I stressed for decades that the Torah is filled with obscurities. They were purposely placed in the Bible to prompt people to think, develop themselves, be all they can be, and help improve society. Unfortunately, some people derive mistaken ideas from what is obscure. The sage Nachmanides is an example.

Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Ramban and Nachmanides, was, without a doubt, one of his generation’s most brilliant Bible commentators. He was born in Gerona, Spain, in 1194 or 1195 and died around 1270. He was not a rationalist like Maimonides but a mystic. He was the first to introduce the idea that the Torah contains mystical notions and offered a mystical interpretation of the Bible. He was also the first to state that the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Targum Onkelos, contains imaginative material and mysticism. It was as if he were arguing that if the Torah is true, mysticism is true, and Targum Onkelos is true, then it follows that the Torah and Targum Onkelos must contain mysticism.

Without criticizing Nachmanides, I showed in my book “Nachmanides, An Unusual Thinker,” that despite his brilliance and broad knowledge of Jewish sources, most of his Targum Onkelos interpretations are puzzling. Although he mentions Onkelos 230 times in his commentary to the Pentateuch, generally to support his unique understanding of the scriptural text, more than half of his interpretations present problems.

The Babylonian Talmud and later Jewish codes mandate that Jews read the Torah portion weekly – twice in the original Hebrew and once in Targum Onkelos.[1] Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph Karo, whose law codes are regarded in many Jewish circles as binding, felt that it is vital to understand the Bible text through the eyes of its rabbinic accepted translation – Targum Onkelos.

The word Targum means “translation,” thus Targum Onkelos means a translation, presumably by someone named Onkelos. Targum Onkelos is a translation of the five books of Moses from Hebrew into Aramaic. The rabbis placed their imprimatur upon Targum Onkelos and considered it the official translation.[2] Although there are other Aramaic and ancient Greek translations,[3] and later translations into other languages, Targum Onkelos is the most literal. Yet despite being extremely literal, it contains over 10,000 differences from the original Hebrew text.[4]

All the Bible commentaries extolled Onkelos. Rashi even stated that the Onkelos translation was revealed at Mount Sinai.[5] Tosaphot had a similar view and contends that there are parts of the Torah that we could not understand without the Onkelos translation.[6]

Some people consider these comments hyperbolic or metaphoric – that the authors meant that Onkelos is so significant that it is as though it were a divine gift handed to Moses at Sinai. Whether literal or metaphoric, it is clear that these sages are expressing a reverence for Onkelos not accorded to any other book in Jewish history, a reverence approaching the respect they gave to the Torah itself. This veneration is further reflected in the fact that for many centuries, every printed edition of the Pentateuch contained the Onkelos text, generally given the preferential placement adjacent to the Torah text.

Why Did the Rabbis Require Jews to Read Targum Onkelos?

Significantly, the talmudic dictum was written when there were many important exegetical rabbinical collections –Talmuds, Genesis Rabbah, Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifrei, among others. Remarkably, the rabbis did not require Jews to read these books, filled with interesting derash, fanciful explanations written by them. They only mandated the reading of Onkelos when reviewing the weekly Torah portion.

Furthermore, by the time the Shulchan Arukh was composed in the sixteenth century, and the talmudic law was stated in it, most of the classical, medieval biblical commentaries, which included derash, were already in circulation. While Rabbi Joseph Karo, its author, suggests that Jews who do not understand Aramaic can study Rashi every week instead of the Targum, he quickly adds that those with “reverence for God” will learn both Rashi and Onkelos. The explanation offered by Turei Zahav (a commentary by Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal on the Shulchan Arukh, commonly abbreviated Taz) is that while Rashi enables the student to read the Bible and gain access to talmudic and Oral Law insights, Onkelos is still indispensable for understanding the text itself.

Thus, the rabbis, who composed books containing exegetical interpretations, felt that it was so important for Jews to know the plain meaning of the Torah that they mandated that Jews read Targum Onkelos every week.[7]

When did people stop seeing that Onkelos contains the Torah’s plain meaning and read derash into the wording of the Targum?

Nachmanides was the first commentator to introduce the concept that people should read Onkelos to find deeper meaning, meaning that Onkelos did not intend, meaning that went beyond the Torah’s plain sense. Nachmanides referred to this new method as derekh ha’emet, the proper way.

The conclusion that Onkelos contains only the simple meaning of the Torah is supported by examining how the ancients, living before Nachmanides in the thirteenth century, consistently and without exception, used Onkelos only for its peshat. Although many of these Bible commentators were interested in and devoted to the lessons – darash that could be derived from biblical verses, and although they were constantly using Onkelos for the Torah’s plain meaning – its peshat – they never employed the Targum to find derash or to support a conclusion that the verse they were discussing contained derash. This situation changed when, for the first time, Nachmanides mined the Targum to uncover derash.[8] Nachmanides used Onkelos to support his interpretation of the Torah.

This is significant since many of these rabbinical commentators were far more interested in the imaginative interpretations of the Torah than in what it is plainly saying. If they felt that Onkelos contained what they enjoyed, they would have used this translation to support their view as Nachmanides later did. The ancient sources are discussed in my Nachmanides book.

Nachmanides’ misinterpretation of Targum Onkelos was because the rabbis’ law to read the translation was obscure. They did not explain that Onkelos was a translation without intending to teach moral or theological lessons.[9] This story teaches that while obscurities inspire people to think, sometimes it results in erroneous thinking.


[1]Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 8a, b, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 13:25, and Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim, The Laws of Shabbat 285, 1. The requirement does not appear in the Jerusalem Talmud because Targum Onkelos did not yet exist when this Talmud was composed. See Drazin, “Dating Targum Onkelos by means of the Tannaitic Midrashim,” 246–58, where I date Onkelos to the late fourth century, based on the targumist’s consistent use of late fourth-century Midrashim.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3a.

[3] The Septuagint, composed about 250 BCE, and the translation by Aquila, composed about 130 CE.

[4] There are many reasons for the targumic changes, such as to clarify passages, to protect God’s honor, to show respect for Israelite ancestors, etc. These alterations were not made to teach derash, as will be shown below. The differences between peshat and derash is a complex subject. Simply stated, peshat is the plain, or simple, or obvious meaning of a text. Derash is the reading of a passage with either a conscious or unconscious intent to derive something from it, usually a teaching or ruling applicable to the needs or sensibilities of the later day, something the original writer may have never meant.

[5] Kiddushin 49a.

[6] Berakhot 8a, b.

[7] They seem to be implying that one cannot understand their teachings unless they first understood the Torah’s simple meaning.

[8] Our view that Onkelos was written without derash is also supported by the following interpretation of Babylonian Talmud Megillah 3a: The Talmud recalls a tradition that the world shuddered when Targum Jonathan to (The books of] the Prophets was written. Why, the Talmud asks, did this not occur when Targum Onkelos was composed? Because, it answers, Onkelos reveals nothing (that is, it contains no derash), whereas Targum Jonathan reveals secrets (by means of its derash content).

[9] Onkelos does remove depictions of God which seem to depict God anthropomorphically.