Parshiyot Matot-Masei: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos: Parshat Matot

Many Roads Lead to Nullification

Parshat Matot opens with some laws of nedarim, oaths. A man who takes an oath must not desecrate it, the Torah tells us at 30;3, using the word yahel for ‘desecrate’ yahel, to make hullin, ordinary or mundane. Onkelos writes la yevatel, he must not annul the oath (by violating it).

I might have ignored the switch, except verses later (30;9), the Torah speaks of a husband’s right to dispense certain vows of his wife’s. There, the Torah uses the word ve-hefer, translated by ArtScroll and Sefaria as annul. Onkelos again uses u-vatal, the same root as before, annul.

That’s two words Onkelos translated with the same Aramaic verb; my Bar Ilan tells me he has many others. Many times the Torah uses the root of shabbat, to rest or cease, Onkelos puts in a form of batel. For example, after the Flood, Bereshit 8;22, Gd decides yomam va-layla lo yishbotu, day and night will never again cease, and Onkelos employs the batel root. So, too, Par’oh protests Moshe and Aharon’s giving the people a reason to work less, Shemot 5;5, ve-hishbatem otam mi-sivlotam, for Onkelos again a matter of tevatelun.

The discussion between Par’oh and Moshe highlights Onkelos’ use of batel for multiple purposes. Before the shavat verb, 5;4 has him ask Moshe and Aharon lamah…tafri’iu, why would you interrupt or distract them, and Onkelos again has tevatelun; then, when the Jews complain to Par’oh about harsher work conditions, he says, 5;8, ki nirpim hem, they are shirkers (Sefaria) or lazy ( Onkelos has batlanin, and a verse later, when Par’oh tells them not to be involved with divrei shaker, false matters, Onkelos writes pitgamin batalin, words that are null and/or void.

The concern with hishbatem in Shemot also calls our attention to the many times Onkelos translates a use of that root as batel. Tashbitu regarding the slaves meant to have them cease their work; the verb can also refer to removing items from one’s presence, such as where Shemot 12;15 obligates removing all yeast and dough from one’s house for Pesah, Vayikra 2;13 warns against letting the salt cease from sacrifices (lo yashbit melah), Vayikra 26;6 promises to remove all destructive animals from Israel when the Jews act well, and Devarim 32;26, where Hashem threatens to remove the Jews’ memory from humanity. In all those cases, Onkelos has the appropriate conjugation of batel.

Shavat struck me in particular, I guess, because we think of it in terms of Shabbat, the day of rest, and in those contexts (such as the beginning of the second chapter of Bereshit), Onkelos translates it as we would expect, with shavat as nah, rested, in Bereshit, and in the Aseret Ha-Dibberot as shabbata, the name of the day.

Onkelos does not stop there, though. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Shemot 32;25, Moshe sees the people are paru’a, either running wild or out of control (English translations), or exposed in their sinfulness, according to Rashi. There, again, Onkelos has batil. And Bamidbar 6;12 tells us if a nazir’s observance is interrupted by contact with the impurity associated with corpses, the first days yippelu, will fall away. Onkelos has yevatelun.

Twice in our parsha, and many, many times elsewhere, Onkelos trusts batel to do the work of a range of words the Torah uses, shows the word to be highly useful, not batel at all.

The Vengeance or Retribution, of Gd or of the Nation

In the next chapter31;2, Gd tells Moshe to raise an army to nekom nikmat benei Yisrael, take the Jewish people’s vengeance on the Midianites (for their role instigating the Ba’al Pe’or tragedy). Onkelos writes itpera puranut, exact retribution, punishment rather than vengeance. ArtScroll writes: “…the root nakom…in the context of human relationships, Onkelos translates with the same root…When it is used with regard to Hashem…Onkelos uses para…since Hashem is not subject to anything like the human feelings of revenge; rather, His Attribute of Justice exacts retribution for a person’s sins (Parshegen to Vayikra 26;25). Here, Onkelos uses…retribution since the punishment of the Midyanites was at Hashem’s command and ultimately for His honor (emphasis added).

Verse 3 does say the army will be latet nikmat Hashem, to mete out Hashem’s vengeance or, perhaps more accurately, retribution. Unfortunately for ArtScroll, Onkelos there writes ama da-Shem, the people of Gd, inserting the word ‘people’ where it does not appear in the text (because, of course, Onkelos would not speak so directly of Gd as to ascribe vengeance), thus turning our attention back to the Jewish people. I accept ArtScroll’s distinction between pur’anut and nekamah; their attempt to ascribe it to Gd’s involvement here seems to fail, however, because Onkelos himself thinks it is the pur’anut of the Jewish people, in both verses.

I suggest Onkelos was making the distinction in the human realm, too. Sometimes we punish others out of revenge, a baser motive, where other times we seek appropriate retribution, to right a wrong by punishing the perpetrator. Onkelos was sure Moshe was told to have an army do the latter (and thinks the word nakam in Biblical Hebrew can be either), to take the Jewish people’s retribution, not vengeance, from the Midianites, letting us know it is possible to punish without it revealing a base desire for revenge.

Moshe’s Burial Place

32;3 lists the places the tribes of Gad and Reuven told Moshe and Elazar they wanted for their share of the Land of Israel, on the east side of the Jordan. Onkelos does not parrot the names of the places (as he does with people’s names, for example), he gives other words. I noticed he translates Nevo as bet kevureta de-Moshe, the burial place of Moshe, odd because Moshe has yet to be buried.

ArtScroll thinks the tribe of Gad chose the plot knowing Moshe would be buried there (an idea from  Devarim 33;21, where Moshe says about them, ki sham helkat mehokek safun, with both Onkelos and Rashi saying Gad chose their part of the Land because  they knew it would contain Moshe’s grave). Could be, but Onkelos is assuming the name Nevo means that. Unless (as ArtScroll assumes from the other translations of place names), Onkelos gave a characteristic of the places for readers to know about it (an idea I once glancingly noted earlier in this series).

It raises an old philosophical question about the role of names, whether they capture an aspect of an item or place, or are just words that come to be attached as an identifier. Onkelos here would rather ignore the name and give an identifier, thought “the place of Moshe’s burial” had more meaning for his readers than Nevo.

parsha of especial focus on the meanings of words: the many Hebrew words that mean batel or some version of it to Onkelos, the meaning of the Jews’ war against the Midianites, to punish on Gd’s behalf or on their own, and the meaning of a place name, Nevo.


Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos: Parshat Mas’ei

Precipitating Punishment—Causes Near and Far

Let’s pick up where we left off, with how Onkelos translates a place name, considering the two portions are read together this year. Mas’ei lists the stops on the Jews’ forty-year journey, one of them (33;16) called Kivrot Ha-Ta’avah. Onkelos translates what seems to be a phrase meaning “The Graves of Desire,” as kivrei de-mishalei, The Graves of Those Who Requested.

It’s an issue I could and maybe should have discussed earlier. In 11;4, the Torah described the asafsuf, the hangers-on who came out of Egypt with the Jews, as hit’avu ta’ava, cultivated a craving. Onkelos there wrote sha’ilu she’elta, ArtScroll says made a request. The different construction of what happened leads to a changed place name, kivrei de-mish’alei. (As with batel that we saw in Matot, Onkelos translates ta’avah, desire, according to context, and I have decided not to track it here.)

ArtScroll has the explanation of Lechem VeSimlah, Onkelos saw their sin in challenging whether Gd could provide food (a view helped by Tehillim 78; 18-19, where they are portrayed as questioning the possibility, being unsure of Gd’s ability to provide food).

I find the idea not fully satisfying, because ta’avah still usually means desire, and Onkelos seems to ignore it. I wonder whether he took the ta’avah of the verse as referring to the underlying cause of their eventual request. Just as the Aseret Ha-Dibberot prohibits hemdah, coveting, perhaps Onkelos read the Torah to have identified the underlying cause of their request, their cultivated desire for some other food.

I am suggesting the Torah named the sin and place by its root cause, the desire, where Onkelos named it by the sin that brought the situation to a head. He might have made that choice to simplify the situation, or because he wanted his readers to be aware that Gd punishes actions, in general, not the first steps towards wrongdoing.

Cleansing Israel of Idolatry

Gd asks Moshe to remind the Jews of how to conduct themselves when they arrive in Israel, including (33;52) destroying maskiyotam, a word ArtScroll follows Rashi in translating as prostration stones, the stones idolaters put down on the floors, in order to bow to their gods. (English translations I saw thought maskiyotam meant molten images, a distinction unimportant for our purposes here, because Onkelos goes in another direction).

Onkelos writes beit segadatehon, houses of prostration (or molten images, for those other translations). ArtScroll directs us to Vayikra 26;1 as if Onkelos there matches what he writes here; except there the Torah prohibits Jews from having an even maskit in their places of worship, and Onkelos writes even sagada, a prostration stone, a conventional translation.

It leaves me to wonder whether Onkelos thought maskiyotam had to be more than just the stone, because the Torah clearly knows how to refer to the stone itself when that is its concern.

Alternatively, he might have thought the Torah was invested in Jews’ being fully rid of relics of idolatry. Where it came to importing some of their practices, even just the stone was a problem, let alone the whole house; when it came to destroying what they had built, he took the Torah to insist we wipe out the framework, not only the specific stone where the people bowed and prayed to the neon (or whatever material) gods they made.

When I Don’t Even Know What the Torah Means

I’ve known for a bunch of years the Gemara defines the basic obligation of Torah study as Mikra, knowing the text of the Torah. It was mortifying for me to notice 33;55, where the Torah warns the Jews to eradicate the Canaanite nations, lest they be le-sikim be-einekhem ve-litzninim be-tzideikhem, pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides.

Onkelos has le-si’an natelan zeyan…u-limshiryan makefanekhon, squads who take weapons to battle…and camps that surround you. ArtScroll says Onkelos is just unpacking the metaphor, making clear the way in which the Canaanites would be pins and thorns, that they would continue to fight against us.

If so, it’s a comment on the politics of having a subjugated people live with you, the expectation it will not work out well, will lead to years of guerilla warfare. Rambam seems to think it could work, as long as they agree to servitude and tribute, their subservience (and commitment to the Noahide laws) enough evidence of their sincere acceptance of how life has gone.

It’s certainly nonliteral, but in a way we have seen before, Onkelos clarifies metaphors. I paused to notice it because always thought they would be spiritual pins in our eyes and thorns in our sides, letting them live amongst us would lead to friendships and our absorbing their values. I guess not.

Non-Domesticated Animals in the Human Realm

The Torah requires the cities of the Levi’im to have a migrash, an open area around them, for vehemtam and kol hayyatam. Rashi takes the first word to refer to all their animals, behemah a general word, and then hayyatam to mean all their living needs. Onkelos splits the words into two types of animals be’irehon, according to ArtScroll animals (maybe cattle is a better translation) and heivatehon, their (other) beasts.

It’s a pairing the Torah has in other places, like Bereshit 2;20, where behemah is grouped with hayyat ha-sadeh. It seems to separate animals into domesticated ones, like cattle, and other beasts (since they might come from the fields). It suggests the Levi’im (and maybe all people of those times) had a regular relationship with hayyat ha-sadeh, nondomesticated animals, and the migrash, the open area around the cities was for all sorts of wildlife to flourish.

The Blood Avenger Killing a Murderer

35;9 begins the parsha’s presentation of arei miklat, the cities of refuge, for someone who kills another without intention [for anyone who does not know: I wrote two novels set in the time of a future Bet HaMikdash, the first a murder mystery, Murderer in the Mikdash, where arei miklat appear prominently; the second was published in April, The Making of the Messiah, 2048, available at Amazon, or KTAV). The Torah expects a go’el ha-dam, a relative whose role is to avenge (in the sense of proper retribution) the blood of the victim; to avoid death, the murderer would flee to an ir miklat, where the court would decide his/her fate. Should the court determine the murderer knew what s/he was doing, committed capital murder, s/he was to be put to death.

Verse nineteen tells us the go’el ha-dam would execute the murderer, and adds the phrase, be-fig’o bo hu yemitenu, upon encounter, when they meet. Onkelos instead writes kad ithayyav lei min dina, when he is deemed liable to him [the Avenger] by judgment. ArtScroll says Onkelos wanted to bring the verse in line with halakhah, wanted to avoid any implication the go’el ha-dam had free reign to kill the murderer by he himself deciding the murderer deserved it.

It does not explain how Onkelos saw the words be-fig’o bo as referring to a court verdict. I think ArtScroll is suggesting be-fig’o bo means he is deemed liable to the avenger, but it’s not clear to me the court does deem him liable to the avenger, even if the avenger executes the judgment (as Rambam has it, although Ramban disagrees, as ArtScroll notes).

I wonder whether Onkelos thought be-fig’o bo meant the murderer’s having killed the victim, in a liable way, ithayyev lei min dina, the court will determine he is liable to the victim, and the go’el ha-dam is then acting on behalf of the victim.

Closing out the book of Bamidbar, as we say hazak, hazak, ve-nithazek, we can hope we are granted the strength to know when to nullify what (as in Parshat Matot), and how to make sure we cleanse ourselves of any worship of powers other than Gd, that we might not risk the kinds of punishments we saw referred to in some of the comments of Onkelos we studied here.

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