Translation of the Torah

One of the tragedies which is commemorated by the fast on the Tenth of Tevet (this coming Tuesday) is the Septuagint, the translation of the Torah into Greek by seventy scholars. This translation was aided by miraculous Divine inspiration which harmonized the translations of the various scholars. And it is because of this translation that the only translation of the Torah which fulfills the obligation of the Torah reading is this Greek translation. Our Sages even saw in this translation a fulfillment of the verse, “G-d widened the way for Yefet, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Yefet represents Greece, and Shem represents Israel – Taanit 9a-9b). We may also point out that HaShem commanded Moshe to translate the Torah into the languages of the seventy nations (Devarim 27:8 and Rashi’s commentary).

Even so, the day that the Greeks compelled us to translate the Torah is considered a great national tragedy. “On the eighth of Tevet the Torah was translated into Greek in the time of King Ptolemy, and the world was dark for three days” (SA OC 480:2 from Megillat Taanit). Another source states that the day that Ptolemy first had the Torah translated into Greek was as harsh to Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made (Soferim 1:7, Sefer Torah 1:6).

Rabbi Eliahu Ki Tov likens this to a lion trapped in a cage. The Greeks felt they had “trapped” the mighty Torah by translating it; they no longer were in awe of it (Sefer HaTodaah). They didn’t know that the Torah could not be adequately translated and that all they had trapped was a likeness.

The same ambivalent attitude towards translation can be found in other contexts. For instance, the Shulchan Arukh permits saying prayers in any language (OC 101:4). Allowing prayers to be said in the vernacular allows us to bring the mitzvot to those who are far from Torah and never learned Hebrew.

Yet the Mishna Berura warns that today we shouldn’t allow this to become a habit. For this leniency can also have the opposite effect: instead of bringing the distant Jews close to Torah, it can drag the prayers away from Torah! Once the prayers are entrapped in a foreign language, then they can be used or abused according to people’s whims; the next step may be to edit out parts of the prayer service which are not to the liking of exactly those Jews who are steeped in a foreign language and culture (MB 101:13). Translation opens up a “two-way street” into and out of a culture of devotion to Torah.

The Splendor of Secular Wisdom

The translation of the Torah is often associated in Chasidic literature with the concept of “nogah” or “glow”. This term comes from the vision of Yechezkel, who saw a stormy wind, a great cloud, and an igniting fire – all hostile forces; and then “a glow surrounding” (Yechezkel 1:4). This “glow” is part of the same vision as the other three, suggesting a connection to evil, yet a glow is not something negative. This “glow” is a symbol of all those aspects of our world which have a potential for both good and evil.

Examples are permissible food, which can be used positively to strengthen the body or to cause appreciation of HaShem’s bounty, or negatively to sink in material pleasures.

These four visions are also connected to the four kingdoms which ruled Israel, where the fourth kingdom is Greece (Tanchuma on Bamidbar 19:2). So not only the Greek translation, but also t he Greek culture, which was devoted to secular wisdom and beauty, can be identified with this quality. Secular wisdom can be a gateway to Torah, by occupying the mind with the beauty and intricacy of HaShem’s creation; but it can also be GF a gate in the other direction, and a reason for mourning and fasting.

Rabbi Meir’s book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through Amazon, ibooks, Google Play and B&N.