Onkelos and the Issue of Translating the Torah

This week we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim, relayed by Moses over the final 37 days of his life. During this time, Moses “undertook to explain this Torah” (Deuteronomy 1:5) that he left for his people. Rashi comments here by citing the Midrash that Moses translated the Torah into all seventy ancient languages. Why did he do this?

HaKtav v’HaKabbalah (Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865) held that it does not mean Moses translated the Torah into seventy languages, “for what use would that serve for Israel?” Since the Israelites didn’t speak all those languages anyway, what would be the point? Rather, he explains that Moses explained the Torah according to all of its seventy faces, as it is well-known that there are shivi’im panim l’Torah. He takes it one step further and says the same is true when it is said that each sage that sat on the Sanhedrin “knew seventy languages” (Menachot 65a). This does not mean that every rabbi that ever served on the Sanhedrin had to speak seventy languages to qualify! Rather, it means each rabbi had to know the Torah completely, from all “seventy faces”, so to speak.

The Midrashim that Rashi seems to be citing support this notion. For instance, Midrash Tanchuma (Devarim 2) highlights how Moses went from saying “I am not a man of words” (Exodus 4:10) and shying away from public speaking to being able to comfortably expound upon the Torah on seventy levels. Meanwhile, Beresheet Rabbah 49:2 connects the seventy to the gematria of the word sod, “secret” (סוד), which is seventy. So, what Moses did was relay all the secrets of the Torah.

Still, others hold that Moses really did translate the Torah into seventy different languages. He definitely had no need to verbally do so, since the Israelites wouldn’t understand him anyway, but he did write it down in seventy languages. The Talmud (Sotah 32a) states it was written on giant stones, serving as steles placed all around the borders of Israel. In ancient times, it was common for a kingdom to engrave some of its central laws upon massive stones and place them on its borders so that people who enter the kingdom would be aware of the rules. It looks like Moses did the same for the Holy Land. Did he need to write down the entire Torah on these steles? Probably not, because that, too, would be unnecessary (and time-consuming!) The steles most likely recorded some of the key rules to be followed in the Holy Land.

If Moses translated the Torah, this suggests that translations are a good thing. Yet, our Sages strongly frowned upon translations of the Torah. They even declared that when the Torah was translated into Greek, it was a catastrophe on the same level as the Golden Calf (Masekhet Sofrim 1:7). On the other hand, the Sages also noted the beauty of the Greek language, and even permitted certain scrolls to be written in Greek! (On this strange dichotomy, and why the Greek translation was especially despised, see here.)

The issue of translation can probably be summarized by a teaching of Rabbi Yehuda: “One who translates a verse literally is a liar, and one who adds [to the translation] is a blasphemer.” (Kiddushin 49a) To translate word-for-word is impossible, since every language has its own unique grammar, figures of speech, and unique terms. Translating requires some flexibility and creativity on the part of the translator. Yet, that would mean the translator is not producing a perfectly-accurate text, so he is likened to a blasphemer who alters the Word of God!

Despite this, the Sages instituted that one should read the parasha shnayim mikre v’echad targum: twice in the original Hebrew, and once in translation so that the reader understands the words (Berakhot 8a). In their day, the Jewish vernacular was Aramaic. Thus, the “targum” in question was Targum Onkelos, the standard Aramaic translation (and commentary) on the Torah. Ironically, many people who do shnayim mikre today do not actually understand the Aramaic of Targum Onkelos! So, various authorities allow reading a different commentary or translation. The Shulkhan Aruch, for example, allows reading Rashi’s commentary as the “targum” (Orach Chaim 285). The Mishneh Berurah adds that one can really read any accepted translation that they understand, even if its in Yiddish. This is partly based on Tosfot, who comment on the Talmud above that reading a translation into a language one understands might be okay, though it is still best to go with Targum Onkelos. Who is Onkelos and why is his translation so great?

Onkelos the Convert

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Mishpatim 5) writes:

Onkelos the convert was [the Roman Emperor] Hadrian’s sister’s son. He desired to convert to Judaism, but he feared his uncle’s wrath. He told his uncle: “I want to engage in business.”

Hadrian replied: “You do not lack silver or gold, for my treasury is available to you.”

Onkelos said: “I want to go into business in other lands in order to become acquainted with other people and need only your advice on how to do so.”

Hadrian replied: “Whatever merchandise you trade in that you find low in price because it is ignored, deal in it, for it will ultimately rise in price and you will profit from it.”

So Onkelos went to Israel and studied the Torah.

Coins minted to mark Hadrian’s visit to Judea (c. 131 CE)

Later, Onkelos returns to Rome and Hadrian finds his countenance has changed. Onkelos explains that he has converted, circumcised himself, and studies Torah. Hadrian asks why Onkelos would do such a thing, and Onkelos replies that it came out of Hadrian’s own advice:

“When I told you that I desired to engage in business, you said: ‘Whatever merchandise you find low, that is worthless, and lying on the ground because it is ignored, do business in it, for it will finally rise in value.’ I have traveled among the nations and have found nothing so low and so cast down as Israel, and it is destined to rise…”

The Talmud (Gittin 56b-57a) provides a slightly different account:

Onkelos, the son of Kalonikos, the son of Titus’s sister, wanted to convert to Judaism. He went and raised Titus from the grave through necromancy, and said to him: “Who is most important in that world where you are now?”

Titus replied: “Israel.”

“Should I then attach myself to them here in this world?”

“Their commandments are numerous, and you will not be able to fulfill them. It is best that you do as follows: Go out and battle against them in that world, and you will become the chief, as it is written: ‘Her adversaries have become the chief…’ [Lamentations 1:5], which means that anyone who distresses Israel will become the chief.”

Onkelos said to him: “What is the punishment of such a man in the next world?”

Titus said to him: “That which he decreed against himself: Every day his ashes are gathered, and they judge him, and they burn him, and they scatter him over the seven seas…”

In this account, Onkelos is the nephew of Titus, not Hadrian. Both of these emperors were huge enemies of Israel. Titus was the one who destroyed the Second Temple during the Great Revolt. Hadrian is the one who quelled the Bar Kochva Revolt, which also took the lives of Rabbi Akiva and his 24,000 students.

Onkelos raises his uncle’s soul from the grave and asks if he should become a Jew. Titus, seemingly having not learned from his eternal damnation, advises Onkelos to do what he himself did and persecute Israel. This is because those who persecute Israel are supported by the Sitra Achra, the domain of evil, and so become dominant powers in the world. Indeed, we find throughout history that the greatest oppressors of Israel were both incredibly powerful and infused with tremendous evil, as exemplified most recently by the likes of Hitler and Stalin. Titus told Onkelos that if he takes that path, he is guaranteed to become a powerful man. Onkelos didn’t buy it. He also raised the souls of two others (Bilaam and Jesus), ultimately concluding it is worth becoming a Jew.

The story continues in another page of Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a). After Onkelos converts, the Roman emperor sends soldiers to arrest him for his betrayal. Onkelos starts telling them about Judaism and the soldiers convert! The emperor sends more soldiers and they, too, convert. He sends a third group and commands them not to speak with Onkelos at all.

They apprehended him and were walking when Onkelos saw a mezuzah. He placed his hand upon it and asked the soldiers: “What is this?”

They said to him: “You tell us.”

He said: “The way of the world is that a king of flesh and blood sits inside his palace, and his servants stand guard, protecting him outside. With regards to the Holy One, blessed be He, His servants sit inside their homes and He guards over them outside…”

Upon hearing this, those soldiers also converted to Judaism. [The emperor] sent no more soldiers after him.

Onkelos, or Aquila?

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 10b) calls Onkelos by a variant name:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: [The Sages] did not permit writing sefarim in any language except Greek, for they checked and found that the Torah cannot be translated adequately into any language except Greek. Came one soldier and translated it to Aramaic from the Greek. Rabbi Yirmiyah said in the name of Rabbi Chiya that Aquilas the Convert translated the entire Torah before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, and they praised him…

Here, the Talmud again notes the supremacy of Greek over other (non-Hebrew) languages. It calls Onkelos by the similar-sounding “Aquilas”, and apparently alludes to his Roman origins, calling him a “soldier”, or more specifically, a “castle guard”. One opinion seems to hold that the Aramaic translation came indirectly by way of the Greek one, while another opinion is that Aquilas’ translation was done with the blessing and haskamah of the two greatest sages of the day (and teachers of Rabbi Akiva).

The Talmud Bavli (Megillah 3a) adds that Onkelos made his translation with a built-in commentary based on the teachings of Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua. This is why it is so special, for it is not just a simple translation, but carries the basic explanation of the text with it. The Talmud points out that Ezra had already translated the Torah into Aramaic when he re-established the Jewish community in Israel following their return from Babylon (Nehemiah 8:8). The Talmud concludes that this ancient translation of Ezra had been lost, and Onkelos produced a new one. The Yerushalmi calls him “Aquilas”, and this is his name in Shemot Rabbah 30:12, too. This is most interesting because we know from historical records of one Aquila of Sinope (or Aquila Ponticus).

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 320-403) wrote (in his Of Weights and Measures) that Aquila was an in-law of the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian sent Aquila to Jerusalem to rebuild the city as Aelia Capitolina, and erect a new temple dedicated to Jupiter on the site of the former Holy Temple. (Incidentally, this is probably what sparked the Bar Kochva Revolt.) Epiphanius wrote that Aquila then discovered Christianity and converted. However, he then realized the flaws of Christianity and converted to Judaism. (Epiphanius didn’t quite word it this way, since he was himself a Christian bishop!) Jerome (c. 347-420) added that he became a student of Rabbi Akiva. Aquila went on to produce a Greek translation of the Torah which was widely used by Jews and Christians. The latter were not especially fond of it, claiming that it downplayed and mistranslated verses that “supported” Christianity.

Fragment from Aquila’s Translation (Credit: Jewish Encyclopedia/Cambridge University Press)

Fragments of Aquila’s translation have been discovered in recent times. There is strong evidence that he really was a student of Rabbi Akiva. For example, he translates the word et (את) into Greek (σύν), even though it is not necessary in Greek at all (just as it isn’t in English). Scholars believe he put it in there because it was Rabbi Akiva who taught the great importance of et, and that it always represents something else that the text is trying to teach (as in Kiddushin 57a).

So, are Aquila of Sinope and Onkelos one and the same person?

We find that Onkelos is often mentioned together with Rabban Gamliel II (see, for example, Tosefta on Mikvaot, ch. 6). Rabban Gamliel was the president of Israel following the destruction of the Temple. This would make Onkelos more likely to be a nephew of Titus. That makes it too early for him to be a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. Aquila, on the other hand, is connected to the emperor Hadrian, who lived at the same time as Rabbi Akiva. Onkelos is famous for an Aramaic translation, while Aquila is famous for a Greek translation. It could be that these were two different people that were later confused because of their many similarities. The Yerushalmi’s suggestion that the Aramaic translation was based on the Greek might stem from this.

Or, it could be that Onkelos and Aquila really are one person, and maybe he produced both a Greek version and an Aramaic one. Perhaps he was a nephew (or, more likely, grand-nephew) of Titus who also became related to Hadrian by marriage. It is hard to reconcile all the disparate details. At the same time, it seems highly unlikely that there were two great translators who were converts from Roman royalty and happened to share essentially the same name.

Whatever the case, Onkelos/Aquila sparked a huge new development in Judaism: producing written explanations of the Torah. Keep in mind that this was at the start of the 2nd century, long before the Talmud, and even before the Mishnah, was put into writing. While there were other translations before, Onkelos was possibly the first to infuse commentary into the text. As such, Onkelos might be credited with giving rise to a new genre—the Torah commentary. Since then, countless other commentaries have been written containing a vast sea of wisdom. Each of these commentaries serves to reveal yet another of the Torah’s seventy faces, and gives us a lifetime of texts to study and delight in.