Parashat Tzav: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

This time—our last before Pesah—we’ll see a couple of times where what seems nonliteral might actually be literal.

Maybe He’s Being Literal with the Sprinkling of the Blood

6;19 refers to hakohen ha-mehatei otah, meaning the kohen who offers the hatat sacrifice, the sacrifice brought (usually) for an unwitting violation of a sin punishable by karet if committed deliberately. Rashi (as ArtScroll reads him) assumes it means the kohen who makes it a hatat. Rashi writes “who does its avodah—the services necessary for it—by which it is made a hatat,” where ArtScroll writes only “who renders it a chatas.” ArtScroll also recognizes Ibn Ezra’s reading as a plausible translation, he who makes it remove sin, taking ha-mehatei to mean the one whose service makes it remove sin.

ArtScroll thinks either of those contrasts sharply with Onkelos’ di-mekhapar bi-demei, who atones with its blood. In their reading, Onkelos is translating based on the verse’s intent “that the Kohen who performs its avodah, beginning with the application of the blood, shall eat it.” Rashi to Zevahim 98b thinks ha-mehatei literally means “he who sprinkles the blood.”

I wonder whether Onkelos was more literal than ArtScroll gave credit, took ha-mehatei to link the two—the service of sprinkling the blood produces atonement for the sin, so the kohen is being mekhaper be demei, is atoning with the blood.

Maybe He’s Being Literal with the Flour of Menahot

At the end of the description of the menahot, the flour offerings, the Torah (7;10) speaks of all the menahot, those mixed with oil, va-harevah, literally dry, but Onkelos translates u-de-la fila, not mixed with oil. ArtScroll notes the view of Marpei Lashon and Beurei Onkelos, who think he wanted to avoid the idea it was once moist and is now dry, or Nefesh HaGer, halakhah allows putting water on the offering, leaving Onkelos to stress harevah means only not mixed with oil.

To me, it could be simpler, he was reading va-harevah in context, where it is in contrast to belulah ba-shemen, mixed with oil. Rather than nonliteral, it might be a decision to see the literal meaning of a word as a matter of context. Harevah means dry, a word that can mean completely without liquid, or can mean without various types of liquid. In this verse, Onkelos thinks it means without oil.

Pure Has Many Meanings

The Torah says a sacrifice whose owner (or the kohen who offered it) planned to eat it after the halakhically permissible time becomes pigul. It’s one of those words ArtScroll refuses to translate, writes only as pigul. Other English versions have abomination, tainted, or impure, making Onkelos’ me-rahak, rejected, relatively tame.

Onkelos knew the person who ate of such sacrifice would be punished with karet, but he takes the world pigul less harshly than we do. It won’t be accepted, a status that leads to certain realities (such as kzret for eating it on purpose anyway.

Levels of Ritual Purity

Verse 7;19 discusses sacrificial meat that has become ritually impure, or a person who is ritually impure and eats sacrificial meat. Onkelos throws in kudsha several times where the verse doesn’t have it. The verse says basar, meat, that comes into contact with ritual impurity should not be eaten, and any ritually pure such meat shall be eaten only by someone tahor, ritually pure. For basar, we understand the addition because the verse could have been making a rule about all meat. The word tahor for a person, however, Onkelos usually translates with some form of dekhei, pure (according to ArtScroll). Here, Onkelos adds le-kudsha, ritually pure for the purpose of eating sacrificial meat.

It reminds us ritual purity is not an absolute. Some people are ritually pure for some activities and not others, such as a mehusar kippurim, a person who has taken many of the steps to exit certain forms of ritual impurity, such as tzara’at, but still cannot eat sacrificial meat until s/he offers certain sacrifices. For Onkelos to add it here seems to me to mean he thought the word tahor itself carried several connotations—unless we think Onkelos has an interest in being sure we read the Torah halakhically, a claim I don’t feel we’ve seen substantiated. Tahor means pure, in many possible ways.

Waving or Lifting

The Torah tells Jews to give parts of a shelamim sacrifice to the kohanim, 7;24, the hazeh ha-tenufah and the shok ha-terumah, the breast of the waving and the thigh of the raising-up, in ArtScroll’s translation. Onkelos takes the word tenufah, here and elsewhere, as aramuta, raising, where Rashi understands it to be about waving the sacrifice in all possible directions, east, west, north, south, up, and down. ArtScroll in 23;11, note 14 suggests, based on a Tosafot in Menahot 62a, that not all tenufot had waving in all directions, so Onkelos focuses on common element.

As before, it seems to me too halakhically aware for an implication of a translation of Onkelos’. I can see an explanation with less needed background (and therefore arguably simpler, and by Occam’s Razor, more likely). The pairing of hazei ha-tenufah with shok ha-terumah, shaka de-afrashuta, the latter word translated by ArtScroll as separation. Possibly, the presence of terumah, a word I think Onkelos always reads as being afrashuta, because it’s for donations as well (like at the beginning of Parashat Terumah) left open the verb of arama, lifting. Onkelos adopted it for tenufa because the key element wasn’t the waving, it was raising it to Hashem, in however many directions.

Onkelos to Tzav, our last exploration until after Pesah, shows us again how complicated literal can be, a matter of context, of what background we bring to bear, and how much information we choose to convey.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply