Bamidbar: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I assume due to the current et tzarah, from which we continue to pray Hashem will release us soon, I have not yet received my ArtScroll of Onkelos on Bamidbar. In my desperation, I did find out Sefaria also flags nonliteral translations by Onkelos, putting them in bold on its website. I took my selections for Bamidbar—a challenging parasha anyway, because much of it counts the Jewish people in various ways, with fewer than usual reasons for Onkelos to move away from the dictionary definition—from there.  But I still didn’t have ArtScroll’s notes, a set of ideas with which to agree, disagree, or add.

So if this is less satisfying than usual (I do hope it’s usually satisfying!), blame ArtScroll. Or recognize what a contribution they have made to our studies of Onkelos for the first three books of the Torah. (For next week, as it Shabbat will still be Shavuot for those of us in exile, I hope to look at a few lines of Akdamut, the ArtScroll version of which I already have; it gives ArtScroll an extra week to get me my Bamidbar).

On and Next To

The first chapter of Bamidbar gives the results of the census Gd commanded Moshe to take, by tribe. In chapter two, the Torah gives the results again, this time arranging the tribes in the order they would camp and move in the desert, Yehuda’s group of tribes first because they would lead the nation as they moved.

For the four camps, the second tribe is introduced with the words ve-ha-honim alav. While all the English translations I saw turn this phrase into “those who camped next to him,” as did Onkelos—he wrote u-de-sharayan semikhin alohi—it is not in fact the literal reading, those who camped on him.

It might seem obvious why Onkelos changed it, no one would imagine Yissakhar camped literally on Yehudah, yet I am not so sure. First, I note the Torah introduces the third tribe of each encampment with a simple vav, and also the tribe such and such. Why not do that for this second one as well?

Also, in the camp of Efrayim, the Torah writes ve-alav, next to him (rather than ve-ha-honim alav, who camped next to him) for the second tribe, Menashe. Onkelos writes u-de-samikhin alei, not that different from what he wrote for ve-ha-honim alav.

It feels to me like Onkelos is pushing to make the text’s overall intent clear, with loss of nuances in the text itself. I have no confidence about the nature of those nuances—I feel like the Torah wants to give us a sense of closeness by writing ha-honim alav, as if the second tribe in each camp was so close (emotionally), so connected to the first, it was as if they were one unit.

That might explain why Menashe is just alav, because they were even closer, although it would suggest Dan was closer to Asher than to Naftali, despite Naftali being the brother who shared a mother with Dan. It’s easy for Reuven and Shim’on, less so for Yehudah and Yissakhar, who we usually think was closer to Zevulun.

So far, then, pure speculation.

Given and Given

As part of laying out the Levi’im’s special responsibilities regarding the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, Gd tells Moshe, 3;9, to assign the Levi’im to Aharon, using the verb of netina, giving. Gd says netunim netunim hemah lo, formally assigned to him (or, according to other translations, wholly or exclusively assigned). The translation all reasonably understand netunim netunim to emphasize and strengthen the assignment

Onkelos writes mesirin yehivin. My Jastrow dictionary (yes, with the removal of my ArtScroll crutch, I actually had to pull my old, worn Jastrow off the shelf; I hope it has enjoyed being once again a bulwark of my attempts to understand the Torah, rather than embarrassed at my still woeful Aramaic. It reminds me of yarhei kedem, moons of old, when I was a much younger student, first setting out on the journey) translates those verbs as deliver or transmit (for mesirin), and to give for yehivin.

It ends up in the same place, but Onkelos seems to see the assigning the Levi’im solely to Aharon’s supervision as a two step process, transmission and then gift. If I were a better Brisker, I would define those two steps more clearly, but I’m not. I’ll note it, and let you speculate on what the two levels could be.

Still Avoiding Anthropomorphisms

As I said at the outset, I didn’t see as many options for discussion in Bamidbar as most parashiyot. Given my lack of choice, let me note an example I usually leave unstated. 3;12 says ve-hayu li ha-Levi’im, the Levites shall be Mine. Onkelos instead writes vi-yehon meshamshin kodamai Leva’ei, the Levi’im shall serve before Me.

Clearly, he means to avoid the idea of Gd possessing, and yet I still find it surprising how leery he was of any physicality regarding Gd. In English, ownership or connection are easily metaphorical, so there would be no reason to worry about it here, not even as much as speaking of Gd’s arm, for example.

While we’re on the topic, Onkelos’ strict avoidance of physicality, for a rabbi of the time of the Mishnah, should reduce the extent to which we see Rambam’s philosophical stances as solely or mostly from Greek philosophy. As Rambam himself wrote, Onkelos worked hard on this, and the Gemara endorsed his translation as the only authoritative one. When Rambam found that in Greek philosophy as well, it was easily a fleshing out of what was already implicit in Onkelos, a fully traditional source. Embedded deep and early in our tradition of Torah reading, in other words, is the idea of ensuring we do not make the mistake of ascribing any physicality to Gd.

An Officer of Great Men

There’s an old punchline (I don’t remember the joke) that goes “by you he’s a captain, by me he’s a captain, but by captains, is he a captain?” I thought of it when I noticed Onkelos’ translation of 3;32, u-nesi nesi’ei ha-Levi. The JPS has “the head chieftain,” and several of the online translations also read the two worded phrase to indicate Elazar was head of the other heads. Given the doubled word, it makes sense to think he was above them in quantity rather than quality, a higher chieftain within the same basic system.

A few translations online, though, had slight variations between the two, like chief or head of the leaders. Onkelos, too, wrote amarkela dim-mana al ravrevei Leva’ei; Jastrow tells me amarkela is either counsellor or officer, where ravreva means officer or great man. In addition to offering a different translation for the same word, Onkelos seems to treat the nesi’ei ha-Levi as more clearly important—they were the ravrevei, where Elazar was “just” the amarkela.

I wonder whether it’s because he was in charge only of the three other nesi’im. They each had their whole family clan to run, and he ran them, as it were (he also had his own area of responsibility in moving the Mishkan). He was superior to them, but in terms of direct reach, they were ravrevei, he was an amarkela, an officer who had elements of an advisor rather than a superior.

What Comes as a Giving Over or Visitation

Sefaria flags Onkelos’ translation of the beginning of 4;16 as nonliteral. The verse tells us u-fekudat Elazar, the responsibility of Elazar, included the oil for lighting and more. Onkelos writes ve-di mesir le-Elazar, what was given over to Elazar. It’s first surprising because 3;36 has a very similar phrase, u-fekudat mishmeret benei Merari, the assigned duties of the children of Merari. There, too, Onkelos write ve-di mesir le-mitrat, that which is given over to the guardianship of Merari, yet Sefaria leaves it unbolded.

More, the one other time in the Torah where the word u-fekudat appears in Bamidbar 16;29, where Moshe sets up the test for the demise of Korah, Datan, and Aviram, should  they pass away naturally, u-fekudat kol adam yefukad aleihem. Onkelos writes u-se’ura de-khol enash yiste’ara aleihon, to be visited or inflicted upon them.

For Onkelos, a pekudah means when things come to us. For the people of Merari and for Elazar, it was given over to them; death comes to visit instead.

Five comments for Bamidbar, our last look at Onkelos on the Torah before we relive the Giving of the Torah.

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