Yitro: Lessons of Non-Literal Onkelos

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

No Other god Means None

Parashat Yitro is probably best known for hosting the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, the Ten Sayings the Jews heard at Sinai. It starts, however, with Yitro coming to see his victorious son in law, having heard of the Exodus. After Moshe tells him details of their experience, Yitro says (18;11) ata yada’ti ki gadol Hashem mi-kol Haelohim, now I know Hashem is greater than all elohim, a word for Gd or god, a word in the plural form in the original Hebrew.

Onkelos writes arei rav Hashem ve-let elah bar minei, that Gd is great and there is no other god than He (I never know when to capitalize the word god when used to refer to others—here, the verse clearly means to deny any other beings or objects of worship could be Gd).

As a first point, note Onkelos has divided the Biblical phrase into two—ki gadol Hashem, that Gd is great, and mi-kol Ha-elohim, there are none other than Hashem. ArtScroll thinks Onkelos makes it singular, let elah, there is no other god, to avoid our reading the verse to mean there are other gods, just not as great as Gd.

In the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, I think Onkelos shows he had a different concern in mind in the earlier verse as well. Gd (20;3) prohibits the Jews from having elohim aherim al panai, other gods before Me. Rashi thinks “before Me” means whenever Gd exists; in other words, never. Onkelos writes elaha aharan bar mini, any god other than me. He again turns the plural into a singular, meaning he thought the word elohim, for all it takes a characteristically plural form, here means a singular as well. Any god is a problem.

Bar mini, other than Me, as a translation for al panai, before My Face, certainly avoids thinking of Gd as having a face. I think it also reminds us that believing in another god is always in Gd’s face, as it were, as Rashi told us as well.

Yitro learned Gd is great, independent clause, and there is no other god at all, as the Jews heard at Sinai as well. Belief in any power in any way competitive with Gd is throwing it in Gd’s metaphorical face, and prohibited.

Seeking Gd Directly or a Step Removed

After the welcome feast, life goes on and Yitro sees Moshe dealing with the people all day, long lines gathered to speak with him. In response to his father in law’s question, Moshe says (18;15) ki yavo elai ha-am lidrosh Elokim, the people come to me to seek Gd, le-mitba ulpan min kodam Hashem, for ArtScroll, to seek guidance from before Hashem.

“Guidance” is arguably the literal translation of lidrosh Elokim, to seek Gd, certainly for someone as leery of personalizing Gd as Onkelos. Humans cannot seek Gd, we can imagine him thinking, they can seek to learn how Gd wants them to live, the ulpan he assumes they were coming le-mitba.

Four verses later, the picture blurs. As part of his recommendations for system reform, Yitro says heyei atah la-am mul ha-Elokim, which could read literally as “be you for the nation opposite to Gd (even instead of Gd). We would re-interpret that to “a representative of Gd.”

Onkelos writes hevei at le-ama tava ulpan min kodam Hashem, be you the one who asks/ seeks guidance from before Gd. ArtScroll explains Onkelos as avoiding the idea of mul ha-Elokim, opposite Gd, but I more notice that the switch of who is seeking the guidance. In Onkelos’ reading, Moshe told Yitro the people came to him seeking guidance, and Yitro now tells Moshe to be the one to do it.

It suggests to me Onkelos might have thought the first system had the people access Hashem’s guidance in some more direct way (I’m thinking of something akin to the Urim ve-Tumim, where the king or national representative posed a question to the priest wearing the breastplate where they were contained, and the priest then “reading” the answer in a quasi-prophetic vision). Yitro tells him it won’t work, he, Moshe, should seek the guidance on his own, then transmit it to the people.

My idea would be even stronger if Onkelos thought Yitro came before Sinai (a matter of debate). Before they got the Torah, the people came to Moshe seeking guidance from Hashem, by posing their questions directly. Yitro is telling him it can’t work, Moshe has better, more effective, and more efficient access to the divine, he should be the one who seeks the information.

As the people then concede right after the Giving of the Torah, 20;16, where they ask Moshe to always be the one to speak with Hashem. Until then, it seems, they still thought they could do it, in Onkelos’ reading of these verses.

Special or Dear

Before giving them the Torah, Hashem sends Moshe to the Jewish people with encouraging words. Their accepting the Torah (19;5) will make them segulah, special, to Hashem, a word Onkelos renders as havivin, dear. ArtScroll notes Rashi takes it to mean a beloved treasure, and Marpe Lashon thought Onkelos was along the same lines, because to be special means to be beloved. If so, Onkelos is teasing out a literal implication we might have missed, and the comment does not belong in our discussion.

I wonder about a small piece of it. Something or someone can be special to me just because, or because of things they do. The first dollar I made on the way to building my successful pizza shop is special to me even if it sits on a wall and does nothing for the rest of eternity. When Rashi writes otzar haviv, a beloved treasure, that’s what comes to mind—something special to me I can lock away and it will retain all of its specialness.

Onkelos switches from special, a quality I hear as inherent, to havivin, beloved, which I suggest is more relational. The Jews’ acceptance of the Torah puts them in a relationship with Hashem, a love that ebbs and flows, rises and falls, with the health of the relationship. I wonder whether Onkelos wanted us to realize the segulah we became means a love with an always-present baseline, movement beyond the baseline dependent on the nation’s service, our national ability to be more deserving recipients of Gd’s love.

Generational Hatred

In the Aseret Ha-Dibberot’s warning against worshipping other powers, Gd speaks of Himself (20;5) as poked avon avot al banim, visits the sins of the fathers on the sons, whom Onkelos terms benin meradin, rebellious sons. The Torah says the punishment would affect the third and fourth generation le-son’ai, those who hate me.

Onkelos throws in a qualifier fully in line with rabbinic tradition, kad meshalmin benaya lemehete batar avahathon, when the sons continue to sin after their fathers. He thus answers the obvious question about Gd’s justice, how Gd would ever punish descendants for the sins of the fathers. We find out the descendants only incur the liability by indulging themselves in the same sins [it’s still true they also get punished for their forefathers’ similar sins, an intriguing idea, but not Onkelos’ concern.]

I wonder how Onkelos understood the verse to send the message. To read banim as benin meradin takes a less egregious step away from the literal than to limit son’ai, My enemies (or, those who hate Me) to the descendants who continue their fathers’ path. Oardinary idolaters are not also among those who hate Hashem?

I suggest Onkelos focused on hatred of Gd that has become a family tradition. We do not get to pick our parents, but we do choose what parts of their legacy to emulate, ratify, and to further, what to reject and abandon. Choose wrong, Onkelos might be telling us, and a child can have joined a family tradition of enmity to Gd, the family tradition Gd responds to by bringing the sins of the ancestors on the descendants.

The Oral Tradition in Action

The third of the ten Dibberot prohibits taking Gd’s Name in vain, twice using the word la-shav, in vain (or, futilely), in the original prohibition and in the warning Gd will not easily cleanse the slate of one who commits the sin. Onkelos translates the first as le-magana, for naught, usually assumed to mean an oath with no value, such as swearing that a well-known piece of gold is in fact a piece of gold.

At the end of the verse, he translates the same word as le-shikra, falsely, meaning to swear a piece of gold is a piece of wood. Many educated Jews already know what he is saying, the prohibition applies both to futile and false oaths because R Yohanan reads the verse this way on Shevu’ot 21a, the second use of shav was not needed for futile oaths, and therefore comes to tell us about shevu’ot sheker, false oaths.

It’s another example of Onkelos including a later tradition in his writings (Wikipedia says R. Yohanan was born sixty years after Onkelos passed away), Almost as if it’s an oral tradition, passed down from Sinai.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply