Parshat Naso: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Naso is the longest in the Torah, although that’s a bit deceptive because the list of the gifts to the dedication of the Mishkan is repeated for each nasi, head of tribe, despite being identical. Here are five comments of Onkelos’ to catch my attention:

Every Piece of the Deceased Counts

At the beginning of chapter five, Gd commands the Jewish people to send out of “the camp” three types of people: anyone with tzara’at, zav (has bodily emissions for unknown reasons), or tamei la-nefesh, whose ritual impurity was incurred by contact with someone who passed away. (Each of those “camps” are different, the metzora excluded from the entire camp, with the building of the Beit HaMikdash understood as the city of Jerusalem, the zav from mahaneh Leviyah, the Levites’ camp, or Har Ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, and the tamei la-nefesh only from mahaneh Shekhinah, the ezrat Yisrael of the Beit Ha-Mikdash.)

Tamei la-nefesh sounds like it means one who has contracted the impurity associated with the deceased and, halakhically, it does. Onkelos, however, writes di-msoav litmei nafsha de-enasha, became ritually impure by contact with a bone of a person, a view Rashi shares. Siftei Hakhamim suggests Onkelos wanted us to know only direct contact with the deceased forces a person to absent him/ herself from the Temple.

Perhaps, except why focus on the bone, why not say di-msoav le-nafsha de-enasha, who became ritually impure by contact with a deceased person? Onkelos is using “tamei” both for di-msoav, who became ritually impure, and for litmei, the bones of (and then translating nefesh as de-enasha, emphasizing the human element).

Always possible that’s just what Onkelos thought the verse was saying, but I wonder whether he was emphasizing that even just a bone creates the full ritual impurity of contact with the deceased, including in terms of exclusion from the Temple courtyard. We might have thought contact with the whole (or majority) of a corpse excludes, where “just” a bone is not significant enough.

I am suggesting we sometimes treat certain halakhot as just technical, without all the ramifications of the whole. Onkelos wanted us to know (or inferred the Torah wanted us to know) any part of the deceased is as the deceased itself (a piece of the continent, a part of the main, for the John Donne fans out there).

The Falsehood of Betrayal

Four verses later, the verse uses a phrase it will employ again in 5;12, lim’ol ma’al. I am most familiar with the verb ma’al in halakhic terms as a matter of me’ilah, making personal use of items belonging to the Temple. I would have thought the Torah is describing the asham brought when one violates the prohibition against doing so.

The continuation of the verses makes clear this is not so, because it speaks of the victim not having a go’el, a relative to whom to return the money. Rashi points out tradition assumes the verse refers to someone who steals and then swears falsely to deny the theft. Given Rashi’s point, we understand Onkelos’ translation, le-shakara shakar, to lie.

It does focus on the false oath more than the original crime, an interesting point we might revisit another time. In addition, though, Onkelos uses a similar phrase in 5;12, where the Torah characterizes a sotah as u-ma’alah bo ma’al, she betrayed him (her husband). Rashi identifies the ma’al as her having in fact had an affair with another man (an affair as me’ilah figured prominently in Shu”t Binyan Tziyyon 154, where R. Ettlinger struggled to allow a couple to stay together after a stranger convinced the wife he was Elijah the Prophet and was supposed to impregnate here with the Mashiah!).

Onkelos disagrees, perhaps because the Torah is unsure whether she had the affair. For the Torah, the water ceremony came to ascertain what she had done, to punish her if she had consummated an affair, restore her marital happiness if not. Onkelos again turns our thoughts to falsehood, writing u-te-shakar bei shakar, she shall perpetrate a falsehood against him.

I suggest the falsehood takes the shape of her acting in a way that creates a reasonable suspicion of an affair. Halakhically, a woman only becomes a sotah if the husband informs her of his suspicions and tells her not to be secluded with a specific man. Her doing so anyway trips the wire on sotah status, with all that ensues. Her going into a place where an affair could have occurred is being untrue to her husband, the ma’al and sheker of the verse.

Betrayal and theft’s roots are in falsehood, I think Onkelos seems to tell us.

The Foundational Dirt of the Temple Courtyard

Should a woman put herself in the position of being a sotah, and deny she went through with an affair, she is brought to the Temple and fed “bitter waters,” including dirt from the floor of the Mishkan (in the Temple, a Mishnah on Sotah 15b tells us, the kohen would enter the Heikhal, the first room of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, with the major appliances, the Menorah, shulhan, table with the lehem ha-panim, the show bread, and mizbah ha-zahav, gold-plated altar, lift a removable stone left for this purpose, to allow access to the dirt underneath). 5;17 says the kohen should take afar, dirt, that is be-karka ha-Mishkan, usually translated as the floor.

Onkelos writes bi-yesodei, in the foundation of the Mishkan. I’m not sure how much to make of this, because the word karka appears this once in the Torah, meaning we cannot compare to other places where Onkelos translated the word. Other times in Tanakh, Targum Yonatan does use the word karka, meaning there was an Aramaic version of the word, although when I Melakhim 6;15 speaks of karka ha-bayit, Yonatan has ushei beita, fortifications of the House.

Karka on its own means karka. Linked to a Mishkan or Bayit, it seems to be a foundation or fortification. In our sotah context, I wonder whether the Torah means to characterize the dirt as more than just dirt—not just any dirt will serve the purpose here, it has to be dirt from the foundation, for reasons we could expound upon at length were this an homiletical context.

The sotah water mixed water and foundational dirt.

Pregnancy and Metaphorical Biblical Hebrew

5;28 tells us an innocent woman will have the water both certify her innocence, ve-niketah, and lead to her becoming pregnant. Onkelos turns the Torah’s phrase, ve-nizre’ah zara, literally she shall be seeded with seed, to the more familiar ve-ta’adei idui, she will become pregnant.

He uses the same verb when Bereshit 29;31 tells us Hashem opened Leah’s womb (va-yiftah et rahma) because she was hated. Where Biblical Hebrew has a rich lexicon of ways to refer to pregnancy—be given seed, have one’s womb open—Onkelos sticks with the direct, pregnant.

I Will Not Be Anthropomorphic, I Will Not Be Anthropomorphic

Gd commands the kohanim to bless the Jewish people in Gd’s Name, with the well-known three-part blessing. After giving the words they should say, Gd says, 6;27, ve-samu et Shemi al Benei Yisra’el, they will place My Name on the Children of Israel, va-ani avarekhem, I will bless them (leaving murky who or whom; Rashi has two options, the Jewish people or the kohanim themselves).

Onkelos writes ve-yishavun yat birkat Shemi, they shall place the blessings of My Name, a reminder of how far he goes to avoid any treatment of Gd as physical. The metaphor of placing Gd’s Name upon someone cut too close for Onkelos, he had to insert the separation of birkat Shemi, the blessings of My Name.

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