The Translation of the Seventy

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13 Feb 2014
Asarah B'Tevet

At the beginning of the period of the Second Beit Hamikdash, the Second Temple, the people of Israel lived under Persian dominion. After the fall of the Persian Empire, Greece inherited her place, and Israel was subjugated to Greece. Ptolemy, one of the Greek Kings who succeeded Alexander (The ‘Great’) of Macedonia, wanted the Jewish Sages to translate the Torah into Greek.

The way he went about it, however, proved his motives were highly questionable. He did not assemble the Jewish scholars all in one place so that they might consult each other on the translation. In the Talmud it is related:

‘King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did’ (Tractate Megillah 9).

Ptolemy found that each translation was exactly the same as the other. Even in places where the Sages intentionally altered the literal translation, the results were still identical; this constituted an “open miracle” and public sanctification of God’s Name.

If the interpretations of the Elders had varied widely, it would not blemish either the Torah or its interpreters in Jewish eyes, since we know that the Torah is open to different interpretations. To non-Jews, however, any dispute in interpreting the Torah would cast blemish on the Torah, and on the Torah Scholars who interpret it. G-d in His infinite mercy, allowed all 72 scholars to translate the Torah identically, thereby foiling (touche!) the evil plan of Ptolemy.

Examine additional aspects of this incident: A true miracle of translation.

A Troubled Day

The day on which the 72 Elders concluded their Greek translation of the Torah, the 8th of Tevet, was a day of sorrow for Israel, despite the clear hand of G-d in the events of the day. Although God’s Providence on behalf of His people was made manifest that day, and though the matter evoked general wonder in non-Jewish eyes, the day was nevertheless a very tragic day. The sages call it as tragic a day for Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made. In Megilat Ta’anit, the Sages described the event as follows:

On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.’ To what may the matter be likened? To a lion captured and imprisoned. Before his imprisonment, all feared him and fled from his presence. Then, all came to gaze at him and said, ‘Where is this one’s strength?

Likewise the Torah, as long as the Torah was in Hebrew and was interpreted by the Sages, it evoked reverence, and many feared to cast blemish upon it. Even the non-Jews who desired to study the Torah, had no contact with the Torah until he or she had acquired a knowledge of the Holy tongue and the prescribed ways for understanding the Torah.

Once the Torah was imprisoned in the Greek translation, it was as if the Torah were divested of reverence. Whoever wished to, could now gaze at the Torah. Anyone who wanted to find fault with its logic, could now do so, based on the translation. The Sages, therefore, likened the event of this day, to the day on which the Golden Calf was made. For just as the Golden Calf had no reality, and yet its servants regarded it as having real substance, likewise the translation, devoid of the true substance of Torah, allowed non-Jews to imagine that they already knew the Torah.