Va-Yeshev: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Bonding with a Child

The beginning of Parshat Va-Yeshev, 37;3, tells us Ya’akov had a special bond with Yosef, loved him more than all his sons, ki ben zekunim hu lo. Most literally, we would read the words to mean Ya’akov was an older father, had a soft spot for the son of his old age. Indeed, ArtScroll points us to 44;20, where the brothers tell Yosef about their family, and refer to Binyamin as a ben zekunim. There, Onkelos translates bar sivtin, the son of his old age.

Crucially (to me), the brothers give the impression the connection with Binyamin stems from his being the lone son left from Rahel. Here, to explain the special love, Onkelos translates the phrase as arei bar hakim hu, for he was a wise son. Ramban understands Onkelos to mean Ya’akov taught Yosef esoteric ideas, Yosef had the insight of an elderly person (turning ben zekunim into “a son who was an elder,” rather than “a son of old age.”)

As always with Onkelos, this might simply reflect the tradition of meaning he was taught rather than his own commentarial input. Either way, it offers an explanation for Ya’akov’s feelings for Yosef more sophisticated than the simplest one. Ya’akov loved Yosef because he was more advanced, was the son with whom he could converse on the matters of most interest to him.

It doesn’t justify the impact on the family (as Hazal noted elsewhere), but it does make it more understandable. Ya’akov didn’t give in to old age, he followed his intellectual pursuits with a son destined to use his intellect for greatness.

Inherent or Chosen Forthrightness

Ya’akov’s better reason did not protect Yosef from his brothers’ ire. Bothered by their father’s greater love, the next verse (37;4) says lo yakhelu dabbero le-shalom, they could not speak peacefully with him. Onkelos writes ve-lo tzavvan, they did not wish to speak peacefully with him.

ArtScroll says R. Avraham b. HaRambam and Rashi understand Onkelos to mean they obviously could, they chose not to, an expression of their insistence on honesty, on not being two-faced. I do not know how R. Avraham b. HaRambam says it, but Rashi does not say it was obvious they could have done otherwise. To me, Onkelos is making a point not required by the text. I think the verse could have meant the brothers’ anger and hatred overwhelmed them, rendering them incapable of peaceful speech with him.

It makes Onkelos’ choice or tradition more notable, in its insistence on attributing their conduct to a conscious choice. Where others might decide to paper over tensions to create a superficial harmony, the shivtei Kah chose (and tradition admires them for it) to be true to themselves.

Translating Cultures to Each Other

Twice in the parsha, Onkelos translates a phrase in such a way as to make it intelligible to his readers, I think. After the brothers sell Yosef, the verse (37;25) tells us va-yeshevu le’ekhol lehem, they sat to eat bread. Onkelos instead writes ve-asharu (ואסחרו, with a het), they reclined to eat bread. Earlier, 27;19, when Ya’akov brought the food for Yitzhak to eat before blessing him, he asked his father to get up and sit, Onkelos again translating as recline. There, ArtScroll suggests the idea of “getting up” made no sense if he was only going to sit again, and Onkelos therefore wrote recline.

Here, there was no obvious need, other than that ArtScroll seems to think everyone reclined in those days. I know that was true of Talmudic times, am not sure it was true of Biblical one. Possibly, Onkelos did not realize the anachronism; I am more attracted to the possibility he wrote it that way because in his times, “sitting to eat bread” was meaningless, so he phrased it in a way readers would understand.

It would explain a more egregious insertion, 39;11, where Yosef comes to Potiphar’s house on the day his master’s wife was going to assault him. The verse says he came there la’asot melakhto, to do his work. Onkelos writes le-mivdak be-kitvei hushbanei, to examine his ledgers. ArtScroll points to Radak, who says Onkelos was clarifying what Yosef’s work was (as Potiphar’s administrator).

Perhaps, except how did Onkelos know administrating a household meant going over ledgers? I again wonder/suspect Onkelos was using the cultural truths of his time, where to oversees a household involved ledger keeping. I’d like to believe Onkelos didn’t fall into the cognitive trap of assuming what was true in his time was true in and of Yosef’s time. I’d like to believe we are seeing Onkelos’ belief simple translation involves putting artifacts of life into terms and contexts people of different cultures can understand, without implying that’s what actually happened back in the original.

Meaning: did Onkelos think the brothers (and/or Yitzhak) reclined, and that Yosef’s job definitely involved ledger-keeping? Maybe; but maybe Onkelos was agnostic on the topic, knew only his readers would understand the text more clearly if he wrote it that way. Raising all sorts of questions about the nature of translation (such as whether to depict Jewish figures of the past in garb and hairstyles they almost certainly did not adopt, but that contemporary readers would be shocked to see missing).

Conceding the Truth

After Tamar’s pregnancy is revealed, Yehuda sentences her to death for adultery (in those times, a childless death obligated the widow to marry a brother). She sends him the staff and signet he had given as surety, proving his paternity, and Yehuda says (38;26) tzadeka mimeni, clearly an admission he is the father.

The words’ meaning is less clear. I thought I learned (and ArtScroll tells us Rashbam and Ramban read it this way) the simple reading was “she is more correct than me.”

Onkelos instead writes zaka’a, she is innocent (ArtScroll has “righteous,” a word I find misleadingly inexact), mini me’adya, from me she is pregnant.  Yehuda could have gotten away with clearing her of the death penalty. He instead chose a higher honesty.

The Baker’s Baskets

The parsha closes with two of Par’oh’s officers sharing dreams with Yosef, who interprets them correctly, setting up Yosef’s rise to the premiership in next week’s parsha. The baker saw himself with three salei hori, wicker baskets (Rashi says).

Onkelos has salin de-heru; ArtScroll tells us Sha’arei Aharon thinks he meant the same thing as Rashi, heru are holes, like in wicker. ArtScroll itself translated the phrase as baskets of freedom (or containing bread of free men), and I wonder whether this is an example of the psychological element of dreams, the baker so longing for freedom, it made its way into his dream, even as it was not going to come to fruition.

Onkelos to Va-Yeshev shows us some of the complications of our truths. We can bond with others for emotional or intellectual reasons (and not always see the difference), can speak with others truthfully or two-facedly, can and sometimes must change details to make the larger picture understandable to others, can admit our wrongs partially or forthrightly, and can allow our hopes to color our dreams.

All part of finding our way to the core truths we seek.

About Gidon Rothstein

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