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    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)

    onkelos on the torahONKELOS ON THE TORAH: UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE TEXT (5 vols.)
    Eds. Israel Drazin & Stanley M Wagner
    Gefen Publishing House, 2011

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple. An edited version of the review was published in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 42, no. 1, January-March 2014.

    Targum Onkelos has long awaited a full translation into English. Israel Drazin and Stanley M Wagner (henceforth: DW) have now filled the gap by means of five handsomely produced volumes published by Gefen. Other literary classics – the Bible, Mishnah, Babylonian Talmud, Midrash Rabbah and Zohar – were rendered into English decades ago. However, several desiderata remained, including the Targum of Onkelos. There is a theory that the Soncino Press declined to translate the Shulchan Aruch for fear that it might make every ignoramus into a posek (halachic decisor), but why they did not turn their attention to Targum Onkelos is not known, especially in view of the rabbinic dictum that everyone should study the Targum on the weekly Torah portion (TB Ber. 8a-b). As a major classical text, the Targum made the Chumash morashah kehillat Ya’akov, “an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4), for an Aramaic-speaking audience that knew little Hebrew, a problem already recognised in the Book of Nehemiah (13:24; cf. BT Meg. 3a and Rashi to BT Meg. 21b).

    An English version of Onkelos was projected to accompany the translation of Rashi which was prepared by Silbermann and Rosenbaum in association with Blashki and Joseph in the 1920s and 30s, but the Targum project did not proceed. The publisher Ktav produced volumes on Onkelos some years ago, but the present work is in a class of its own. It is probably the most solid and comprehensive edition of the Targum ever published and will rehabilitate Onkelos for the modern age. Apart from the general Introduction to the series, each volume has the Torah text in Hebrew, the Targum in Aramaic, an English translation of the Targum, a page-by-page commentary, an appendix with additional notes, a section of Onkelos highlights and discussion points, and the Hebrew text of the haftarot with a translation of their Aramaic Targumim. The English is elegant. It is a pleasure to see a Torah work that is not in yeshivish. The font, layout and binding are attractive, and the books are a pleasure to handle.

    Though the Targum is attributed to Onkelos, his identity – if indeed he existed – remains a mystery, despite the best efforts of DW and other Targumists. Tradition (BT Meg. 3a etc.) said he was a proselyte, the son of a wealthy heathen from Asia Minor, and surrounded his name with legends that made the Targum romantic regardless of its contents. Folk tradition identified him with Aquilas, the 2nd century translator of the Pentateuch into Greek. It thought the name Onkelos was an attempt to render Aquila (Akilas) into Hebrew (in spite of the orthographical problem of replacing ayin with aleph), and believed that Aquila sought to prove his Jewish loyalties by producing an Aramaic Chumash in addition to his Greek translation (Gen. R. 70:5). In TJ Meg.71c, the rabbis eulogistically applied to Aquila the verse, “You are finer than (other) people” (Psalm 45:3), though the reference is probably to his translation into Greek (“the fine language”). It is possible that when the Aramaic translation became widely known it was colloquially spoken of as in the Aquila/Onkelos style.

    DW touch on the legends but stick to scholarship. They separate the Aquila and Onkelos translations and conclude that little can be said with certainty about who produced the Targum that tradition associated with Onkelos. Because it uses tannaitic midrashim redacted about 400 CE, they posit that the work could not have come from an earlier date. They see in it the literary-philosophical stance of Rabbi Ishmael as against that of Rabbi Akiva (the contrast between the Ishmael and Akiva principles of interpretation is well spelled out in the Introduction to the Exodus volume). Nonetheless they do not satisfactorily explain why Talmudic passages deriving from earlier than 400 speak of targum didan – “our Targum” (BT Kidd. 49a) and have so many references to Targum. The phrase, “our Targum”, recognises that there were many targumim – some dating back to Second Temple times (TB Shab. 115a; cf. Soferim 5:15), some partial in scope, some relatively complete – against which Onkelos (if that is what is meant by targum didan) appears to been the “authorised” version. Targum notes must have circulated for centuries, especially amongst the meturgemanim, the synagogue officials who expounded the formal Torah portions in Aramaic (TB Pes. 50b, Kidd. 49a, Mishnah Meg. ch.4). There was, however, opposition to committing targumic renderings to writing, for fear that people would think them as sacred as the Torah text itself (BT Meg. 32a). All this is evidence that targumic material developed long before the year 400 and many people must have had a hand in producing it. DW could have said more about the existence of schools of translators, which shows that “our” Targum was not composed by any one individual. The real question is who (an individual? a group?) redacted Onkelos, not who wrote it. For the sake of convenience, however, DW constantly speak of the targumist, a usage followed in this review even though it may be that Onkelos as such never existed or there were a number of “Onkeloses”. The rabbinic sages thought – against the linguistic and other evidence – that Ezra authored all or most of the Targum but it was forgotten or lost over the centuries, until Onkelos, whoever he was, reformulated it in the 2nd century.

    The Introduction to Exodus, the first volume to appear in the DW series, as well as the more extensive Introduction to Genesis, analyse the literary and ideological methodology of the Targum in an attempt to delineate its relationship to the Bible. It is a solid and helpful analysis and ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the subject. Already in the 1870s, a similar attempt was made by Nathan Marcus Adler in his Hebrew commentary, Netinah LaGer – “A Gift to the Proselyte”: the name is a play on the author’s first name and the tradition that Onkelos was a proselyte. It is said, however, that Adler had chassidic detractors who called his book Nevelah LaGer – “Carrion for the Proselyte” (Deut. 14:21). But DW render obsolete some of Adler’s views, for example that Aquilas and Onkelos were one and the same, that Onkelos rediscovered and wrote down the Targum, that the work follows the tradition of Rabbi Akiva, and that it was addressed to the scholar more than the common reader.

    As indicated above, the translation by DW is careful and stylish, avoiding two extremes – obfuscation on the one hand, and over-simplification on the other – though here and there one can quibble with their choice of words. An instance is Gen. 1:2, where Onkelos renders tohu vavohu as tzadya verekanya, translated by DW as “unformed and empty” when “desolate” might be better than “unformed”. MD Goldman suggested, on the basis of Arabic roots, that the phrase indicates brightness and desert, though this does not accord with the Targum version.

    One has to say that DW’s work has a major drawback. Sometimes the English does not match the Aramaic text printed on the facing column – a problem which could have been avoided had the editors decided on an Aramaic version and insisted that the English match the Aramaic text. They say, “The Aramaic text upon which our translation, commentary and appendices are based relies upon Abraham Berliner, Targum Onkelos (Berlin, 1884) and Alexander Sperber, The Bible in Aramaic (EJ Brill, 1959). For technical reasons, the Onkelos text in this volume is from a different source. Hence, the reader will find discrepancies on a number of occasions”. This is just not good enough. The “technical reasons” they mention seem to have been decided on by the publisher, but they detract from the reader’s enjoyment. A detailed comment is made below about a leading example (deriving from Gen. 48:22) of this confusion.

    It is also confusing to find that the notes that begin on the left-hand page, beneath the translation, move to the right-hand page and then resume on the next left-hand page, leaving the reader unsure of where to go.

    When people study Rashi’s commentary, they tend to ask, “What was bothering Rashi?” Likewise, DW must have asked themselves many times, “What bothered Onkelos that made him change the Torah text?” Fortunately they generally, but not always, succeed in finding a possible explanation. It is well known that Onkelos’ work is not a mere literal translation of the Hebrew text, though this would already have merited a dayyenu (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is much freer), but in many instances it takes the liberty of altering – even re-writing – the Bible for the sake of a philosophical or literary purpose. An example from the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) is Gen. 22:14, on which DW remark, “Onkelos rewrites the entire verse… seven changes are made”, the main purpose being to remove anthropomorphisms. Sometimes the purpose of rewriting is the achievement of clarity. An example of an interpolation that makes the text clearer is Gen. 1:14, where uleyamim veshanim becomes in Onkelos ulmimnei vehon yomin ushenin, “for counting days and years”. Another example is Ex. 20:1, where beit avadim, literally “house of slaves”, becomes beit avduta, “house of servitude”.

    Rabbinic interpretations are incorporated in the text, e.g. in Ex. 20:5 “God visits the guilt of the fathers upon the rebellious children (benin maradin) who continue to sin as their fathers”. In Ex. 20:13, lo tignov, normally translated simply “you shall not steal”, some Onkelos texts add nefesh (“a person”), giving the meaning of “you shall not kidnap”. In Lev. 19:32, sevah, “the hoary head”, becomes desavar ba’oraita, “those who are aged in Torah” (not necessarily in years). Several times (e.g. Ex. 23:19) the Bible says lo tevashel gedi bachalev immo, “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”; this becomes la techlun besar bachalav, “you should not eat meat in (or, with) milk”. At times a post-Biblical flavour is given to a word, e.g. Lev. 19:10, where la-ger, “for the stranger”, becomes legiyyurei, “for converts” (similarly in verse 34; cf. Ex.20:10). Onkelos is a lover of Zion, as we see from Num. 24:5 where mah tovu ohalecha, “how good are your tents”, becomes ma tava ar’ach, “how good is your land” (cf. Jer. 30:18).

    Sometimes DW fail to attach enough significance to a textual change that appears in some versions of the Targum but not all. In Jacob’s final blessings, Gen. 48:22 says in Hebrew asher lakachti miyyad ha-Emori becharbi uv’kashti, “which I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow”. The translation DW give is precisely that – “with my sword and my bow” – but the Aramaic version they use is betzaloti uveva’uti, which means “with my prayer and my plea”. The resultant confusion is hard enough for the reader to work out even though the two versions are mentioned in the authors’ footnotes. What we are not given is a reference to TB BB 123a which shows that the sages preferred the spiritual to the militaristic interpretation, nor an explanation of why “sword” is one of the terms for prayer (Adler quotes a view that, like a sword, prayer protects a person) or why there is a connection between b’kashti, “with my bow”, and a plea (the answer is that the consonants of the Hebrew can be read bakkashati, “my plea”). What is going on here is an ideological tug-of-war between military and spiritual weapons, possibly taking place in the context of the Jewish revolt against Rome. One would like this issue to be addressed.

    An immensely important feature of the Targum is the change of the Divine name from E-lohim to YHVH. According to DW, the reason for this change is in order not to confuse the public with a name bearing the plural ending im, an exception being Gen. 1:27, where DW regard the phrase b’tzelem E-lohim, in the image of God, as too well known to allow it to be changed (DW also note in the Appendix to Genesis, “The targumist does not change E-lohim to the Tetragrammaton where a pronoun is attached to E-lohim, such as “our God”). The plural ending of E-lohim still occasions controversy, but it should be noted that in reference to HaShem the name takes a singular verb and cannot refer to a plurality of gods. E-lohim is generally explained as the plural of majesty; the intensity of power that the singular Elo’ah/Eloha is not strong enough to convey; or a status like ne’urim (youth) or zekunim (old age). Rabbinic exegesis has many theories about the E and J names, for instance that E represents God as judge whilst J suggests His mercy (see JT Ta’an. 2:1, Gen. R. 12:15 and 33:4, Rashi to Gen. 1:1). Onkelos is not likely to have wanted God to appear in the Torah in the aspect of mercy alone (or mostly so) without the attribute of justice, since Divine judgment of the world is so axiomatic to Biblical philosophy. Could he have had a notion that E indicates the universal God and J the particularistic Jewish deity, thus reading the Torah rather nationalistically? This possibility is unattractive because tribalistic thinking was already on the wane in the prophetical period. It may well be that the problem caused by the name E-lohim lies in the sheer ambiguity of the word; it seems to be a generic term for a powerful being, not limited to HaShem but sometimes denoting a pagan god (Ex. 20:3), sometimes an angel Psalm 8:6), sometimes a human prince (Ex. 21:6), sometimes a human judge Psalm 82:1). It is also found as a form of superlative – e.g. wrestling of God (Gen. 30:8), “a great city unto God” (Jonah 3:3), which denotes great even in cosmic terms. The name YHVH certainly has nuances that have long been the subject of study and discussion, but there is no problem about who (or Who) He is. It could also be that YHVH has more passionate spiritual overtones whilst E-lohim suggests a more abstract, distant deity. Did Onkelos then prefer YHVH for reasons of clarity, emotion or ideology? DW should have worked more on this subject, seeing how important it is from page one of the Bible.

    A further, presumably ideological, phenomenon in Onkelos is that anthropomorphisms are generally avoided, saying, for example, not “God did” but “the word – memra – or glory – yekara – of God did”. Instead of an active verb – “God did” – Onkelos generally has a passive, “It was done before God”. Any sign of physicality is removed from God. Etzba E-lohim, “the finger of God” (Ex. 8:15) becomes macha min kadam YHVH, “a plague from before the Lord”. Onkelos must have been impressed by verses such as “Be very careful…, for you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire” (Deut. 4:15). Hence he renders the anthropomorphic Ex. 33:18-23 metaphorically, suggesting that God will protect Moses with His memra. However, he had a problem with Gen. 1:26, “Let us make man in our image”: it is not only that in Onkelos the verse retains the plural sense (na’avid…betzalmana) but he also sticks to the anthropomorphism, “let us make”. DW say, “It is possible that this verse was so well known by the people that the targumist felt it would not be misunderstood”. They may be right, but the idea that Onkelos did not touch well-known passages warrants further investigation. DW could, in any case, have made more of the contrast between the usually more rational, restrained language of the Targum and the colourful, sensual terminology found elsewhere, especially in the contemporary and later mystical tradition.

    The editors’ extensive notes display specialised knowledge of Targumic material and a broad acquaintance with rabbinic exegesis, though sometimes fascinating words and phrases are left unannotated. After all, every reader has a favourite piece of exegetical ingenuity and looks to see what a new publication has to say on a particular verse.

    The whole content of DW’s work, even the incidental notes and suggestions for discussion, is a goldmine for the reader. Despite the criticisms voiced above, the volumes deserve to be treasured and used. By including the Torah blessings, the editors clearly hope that readers will use these books to follow the Torah readings in synagogue, and I for one plan to do so. I am quite excited about it, not only because the work is so fascinating in itself but because it will help me to carry out the advice of one of my teachers to look at each year’s Torah portions through the eyes of a different exegete.

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    Psalms 37:25 and 34:11 – After-meal theology
    Psalm 113: Is verse 9 the woman’s voice?
    Psalm 22: The Esther connection
    Samson Agonistes
    Amen as response and introduction
    The English poets’ “Ritzpah”
    Psalm 34 – does the heading fit?
    Is Pesach Passover?
    The meaning of Dammesek Eliezer
    Shirat HaYam: Miriam’s Song?
    The problem of theodicy in Psalms
    Addenda to Psalm 145
    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31
    The happy man of Psalm 1

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