Introducing Targum Onkelos – in English!

Earlier this year, OU Torah ran a seven-part miniseries all about the law and lore of studying the weekly Torah “Shnayim Mikra v’Echad Targum” – twice in the original text and once in the Aramaic translation or “Targum.” The Targum referred to is popularly attributed to a second-century convert named Onkelos, often identified as Aquilas, the nephew of the emperor Titus. Onkelos didn’t craft his translation from scratch; rather, he transcribed the tradition he received from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, which dates back to the time of Ezra.

The Targum is renowned for its “p’shat” approach (referring to the simple meaning of the text), but Onkelos deviates from literal translation more than 10,000 times in an effort to clarify the meaning of the verses. Onkelos is best known for taking great strides to avoid anthropomorphisms that might suggest physicality on the part of God.

Many people rely on the commentary of Rashi to fulfill their obligation to review the parsha “Shnayim Mikra v’Echad Targum” – and, indeed, Rashi largely based his commentary on the Targum, overtly citing it some 1,300 times – but the Sages instituted that we use the Targum, and such would fulfill the obligation in the optimum fashion. The problem is that many people aren’t sufficiently adept in Aramaic. To facilitate the study of Targum Onkelos, OU Torah is proud to present a new series, Targum Onkelos – in English!

This raises a reasonable question: what’s the point of reading an English translation of the Aramaic translation? How is that different from just reading an English translation of the Hebrew? Good question! The answer is that Onkelos clarifies things in Aramaic, which are then translated into English. For example, Genesis 1:5 tells us:

God called the light “day” and the darkness He called “night.” It was evening and it was morning: one day.

Targum Onkelos, however, tells us:

Hashem called the light “daytime” and the darkness He called “nighttime.” It was evening and it was morning: one day.

You’ll note that the Aramaic differentiates between “daytime” (y’mama) and “one day” (yoma), a distinction that is lacking in both the Hebrew “yom” and the English “day.” This may be a small thing but Targum Onkelos clarifies the meaning of many far more complicated verses than this! In fact, thanks to Rashi’s influence, you’ve probably been translating many verses in accordance with Onkelos without even realizing it! (Why did our translation switch from “God” to “Hashem,” you ask? Another good question! You’ll have to visit Targum Onkelos – in English! to find out!)

To help readers know where Onkelos differs from the Torah text, the Targum’s emendations are highlighted in bold-faced type. Plus, footnotes shed further light on the Targum’s motivation for deviating from a literal translation. [1]

Targum Onkelos – in English! joins the many other fine parsha series available on OU Torah. Visit us online or by using the OU Torah app for iOS and Android!


1. In certain cases.