Va-Yigash: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

A Correction/Expansion

Two weeks ago, I noted an example of Onkelos translating va-yeshevu le’ekhol lekhem, as ve-isharu, taken by ArtScroll to mean they reclined. I suggested Onkelos was reading his own mode of eating, reclining, back into the Torah. However, a reader (A. Yonatan Schechter) pointed out to me that Jastrow (the Aramaic-English dictionary when I was growing up, and I don’t of its having been replaced) gives other readings of the Aramaic that allow for Onkelos to have meant they sat down to eat. The ins and outs aren’t vital now, but I wanted to note I may have been too quick to accept ArtScroll’s reading of the Aramaic, and therefore improperly imputed to Onkelos a cultural anachronism. My apologies, and thanks to Yonatan Schechter for reading, and for sharing his insight here. (Anyone who wants to contact me directly should feel free; my gmail is grothst).

The Dramatic Reveal Approaches

After Yehuda’s speech on behalf of Binyamin, Yosef ends the charade, according to the verse, 45;1, because he was unable le-hit’apek, to endure. Onkelos writes le-ithasana, according to ArtScroll, to steel himself.

I noticed the Aramaic word because in the last verse of the parsha, 47;27, the Torah tells us the children of Israel settled in Egypt, va-ye’ahazu bah, acquired property there. Onkelos renders it as ve-ithasinu; according to ArtScroll, acquired an estate. Rashi, however, took it to mean only they established a hold.

The comment from earlier in the parsha makes me wonder why ArtScroll was sure ithasinu had to mean acquired an estate. Onkelos uses the root hsn to indicate strengthening, steeling, or empowering oneself. At the end of the parsha, too, I don’t see why Onkelos couldn’t have meant they strengthened their presence there, in whatever way.

I also liked the symmetry of Onkelos using the same root (and not a particularly common one) in the beginning and end of the parsha. We began with Yosef unable to steel himself, ended with the Jews having a strong and well-established hold on their place in Egypt.

Prophecy Again

I don’t mean to focus narrowly in these comments of Onkelos, nor to develop idees fixes to which I return all the time. Yet in 45;27, Onkelos makes a comment taking us back to an issue we have seen before. The verse says va-tehi ruah Ya’akov avihem, the spirit of Ya’akov their father came back to life (when he heard Yosef was alive).

Onkelos writes u-sherat ruah nevuah al Ya’akov avuhon, the spirit of prophecy rested on Ya’akov. The comment surprises me for its seemingly unnecessary addition to the text. The Torah most simply speaks of a revival of Ya’akov’s ordinary spirits. Let’s grant Onkelos thought coming to life had to mean more than a set of emotions. Still, ArtScroll notes Rashi says it more gingerly, shareta alav Shekhina, the Divine Presence rested upon him. The parentheses at the end of Rashi, telling us his sources, thought he was repeating Onkelos, whereas I think we speak of people experiencing the Divine Presence without necessarily meaning actual prophecy.

In addition, some versions of Onkelos have ruah kudsha, a holy spirit (and if that was the version Rashi saw, he easily could have been repeating Onkelos). To me, the two versions are closer than we think, as long as we again say Onkelos had a not-so-sharp line between spiritual elevation (a ruah kudsha, clearly sensing the Divine Presence) and prophecy.

“Prophecy” for Onkelos, I am again suggesting, might have been broader than when the prophet receives specific messages from Hashem. If so, his explanation of Ya’akov’s revival here is less radical than it seemed. Like Rashi, he means the relief of hearing Yosef was alive left Ya’akov able to experience the divine in a way his sadness had closed off until now.

Clearing the Way for Peshat and Derash

As the clan heads down to Egypt, Ya’akov sends Yehuda (46;28), lehorot lefanav, to prepare the way. Onkelos translates it as le-fana’ah kodamohi, to clear the way, a phrase ArtScroll says was directed at any idols in Goshen. To support the claim, ArtScroll refers us to 24;31, where Rashi interpreted Lavan’s telling Eliezer piniti ha-bayit, I cleared the house, to mean he had removed the idols.

Unfortunately for ArtScroll, Rashi here interprets the verse ketargumo (Rashi’s word), then adds lefanot lo makom u-le-horot he’akh yityashev bah, to clear a place and arrange how he would live there. Rashi clearly understands Onkelos without reference to idolatry.

There are classic pieces of derush, nonliteral interpretations of the Torah, we absorb so fully we come to think of them as obviously what the Torah meant. It seems to me ArtScroll made such a mistake in this case, ascribing to Onkelos an idea they knew from Rashi, despite Rashi himself showing he did not apply it here.

Interestingly, Rashi then offers what he calls a Midrash Aggadah, that le-horot means to set up places of Torah study. Rashi kept the line between peshat and derash clear in his mind.

When the brothers tell Par’oh they have come lagur ba-aretz, 47;4, Onkelos gives us another chance to see him sidestep derash. ArtScroll points out we bring up this idea of lagur ba-aretz on Seder night, to show Ya’akov and his family intended to remain strangers in the land, not full inhabitants or citizens. Onkelos ignores the distinction, translating la-gur as le-itotava, to settle, without limits.

A Fifth of What?

The end of the parsha tells of Yosef’s work on behalf of Par’oh, how he leveraged his stores of grain on Par’oh’s behalf, culminating in a permanent arrangement where Par’oh received a fifth of all future harvests. 47;24 says a hamishit would go to Par’oh, and two verses later, the Torah says the land went le-Far’oh la-homesh. In both cases, Onkelos writes had min hamsha, one out of five.

Nothing to see there, and we might have moved on, except ArtScroll points out Vayikra 27;31 and Bamidbar 5;7, two cases where the Torah talks about repaying malfeasance by adding hamishito, its homesh, to the original principle. There, Onkelos translates humsha, which also means a fifth, but is a different word.

ArtScroll assumes (and I have no reason to doubt them) Onkelos meant the fifth in those cases as Hazal had it, a fifth of the eventual total (a quarter of the original item). It’s a surprising idea in Hazal, let alone Onkelos, because in what sense would we have thought that was a fifth?

I wonder whether Onkelos has given us a hint of an answer here. In Vayikra and Bamidbar, the topic is an added payment, the original and the added making a larger whole. Onkelos here lets us wonder whether there, the Torah’s hamishito meant a fifth of the sinner’s whole payment should be his/her added fine. In our verse, there’s only one whole, some of which is going to Par’oh, leaving the only sensible fifth to be out of the existing principal.

I also note Onkelos made an unnecessary choice about how the arrangement in Egypt worked. Va-yiken Yosef et admat Mitzrayim le-Far’oh la-homesh literally means Yosef purchased the land of Egypt for Par’oh for a fifth; it sounds like Par’oh owned a fifth of the land. Onkelos clarifies it was a tax right, not a property right.

As the Jews move from dire straits in front of a difficult foreign ruler to becoming strongly settled in Egypt, Ya’akov comes back to experience the Divine, perhaps through prophecy, Yehudah sets up life in Goshen, where the Jews settle without obvious limits, and Par’oh acquires the right to taxes rather than property.

About Gidon Rothstein

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