Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
Reading the Torah Portion with Targum
“Rav Huna bar Yehuda said in the name of Rebbe Ami: A person should complete the portion together with the community, twice Scripture and once targum, and even ‘Atarot and Dibon’ [proper names], for anyone who completes the portion with the community, his days and years are lengthened” (Berakhot 8a). This is also the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh (OC 285:1), who also permits reading Rashi’s commentary.
The Maharal likens these three readings to the three times the Torah was reviewed to Israel in the desert: once at Mount Sinai, once in the Tent of Meeting, and once in Moav. (See Rashbam Shemot 12:1.) In Moav, we learn that Moshe “explained the Torah” (Devarim 1:5); Rashi explains that he explained it in seventy languages. So the third time the Torah was given, it was given in all the languages of the nations.
The Maharal explains that these
three readings correspond to three “worlds”, or levels of holiness. We might
think that the Targum would be the lowest of the three worlds, but actually,
writes the Maharal, it is the highest. The reason is that the Targum
(Aramaic) is not just one language among the languages of the nations;it is
a unique pan-human language. He brings several proofs for this claim:
The gemara states that the angels don’t understand Aramaic (Shabbat 12b and elsewhere); this is because it is a language unique to the level of mankind as a whole, who are above the angels in respect of free will and reward and punishment.
The Maharal also points out that the Talmud is written in Aramaic, because it relates to a higher level of Torah understanding than the Mishna.
The translation of the Torah into Aramaic testifies to the fact that the Torah is relevant to all of mankind. It is true, writes the Maharal, that the other nations didn’t accept the Torah, but it was offered to them. And non-Jews can still accept the Torah by converting; thus, writes the Maharal, the language of Targum is specially connected to converts.
The gemara states that the Targum on the Torah was composed by Onkelos, a convert. (Megila 3a.)
The entire mishnah is in Hebrew. Yet at the very end of chapter 5 of tractate Avot, there are two statements in Aramaic, by Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei. One old tradition states that these individuals were converts.
In addition, this switch is important because the sixth chapter of Avot is all about the Torah; as we move from the level of midot to Torah, we suddenly have statements in Aramaic which is uniquely relevant to the highest worlds.
So reading the Targum on the portion testifies to the fact that the Torah comes to us from the highest worlds the special level of human striving which is above the level of the angels. This level is inherently relevant to mankind as a whole, as we see from the fact that Aramaic is a pan-human language. All nations have a potential connection to Torah, but since they declined to accept the Torah at the time it was given, their main connection is through conversion, and indeed converts seem to have a special affinity for this language.
Based on Maharal Netivot Olam Netiv HaAvoda 11, 13, Derekh Chaim 5.
Publication Update: Both volumes of the book have already been through page design, type-setting, and proof reading. It won't be long now, IY"H, that we will see it IN PRINT.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com.