Re’eh: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Torah informs the Jews there will eventually be a central place of worship, the only proper place to bring sacrifices. It calls it the place Gd will choose la-sum et Shemo sham, to place His Name there, le-Shikhno tidreshu, you shall seek His Presence (the English translations render this differently, but not in a way that makes Onkelos more literal or plainsense).

The Presence as a Non-Physical But Non-Approachable Aspect of Gd

Onkelos writes le-ashra’ah Shekhintei taman, to rest His Presence there, for the first clause, where the Torah referred to placing His Name, as it were. Then, when the Torah itself speaks of seeking or looking for Shikhno, Onkelos writes beit Shekhintei, the House of Gd’s Presence. It gives us a chace to consider Onkelos’ idea of Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

If he is willing to envision the Shekhinah as what is meant by Gd placing His Name in a building, it apparently does not violate his resistance to seeing any physicality in Gd. Yet when the Torah tells us to seek the Shekhinah, he is only willing to go as far as having it mean to go to the place it resides. Gd can “place” the Shekhinah, but people cannot go looking for the Shekhinah.

Other verses confirm Onkelos sees Shekhinah as an aspect of Gd we can speak of as ensconcing among the people. For one example, Bamidbar 35;34 warns against defiling the Land in which Gd is shokhen, “for I am Gd, shokhen amidst the Children of Israel.” In both cases, Onkelos writes Shekhinti sharya, in the Land and among the people.

The completely non-physical Gd has some kind of Presence or representation we can properly say resides among the Jewish people, resides in the Land, and in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. At the same time, it seems people cannot approach that Presence, can at most seek out the House where it is present.

Bilti Means In Order Not To

The Torah prohibits Jews from eating blood, 12;23. The phrasing seems to think the resistance itself takes strength, as the verse says rak hazak le-vilti akhol ha-dam. The English translations I saw render rak hazak, literally “only be strong,” as I would have, in not eating the blood,

Onkelos writes lehod tekef, just be strong, bedil de-la le-mekhal dema, so as to not eat the blood. I perhaps noticed it more than I would have because two verses later, the Torah says not to eat the blood le-ma’an yitav lakh, so that it be good for you, and Onkelos has bedil, the same word. Upon further investigation, I found Onkelos regularly translates bilti as bedil, so thatsuch as in Bereshit 3;11, 4;15, and 19;21. He also uses bedil for other words; aside from le-ma’an, I found be-sha-gam, Bereshit 6;3, ba’avur, Bereshit 8;21, and biglalBereshit 30;26 (and I stopped looking).

Bedil is a multipurpose word for Onkelos, referring to causation, so that, and tells he thought bilti doesn’t mean “not,” it means “so that not.”

Resident and Alien Non-Jews

14;21 tells Jews not to eat nevelah, meat from an animal that died without proper slaughter. Instead, they should give it to a ger or sell it to a nokhri. Onkelos translates ger as totav arel, an uncircumcised resident, a ger toshav. He reads the word the same way in Vayikra 25;47, where the verse first refers to ger ve-toshav, a stranger and a resident, and then to ger toshav, a resident alien. Onkelos has arel ve-totav and then totav arel, meaning he takes ger on its own to mean arel, an uncircumcised non-Jew, and toshav on its own as a resident.

For the contrast of ger to nokhri, Onkelos assumes the ger is not any uncircumcised non-Jew, perhaps because we would wonder why the Torah wants us to give the nevelah to him where we can sell it to a nokhri. If the uncircumcised non-Jew is a resident, we understand better.

In the second half of the verse, he says a nokhri is bar amemin, a member of the nations, a translation he gives again in 15;3, about collecting loans after the shemittah year. It only becomes a little surprising when we remember the Torah three times refers to a ben nekhar, a son of strangers (or foreigners), and Onkelos two of those times also translates it as bar amemin. (The one exception, Shemot 12;43, has Onkelos in line with the Talmudic tradition that when the Torah prohibited a ben nekhar from eating the Pesah sacrifice, it meant a Jew who had left the religion. That’s a really nonliteral translation with all sorts of interesting ramifications for how the Jewish people could have a Korban Pesah in the future—imagine a belief/practice test to be part of a Pesah!)

Fundamentally, Onkelos shows us gradations of non-Jews and our relationship with them. There are strangers, members of completely other nations, and then there are residents, with whom we are closer despite their continuing to be uncircumcised, to have refrained from joining the Jewish people.

Tradition, Tradition

The end of that verse says not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. The phrase appears three times in the Torah, traditionally read as about aspects of the prohibition of basar be-halav, meat cooked in milk. The surprise here is that Onkelos writes just that, lo teikhelun basar be-halav, do not eat meat in milk.

It is almost completely nonliteral, and ignores the Gemara’s various inferences as to why it is written three times (so, e.g., the Gemara thinks one prohibits cooking meat this way, one eating it that way, and one any benefit, yet Onkelos translates all three exactly the same). He also writes basar be-halav, when even I know the Aramaic word for meat is bisra, a word Onkelos uses twenty times that I found in a quick search.

I think Onkelos wanted us to know the correct way to read the phrase was to relate it to the prohibition of basar be-halav, a prohibition so widely known by that name, it was the correct way to represent it even in an Aramaic translation. It does again show us the flaw in thinking of Onkelos as a literal translator, because here, the most correct translation abandoned the words written in the text for their truest rendering.

The Miracles Were Essential

The first verse in chapter sixteen tells us to keep/guard the spring month and offer a Pesah sacrifice, for in that month Gd took us out of Egypt layla, at night. Here, Onkelos inserts words that radically change the meaning of the verse. For the Hebrew phrase hotziakha Hashem Elokekha mi-Mitrayim layla, literally your Gd took you out of Egypt at night, Onkelos writes apekakh Hashem Elakakh mi-Mitzrayim, your Gd took you out of Egypt, va-aved lakh nisin be-lelya, and performed miracles for you at night.

He may have made the change because Gd did not physically remove us from Egypt until the next day. Once again, though, he sees his endeavor as something other than recording the Torah’s words in Aramaic—he is there to render the Torah’s words in an intelligible way. Here, the Jews did not leave at night, so the Torah must have meant the miracles paving the way for their leaving, and those did happen at night.

parsha of parsing, as I found it, the Shekhina as an aspect of Gd, bilti as a word with causation implied, varying kinds of non-Jews, and the real meaning of phrases that cannot mean what they sound like they mean.

About Gidon Rothstein

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