Parshat Pinhas: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I enjoy when conversations come full circle; it creates closure (I am often tempted to end a conversation as soon as we come full circle, regardless of whether it is over). The first and last examples of nonliteral Onkelos for Pinhas give us some of that, as we will see.

Our Gatherings, For Good and Ill

In the Torah’s list of the families of the Jewish people, 26;9 includes Datan and Aviram among the sons of Eliav, and then pauses to remind us they hitzu on Moshe and Aharon, were killed be-hatzotam against Gd. Rashi translates the verb as incited, they incited others to rebel against Moshe and Aharon’s leadership, the primary wrong the Torah highlights as the cause of their death penalty.

Onkelos instead has di itkenishube-itcanushhon, who gathered…when they gathered. A quick check shows Onkelos translates many verbs as kenosh—I found it for yikavu ha-mayim from Creation story, when Gd wants the water to gather (yikavu) to one place; when Noah is told to gather food for the time in the Ark (the Hebrew there is ve-asafta); and when the four and five kings go to war in Avraham’s time (the Torah has haveru).

For our case, Onkelos assumes their wrong was they themselves (and, perhaps, their loved ones) gathering against their leaders (and, by extension, Gd). For him, wrongful rebellion is enough to seal their fate, without any need to bring others into the picture.

The Proof of Yehoshu’a’s Fitness to Lead

Gd tells Moshe to appoint Yehoshu’a his successor, 27;20, ve-natata me-hodekha, give some of your splendor to him. The end of the verse tells Moshe the point of the ceremony is lema’an yishme’u, to foster the Jews’ obedience to Yehoshu’a when he takes over. Onkelos translates yishme’u, they will hear, as yekabbelun, they will accept or obey, a switch we saw and discussed back in Hayye Sara.

Here, look at his translation of hodekha as zivakh, your radiance, implying Moshe gave Yehoshu’a some of the divine light that had rubbed off on him in his time on Sinai. Where Rashi seems to think the ceremony would impress the Jews enough to follow Yehoshu’a, Onkelos pictures Yehoshu’a with a physical quality that would garner him the needed authority.

Rashi thinks people first followed Yehoshu’a on Moshe’s prestige, Onkelos thinks it happened because Moshe made him physically more impressive.

The Sacrifice of Shabbat on Shabbat

In its presentation of the sacrifices for various holidays, 28;10 mandates olat Shabbat be-Shabbato, the Shabbat burnt-offering (the Mussaf offering) on its Shabbat. The oddity of the phrasing led Rashi to say the Torah wanted to make clear we could not offer it on another Shabbat. Onkelos writes detit’eved be-Shabbata, that it be done on Shabbat, perhaps only supplying a missing (or assumed) word to the Hebrew.

ArtScroll brings up the view of Ha’Amek Davar, Onkelos wanted us to notice the Torah is mandating bringing a sacrifice on Shabbat despite the service requiring the kohen to act in ways ordinarily prohibited.  Not that remarkable, but it caught my attention because the Daf Yomi recently studied Shabbat 114a, where R. Yishma’el and R. Akiva debate what this verse teaches about whether the fats of offerings from Shabbat can be burned on the altar on Yom Tov or Yom Kippur. They agree that olat Shabbat be-Shabbat means there are circumstances where the sacrifice of Shabbat can be burned on another Shabbat-like day, but also be-Shabbato, only on its day.

Onkelos’ putting in de-tit’eved also focuses our attention on the question of when its being done, with him weighing in on the side of it being done on that Shabbat itself.

Two Kinds of Atzeret

28;26 refers to the holiday we call Shavu’ot as Yom Ha-Bikkurim, the day of bringing first fruits, and then adds be-Shavu’oteikhem, presumably your Weeks’ Festival. Onkelos writes be-Atzrateikhon, your atzeret (a word I’m going to leave untranslated for a moment). ArtScroll thinks Onkelos thought of Shavu’oteikhem as a reference to the name of the holiday, so he gave his Aramaic version, Atzeret. They think so because where the Torah calls it Hag Shavuot (Shemot 34;22), Onkelos translates haga de-shevu’aya, the Holiday of Weeks, so here, ArtScroll think Onkelos translated it as a name.

(Pesikta Zutrati thinks this was the source for the Talmud calling it Atzeret. That assumes Onkelos came first, and innovated the translation, where I think the Gemara sees Onkelos as reflecting the tradition of meaning he learned from his teachers, a sort of chicken or egg question.)

ArtScroll also assumes Atzeret means gathering (as in 29;35, the verse we will discuss next), and tells us HaKetav Ve-HaKabbalah thought the name referenced the Torah’s speaking of the day the Torah was given as Yom HaKahal, the Day of the Gathering. That last piece doesn’t seem clear, because Onkelos is writing this in a place where the Torah called the holiday Yom HaBikkurim, an agricultural aspect of the holiday, making it unclear why Onkelos would assume the Torah shifted gears to speaking of the giving of the Torah.

Also, if Atzeratekhon is the Aramaic word for gatherings, why does Onkelos translate the Torah’s word atzeret with a different word (as we will see in a moment)? The only other times I could find that Onkelos has the letters for atzeret in a word are when the Torah refers to a yekev, a wine vat.

I suggest, therefore, Onkelos thought Shavu’ot, as a name for a holiday, might indeed have meant atzeret in the sense of being held together, because the bikkurim, the first fruits, were the first step in bringing the produce of wine vats, making it a holiday of harvested produce in their various containers (different, I am claiming, than the atzeret of a group of people staying for longer than originally intended, as Rashi has it).

The Gathering Days

Shavu’ot was not a holiday Onkelos envisioned as gathering, I just argued, but he clearly thinks of Shemini Atzeret that way. 29;35 says the day should be an atzeret, a word he translates kenishin, assembling (Rashi had it as to restrain or stay over, an extra day to celebrate with Gd). The Torah also says this is lakhem, to you, where Vayikra 23;36 says atzeret hi, it is an atzeret.

ArtScroll thinks Onkelos was hinting at Pesahim 68b, we must make sure it’s a day of rejoicing for ourselves, not solely to Gd, an atzeret for us as wellUnfortunately for their suggestion, Onkelos translates the verse in Vayikra—atzeret tihyeh the same way, kenishin tehon. The extra lekhon in our verse directly translates a word in the verse, lakhem. The idea may be there, but it’s in the verse, not in Onkelos.

ArtScroll might have been noting the difference from Devarim 16;8, where the seventh day of Pesah is called an atzeret la-Shem Elokekha, and Onkelos has kenish kedom Hashem, a gathering before Gd. Onkelos might have thought the two holidays differed in that way (although the Gemara uses it to say half for you and half for Hashem on holidays in general), that Shemini Atzeret is kenishin tehon lekhon, where 7th day of Pesah is a kenish kodam Hashem.

Three of our five comments (including first and last, for closure) call for us to consider what it means to assemble. We started with Datan and Aviram’s going to their deaths for their wrongful assembly (rather than inciting others against Moshe and Aharon), saw how Onkelos uses the word Atzeret as a name for Shavu’ot, where he does not use that word where the Torah itself does, and viewed the atzeret days of holidays (on Pesah and Sukkot) as days to assemble, whether before Gd or for their own enjoyment.

With issues of inspiring followers and what can and cannot be offered on Shabbat in between.

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