A questionable sermon


Ever since the time of the sage Nachmanides (1194 – 1270), who introduced the notion that the Torah contains mysticism, and who said that the Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses, which is called Targum Onkelos, also contains mysticism, people began to think that the Targum contains both mystical ideas and hidden midrash, imaginative lessons.[1] This notion is wrong. The Targum is actually a translation of the Hebrew Bible text into Aramaic, the language Jews spoke when the Targum was composed. It is generally a word for word translation and only deviates from the plain meaning of a biblical words to protect the honor of God (such as to remove an anthropomorphic portrayal) or of Israelite ancestors (such as Jacob did not act with deceit, but with wisdom), and for the sake of clarity. Nevertheless, many rabbis today mine the Targum text and misread the Aramaic to say what they want it to say. I read and heard many such attempts. Here is an example of a sermon I heard.

Numbers 1:2 states “Count the Israelites l’mispachtam l’bet avotam” The Hebrew words are generally and correctly translated “by their families, by their father’s houses.”

The rabbi noted in his sermon that the commentator Rashi (1040-1105) explains l’mispachtam “to ascertain the number of each tribe.” The rabbi commented that Rashi was explaining that the focus in one’s life should be on one’s ancestors.

He told his congregation a personal story: he was descendant of a famous rabbi, who he named, said his mother stressed that he should always remember his ancestor and act accordingly, and be sure to tell all girl’s he dates about his ancestor.

Then he said – and this is where his sermon entered deeper into the twilight zone – Targum Onkelos differs with Rashi. Whereas Rashi agrees with his mother that ancestry – called in Hebrew yichus – is important, Targum Onkelos was teaching that it is not important who one’s ancestor was, but one’s own personal behavior.

Onkelos, he said, uses the Aramaic word l’zar’at’hon to translate l’mispachtam, which the rabbi said means “children.” While Rashi, he said, extolled the past and yichus, Onkelos was telling his readers that we should not live emphasizing the past, but the present. The rabbi concluded his sermon be reminding his congregation of his heritage and said: my yichus is significant, but the past is not important as it is to create your own yichus by your own behavior today.

Why did I consider the sermon strange? The message was good, but it is not found in Rashi or Onkelos. Rashi was not speaking about yichus, but was simply explaining that Moses was instructed to count the members of each tribe so that we would know the number of men in each tribe. Yes, l’zar’at’hon does mean “children,” but it also means “families,” and is used frequently in the book of Numbers to denote “families.” Onkelos was simply translating a Hebrew word into Aramaic. There was no change, and certainly no message. Furthermore, academics and definitions aside, would anyone think that the Torah is commanding Moses to count the Israelites by numbering their children – even though some families have no children and some have many? What good would this information be?


[1] See my article “Nachmanides Introduced the Notion that Targum Onkelos Contains Derash,” that appeared on www.oqimta.org.il.