Tetzaveh: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I find Teruma and Tetzave among the hardest parashiyot, because they seem mostly technical, how the Mishkan and its furnishings looked, whose full understanding we will not achieve until we again have a Bet Ha-Mikdash. For Onkelos, it leaves me unsure whether he is being nonliteral or viewed the Mishkan other than we assume the words mean (if he thought words meant something else, he wasn’t being nonliteral).

For Tetzaveh, many of the nonliteral readings are his way of avoiding portraying Gd as in any way physical (anthropomorphism) or his read of the physical facts of the aspects of the Mishkan defined in the parasha. Let’s start with an example of each.

Prongs or Settings

There were fourteen stones on the garments of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, one on each shoulder, on the straps going from the ephod in the back to the Hoshen, the breastplate in the front, and there were twelve stones on the breastplate itself. The Torah describes the shoulder-stones, 28;11, as musabot mishbetzot zahav; ArtScroll follows Rashi in taking the words to mean encircled with settings of gold, the straps having a sunken place of gold where the stones would be placed.

Onkelos writes meshak’an meramtzan, embedded in prong, little protrusions to hold the stones. ArtScroll flags it as nonliteral because it doesn’t match Rashi’s reading, but it seems to me a dispute about meaning rather than an example of nonliteral reading.

In the same verse, the Torah refers to the writing on those stones as pituhei hotam, the engraving of a signet, and Onkelos translates ketav mefarash ke-glof de-izka, script clear like the engraving of a signet ring. ArtScroll points out “the engraving of a signet ring” could have meant the script produced by the signet pressed onto parchment. Instead, Onkelos understands the Torah to mean the engraving on these stones was as on the ring itself, engraved into the stones (with the ring, the person could press it on the item to be sealed, and it would stand up, the indented parts of the ring producing raised letters on the paper). The comparison to the signet, for Onkelos, was the clarity of its writing. (He makes similar points in verses 19 and 21 about the stones on the Hoshen).

Both valuable ideas, but not clearly (to me) a matter of being nonliteral.

Anthropomorphism Never

We similarly have our usual fill of Onkelos deflecting a word that strays too close to portraying Gd as physical. A double dose comes in 29;18, where the verse speaks of offering a ram as a burnt offering la-Shem, reah nihoah isheh la-Shem, a pleasing smell fire-offering to Hashem. Onkelos makes sure we know la-Shem means kodam Hashem, before Gd, and reah nihoah, le-itkabbala be-ra’ava, to be accepted favorably.

Because he absolutely does not want us thinking Hashem smells sacrifices, is pleased with sacrifices, or—as in 29;42-45—that Hashem is more present in any one place than another, “meets” with people, anywhere.

Filling Up: Completeness or Wholeness?

For our more usual type of Onkelos, let’s look at his reactions to the word malei, full. In 28;3, Hashem tells Moshe to speak to all the wise of heart, asher miletiv ruah hokhmah, whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom; Onkelos writes di ashlemit imehon, to whom I have granted perfection with a spirit of wisdom [I might have translated it as “to whom I have granted a full measure of a spirit of wisdom,” but I am not translator].”

ArtScroll thinks Onkelos switched from ‘filled’ to ‘complete’ because “wisdom is not something with which one can be filled in the physical sense, but a positive quality through which one can become complete and perfected.” ArtScroll reads Onkelos in light of Ramban, 25;7, who says milui isn’t about filling a space, it’s about being whole or complete. The same idea seems to underlie 28;17-20, where he consistently translates milui as shalem, whole or complete.

The Torah speaks of the stones of the hoshen being filled miluat aven, and Onkelos writes ve-tashlem bah ashlamut avna. ArtScroll translates Onkelos as having written “you shall fit it with complete stones,” although the note concedes the more literal translation is “you shall complete it with a completeness of stone.” After listing the stones in the four rows of the hoshen, the Torah says they will be set be-miluotam, and Onkelos again writes be-ashlamutehon, in their completeness.

Filing Up For the  Purpose at Hand

Where ArtScroll’s idea about wisdom made sense, Onkelos’ focus on completeness here does not fit, although it translates the same word. I wonder whether his apparently very different translation of the phrase milui yadayim, 19;33 and 35, tells us what he really thought. There, the Torah prescribes sacrifices for new priests to bring as they prepare to serve in the Mishkan. ArtScroll therefore translates le-malei et yadam as “to inaugurate them,” a reasonable choice for what is literally “to fill their hands.” We might then have expected Onkelos to stick with the idea of shelemut, completeness or perfection, but he does not. He writes le-karava yat karbanehon, to offer their sacrifices.

What would make him switch? What’s wrong with wholeness or completeness, as he did in the other places? I think all of Onkelos’ comments fit together if we say he took the verb le-mal’ot, to fill, as meaning to be fully appropriate to the current task. When Hashem “fills” people with wisdom to build the Mishkan, they don’t have complete wisdom, they know all they need to about the task they were about to undertake.

Hashem didn’t fill them with wisdom, Hashem perfected them with the wisdom they needed then. Likewise, the stones did not fill the space, because Onkelos thinks they were set in prongs, so there was no defined space. Rather, they wholly performed the task to which they were called; the place on the shoulder needed a stone, so Hashem tells Moshe to complete the shoulder strap by virtue of a stone.

Finally, with sacrifices, there is no completeness, there is only readiness for the task. The ceremony inaugurating new priests does not improve them, nor does it make them more whole, other than by offering the necessary sacrifices to allow them to serve. The only difference between a born kohen and one who is allowed to serve in the Temple is the ceremony, where he offers these sacrifices. So le-malei et yadam is to get rid of that barrier, offer the sacrifices he needs.

The fullness of malei, rendered by Onkelos often as shalem, whole or complete, is very context specific for Onkelos, I am suggesting, might mean only role-ready.

The Stones, The Stones

Another set of translations ArtScroll flags as nonliteral come when Onkelos identifies various materials. In particular, ArtScroll resists translating the names of the stones on the hoshen, where Onkelos does. For one example, 28;9 refers to shoham stones; Onkelos writes avnei burla, beryl stones, ArtScroll says (although above, 25;7, they noted Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah thought burla meant stones through which one could bore a hole, to be able to put a gold thread through; were he right, Onkelos was taking the Torah to refer to a quality of the stones rather than identifying the type of stone. Weakening his suggestion, shoham is also the name of a stone on the fourth row of the hoshen, and Onkelos again has it as burla].

Back in 25;7, ArtScroll noted people translated shoham as onyx (a black stone) or lapis lazuli (a blue one), where beryl comes in many colors, including emerald and aquamarine. I think, in other words, Onkelos thought he knew exactly which stones were intended, thought he knew the colors of the hoshen, where we no longer have any idea.

[I was in a store in Yerushalayim once, where they had packets with twelve small samples of stones from the hoshen. I was going to buy it until I noticed no two packets had the same stones, certainly not in the same lineup. I asked the clerk about it and he conceded they didn’t really know which stones went where, it was just a novelty item.]

So literal isn’t always as clearly literal as we want.

Kodesh La-Shem, Untranslated

28;36 tells us the Kohen Gadol would wear a Tzitz, a gold plate, on his forehead, on which was engraved kodesh la-Shem. Onkelos repeats those words without translating them, although they pretty clearly mean “holy (or sanctified, or whatever kedushah means) to Gd.” ArtScroll cites Nesinah LaGer, who says Onkelos left the words untranslated so we know these exact words were to be written on the plate.  The meaning matters less than knowing this phrase was transcribed onto the Tzitz, so Onkelos left it untranslated.

In Tetzaveh, we have Onkelos translating nonliterally because he had a different view of how the Mishkan and its appurtenances were built; for well-known reasons of avoiding anthropomorphism; and because he thought “filling up” meant something other than how we take it. But he also translated literally where we’re not sure it is correct, and refusing to translate where he wants us to know it’s the words that matter, not their meaning.

About Gidon Rothstein

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