The Necessity of a Tradition of Meaning: What Onkelos Taught Me About Translation

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In this space, I have spent the past year reviewing examples of where Onkelos strays from a literal reading of the text. It was a topic I came to when I one year chose to fulfill the requirement of shnayim mikra ve-ehad targum, reading the weekly portion twice in the original and once in translation, with the translation the rabbis of the Talmud named, Onkelos. (I until then used Rashi, because Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 285;2 accepted it as a valid alternative, absolving me of the struggle with my insufficient Aramaic. The time came when I thought I could do it).

I was surprised to find how often Onkelos did not simply render the simple meaning of the Hebrew words in Aramaic. I was especially surprised because I had in my head R. Yehuda’s declaration in Kiddushin 49a, Onkelos is the translation that neither presents the text overliterally nor adds to it inappropriately. I had thought that would mean Onkelos was a very spare effort, largely substituting Aramaic words for Hebrew ones.

My foray into five nonliteral comments a week has expanded my perspective of Onkelos, of the nature of translation, and of the lessons it teaches us about to feel comfortable reading Tanakh. I came to these realizations by rereading the columns on Onkelos; I invite you to do the same, but I will here offer my conclusions, without supporting examples. The trends I note here are ones I saw more than once, and thus seem to me to carry lessons about Onkelos as a whole.

Mea Culpa

First, I noticed prominent deficiencies of my own. I allowed way too many misspellings to slip through my editing process (I most decidedly do not simply write these and send them off, I reread them, work hard to correct typos. I just haven’t done it well enough. Nor can I make a good faith commitment to be better in the future, because I thought I was being good until now!). I also repeated myself more than I wanted, noting the same issue within Onkelos in different parshiyyot.

There’s a value to my limited memory, to how I approach each new parsha with only a vague recall of what I’ve done before, I hope. It keeps me fresh, lets me bring new eyes to the endeavor each time. What I noticed in reviewing them, though, was that it also meant I occasionally focused on a word or translation I had noted before, and forgot I had. Here again, while I doubt I will change significantly, I can express my regret for this mark on my record.

But I came here to discuss Onkelos and his lessons, so let’s do that.


I put the heading to this section in all-caps because Onkelos made such a point of it, it was almost as if he wanted to scream it from the rooftops. Here, I did remember the many times I came back to it, yet it seemed worth revisiting because it was so central to his translation. Scripture feels comfortable using metaphors that ascribe a physicality to Gd, but Onkelos “washed” his translation of them (except where he didn’t, always interesting occasions, telling us there he thought the metaphor was distinct enough from the Deity to be allowed). Early on in Jewish history, this uber-translator, whose reading of the Bible was accepted by the rabbis of the Talmud as the authoritative one, made the point repeatedly: Judaism completely rejects the idea of physicality to Gd. When  Rambam felt the need to make the point again at length, centuries later, in his Guide for the Perplexed, he had solid traditional foundation.

The Difficulties of Metaphor and Synonyms

Onkelos also betrayed a discomfort with metaphor more generally, frequently translated it in such a way to make its implications more explicit, unpacked it for his readers. In most of these cases, he did not read the metaphor in any unusual way, but his choice to make the metaphor’s intention explicit tells us he saw his role as showing Aramaic readers what the Torah meant, staying as close as he could to its original words, rather than just turning those words into Aramaic.

The same concern explains why he sometimes translated several synonyms with one word in Aramaic, as well as occasions where he translated the same Biblical word with different Aramaic ones. The problem could have been a mismatch between the lexicons of the two languages, Aramaic perhaps not an exact match for a particular word, or not having enough synonyms for a concept as in Hebrew, leaving him to reuse the one word that came closest. Too, when he used different words for one Hebrew one, there was perhaps no one Aramaic word with all the same possible connotations.

Or—and I was able to show this was true on at least some occasions—Onkelos was less interested in exact translation than in clarity. To me, that also explained the occasional anachronisms, where Onkelos translated an idea in ways that portrayed the scene to his readers, even if it used elements likely not true of Biblical times. Sometimes the language was the problem, and sometimes the clarity was the problem.

Onkelos Knew the Oral Tradition

These pieces all come together with the last element I want to note here: Onkelos occasionally interpreted a verse with an idea not in the text at all, but well known to us from Talmudic sources (he predated the Talmud, we should recall). It provides a nice demonstration of the age of such ideas, how they didn’t develop in the Gemara, they were recorded in the Gemara, since Onkelos already had them.

His inserting ideas from an oral tradition tells me he saw his job as providing the Aramaic reader with a text that would convey to him (and, nowadays, her) what the Torah meant. He had no pretense, perhaps no interest, in the Aramaic reader being able to say s/he had read exactly what the Torah said, just in Aramaic, only that s/he had been given a good idea of what the Torah wanted us to understand.

It leaves me with two thoughts, one narrow and one broad. There is some discussion in halakhah about the possibility of using translations to fulfill religious obligatons (one may hear the Megillah on Purim in any language one understands, for example). Onkelos shows us how difficult it is to produce a translation we could imagine being confident qualified as a fulfillment of the mitzvah. It must be possible, but it would be hard.

You Can’t Read the Torah Without Tradition

The bigger lesson stems from my own experience arguing with people who object to Hazal’s readings of the Torah (and those of other traditional commentaries) as not literal enough. In their reading—and high school Biblical Hebrew, often—the Torah clearly meant x, so it bothers them tradition “twisted” the text, as it were.

It’s a problem my teacher, R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, helped me understand when I was nineteen years old. He pointed out all texts need context, a fact we forget in English because we swim naturally in the context of most texts we encounter. For Torah, Onkelos makes clear to us, the context is the oral tradition, and reading the Torah without it might count as reading in some sense, but not in the sense the Torah meant it.

No doubt there’s much more, but that’s what came to me this time around.

About Gidon Rothstein

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