Va-Eira: Lessons of Nonliteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Onkelos and Metaphor

I look for places where Onkelos translates the text other than how the words themselves read; in Parshat Va-Era, his leeriness of metaphor comes to the fore. Many verses refer to yad Hashem, literally the hand of Gd, and Onkelos has no consistent translation. In 6;8, Hashem refers to the oath made to the Avot, the Patriarchs, to give the Land of Israel to their descendants. The verse uses the phrase asher nasati et yadi, Hashem had raised His hand (as would a human taking an oath).  Onkelos writes di kayemit be-memri, I swore by my word. He ignores the metaphor for its portraying Gd as having any kind of physicality, and goes for the underlying meaning.

Other verses speak of Hashem’s hand in terms of bringing plagues on the Egyptians, as in 7;4 and 5, venatati et yadi and bintoti et yadi, I shall put My hand and when I stretch out My hand. There, too, Onkelos avoids the hand reference, and writes of mahat gevurti, the stroke of Hashem’s might. The sorcerers attribute the plague of lice to etzba Elokim, the finger of Gd, when they concede their inability to replicate the plague, but Onkelos sticks with maha min kodam Hashem., a strike from before Gd.

It’s not only for anthropomorphisms, phrasings where Gd seems to be physical. The Jews cannot accept Moshe’s predictions of redemption, 6;9, mi-kotzer ruah, by virtue of their shortness of wind. Onkelos writes mi-ma’ayak ruha, distress of their spirit, where Rashi takes it more literally, tells us a person in distress cannot catch his/her breath. For all he is known as the greater pashtan, the commentator more invested in a literal translation of the text, here Onkelos renders the phrase as a metaphor.

One challenge for translation: metaphor, how to identify it, how to render it. For Onkelos, references to body parts for Hashem are certainly metaphorical and a particular body part need not always represent the same idea. Other metaphors, too, demand to be translated for what they mean, not taken as literal claims.

Producing Frogs or Creating Them

As Moshe tells Par’oh what will happen in the plague of frogs, he says ve-sharatz ha-ye’or tzefarde’im, 7;25, the Canal (Nile) shall swarm with frogs. Onkelos writes vi-rabe nahara urde’anaya, the river shall breed frogs. ArtScroll quotes Parshegen, who thought Onkelos was alluding to Shemot Rabbah 10;2, there had been no frogs in the Nile until then, and Moshe was saying the Nile would produce them (rather than swarm with them, which sounds like the existing frogs would be supplemented by frogs from elsewhere or would breed more quickly than usual, to say the Nile will produce frogs sounds like they will come from nowhere, and then breed wildly).

I noticed it because Ramban argued the sorcerers were unable to imitate the plague of lice, perhaps, because it involved creation, where both blood and frogs involved transfer (blood turned existing water into blood, frogs involved gathering frogs from all over the world and/or having them breed faster). Ramban has other thoughts, so Onkelos’ disagreeing would not be any kind of problem.

It also adds a not-strictly-necessary element of the metaphysical, the plague happening less naturally than theoretically possible. Onkelos does the same at 9:33, the end of the plague of hail, where the verse says u-matar lo nitakh artza,, the rain did not reach the earth. As the phrase before spoke of the thunder and hail stopping, this could have been taken to mean the rain stopped as well.

In line with Berakhot 54b (as ArtScroll notes) and as Rashi writes, Onkelos instead writes u-mitra de-hava nahet, rain that was descending (did not reach the ground; i.e., the plague stopped on a dime, even precipitation already on its way stopping in its tracks). Onkelos avoided/rejected speaking of Gd in human terms, but—as we have seen before—did not shy from the miraculous. In this case, as we have seen before, he tells us a Talmudic tradition was already known in his time, apparently accepted as the simple meaning of the text.

Sometimes It’s Either/Or

Before dever, the pestilence that will kill Egyptian animals, Hashem has Moshe tell Par’oh, 8;19, ve-samti fedut ben ami u-ven amekha. ArtScroll notes many commentators think the phrase means I shall bring redemption between  My people and yours, although Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and others take fedut to mean distinguish, I will distinguish between the two.

We might have thought Onkelos would follow the latter view; instead, he pushes the first further. He writes va-ashave purkan le-ami ve-al amakh ayti maka, I shall bring about redemption for My people, and upon your people I shall bring a plague. ArtScroll thinks Onkelos is reading the phrase as did Ramban, the plague which should have befallen the Jews would happen to the Egyptians as well.

For that idea, ArtScroll’s own translation would have worked, ve-samti fedut,  I shall bring about redemption between My people and yours, the plague on its way to hit both nations would show the Jew were being redeemed when it did not bother them. Onkelos’ going out of his way to say Hashem would strike the Egyptians seems to me to suggest an additional strike. Perhaps their failure to learn their lesson means that as the Jews would be saved, they would get more plague in some way, for not noticing what was happening. [It sort of brings together the two meanings of fedut, distinction and redemption. Gd’s redeeming the Jews from the plague should have taught the Egyptians a lesson; because they would fail to learn it, Hashem would strike them more.]

Neutrality is not always a defense.  Sometimes, you’re with us or you’re against us.

Fear of Gd Is Either Too Much for the Egyptians, or Not Enough

Moshe agrees to ask Hashem to stop the hail, although he warns Par’oh he knows ki terem tir’un mipenei Hashem, 9;30. ArtScroll tells us Onkelos normally translates terem as ad lo, not yet; here he instead writes ad ke’an la, still not. Also, tir’un is usually tidhalun, have fear, where here he writes itkena’un, humbled. ArtScroll cites Parshegen, who thought the humbling was a lower level than fear—the Egyptians were never going to achieve true fear (or awe) of Hashem, the plagues would bring them to a place where they were humbled, realized they had to yield before Hashem’s greater might.

Without evidence either way, I can imagine the reverse. One can develop fear of Gd—a valuable level of its own– purely in reaction to force majeure, Hashem’s irresistible power. What Hashem sought here,  I could read Onkelos as saying, was Par’oh’s complete humbling, Par’oh’s full admission and recognition of Hashem’s greater power, greater justice, and right to lead the Jews out, with Par’oh’s full permission.

To me, Onkelos might have been reading Moshe as saying to Par’oh, “I know you’re afraid, but you’re not yet humbled, and that’s where we’re headed, whatever pain it takes to bring you there.”

Metaphor, metaphysics, and the Egyptians slow road to the correct choice, recognizing humanity’s obligation to kneel humbly before their Creator, the Master of the Universe.

About Gidon Rothstein

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