Terumah: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Mysterious Tahash

Parashat Terumah introduces the idea of the Mishkan, the movable Sanctuary that accompanied the Jews in the desert. Among the materials to be gathered to build it, 25;5 includes orot tehashim, skins of tahash (an unknown animal; ArtScroll leaves it as Hebrew, other translations suggest it refers to fine leather, goatskin leather, badger, seal, dolphin, or manatee skins).

Onkelos writes sasgona, a word Shabbat 28a, breaks into two, sas, rejoices, gavna, colors, an animal that rejoices in its colors. For Onkelos to write that, it would be a non-translation of the word, just a comment on the animal’s celebration of its multicolored hide.

ArtScroll tells us Maharil Diskin thinks the Gemara clearly did not recognize the word sasgona as the name of an animal, telling him it was not in fact the name of a specific animal—he thinks it impossible the meaning of the word would disappear in the couple of centuries between Onkelos and the Gemara. ArtScroll also reminds us Rashi thought the tahash existed only in that generation, for the purpose of being used to build the Mishkan. Radak re-reads sasgone as shesh gevana, six colors.

All of these assume sasgona is not a translation, I think primarily because none of them were sure of what either word meant. I understand the predicament, and do not claim any special insight. I only note Onkelos does not often write words he does not know, intending us to break them up into their component parts.

A continuing puzzle, but my guess is Onkelos had an animal in mind, the Gemara knew what animal he intended but did not bother to address the literal meaning of the word, leaving us with the truncated tradition we have.

The Oil That Uplifts

The Mishkan itself and its various appurtenances were to be anointed in oil as part of inaugurating them to their service. The Torah speaks of gathering spices for the shemen ha-mishha, the oil of anointing, 25;6, and Onkelos translates the phrase as mishha de-revuta, elevation oil. As ArtScroll notes, Onkelos elsewhere uses the root meshah, to smear, for the application of oil, such as for menahot, flour offerings (which were mixed with oil). At a most literalist level, shemen ha-mishha could have meant oil of smearing.

We know why Onkelos would go another route, to signal this oil’s added purpose. It’s that he does it that bears note, because he takes an undemanded step away from the simply literal. This oil, he tells us, does more than get put on the Mishkan or its furnishings. This oil elevates with its application.

The Knobs/Apples of the Menorah

The branches of the Menorah had cups and flowers on them, as well as kaftoreha, its knobs, 25;31. Onkelos writes hezuraha, a word the Arukh translates as apples, as does mKilayim 1;4. After quoting them, ArtScroll also tells us Marpe Lashon says hezur is used because any round object comes back to where it starts.

But then why particularly apples? Why not knobs, as the word kaftor says? Those, too, are round, have that same quality. Possibly, Onkelos knew of kaftorim that weren’t round; also possibly, he knew apples are called hezuraha, but used the word only in its sense of being round, not necessarily about apples (ArtScroll is assuming Arukh’s is the only way to read the word, where I am suggesting apples came to be called hezurim because they were round). If so, Onkelos was only  clarifying the Hebrew word with a translation that made its intent clearer, as we have seen many times.

As one last option, perhaps Onkelos did mean apples, and then we would need to wonder why Hashem would want apples on the Menorah, a topic Onkelos definitely did not give enough information for a wild guess, let alone a speculation.

Making the Mishkan’s Construction Clearer

The yeri’ot of the Mishkan, the panels used as a canopy, were first sewn together in panels of five, then hooked together in the middle. The five on one side were to be hoverot, attached, 26;3, isha el ahota, which literally means “a woman to her sister.” Onkelos writes hada im hada, one with the other or, as ArtScroll has it, one to another. ArtScroll does not bold it as a nonliteral translation, treats it as if Onkelos is just telling us what the words mean—the personification of the panels as a woman and her sisters really just means one with the other.

I likely would not have noticed but for 26;5, where the verse tells us about the connecting loops or clasps (26;6 speaks of karse zahav, hooks, where Onkelos translates purfin, clasps; I think he was looking to indicate a stronger link than just hooks, they were clasped fully into place. ArtScroll flags it as nonliteral, but doesn’t comment on the difference).

There, when the verse says isha el ahota, the same phrase as before, he writes hada lakovel hada, one opposite the other. ArtScroll bolds it, to tell us it’s nonliteral (implying the previous translation, one to the other, was literal, although the words in Hebrew clearly mean, “a woman to her sister.”) They only cite Rashi, the loops, hooks, or clasps should be aligned.

I think Onkelos was picking up on the difference between sewing them together, as happened with each of the five panels, and then hooking or clasping them on to each other, as happened in the middle of the Mishkan, where the two sets of panels met. Sewing them was one with the other, and that’s the fundamental meaning of isha el ahota (it’s not the literal meaning, reading the words in their usual way, it is the meaning in context, a reminder of how complicated even literal can be).

Hooking or clasping them together, however securely, was not the same, was always going to be one opposite the other, linking but not connecting them. As Onkelos made clear with the slight change of phrase.

The Two-Roofed Mishkan

After the panels have been made, to serve as the ceiling/roof of the Mishkan, 26;7 tells the people to also make panels of goat hair le-ohel al ha-Mishkan, for a tent over the Mishkan. ArtScroll translates Mishkan as Mishkan-spread, I think to make clear this is only the top covering, not the whole structure, that the verse is saying the goat-hair panels are there to cover the tahash skin panels.

ArtScroll points out that Onkelos translates the verb le-ohel, as le-frasa, which Artscroll translates as a tent-spread (as opposed to a tent). They notice Onkelos elsewhere translates ohel as Mishkan, is here changing it to make a point. In their view, when both words appear in a phrase, he needed to clarify they were not the same, and chose another word.

Perhaps, but I think he might also have been clarifying the point of this second covering, to protect the first one. The first one was there as a covering for the structure, a roof for that, while the second protected the first. There were two rooves to the Mishkan, one a roof, the other a protective covering for the roof itself (when a person wears plastic on a hat to protect it from the rain, the hat is a head covering, the plastic is a hat-covering).

It’s not easy to build a Mishkan, and not easy to explain how it was done to those who have never seen it, but Onkelos tried this week. As did I, a bit.

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