thought Onkelos did not see meaning in the idea of the Egyptions falling or crashing onto Ya’akov’s sons, considering they already had them in their hands or custody. Ramban thinks Onkelos’ word in fact offers a plausible literal translation, with le-hitnapel from a root he relates to nfl, to not exist, as the charges here did not really exist.

Everyone seems to agree Onkelos was not willing to follow the literal meaning of le-hitnapel, to fall down on us. To me, it’s an example of Onkelos presenting metaphors in a way more literal minded people could understand, straying from literal interpretation to do so.

Jews Ate Sheep

The brothers finally eat with Yosef, he at a table of his own, his Egyptian advisers at a table of their own, and the brothers at one of their own because, 43;32 tells us, to’evah hi le-Mitzrayim, the Egyptians found it to be an abomination to eat with Hebrews. Onkelos adds a reason, arei be’ira de-Mitzraei dahalin lei ivraei akhlin, the Jews ate the animals the Egyptians worshipped.

Rashi explains the verse simply, the Egyptians found it abominable to eat with Hebrews, says Onkelos gave a reason and does not share the reason. We all know Rashi is not afraid of Midrashic readings, not afraid to flesh out implications of the text. I wonder whether here, he felt Onkelos inserted an idea without backing in the text, found that a step too far.

Especially because the idea was a part of my education for as long as I can remember, I think it’s valuable to see it was Onkelos who put it out there, without obvious evidence in the text.

Yosef Was a Sorcerer?

Yosef’s adviser and Yosef himself, 44;5 and 15, reproach the brothers for the theft of Yosef’s goblet, they speak of his divination powers, nahesh ye-nahesh, surely divines matters (such as who stole the goblet.) Onkelos writes, badka mavdik, surely investigates, turning the nihush, the sorcery, into an intellectual effort, an ability to suss out the truth of the theft. Rashi agrees, says mi-da’at u-mi-svara, from his knowledge and his logic.

ArtScroll suggests neither Rashi nor Onkelos wanted a verse to have Yosef to admit violating the Torah (by practicing sorcery; the Gemara says Avraham kept the Torah, as presumably did all his descendants). Onkelos does have an Aramaic word for sorcery, the same one as in the Torah, lo tenahashun, as he writes to translate the verse where the Torah prohibits it.

I can think of two more possibilities. First, if Onkelos is the kind of rationalist we are finding him to be, he may have avoided giving any impression sorcery works, even if Yosef is toying with the brothers. Second, the comment brings us full circle on Yosef and the metaphysical. We started with Onkelos putting prophecy into Yosef’s mouth where the verse did not, now he takes divination away from Yosef where the verse claimed it for him.

And I think the truth lies in the middle, Onkelos thought Yosef always used his intellect, not full-on prophecy and certainly not sorcery. Because the comments we saw this week put the focus on the human actor, in gathering the grain, giving a way the Egyptians would take the brothers captive, an explanation for their hatred of eating with Jews, and evaluating Yosef’s way of knowing what he did.

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