Parashat Vayikra: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Two points to begin: First, with the new sefer of the Torah, I had not yet received my pre-ordered ArtScroll Onkelos, and tried to identify unusual comments of Onkeloson my own. It was hard! I was relieved when the book came in time to write this week’s piece, and renewed in my gratitude to ArtScroll for their valuable assistance.

Second, last week was the first in which I was unable to attend shul because of the coronavirus we all pray Hashem will heal quickly, and I spent much of my extra time going through the Torah portion more carefully than usual. ArtScroll eases our way to fulfilling the Rabbinic requirement of shnayim mikra ve-ehad targum, reading it twice in the original and once with Onkelos’ translation, with the targum itself rather than Rashi.

For this week, the one comment I picked up on my own before deciding to wait for the ArtScroll to arrive was 1;5. The pasuk says to put blood of a sacrifice saviv, around, the altar, and Onkelos has sahor sahor, a doubled word, as if the verse had said saviv saviv (as Tanakh does elsewhere). I noticed online a discussion from a few years ago, where the first person said Parshegen thinks Onkelos did it for style, to imitate the Biblical saviv saviv, although those are almost all in Yehezkel.

A contributor named Isaac Kotlicky suggested Onkelos uses the double form for human created boundaries, but when it’s an actual physical item, he uses makif. He brought up Shabbat 13a (from this past week’s Daf Yomi), where Ulla tells a nazir not to go sahor sahor a vineyard. For his idea, it means build a good strong human created boundary.

Surprisingly, ArtScroll does not identify this as nonliteral, quotes only Hagahos R. Gedaliah LIfshitz, who thought saviv itself was a double word, sav sav. Whatever the answer, Onkelos treats saviv as sahor sahor, around around.

The Feast of the Shelamim

The third chapter of Va-Yikra introduces the shelamim, the peace offering. The Torah refers to it as a zevah shelamim, to Onkelos a nikhsat kudshaya, a feast of holies. ArtScroll points out nikhsat means feast and seems to translate the word zevah, yet Onkelos translates nikhsat kudshaya even where the Torah leaves out the word zevah, such as in 6;5.

Sfas Emes to Zevahim 4a (ArtScroll tells me) thinks Onkelos holds the name of the sacrifice is zevah shelamim, and the Torah sometimes doesn’t give its full name. Assuming he is right, Onkelos has made a choice to give its full name each time, even where the Torah did not. R. Gifter says the name reflects the person’s care for turning his/her eating of meat into an experience of sanctity—the point of the shelamim is the meal, shared eating (as I once heard explained by Prof. Joshua Berman of Bar-Ilan, an old classmate from Gush) between people, kohanim, and the altar (the latter two representatives of Gd. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah focused on sharing it with friends and family.

ArtScroll also noticed these are kodashim kalim, sacrifices of lesser restrictions than kodashei kodashim, such as where they can be slaughtered (anywhere in the azarah, the courtyard of the Temple, as opposed to just the north of the altar), who can eat it (not just kohanim), and where (the whole city of Jerusalem). I wonder whether the Torah emphasizes its sanctity because we could let its greater flexibility blind us to its underlying kedusha.

Sacrifices restricted to the altar or the priests are clearly kadosh, set apart from human life. The sacrifice people use to enhance their personal interaction with Gd is a zevah, a meal of sanctity.

Pardon Vs. Atonement

The fourth chapter of Va-Yikra speaks of a par he’elem davar shel tzibbur, a sacrifice offered when the majority of the Jewish people unwittingly sins. At the end of the ceremony, the Torah says ve-nislah lahem, a phrase the English translates as “they will be forgiven.” (As far as I can tell, this is the first time the Torah uses the root salah after Moshe asked ve-salahta la-avonenu, and You shall forgive/pardon our sins, as he prayed for them to be spared the full consequences of the Golden Calf, and Moshe’s use of the verb was the first in the Torah I was able to find. I’m not sure what significance to attach to it.)

Onkelos consistently translates the verb as ve-yishtevek, a verb for pardon rather than forgiveness. ArtScroll notes forgiveness says the sin has been released, is gone, where pardon frees from punishment. With repentance as well, we first earn or are granted Hashem’s freeing us of punishment and only later, through a further process, fully restore our relationship with Gd.

Had the Jews of the first Beit HaMikdash had Onkelos, they might not have overemphasized sacrifices as the way to maintain their spiritual health.

Eskimos Have How Many Words for Snow?

Here’s a short point. The Torah allows for a korban oleh ve-yored in certain situations, a sacrifice brought with animals, birds, or flour, depending on the wealth of the sinner. For the poorest, 5;11 tells us an efah of flour is enough (cheaper even than two birds). Onkelos translates telat se’in, three se’ah, and ArtScroll says there was apparently no word for efah in Aramaic.

With names, Onkelos would have just given the name. Here, he gives the best synonym he could. It reminds me of where Rashi comments terms like shiv’at yamim mean a seven-day period (a week) as opposed to telling us the number of days. The language we have and use shapes how we think about the world, the reason people are interested in how many synonyms particular languages have (such as the Eskimos having many more words for snow than we do).

For Aramaic, the efah wasn’t an interesting or relevant enough measure to include as a word, where in Biblical Hebrew, it was.

Guilt or Sacrifice

The asham talui serves as temporary atonement for a Jew unsure of whether s/he unwittingly violated a karet transgression (a classic example: the Jew ate one of two pieces of fat, where one was karet-liable helev and the other was permissible shuman, and does not know which s/he ate). After summarizing the sacrifice, 5;19 says asham hu, ashom asham, it is an asham, and the next phrase would most obviously mean he has truly been guilty. ArtScroll notes Onkelos usually translates doubled Hebrew phrases as doubles as well.

Here, Onkelos writes al hovatei de-hav, ashama yakriv, for the guilt he incurred, he shall offer an asham, taking ashom to mean “the guilt he incurred,” and asham hu to mean “he shall bring an asham.

ArtScroll cites Beurei Onkelos, who thought Onkelos was stressing the lack of clarity around the person’s guilt, the guilt being his/her having gotten into a situation of such lack of information. My quick check also suggests Onkelos never uses asham as a verb, perhaps because the Aramaic of his time did not have it. If so, he is doing his best to convey the meaning of the verse, where asham is a technical term, the name of a particular kind of sacrifice, but where Aramaic readers would lose the play on words in the Hebrew, between asham the sacrifice and ashemah, guilt.

The limits of translation in action, one of the reasons I took up Onkelos in this forum to begin with.

About Gidon Rothstein

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