Va-Yishlah: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Who’s Afraid of Angels?

I have commented on Onkelos’ mixed approach to the metaphysical, sometimes seeing the supernatural where the verse did not require it, other times tamping down the metaphysical, finding a way to avoid ascribing some action or incident to Hashem. Our parsha gives a few examples I think add to our understanding.

The parsha opens with Ya’akov sending malakhim to his brother Esav. Rashi comments malakhim mamash, literal angels, while Onkelos writes izgadin, emissaries. Rashi’s divergence reminds us he did not always take Onkelos’ readings. As to Onkelos himself, at the end of last week’s parsha, he thought Ya’akov encountered malakhaya de-Hashem, angels. It seems he had no problem with Ya’akov interacting with angels, he had a problem with his sending angels to Esav. I guess he thought Esav was unworthy, unready, and unable to meet with angels, so Ya’akov could not have sent them to him.

The Many Types of Lords

Aside from malakhim, Onkelos interprets elohim/Elokim three ways in the space of fourteen verses, shedding further light on how and where he understood the Divine to appear in the world. In 32;29, where Ya’akov extracts a blessing from the man with whom he wrestled, Onkelos translates ish as gavra, seemingly assuming Ya’akov wrestled with a man rather than an angel. The man says his name should be Yisrael, ki sarita im Elokim, literally something along the lines of “for you have striven with the Divine.” That’s how ArtScroll puts it, and Elie Wiesel wrote somewhere that Israel are the people who wrestle with Gd.

Onkelos instead wrote arei rav at kodam Hashem, because you are eminent before Hashem. This, first, reads sarita as related to sar, noble, (as ArtScroll tells us), but for my purposes here, takes the word Elokim as a reference to Hashem.

The next morning, Ya’akov explains his decision to name the place Penu’el, 32;31, with the words ki raiti elohim panim el panim, literally “for I have seen the Divine face to face.” Onkelos instead writes arei hazeiti malakhaya de-Hashem apin be-apin, for I have seen angels of Hashem face to face. I believe he was unwilling to speak of a face to face encounter with Hashem for any human other than Moshe Rabbenu (perhaps because Hashem specifically names speaking peh el peh, mouth to mouth, as part of what differentiated Moshe, Bamidbar 12;8).

At the meeting with Esav, 33;10, Ya’akov urges his brother to accept his gift, for seeing Esav was kir’ot pene elohim, again literally “as seeing the face of a Divine Being (ArtScroll’s translation, and I think they’re hedging it already, taking out the possibility Ya’akov told his brother it was like seeing Hashem, as it were).

Onkelos instead has it as ke-hezu apei ravrevaya, as seeing the face of eminent ones (ArtScroll tells us Akedat Yitzhak and others think Onkelos means angels, as he might also have meant in Parshat Bereshit, when the serpent told Hava she and Adam would become like elohim if they ate of the Tree. There, he wrote ravrevin. Rambam, however, think Onkelos here meant eminent people).

If I was right earlier about Onkelos’ objection to the idea of Esav being sent actual angels, it would make sense here he resisted imagining Ya’akov would compare his brother to angels, even as a matter of flattery.

Reasons aside, Onkelos has translated the same word three very different ways in a short space, a reminder of the delicacy and difficulty of Torah study, where the basic meanings of words changes for reasons not always obvious in the text.

The Mothers of One’s Children

Last parsha, we noted Onkelos’ claim Rahel raised the children her maidservant Bilha bore Ya’akov; Leah never explicitly says she will do the same when she gives Zilpa to him, but it seems assumed. The two main wives could have been seen as using their maids for their own purposes, with no impact on the maids’ status in the family.

Onkelos disagrees. As Ya’akov prepares the family for the encounter with Esav, he puts the children with their various mothers and then, 33;1-2, puts the shefahot first, the full wives last. Onkelos reads shefahot—ordinarily, maidservants—as lehenata, concubines. ArtScroll points out Onkelos translated amahot as lehenata in last week’s parsha, while earlier he had referred to them as amta, maids. ArtScroll says Onkelos reads them as maidservants of Rahel and Leah, concubines of Ya’akov.

The answer sounds good, although Bilha and Zilpa are referred to as wives of Ya’akov’s at the beginning of the next parsha, Va-Yeshev (I also noticed last Shabbat that Le’ah gave Zilpah to Ya’akov le-isha, as a wife, a topic for another time.)

I wonder whether Onkelos was depicting a growth in their status over time. They start out as amahot of Lavan’s, are given to Rahel and Leah as amahot, who later give them to Ya’akov. From there, they become lehenata, concubines, and eventually wives. Because to have children with a woman, perhaps Onkelos saw the Torah as telling us, means to grow in a relationship with the woman, wherever she started.

Shekhem Doesn’t Have Regular Relationships

After Shekhem kidnaps and rapes Dina, 34;3 tells us va-tidbak nafsho, his soul became attached, to Dina. Onkelos instead writes ve-itre’I’at nafshei, his soul deeply longed for her. ArtScroll quotes Parshegen, quoting R. Nevenzahl, that Onkelos wanted to avoid the impression Dina reciprocated.

I am not convinced Onkelos would have thought attachment implied anything about Dina, am not sure why R. Nevenzahl thought Onkelos would worry we would not limit the sense to the kidnapper. When I saw Onkelos’ comment, it seemed he was saying Shekhem was self-focused. Were Shekhem attached to Dina, it would mean he had come to a set of emotions similar to those we call love; I could imagine Onkelos wanted us to know all Shekhem had was longing.

To Onkelos, Shekhem has not matured emotionally. He wants Dina, longs to possess her, does not want their current connection to end. As a matter of longing, I think Onkelos is saying, a desire to have one’s wishes fulfilled. Had the longing ever been fulfilled, Onkelos implies, his ardor would have cooled, because it was a longing, not an attachment.

The Power to Kill

Shim’on and Levi kill Shekhem and Hamor, the rapist and his father the king, lefi harev (34;26), translated by ArtScroll as “at the point of the sword.” Other English translations I saw had “the edge of the sword,” or ignored the metaphor and simply had the verse say they killed the two by sword.

Onkelos instead writes le-fitgam de-harev, the word of the sword. He captures part of the challenge of the word lefi, in most places a reference to the mouth in some way. But what is fitgam de-harev, the word of the sword?

ArtScroll offers two answers. Beis Aharon says the killing sent a message, revenge for Dina’s mistreatment, an explanation I like for its reminder of the symbolic nature of actions. Beyond the death the sword brings, it often has a mouth, communicating more than the death itself.

ArtScroll also cites Nefesh HaGer, who argued lefi harev applies only to Jews, whose truer power is in the words of prayer. I think he means the sword may carry out Hashem’s help for the Jewish people, but it is help secured only through prayer.

I did a Bar-Ilan search, and the idea, nice as it is, has a few problems. First, the phrase is used in a few contexts of civil war, such as the end of Shofetim, where the other eleven tribes go to war against the tribe of Binyamin for their protection of the rapists of Giv’a and during the rebellion of Avshalom against his father.

Worse, in one example, Yirmiyahu 21;7, Nevukhadnezzar is the one who will put the Jews to the sword. In each case, of course, we could say the sword carried out Hashem’s Will, and therefore counts as lefi, but it makes it somewhat tautological.

I also wonder whether Onkelos here is being literal. Lefi, after all, means “by the mouth of.” Onkelos may have thought that senseless, chose a phrasing to capture as much of the original as he could.

Onkelos to Va-Yishlah examines all sorts of relationships, to Hashem, angels, and important people; to maids, concubines, objects of rape, wives, and mothers; and the messages we send with our most violent actions.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Yeyashar koach, Rabbi Rothstein, on a valuable and well-executed project.

    My comment:

    You suggested,

    “[Onkelos] thought Ya’akov encountered malakhaya de-Hashem, angels. It seems he had no problem with Ya’akov interacting with angels, he had a problem with his sending angels to Esav. I guess he thought Esav was unworthy, unready, and unable to meet with angels, so Ya’akov could not have sent them to him.”

    I think it would be simpler to explain that Yaakov’s “פגישה”, “encountering” angels, was not an interaction with them, but merely a prophetic perception (“seeing”) of them. And that is why Onkelos leaves the translation as angels. In contrast, “sending” angels to Esav, who would interact physically with him, would be attributing corporeality to angels, necessitating that these were not angels, but physical messengers.

    This distinction prophetically perceiving angels and physically seeing and/or interacting with them also explains the other occurrences you list. As to originally referring to the being that wrestled with Yaakov as a “gavra,” Onkelos is merely following the posuk, which refers to an “ish,” not a common reference to angels. It plausibly means that in his prophetic state, Yaakov saw himself originally thinking that he was dealing with a human, but eventually discovering he was dealing with an angel. (Ditto for Avrohom with the three malachim.)

    Once again, yeyasher kochacha on this series.

    Zvi Lampel

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