LET S STUDY ONKELOS. By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin

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1 LET S STUDY ONKELOS A Guide for Rabbis, Teachers and Torah Students to Study and Teach the Parashat Hashavua through the Eyes of its Most Important Translator By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin Based on the five volume, Onkelos on the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), Understanding the Bible Text, by Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner, published by Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem/New York, STUDY GUIDE BEHA ALOTKHA (CHAPTER 8:1 12:16) SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION The kindling of the menorah after its construction according to the vision of Moses; the Levites are consecrated before assuming their sacred responsibilities; the Israelites observe the Passover in the wilderness for the first and only time; the laws pertaining to the Second Passover, for those who could not observe it at its appointed time; the journeys of the Israelites in the wilderness would be determined by the movement of the cloud that hovered over the Tabernacle; how the silver trumpets were sounded and for what occasions; the order and procedure for dismantling the Israelite camp and marching on the Israelite s first trek during their sojourn in the wilderness; the people complain about their conditions and are punished by God; unmoved by the punishment, the people crave meat, precipitating another Israelite opposition and objection that frustrates Moses; God punishes the Israelites again; God orders Moses to appoint seventy elders to assist him; Miriam and Aaron speak ill of Moses, and Miriam is punished; Moses beseeches God to cure her, but she must first be quarantined for seven days. VERSES INCORPORATED IN THE LITURGY BIBLICAL CONTEXT AND CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE There are many biblical phrases and passages that have been incorporated into Jewish liturgy. To cite a few examples: vayechulu hashamayim (Genesis 2:1-3); az yashir (Exodus 15:1-18); the three paragraphs of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:

2 and Numbers 15:37-41); and mah tovu (Numbers 24:5). They were selected, it must be assumed, because they convey reminders of important Torah principles, historical events, or lofty descriptions of the Jewish people that the compilers of the Siddur felt required constant reinforcement. There are two such verses in our parashah. The first is recited every time the Torah is taken out of the Ark for a public reading and the second is read when the Torah is returned to the Ark. This recitation endows these verses with a prominence that merits our attention, and it will be worthwhile to focus on how the targumist treats these verses. Furthermore, a Masoretic addition to the Torah text in the form of inverted nuns, one before the verses and one immediately following the verses, a phenomenon not repeated elsewhere in the Pentateuch and found only in Psalms 107:21-26, where there are six inverted nuns, also encourages our understanding. These verses appear after the Torah informs us that the Israelites traveled in the wilderness only whenever the cloud departed from the Tent... and in the place where the cloud settled, there the Israelites settled (9:17 pages 82 and 83). 1 The two verses are: It happened that when the ark set out, Moses said: Reveal Yourself, Lord, and scatter your enemies. Let your foes flee before you (10:35). When it rested, he said: Return, Lord. Let your glory reside among the ten thousand thousands of Israel (10:36) (Onkelos translation). Some of the differences of opinion concerning the reason for the inverted nuns are outlined in our commentary (page 93, continuing on page 92): Two inverted letters (both times nun ) enclose verses 35 and 36, but they are not recorded or noted by Onkelos. While it is obvious that the letters were inserted to inform the reader of a problem, or to supply some information, we no longer know with any degree of certainty what the letters signify. Various ideas have been presented. The following are some of them: (1) Sifrei relates that Rabbi Judah the prince, who compiled the Mishnah around 200 CE, understood that the two verses constituted a separate book. This would make Numbers consist of three books (i.e., the book up until the first nun, the book consisting of the two verses enclosed by the nuns, and the book after the second nun ) and the entire Torah of seven volumes. No satisfactory reason has been given for the number seven other than that Proverbs 9:1 speaks about wisdom housing seven pillars. The name Pentateuch, meaning five books, as does the Hebrew equivalent Chumash, show that this idea of seven books of the Torah did not gain acceptance. However, Baruch Epstein (Torah Temimah) suggests that the Midrash may only mean that these two verses are so significant that they could be a separate book. (2) Sifrei suggests that the inverted nuns inform us that these two verses belong after Numbers 2:17, which speaks about the march of the Israelites each in position, by their standards. (3) Ehrlich (Mikra Ki-Pheschuto) suggests combining items 1 and 2 as follows: Rabbi Judah was 1 All page numbers refer to the Drazin-Wagner Onkelos on the Torah volumes. 2

3 saying that the rabbis are correct in noting that these two verses do not belong in chapter 10 (item 2), but the rabbis are incorrect when they say it belongs in Numbers 2:17. Actually, Ehrlich states, Rabbi Judah contends that verses 35 and 36 do not belong in the book of Numbers at all. (4) Rashi states that the verses were placed here in order to make a break between one description of evil and another. Rashi is referring to the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 116a. The Israelites deviated from God s laws during the three-day march and when they rested they began to complain about lack of food. The Talmud states that God ordered the placement of the nuns. However, this statement may mean only that the lesson is significant, even though the nuns were insertions of the Masorites. (5) Mishnah Yadayim 3:5 states that these verses contain 85 letters, the minimum required to make a scroll sacred, and the nuns are informing us of this law. (6) The inverted nuns may also indicate that the two verses are reversed; the second should come first (Olam Hatanakh). (7) The two verses actually belong after Numbers 20:21 (Chazkunee) or (8) after Numbers 11:17 (Rabbenu Bachya). (9) The secular scholarly view is that the two verses are an ancient Israelite song that was inserted in chapter 10 because of the similar theme, but that the Masorites later indicated that it actually does not belong here (Olam Hatanakh). There is only one other place where the Masorites placed inverted nuns : the six verses of Psalms 107:21 26, where there are six inverted nuns. The reason for these nuns is also unknown. In the context of our chapter, the two verses are requests that God protect the people from their enemies and that when the Ark rested they would be assured of the divine presence. Since, during the last two millennia the Jewish people had myriad enemies while seeking nothing but peaceful relationships with their neighbors, the verses had special meaning to worshipers and were therefore placed in the Siddur. The changes that our targumist made in the two verses were only for the purpose of removing anthropomorphic depictions of God: instead of arise, he rewrites it as reveal Yourself (by your deeds), which is its obvious intent (as indicated in our commentary). Also Onkelos circumvents the poetic but anthropomorphic mipanekha, Your face, by replacing it with before You. In verse 36, the targumist adds a phrase that explains the anthropomorphic Return, as explained by our commentary (page 95): Onkelos supplies the implied connecting phrase let your glory reside among. By glory, our targumist means the feeling that the Israelites have of the significance and majesty of the divine. Sifrei; the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 64a and Bava Kamma 83b; and Saadiah have Moses request the return of the Shekhinah. Saadiah understands Shekhinah as a divine creation of a special light to impress the people. In contrast, when our targumist uses Shekhinah, he is referring to the feeling that people have of a divine presence. Thus, Shekhinah refers to the people s feelings, and not to God. Onkelos uses glory four times in Numbers, in 10:33, 34, 36, and 12:8. In the latter verse, Moses is said to have been impressed by the glory of the Lord. 3

4 Compare Genesis 28:13 and 16 where Jacob is impressed by the glory of the Lord in his dream, as he is leaving his parent s home. We have had occasion to compare Targum Onkelos with Pseudo-Jonathan to demonstrate the significant literary and stylistic differences between them. Here we have another example of Pseudo-Jonathan s elaborate, midrashic rendering of these two verses, taken from our appendix (page 380): Now it happened that whenever the ark wanted to travel forward, the cloud would gather itself up and stand still, and would not travel until Moses would stand in prayer, praying and beseeching mercy from before the Lord. And this is what he said: Let the memra of the Lord be revealed now with strong anger; and let the enemies of Your people be scattered so that their enemies will not be accustomed to stand before You. (36) And when the ark wanted to rest, the cloud would gather itself up and stand still, and would not spread out (from having gathered itself) until Moses would stand in prayer, praying and beseeching mercy from before the Lord. And this is what he said: Let the memra of the Lord return now with good mercy, and lead the people of Israel; and let the glory of Your Shekhinah rest among them and show mercy to the tens of thousands of the house of Jacob and the tens of thousands of Israel. ADDITIONAL DISCUSSIONS ON ONKELOS You will note that our targumist, when attempting to remove or modify biblical anthropomorphisms, sees them as metaphors and attempts to clarify their meaning. He adds words like memra, Shekhinah, or yekara because he also believes that by doing so he is demonstrating respect for God. In rabbinic literature, there are scores of additional names given to God to protect and enhance His dignity. Some examples: hakadosh baruch hu, the Holy One, blessed be He, melekh, King, av, Father, go eil, Redeemer. Can you name others? Do you feel uncomfortable with the fact that the sages found justification for providing God with new descriptive names that reflect some attribute that they believed He possesses? The Pseudo-Jonathan translation is imaginative and appealing but, for the most part, has no basis in the biblical text, and this is precisely why our targumist eschewed including these notions in his translation. Today, we are so inclined to seek out midrashim and exegesis and sermons that expand and enhance the text, sometimes beyond recognition, because they inspire, or guide us in our moral and ethical value system, or they are simply very enjoyable to read. But, when students become confused between peshat, the literal translation, and derash, the exegetical interpretation, perhaps, a return to the study of Targum Onkelos will be helpful in providing a more wholesome perspective. What do you think? 4

5 GENERAL DISCUSSION Enemies who, for a variety of reasons, sought to destroy Jews either physically or spiritually have plagued Jews and Israel for more than twenty centuries. We were forewarned that the war against the Amalekites, who were the ancient enemies of the Jews, and became the symbol of all anti-semites throughout Jewish history, would be waged from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16). But, one would have to search very hard to find another people so consistently vilified, persecuted, hounded, exiled, murdered, for no other reason save that they were Jews. Discuss what you believe to be the root causes of anti-semitism. Is there something in Judaism that triggers these negative feelings? Can we trace it to Jewish particularism, that is, the religious rites that separate Jews from everyone else? We cannot eat the same foods; we have our own holy days; some of us wear strange garb; we tend to gravitate together. Is it our theology, our rejection of Jesus as son of God and Messiah? Or, is it our rejection of Mohammad and Islam? What traits and qualities do Jews have that could have possibly triggered the maniacal response of those who sought to commit genocide and annihilate the Jews? How does contemporary anti-semitism impact on the problems facing the State of Israel? Is anti-zionism the same as anti-semitism? What steps can be taken to turn our enemies into friends? Inter religious dialogues? Joint social justice endeavors? How do we become friendly without shedding our fear of assimilation and intermarriage? FOR FURTHER STUDY 1. See 10:31 and commentary, AND THE MIGHTY DEEDS THAT WERE DONE FOR US YOU HAVE SEEN WITH YOUR EYES (page 90, continuing on page 93). The targumist and others recast a troubling biblical phrase. 2. See 11:1 KINDLING EVIL (page 97). A division of opinion on the meaning of k mitonenim. In what manner did the people provoke God? The targumist makes a contribution to our understanding. 3. See 11:12 and commentary, FATHER TO... ARE THEY MY CHILDREN... WITH YOUR STRENGTH... NURSE CARRIES AN INFANT (page 101). The targumist transforms a verse for reasons consistent with his style. 5

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