Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Nadav and Avihu Died Because…

The first verse of Aharei Mot times Hashem’s words to after the death of Aharon’s two sons, be-korvataim lifnei Hashem, when they came close (or approached) before Gd. Onkelos writes be-karoveihon eshata nukhrata, when they brought alien fire. As ArtScroll points out, the simple meaning of be-korvatam would be their having themselves gotten too close in some way.

ArtScroll quotes Lechem VeSimlah, who explained Onkelos was sure the problem lay in the fire they brought, as 10;1-2 seems to indicate. ArtScroll also points us to Ramban, who objects to Ibn Ezra’s claim the sons entered a part of the Mishkan they should not; Ramban reminds us the verse discusses their having brought an esh zarah, a wrong fire, like Onkelos.

It also fits Onkelos’ resistance to any physicality to Gd—there is no “coming too close” to Gd, because that’s a physical matter. When the Torah says they came too close, it means they used the wrong vehicles for spiritual closeness, the reason Gd now teaches Aharon how to correctly “come close,” by performing the proper service.

The Man of the Hour

The end of 16;21 tells us the goat bearing the sins of the people was sent to the desert in the hands of an ish iti, a timely man. Rashi just tells us the man was prepared for this task from the day before, taking iti to mean he was set up for this hour. ArtScroll quotes Gur Aryeh as the correct reading of Rashi, he had been appointed to carry out this task at this particular time.

Onkelos writes di-zmin limhakh, who was designated for this, also leaving out a direct translation of iti, with little opening to say it was assumed. I suggest Onkelos thought ish iti meant “the man for this time,” regardless of whether he was appointed for a particular time. Having been designated, the man is the ish iti, literally the man of the hour.

The Zevah Is Also a “Holy Feast”

Back in Parshat VaYikra, egged on by ArtScroll, I pointed out Onkelos translates zevah shelamim as nikhsat kudshaya, a holy feast, but also translates the plain word shelamim as nikhsat kudshaya. In our parsha, 17;8, Onkelos translates the word zevah, appearing alone, as nikhsat kudshaya. For Onkelos, apparently, they are all enough the same to be translated the same way each time.

It leaves us to wonder how the Torah chooses which to write where, but that’s our problem, not Onkelos’.

The Life Given by Torah Observance

The Torah prefaces the list of arayot, prohibited sexual relationships, with a reminder to stay away from the conduct of the Egyptians and Canaanites, culminating in a reminder to observe Gd’s laws, that one keeps them va-hai bahem, and lives through them. As ArtScroll points out, Yoma 85a sees this as the source for the permissibility of violating Torah law to save lives, so the verse seems to be speaking about life in this world.

Onkelos, however, writes ve-yehei behon hayye alma, and by which s/he shall live an eternal life. Rashi gave a reason to think it had to be the World to Come, because a person who performs mitzvot near the moment of death will clearly not live by them. ArtScroll notes Kiddushin 39b has an opinion that the reward for observance is reserved for the next world, but even the less extreme view assumes some reward is in the next world.

All good, but ArtScroll notes Radak (in a long comment on Yehezkel 18;6) insists the simple meaning of the text must be about this world, despite Radak referring to Onkelos’ comment. Nesinah LaGer says Onkelos recognizes the simple meaning, and wrote hayye alma “to impart to his readers the belief in the Afterlife.”

I find it largely convincing, although it again alters our picture of Onkelos. If he was willing to give an interpretation he knew to be not literal, to make a religious point, he wasn’t dedicated to the simple sense of the text in the way many people today think, nor were Hazal who endorsed his translation.

I suppose one option is to say Onkelos sees the verb “to live” as involving two kinds of life, this world and the next, the line between them not as clear as we tend to assume. Were that to be true, he would read va-hai bahem as meaning the person will live eternally because of his/her observance, some part of that life in this world, some in the next. His hayye alma, I am suggesting, might not have meant only in the next, it might have meant both, the two together making up the eternal life gained by mitzvot.

Maybe. Or Onkelos wasn’t as devoted to literal as we like to think (the theme of this year).

Disgorging or Emptying

The Torah attaches remarkable import to sexual propriety, for non-Jews as well as Jews. After listing the prohibited relationships, the Torah warns the Jews not to defile the Land with such sins, for the nations who lived there ahead of them had done so and, 18;25, va-taki ha-aretz et yosheveha, the Land disgorged (is how ArtScroll has it; other English translations are less delicate, write “vomited.”)

Onkelos writes ve-rokenat, the Land emptied itself. ArtScroll thinks Onkelos was moving from the figurative “vomiting” to the simpler becoming empty. Tis seems to me to ignore the fact of Onkelos retaining the verb form—the Land emptied itself. While vomit vs. empty is less figurative, the most surprising part of the phrase was the Torah’s ascribing the action to the Land itself, and that Onkelos keeps.

He may have chosen to express “vomiting” more simply, but he accepted the idea the Land itself reacting to sexual improprieties, a topic that will also come up in Parshat Kedoshim.


Paying Workers on Time

The early part of Kedoshim speaks of various ways we must treat the poor well, one of those being the requirement to pay wages within the first time period after the completion of a task (assuming the employer and employee had not made other arrangements). 19;13 writes lo talin pe’ulat sakhir itekha. Rashi thinks talin is a feminine verb, referring to the wages, leading ArtScroll to translate “it should not be kept with you overnight—the labor of a hired worker,” a construction I dislike for its passivity. But I’m no translator.

Onkelos writes la tevit agra de-agira levatakh, do not keep overnight the wages of a worker who hired [himself] to you, diverging from Rashi in two ways. Lo talin for Onkelos addresses the employer, you shall not keep overnight, and itekha, with you, modifies the sakhir, the employee who hired him/herself to you.

For Rashi, the wages could not be kept “with you,” the employer, overnight, where for Onkelos, the employer shouldn’t keep overnight the wages of the person who hired him/herself to you, the employer.

Same result, fundamentally, different route to get there.

Justice and Corruption, Truth and Falsehood

The Torah, 19;15, warns against committing avel ba-mishpat, for ArtScroll a warning against committing a wrong in judgment. Rashi is much harsher, describes a judge who gives a wrong verdict as hated, an abomination, and worse. The end of the verse adjures be-tzedek tishpot amitekkha, judge your fellow with righteousness.

Onkelos changes both, turning avel into shekar (as he does in 19;35)falsehood, and tzedek into kushta, judge your fellow with truth. ArtScroll seems to me to miss the import of the two changes. For “falsehood,” they write “Onkelos frequently translates references to dishonest conduct as falsehood,” giving 5;15, where a person improperly benefits from items belonging to the Temple (or Mishkan), as another example. They also note be-tzedek is typically translated as “with righteousness,” then note the interesting distinction Onkelos draws between tzedakah, which he usually translates as zakhu/zakhuta, righteousness, and tzedek, as kushta.

In this verse, though, be-tzedek was contrasted to avel, turning a court case the wrong way. I wonder whether, at least here, Onkelos translated avel as sheker and tzedek as truth because that’s what court cases are to find—a “righteous” verdict happens when the court finds the truth, and avel, turning the verdict any other way, commits a falsehood.

Justice and corruption, for Onkelos, are simple matters of true and false.

Two Roads to Freedom

When the Torah discusses a shifhah harufah, a half-freed non-Jewish slavewoman who has an affair (she is betrothed to an eved Kena’ani, a slave who partially converted to Judaism, Rashi says, he being allowed to marry her, her freed side not yet able to marry him), the Torah adds she has not been fully freed, with two phrases, hafdeh lo nifdatah, has not been redeemed, and hufshah lo nitan lah, her freedom has not been granted her.

Onkelos makes an addition to his translation of each phrase. For lo nifdata, he says be-kaspa, with money, and for hufsha lo nitan la, her freedom was not given her, he says bi-shtar, with a document of freeing. ArtScroll, I think, takes for granted the subtlety of the point Onkelos made—the woman giving money frees herself differently than where the owner releases her by giving her a deed of freedom. In the first, she (or someone on her behalf) is the agent of her freedom; in the latter, the owner does it.

In the Torah’s case, neither had happened, but Onkelos’ read of the Torah casually reminds us of two ways out of servitude.

When Family Support Goes Wrong

Molekh worship is an abomination, either burning a child to death or “just” passing him/her through a fire. The Torah demands the entire Jewish people involve themselves in punishing such a misdeed (as Onkelos signals by twice translating am ha-aretz as ama bet Yisrael, the entire Jewish people, in 20;2 and 20;4). Should they fail to do so, Hashem will take care of it, as 20;5 warns, placing His face (anger for Onkelos) upon the man u-ve-mishpahto, his family.

Onkelos writes u-ve-sa’adohi, those who supported him. ArtScroll notes Rashi’s quote of R. Shim’on from Shevu’ot 39a, any family with a person of bad character (a tax collector is the Gemara’s example) is all tax collectors. Unless the family objects to the conduct, in other words, we are left to assume they were on board with it. Toras Chaim comments that family here actually only means supporters, as Onkelos has it—family members who do not help the Molekh-worshipper will not incur Gd’s wrath, and non-family members who do, will. Others arrive at the same idea by suggesting family here is figurative, another way Onkelos might have chosen to write sa’adohi.

Family is our original support system, maybe the model for any support system we develop over time. Usually a positive, family can go wrong, as can support systems.

The Sinful Counsel of Sexualizing Daughters

The Torah uses the unusual word zimah twice in our parashah, 19;29 and 20;14, as well as in Aharei Mot, 18;17. For 20;14 and Aharei Mot, zimah happens when a man marries a woman and her daughter or granddaughter (interestingly, in Aharei Mot, it is expressed that way, where Kedoshim speaks of a man marrying a woman and her mother).

Onkelos translates the word as atzat hit’in, a sinful counsel. ArtScroll flags it as nonliteral because Rashi says zimah means etzah, counsel. Rashi explains away the hit’in as a matter of our evil inclinations pushing us towards this sin. As ArtScroll notes, Ramban wonders why this particular form of sexual immorality is any more a counsel of our evil inclination than others, and ArtScroll points us to 19;29, where the topic is a father fostering his daughter’s promiscuity in general, without his particular involvement in the sin itself.

They do not offer a clear answer. I suggest it is the father/daughter relationship being perverted here. A father is supposed to protect/guide his daughter’s sexuality (remember the Torah assumed women got married very young, often before the age of 14), as well as (I am suggesting) the sexuality of his wife’s daughters and granddaughters. For him to go the other way, to foster daughters’ inappropriate sexuality, in any way, or to himself turn his wife’s daughters into objects of sexuality, is a zimah, a particular form of sinful counsel, earning its own negative term in the Torah.

Five each for Aharei Mot and Kedoshim, for your consideration.

About Gidon Rothstein

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