Ki Teitzei: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Discipline of Words or of Blows

Early in the parsha, we meet parents’ worst nightmare, the ben sorer u-moreh, the son who rejects their parenting and embarks on a life of hedonistic pleasures, illicitly gained. In the process of verifying the boy is beyond reach, 21;18 tells us ve-yiseru oto, they will discipline him, and he will not listen to them.

Onkelos translates ve-yiseru as malfan yatei, will teach him, as if tesching is a form of discipline. (Rashi thinks ve-yiseru means to warn him in front of three judges, then give him malkot, lashes, should he repeat his crimes.)

A chapter later, 22;18, the Torah tells us of a man who maligns his new wife, claiming she committed adultery. After her father proves his claims baseless, the verse tells us the court will take him, ve-yiseru oto, the same words as before. Here, Onkelos writes ve-yalkun yatei, will administer lashes to him.

Let’s grant both translations are plausible, yiseru can mean to teach or to give lashes. One way to get there would be to read the word as “discipline,” as English translations of 21;18 had it. If so, it would suggest the proper discipline of the young boy would be teaching, where a man falsely accusing his wife would be best taught by lashes.

When I was starting out in the synagogue rabbinate, I had a lay leader who always thought problems in the synagogue were  a matter of education, we just had to educate the community better. Had I known Onkelos then, I would have shown him he disagreed, that young people were often best disciplined through education, but older people’s discipline has a component of force to it, as their way to learn.

Clothing Makes the Woman

The Torah prohibits cross-dressing, men working to look like women, women trying to look like men. (An example of an issue the Torah already knew but people today try to treat as if we are the first to truly understand). Verse 22;5 says lo yihyeh kheli gever al isha, ve-lo yilbash gever simlat isha.

The English translations I saw treat the two halves of the verse the same, as if the Torah said a man should not wear a woman’s clothing, nor a woman a man’s clothing. In fact, the Torah prohibited a woman from wearing kheli gever, the utensils of a man. Onkelos seems to strive to maintain the distinction, writing tikkun zin, which I think means the outfittings of a man, in the sense of all he would wear on his person, not just clothing. For a woman’s simlah, Onkelos has tikkunei itteta, her needs (or her clothing needs),

I think Onkelos read kheli to mean a man’s outfit was about more than his specific clothing, to include tools of his trade, where for women it was the clothing itself.

Getting Rid of the Sinners Gets Rid of the Sins

22:21, 22, and 24 and 24;7 speak of u-vi’arta ha-ra, eradicate the evil. Onkelos each time (in the preceding two parashiyyot as well) has u-te-falei aveid de-vish, you will get rid of the evildoer. We can read his emendation minimally, he is making clear to readers how the Torah wanted the Jews to accomplish the removal of evil, through judging and punishing the sinner. We have seen other examples, where he clarifies a metaphor, brings it to the brass tacks of reality.

I wonder whether he might also be highlighting that sin comes from sinners, and the way to rid a society of sin is by getting rid of the sinners (as opposed to the famous story of Beruria, who prayed for sins to go away rather than sinners; Onkelos would be understanding the Torah to be saying sometimes the sinners are the ones who must go).

Different Kinds of Entry

23;2-4 discusses categories of men prohibited from marrying ordinary Jewish women, for a variety of reasons (damaged genitalia or illegitimate ancestry of varying forms). The verses phrase the prohibition as lo yavo bi-kehal Hashem . such a man shall not enter the congregation of Gd (by marrying a Jewish woman).

Onkelos has lo yedakei, which I think is from dekhei, to be purified, or (by being declared pure in the sense of eligible) admitted or privileged for entry. The Torah seemed to focus on the fact of entry as the problem, seemed interested in the necessity of opposing such marriages, finding a way to end them should they occur.

Onkelos instead turns our attention to the original declaration of propriety, deciding the man is permitted to enter. We could once again see the matter instrumentally, the way to avoid such marriages is by refusing to certify the man’s right to marry. At the same time, he seems to me to be highlighting the role of the community in fostering or forestalling such marriages, by their consent. It’s consent the community has the most power over, and what they are primarily required to withhold.

Later in the chapter, 23;25-6, the Torah uses the verb of bi’ah, entering, where the verse speaks of ki tavo to kerem or kamat re’ekha, your fellow’s vineyard or field of standing grain. Onkelos has titagar, which I think is the hitpa’el form of tagar, according to Jastrow (waiting on you, ArtScroll!) to travel or trade. 24;10 prohibits a lender from going into the borrower’s house to take a collateral, pledge, or pawn. The Torah says lo tavo, and Onkelos translates with lo te’ol, do not enter (as he did in 22;13, where the verb clearly meant to engage in marital relations).

For Onkelos, Biblical entry is contextual, connotation as important as denotation.

Finances Can Be Life or Death

On the topic of collateral, the Torah had prohibited taking the borrower’s handmill or upper millstone, 24;6, ki nefesh hu hovel, a phrase Sefaria renders as would be taking someone’s life as pawn (other translations have, taking his living). I originally thought Onkelos takes that latter view, writing arei behon, for by them, mit’aved mezon le-khol nefesh, the person makes food for all souls, except as I read it again, I think he means because these are tools of making food—for whomever, and I think his implication might be the Torah does not want them sitting idle as a pawn or pledge. Where the verse sounds like the problem is damage to the borrower, Onkelos might mean it is the damage to the general food supply (an issue Americans were forced to encounter more than usual during this pandemic, from which we pray Hashem releases us soon, even as we hope we all will have the wisdom to act as Hashem is guiding us towards acting).

Regardless, another interesting element of Onkelos’ version is the change from the beginning of the verse. The Torah wrote lo yahavol, don’t take as collateral, and reasoned it as a matter of nefesh hu hovel, he is taking a life. The easiest reading of lo yahavol and hu hovel has them as sharing a root, havol. For Onkelos, the lo yahavol was lo tisav mashkona, don’t take a collateral, and then he switched to taking nefesh hu hovel as denying food to people.  The verbs look alike, but have different meanings for Onkelos.

Ki Tetsei, as we saw it through the eyes of select comments of Onkelos’, taught us about the nature of discipline, for children and for evildoers in society at large, a difference between men and women, multiple modes of entry, and the importance of the food chain.

About Gidon Rothstein

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