Parshat Devarim: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Place of a Speech or Places of Sin

The first verse of the book of Devarim presents one of the most remarkable examples of Onkelos dispensing with translation or literal reading. The verse introduces the words as those Moshe said to the Jewish people on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, and then seems to list more place names, ostensibly to identify where Moshe was at the time.

Onkelos writes be-avra de-Yardena, on the other side of the Jordan, okhah yatehon al de-havu be-madbera ve-al de-argizu be-meshera, he admonished them for having incurred liability in the desert and acted in a way arousing anger in the plains, and so on. Many of us know the basic idea because Rashi included it in his commentary, and therefore may have known it from our youths; it should not blind us to how radical a step Onkelos—or whoever taught him the Torah—has taken: The words in this verse, whatever they seem to say, indicate places the people had gone wrong; Moshe was reminding them of it at the beginning of his final speech to them, to be sure they knew they needed to do better going forward.

When we see it in Rashi, I think we say to ourselves, well, Rashi doesn’t really mean to give peshat, the simple sense of the text (despite Rashi himself saying the opposite; I do not mean I agree about Rashi, only that the issue is less clear). Here, Onkelos without apology or equivocation assumes a context and meaning the text itself does not signal. It makes clear he considered himself to be offering the simple reading of the text as tradition transmitted it. That tradition said the place names were about the rebuke he was administering.

Melting or Breaking Their Hearts

Moshe recounts the story of the spies, quoting the Jewish people as having said (1;28): “how can we go up (to Israel), our brothers hemasu et levavenu, caused our hearts to melt (or, took the heart out of us, according to Sefaria)? In the next verse, Moshe says he had told them lo ta’artzun, have no dread (or terror) of them.

Onkelos translates hemasu, melted, our hearts as tevaru yat libana, which I think means broke our hearts (did you notice I have not received my ArtScroll yet? Doing my best). In the next verse, he has Moshe’s lo ta’artzun as la titaverun, do not be broken, the same root.

The root namas, to melt, does not appear in the Torah many times and where it does, I did not spot Onkelos using tevar, to break. For la-arotz, on the other hand, as a form of fear, tavar is Onkelos’ preferred translation. I wonder whether here, Onkelos thought Moshe was most likely responding to their claims: they had said the spies hemasu et levavenu, and Moshe then says not to la-arotz, a more familiar word in the Torah, so Onkelos adjusted the translation of hemasu.

Moshe does also say ve-lo tire’un, not to fear, but I suspect Onkelos thought that was a more general word for the emotion. Hearts melting or breaking, Onkelos was sure Moshe responded directly to what they had said.

To Know Is To Care For

In retelling the story of Gd’s telling the Jewish people to avoid war with Edom, to buy all their food and drink from them (rather than take it with force), Moshe interjects (2;7) Hashem had blessed all the work of their hands, yada lekhtekha, most literally knew your travels, in this great desert, these forty years Hashem has been with you, you have not lacked for anything.

Onkelos makes two notable changes. For yada lekhtekha, he instead writes sippek lakh tzarekakh, provided your needs. English translations already stray from a completely literal reading and write “watched over your travels,” I think because the context is clearly about Gd caring for the people until that point, now switching to where they would have to buy food and drink. Moshe reminded them of Gd’s kindnesses to that point.

If so, however, Onkelos’ reading makes more sense, because he gives us an element of Gd’s yada, knowing, in actively providing their needs. The idea also explains Onkelos’ adding the word be-sa’adakh, to help you, to the verse’s saying Gd has been with you. In context, the simple fact of Gd’s Presence with the people was not the central question—as they moved to taking up their own care, they needed to be reminded how good they had had it. For those purposes, Moshe stressed Gd’s helpful Presence, Onkelos says.

How Many Words for Snow?

Onkelos’ translation of 2;11 seems unintelligible. He writes gibara’ei mithashvin af inun, ke-gibara’ei, heroes (or mighties) they were thought of as well, like heroes or mighties. In the Aramaic, the phrase is tautological or redundant—they, too, were thought of as gibara’ei, like the gibara’ei. The mystery resolves a bit when we look at the original, where the verse says Refa’im yehashvu af hem, ka’anakim, they are considered Refa’im, like Anakim.

I checked, and Onkelos always translates Refai’m as gibara’ei, and also always translates anakim as gibbara’ei (including in 1;28 of this week’s parsha). He seems to have been stuck here, because the verse relates two different words to show how they merge, when for his translations, they have always been the same word.

Often in these situations, I have assumed Onkelos was simplifying to make it easier to read. Here, I think we have to say Onkelos lacked other language, because in this case, his translation makes the verse less clear. I think we have to say he struggled with the relative poverty of Aramaic as compared to Hebrew, for which Anakim was a different group of mighties than Refa’im.

When Onkelos Is Comfortable with Gd Taking Action

We have seen Onkelos avoid anthropomorphism, treating Gd as having physical qualities, emotions, or actions, many times. In this parsha, for example, when Moshe says the Jews rebelled al pi Hashem, Onkelos writes memrei, the word of Gd, because Gd has no mouth.

Later in the parsha, then, we notice when 2;33 says va-yitenehu, Gd gave Sihon to the Jews to defeat in battle. Onkelos writes u-mesarei, which I think differs slightly from va-yitenehu (gave him over rather than handed him over). I notice it more because Onkelos does not try to insert distance between the act and Gd. He is fine with saying Gd gave Sihon over to the Jews, perhaps because that giving over is so clearly metaphorical.

Along the same lines, four verses earlier we are told Sihon refused to let the Jews pass through his land (there is a nonliteral Onkelos here too—the verse says ha’avirenu bo, which might have meant “pass us through,” as if Sihon would have had to escort the Jews. Onkelos instead writes le-mishbakana le-me’ebar, to allow us to pass through).

The verse credits Gd with having brought that about, saying ki hikshah Hashem…et ruho, Gd stiffened his will. Onkelos writes arei akshei Hashem Elakakh yat ruhei, for Gd hd stiffened his will. With no distance inserted! Gd cannot have a mouth in Onkelos’ world, metaphorical as it might be, cannot have anger, but has no problem with Gd engineering victory and loss in war, and also with Gd shaping the psychology of central actors in the drama of history.

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