This week Isaac and Rebecca are still childless. After some praying, Rebekah gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb, and so God tells Rebekah about her two sons. After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew. The family then has to move into Philistine territory for a while, though they are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebekah. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries someone who his parents don’t particularly like. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, and that he should prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebekah helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebekah then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.
After the destruction of the first temple the Jews were forced to move to Babylon. Upon their return about a quarter century later, many of the people had only the language skills of their adopted home, and could not speak or read Hebrew, but instead Aramaic. In Nehemiah 8, we read of the first Rosh Hashanah service after their return to Israel. In this story is the framework for the ritual for the Torah service to this day. Interestingly verse 8:8 reads
8. So they read in the book in the Torah of God clearly, and gave the interpretation, so that they understood the reading.
Here however, gave the interpretation does not mean to interpret however. As the Talmud explains:
R. Ika said in the name of R. Hananel who had it from Rab: What is meant by the text, And they read in the book, in the law of God, with an interpretation. and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading? ‘And they read in the book, in the law of God’: this indicates the [Hebrew] text; ‘with an interpretation’: this indicates the translation, ‘and they gave the sense’: this indicates the verse stops; ‘and caused them to understand the reading’: this indicates the accentuation, or, according to another version, the massoretic notes. [Megilah 3a]
The word that these later rabbis, who also spoke Aramaic, use for the word translation is the Aramaic word Targum. From the time of the early Rabbis on, we call any Aramaic translation of the biblical text a targum (plural targumim). From the time of the return from Babylon until the rise of Islam when there was a revival of Hebrew, Aramaic would be the second language of the Jews, and often the first and only of the common person. Indeed, the Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, though with Hebrew quotes from the Tanach, Mishnah and other earlier rabbinic writings woven though the text. Today we still have remnants of this language in our liturgy, most notably the Kaddish and much of the Passover Haggadah.
But there were scholars who compiled written targumim, some of which have come down to us today. The de facto Targum of Torah is the Targum of Onkelos the Proselyte, who according to the Talmud was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. [Gittin 57a] There is a story about Onkelos that after his conversion, the Emperor wanted to arrest him, but every time soldiers came to arrest him, in his enthusiasm and wisdom of his adopted religion he converted the soldiers instead until the Emperor gave up. [Meg. 3a] Onkelos, under the editorial guidance of the sages, wrote a rather literal Aramaic translation of the text.
Another Targum is attributed to Jonathan b. Uzziel. The Talmud mentions him as one of the eighty students of Hillel the Elder, and the best of these students who are known collectively as Beit Hillel. Supposedly when he studied Torah his intensity and understanding into its mystical meaning was so intense birds flying over him burned. [Baba Batra 134a, Sukkah 28a] He is attributed with the Targumim of the prophets, which apparently got God angry at him for spilling a lot of secrets hidden in the prophetic literature. Jonathan was going to write more targumim for the Writings, but was ordered not to by a divine voice so as not to give away the date of the Messiah’s arrival [Megilah 3a]. Others much later did eventually wrote such targumim, yet they are often attributed to Jonathan. Others, also attributing to Jonathan, wrote targumim to the Torah, but since we know through language clues that it was written centuries later, it is known as Pseudo Jonathan (Ps-J).
There were other targumim coming out of Israel, know as Jerusalem Targumim, but most are nothing more than small fragments of a complete text. In 1949 however Alejandro Diez-Macho discovered a copy of a Targum in the Vatican library which was marked Onkelos, but through examination, concluded by 1956 this was a new and complete Jerusalem Targum of the Torah. Named for the shelf it was found on, Neofiti I (N1), Targum Neofiti has been the subject of scholarly inquiry for half a century.
What all this means to the modern interpreter of Torah is we have two tools to help us try to understand the text. First for those who know Hebrew, we have a witness to the biblical text that can help in translation. Since we have a larger and more robust vocabulary for Aramaic than Biblical Hebrew, we can use the translation in Aramaic to help us translate the Hebrew. Given the near-completion of The Aramaic Bible Project, a complete English translation of all the major targumim, the other feature is now accessible to English speakers. At times targumim not only give translation, but instead add to the text to make the meaning clearer. Such additions can help us get more perspectives on the text.
Let’s use this week’s portion as an example of this perspective. Genesis 27 is for example the story of Jacob, under instruction of Rebecca, tricking his father into getting the blessing instead of Esau. In the Torah, Isaac first instructs Esau:
3. Now therefore take, I beg you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow and go out to the field, and catch me some venison; 4. And make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die. [Gen. 27:3]
While Ps-J and N1 do not change the phrase your weapons, your quiver and your bow Onkelos does.
3. So now take, then, your weapons, your sword, and your bow; and go out to the field and hunt me some game. 4. The prepare for me stewed dishes such as I like and bring it in to me so that I may eat, in order that my soul may bless you before I die
Onkelos changes the text from quiver to sword. When such things happen we can now ask ourselves why was this change was necessary, and in doing so gain the perspective of Onkelos. For those who read last year’s Shlomo’s Drash Toldot, Onkelos had the exact problem I had. The sages believed that the Patriarchs followed all of the mitzvot and halakah even before Sinai. But this leads to some odd inconsistencies. While venison is kosher, killing it with bows and arrows makes it treif. However, if Esau had a sword or knife, he could live catch the deer, and then perform proper ritual slaughter with the sword.
On the same principle, Onkelos may have changed savory dishes to stewed dishes. Savory items might have been eaten raw, stewed ones definitely could not. Thus to assure that Isaac was eating a properly cooked meal according to Kashrut, Onkelos changes the text.
We then read in Torah:
5. And Rebekah heard when Isaac spoke to Esau his son.
Yet, Pseudo Jonathan makes an interesting addition:
5. And Rebekah heard through the Holy Spirit while Isaac spoke with Esau his son.
While Neofiti 1 specifically states Rebekah heard the voice of Isaac, and Onkelos had the same as the literal Hebrew text, Pseudo Jonathan adds that she learned through prophecy. Again we need to ask why the need for the addition, or alternatively, what was the gap that needed filling. One possibility was to assure the reader Rebecca was not spying, but getting this information through divine channels because God wanted Jacob and not Esau to get the blessing. Rebekah using prophecy is also attested in verse 8:13 of Onkelos, where she assured her son that prophecy has told her no curses will come upon him, instead of the literal Upon me be your curse, my son;
Many of these additions found in the corpus of targumim are attested elsewhere in various midrash. Some however are not and are only found in the Targumim. Yet the targumim, unlike midrash, give us all these additions and commentaries in context of the story, and thus have a lot more meaning while trying to figure out what is going on. As I write this column, I often start with the targumim, and begin by asking the question of why did the Targum said that, and what was the gap they were filling. I go further and determine what the agenda was of this translator, and how their answers to those questions affect me as a contemporary Jew. How would I, in their situation answer the same question that compelled them to write that addition? From there I might find sources which reflect that view or even in some cases contradict it.
Targumim make a great springboard for engaging the text. By asking the right questions, we can begin to ask questions of the text we might not have though of, or gain perspectives that we otherwise would not have seen. It may be a mere word, or a whole story inserted into the text. It is not a separate commentary but woven into the text, as though part of the story. The three targumim might agree, or give entirely different answers. But with these three, new perspectives into the Torah can be found.
So after you talk turkey this week, you can also talk Targum.