Emor: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Emor opens with a warning to kohanim to avoid tum’at met, the ritual impurity associated with the deceased. 21;2 tells us only li-she’ero ha-karov elav, his flesh close to him, may the kohen become ritually impure. Rashi follows Sifra in seeing this word as adding the kohen’s wife to the upcoming list of relatives (parents, children, and siblings).

Onkelos writes le-karivei, his relative, which ArtScroll flags despite also recognizing it fits a fairly literal reading. For Rashi/Sifra, the word adds a relative we don’t see in the verse, for Onkelos, it introduces the list. Which is literal?

Becoming Other

Verse nine of the chapter envisions the sad case of a kohen’s daughter who has an affair. In addition to the ordinary odium of it, the verse says et aviha hi mehallelet, and incurs death by burning (really, hot lead poured down the person’s throat), where ordinary adultery has the theoretical punished by henek, strangulation (remember, all these penalties were rarely executed because of the many rules around them; since courts used all sorts of ways to avoid putting people to death, the Torah’s prescriptions serve more as value markers, a way for the Torah to express its levels of disapproval of various sins).

Rashi reads the verse in line with Sanhedrin 52a, she desecrates her father with her actions. Raised in a home focused on issues of sanctity, the Temple and its service, ritual purity and impurity, her yielding to this temptation is worse than her non-kohen family peers, because she should have known better.

The Gemara and Rashi’s read feels very convincing, making Onkelos’ read that much more arresting. He writes mi-kedushat avuha hi mitahala, she is desecrated from the holiness of her father. One mark against this being literal is his taking et aviha to refer to her father’s sanctity, and mehalelet, a verb form usually for her doing something to someone else, to mean she herself is becoming desecrated, in the sense of loss of sanctity.

I recognize Onkelos could fit it into the words, could read et as of or with, and have it mean “of the sanctity of her father, she is desecrating (herself).” But why did he? My only guess is that he thought the daughter was the subject of the verse, and saw no reason for the Torah to pause and tell us how she had hurt her father (in Rashi’s version, I think, it explains the severity of her punishment). For Onkelos, the whole verse is about her, so this digression is about her as well.

Multiple Ways of Being Other

Only kohanim may eat certain sacrifices, a fact 22;10 stresses by saying ve-khol zar lo yokhal kodesh, outsiders may not eat the sanctified (or holy). ArtScroll tells us Pas’shegen and Be’urei Onkelos both noticed other places where Onkelos translated zar as oharan, other, as opposed to here, where he writes hilonai, a word they have as commoner, from hol, unconsecrated or mundane.

They don’t explain, perhaps because they thought it was obvious Onkelos wanted to point out the more specific otherness here, the person’s not being a kohen.

22;25 gives us another way to be “other.” The Torah tells us not to accept sacrifices from non-Jews if the animals have blemishes Jews themselves are also not allowed to bring. (Were those non-Jews to be offering sacrifices to Gd on their personal altars, for them not a violation, they only had to avoid flagrant blemishes like a missing limb).

The verse refers to a ben nekhar, to ArtScroll a stranger, and therefore not the same as Onkelos’ bar amemin, a member of other nations. Other translations I saw, however, wrote ben nekhar as foreigner, very much in line with Onkelos. Whether or not it is nonliteral, it reminds us of the many ways we can be “other.” We can just be unknown to someone, we can be from a different group, with its own laws of sanctity, or from a different nation.

Each kind comes with rules for how and when we reach across our otherness, how and when we do not or cannot, as Onkelos reminds us with his careful translations.

 The Crying of the Shofar

One of the holidays the Torah prescribes happens on the first day of the seventh month. We call it Rosh HaShanah, where the Torah terms it a zikhron teru’ah, a remembrance through shofar blasts. Onkelos instead writes dukhran yabava, a remembrance through the sound of a broken cry. ArtScroll correctly notes Rosh HaShanah 34a’s uncertainty about the nature of the sound, the reason for our custom to cover three possibilities: a shevarim, teru’ah, or a shevarim teru’ah, sobs, cries, or sobs leading into cries.

Remarkably, ArtScroll writes: “From Onkelos’ translation…the Gemara deduces that a teruah resembles the sound of a person crying brokenly.” I checked the Gemara a couple of times, and it does clearly already know the teru’ah is the sound of a broken cry, and struggles with what kind. Nowhere did I see the Gemara refer to Onkelos, however, meaning ArtScroll might have put the cart before the horse, might have been sure the Gemara got it from Onkelos when he got it from them (or they all got it from a prior tradition, going back to Sinai, e.g.).

Either way, Onkelos gives the meaning tradition knew, another case of the real meaning not always being the one a dictionary might give.

Clouds of Glory

I think many people know the debate between R. Eliezer and R. Akiva in Sukkah 11b as to whether the sukkot of the Jews in the desert– 23;43 tells us to sit in sukkot on the holiday for all our generations to know Hashem caused the Jews to dwell in sukkot in the desert– were booths or ananei kavod, clouds of glory. I remember my surprise when I noticed Shulhan Arukh Orakh Hayyim 625 rules they were clouds of glory, as if it is a matter of Jewish law.

Here, Onkelos does it too, translates the word ba-sukkot as bi-mtallalat ananin, a shelter of clouds. I can’t prove it, because we have enough reason to know Onkelos is not nearly as bound by literal as we might have thought, but I think he is saying the plain meaning of the word sukkot is clouds of glory, because that’s historically what happened. We often treat such ideas as aggadah, allowing us to think of them as metaphorical or allegorical. In this instance, I think Onkelos wanted us to know he thought they were clouds of glory, as a matter of fact.

Waiting for Divine Guidance

At the end of the parsha, a Jewish man blasphemes (others had baited him, but that was not an excuse) and the people do not know what to do with him. 24;12 says they put him under guard lifrosh lahem al pi Hashem, a phrase ArtScroll reads as “to clarify for themselves by the word of Hashem.”

The English translations turn it more passive, “until it would be made clear to them,” and that’s how Onkelos takes it. ArtScroll doesn’t explain why they translated it as they did; I think they were bothered by the verb form of lifrosh, usually an active form. It sounds like they would be the ones doing the clarification, where Onkelos has them waiting to hear from Hashem.

ArtScroll obviously agrees they needed to hear from Gd, so it’s more a technical question of how to read the verse.

Emor takes us (in my selections) from making ourselves other, being other, crying to Gd over our iniquities, residing in the Clouds of Glory, and then (some of us) again putting ourselves outside the acceptable group, as Gd defined it.

All with ramifications for what it means to read the Torah “literally.”

About Gidon Rothstein


  1. I think both Onkelos and Rashi consider the peshat of “sukkos” in this posuk to be the Annanei HaKovod, because of the description, “…כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל.” Hashem says He had the Bnei Yisroel dwell in sukkos. That would more directly fit the idea that Hashem provided them something they dwelt in, rather than that He created the situation that caused the Bnei Yisroel to build and live in booths. The latter idea would be more simply expressed as “כי בסוכות ישבו בני י’שראל.”

  2. Doron Beckerman

    R. Rothstein, the Gemara regarding teruah is on the preceding amud (Rosh Hashanah 33b).

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