Parshat Devarim: Targum vs. Translation

“On the east side of the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe began to explain this law saying.” (Devarim 1:5)

This passage is an introduction to Sefer Devarim. Much of the sefer is a review of the mitzvot. In this review Moshe clarifies the commandments and reveals additional details.

Rashi comments that Moshe explained the Torah to Bnai Yisrael in seventy languages.[1] According to Rashi, this was part of the process of clarifying the Torah. This raises an interesting question. How does translation into various languages clarify the Torah?

This problem has an important parallel in halacha. In order to understand this parallel, we need an introduction. The Torah is divided into parshiyot – sections. Generally, one portion is read in synagogue each Shabbat. On some weeks two parshiyot are read. In the course of a single year the entire Torah is read. The Talmud explains, in Tractate Berachot, that reading the weekly portion is not featured merely in the Shabbat synagogue service. We are also individually obligated to study the portion read on Shabbat. The Talmud further explains that this personal study of the parasha has a specific structure. We are required to read the entire parasha twice. We are also required to read the targum once.[2] What is targum? Targum means translation. The term is understood as a reference to the Aramaic translation composed by the Sage Unkelous.[3] This translation is included in many editions of the Torah.

The Tosefot record a dispute regarding this requirement of studying targum. They explain that there are two opinions regarding the requirement of targum. According to the first opinion, targum can be replaced by any translation understood by the student. An English-speaking person can substitute an English translation for targum. The second opinion disagrees. This opinion insists on the student’s study of Unkelous’ targum. The second opinion explains that targum is more than a mere translation. Although written in the form of a translation, Unkelous’ work offers invaluable insights into the meaning of various passages. This scholarly work cannot be replaced by a translation.

This does seem to be a valid criticism of the first opinion. The Talmud requires targum. Targum is more than a translation. How can targum be replaced with a translation? The Tosefot do not provide much information regarding this issue. They make one brief comment. They explain that every translation elucidates.[4] The question is obvious. How does a translation elucidate? This problem parallels our question

Let us begin by understanding the requirement of reviewing the weekly parasha. Why is targum needed? Why is it not sufficient to read the parasha without targum. It is clear that the law requires that the parasha be read and interpreted. This requirement creates a problem. The activity of interpretation is open-ended. The entire Oral Law can be viewed as an interpretation of the Torah! What level of interpretation is required to fulfill the obligation of reviewing the weekly portion? The Talmud is establishing this minimum level. Targum represents the minimum. Reading the parasha and studying the targum fulfill the obligation of studying the parasha.

We can now understand the dispute in Tosefot. How does targum fulfill the requirement of interpreting the parasha? There are two possibilities. This is because targum has two aspects. Targum is a brief commentary – based upon the Oral Torah – written in the form of a translation. It is a translation and a commentary. The second opinion in Tosefot is that the essential characteristic of targum is that it provides insight from the Oral Torah. It is written in the form of a translation. However, study of a mere translation does not fulfill the requirement of reviewing the parasha. A commentary providing insight from the Oral Torah is essential. Targum satisfies this requirement. Another translation might not.

The first opinion in Tosefot maintains that the essential feature of targum is translation. The very process of translation provides insight into the parasha. Why is this? There are two reasons. First, some phrases in the Torah are unclear or ambiguous. The process of translation clarifies these phrases. It is impossible to translate the Torah without dealing with and elucidating these difficult passages. Second, no two languages are completely parallel. Every language has a unique vocabulary. In translating a phrase, the scholar must choose the word or phrase that best reflects the meaning and sense of the original. In making this choice the translator inevitably provides insight into the meaning and implications of the original text. According to the first opinion in the Tosefot, the interpretation, implicit in a translation, is sufficient to fulfill the obligation of studying the weekly portion.

We can now answer our original question. Moshe translated the Torah into seventy languages. This was part of his explanation of the Torah. How did these seventy translations elucidate the meaning of the Torah?

As we have explained, translation inevitably interprets. In each translation, Moshe used the unique vocabulary of the language to describe the meaning and intention of the pesukim. Each language added color to the entire picture of the passage’s meaning. Through this process, Moshe was able to accurately define the simple meaning of the phrases.

“And they took in their hands samples of the fruits of the land and they brought them down to us. And they brought us back a report. And they said, “The land that Hashem our G-d gives to us is good.” (Devarim 1:25)

Moshe recounts the incident of the spies. This incident is described in greater detail in Sefer BeMidbar. In the account in Sefer BeMidbar, Moshe sends spies to scout the land of Israel. They return and report that the land is rich and fertile. However, they add that the land is heavily fortified and occupied by mighty nations. One of the spies – Kalev – argues that they can conquer the land. Hashem’s Providence will assure success. The other spies respond. Now, they claim that the land is not wholesome. It is a land that consumes its inhabitants. After hearing these reports, the nation does not want to proceed. There is a movement to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt. Another of the spies – Yehoshua, joins Kalev. Together, they reiterate that the land is fertile and rich. They argue that if Hashem is with Bnai Yisrael, they will conquer the land. The people should not rebel. In the end, the appeals of Kalev and Yehoshua do not have any effect.

Moshe’s account in his rebuke of these events is abridged. This is appropriate and understandable. He is speaking to people that are familiar with the incident. There is no need to review all the details. However, oddly, Moshe’s account seems to differ significantly from the description in Sefer BeMidbar. These differences do require an explanation.

Let us consider one of these differences. In his recounting the events, Moshe describes the report of the spies. In Moshe’s account, they merely say the land is good. This does not correspond with the description of their report in Sefer BeMidbar. There, they begin by acknowledging the fertility and richness of the land. However, they add that it cannot be conquered. Furthermore, they later change their assessment of the land. They claim that the land consumes its occupants. Why does Moshe not mention these elements of the spies’ report?

Rashi explains that Moshe is not describing the majority report of the spies. He is describing the report of Kalev and Yehoshua. What is Moshe’s message? Moshe’s apparent point is that the spies came back and said that the land was good – rich and fertile. Nonetheless, the nation disregarded this report and decided not to go in![5]

Nachmanides objects to this explanation. If this is Moshe’s criticism of the nation, it is very weak! Of course, Bnai Yisrael was unmoved by the minority report! Ten spies condemned the land. Only two praised it! The sensible response was for the nation to discount the minority perspective.

Nachmanides responds on Rashi’s behalf to his own objection. He explains that there was a reason for the people to embrace the report of Kalev and Yehoshua and reject the report of the other spies. Hashem already described the land of Israel to the nation. He assured Bnai Yisrael that the land flowed with milk and honey. The spies provide conflicting reports. Who should Bnai Yisrael have found to be credible? Nachmanides explains that they should have listened to Kalev and Yehoshua. Their report was consistent with Hashem’s assurances. The other spies provided a very different description of the land. But their account should have been attributed to their admitted fear and awe of the nation occupying the land. In short, the goodness of the land was confirmed. Yet, Bnai Yisrael refused to enter out of fear.

What is Moshe’s point? He is admonishing the nation to not scapegoat spies for the tragedy of the nation. The spies were wrong and committed a grave sin. However, their sin does not explain or excuse the transgression of Bnai Yisrael. Why are the spies not responsible for the nation’s sin? The spies did not say anything that should have misled the nation. The people should have believed the report of Kalev and Yehoshua. They should have attributed the report of the other spies to their fear.

Nachmanides takes this approach one further step. Moshe says that the spies reported that the land was wholesome. Nachmanides proposes that Moshe is referring to the report of all the spies. All of the spies originally endorsed the perfection of the land. True, later the majority changed their appraisal. But this new appraisal was a transparent fabrication. Moshe’s message is that the nation had every indication that the land was wholesome. They did not refuse to enter the land because this issue was actually in doubt. Instead, they lacked the courage to conquer the land. Nothing the spies said excuses the actions of the nation.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:5.

[2] Mesechet Berachot 8a.

[3] Tosefot, Mesechet Berachot 8a.

[4] Tosefot, Mesechet Berachot 8a.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:25.

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