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 1
LET’S STUDY
ONKELOS 
 
A Guide for Rabbis, Teachers and Torah Students to Study and Teach the
 Parashat Hashavua
through the Eyes of its Most Important TranslatorBy Stanley M. Wagner and Israel DrazinBased on the five volume,
Onkelos on the Torah
(
Genesis-Deuteronomy
),
Understanding the Bible Text
, by Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner, published by Gefen Publishing House,Jerusalem/New York, 2006
 – 
2010.STUDY GUIDE
MATTOT (CHAPTER 30:2
32:42)SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION
The laws concerning vows are presented, which allow an annulment of the vow in thecase of a vow made by a wife or daughter; war is waged against the Midianites, they aredefeated and many are annihilated; the Israelite warriors who killed someone in battle, orwho came in contact with a corpse, must be purified, along with his garments and vessels;the spoils of war are divided and distributed, and instructions are provided for makingthese vessels acceptable for use; representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad approachMoses with a request that their tribes be allowed to settle on the eastern side of the JordanRiver which has already been conquered; Moses remonstrates against them and warns that God will punish them and the nation if they choose to remain behind and not participate inthe conquest of Canaan; Moses decides to allow them to settle their families on the east sideof the Jordan River on condition that they will cross over with the rest of the nation andfight with their brethren to conquer the land, and they agree to do so.
HOW SERIOUS IS THE MANDATE TO STUDY THE
 PARASHAH 
 WEEKLY WITH THE
ONKELOS
TRANSLATION?
We have been advocating a return to the study of 
Onkelos
in order to truly understandthe biblical text, thus also reinforcing the rabbinic mandate to do so. Rabbinic mandates
 
 2
actually come on different levels of seriousness. All are important, but some are moreimportant that others, if we assess them and their impact on Jewish life.There is an extraordinary discussion concerning
Onkelos
on what appears to be a verysimple and uninspiring verse (32:2, pages 286 and 287)
1
that contains nothing but names
of places. It reads as follows: “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam,Nebo, and Beon,” Our appendix (pages 418–
419) presents the fascinating dispute focusedon this verse:
The rabbis mandated that Jews should read the Torah portion three times weekly,twice in the original Hebrew and once in the translation of Onkelos. Verse 3 of our chapter contains only names. Does the rabbinical mandate apply to verse 3? The Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 8a, b, states that one should do the weekly readingalso for verse 3, and such a reading prolongs life. While this may be a hyperbolicstatement, it is clear that the rabbis wanted to emphasize that reading Onkelos isimportant.Rashi on Berakhot 8a, b explains that the Talmud is insisting that although verse 3has no Aramaic translation, no exceptions should be made, and one should still read Onkelos. The Sperber and Berliner versions of our Targum, like the text held by Rashi,are not translated, but there are Onkelos versions that do translate the names. (TheOnkelos in our edition contains the Aramaic translation of the names.) Rashi refers toMegillah 3a, where the rabbis discuss who wrote Onkelos, and assures us that Onkelos is the authorized text that the rabbis want Jews to read. This Targum was
composed before the time of its alleged author, whom Rashi identifies as “Onkelos” 
(see our introduction to Genesis for more on the identity of the Onkelos targumist);
God gave it to the Israelites at Sinai; however, as the Talmud states, it was “forgottenand then restored” by the Onkelos targumist.
 Tosaphot seem to differ slightly with Rashi. Tosaphot agree with Rashi that when theBabylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49a, states that Jews should read the Targum weekly,
they meant “our (authorized) translation” (“targum didan”) Onkelos. However,
Tosaphot contend that since Onkelos has no translation, one should read Pseudo- Jonathan to verse 3. Tosaphot also state that the rabbis required the Targum readingbecause the Aramaic translation helps us understand the text. It is as Rav Yosef said 
in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 3a, “Were it not for the Targum of this verse, wewould not have known what it meant.” Tosaphot to Bava
Kamma 3b explains that Rav Yosef was an expert in the Targum, a complex subject requiring years of expertise. Thus, according to Tosaphot, since the purpose of reading the Targum is tounderstand the text, Pseudo-Jonathan should be read.There is a reasona
ble support for Rashi’s position that Jews should read Onkelos to
verse 3 even though it lacks a translation. The rabbis taught midrashic biblical interpretations in the Midrashim and the Talmuds. However, they recognized in their 
1
All page numbers refer to the Drazin-Wagner
Onkelos on the Torah
volumes.
 
 3
stated principle
“ein mikra yotzei mi’dei peshuto,” that, in essence, people should also
know the plain, non-aggadic biblical intent. Therefore, they advised 
some say mandated 
—Jews to read Targum Onkelos because Onkelos contains the text’s plain
meaning. Recognizing basic psychology, they knew that if they allowed exceptions,the minor exceptions would soon grow and ultimately the Targum would be ignored.
Once this is understood, one can see the difficulty with Tosaphot’s position. The
 purpose of reading the Targum to understand th
e Torah’s plain meaning is defeated 
when one reads the midrashic Pseudo-Jonathan. This purpose is also nullified by those who maintain that since they cannot understand the Aramaic of Onkelos they can fulfill the rabbinic requirement to read Onkelos by reading Rashi; unlike Onkelos,Rashi generally contains midrashic material and not just the plain meaning of theTorah.
It would be edifying, once again, to quote the
Shulchan Arukh
(
Orach Chayim
,
Hilkhot Shabbat 
 
285:1 and 2, based on Maimonides’
Mishneh Torah
,
Hilkhot Tephillah
13:25)
verbatim, so that there will be no question in anyone’s mind concerning the authority of the
law:
Even though a person listens to the entire Torah reading every Shabbat with thecongregation, he is (still) required to read individually every week the Torah portiontwice from the Scriptural text, and once with the Targum (Onkelos), even AtarothveDibon (verse 3).
If one has reviewed the parashah with Rashi’s commentary, it is as though he
reviewed it with the Targum, (however) God fearing persons will read the Targum
and Rashi’s commentary.
 
Interestingly, it is also permitted to fulfill the mandate of reviewing the Torah portiontwice and once with the
Targum
during the congregational reading of the Torah (
Shulchan Arukh
,
Orach Chaim
,
Hilkhot Keriat Sefer Torah
146:2 and
Hilkhot Shabbat 
285:5).
Now, admittedly, this law fell into disuse, and as we indicated in our Preface, “the
importance of accurate biblical translation gave way to an overwhelming preoccupationwith interpretation; textual analysis was replaced by contextual exegesis; and lovers of theBible focused almost exclusively on the brilliant commentaries that were composed to
‘flesh out’ biblical narratives and laws.” But it is also interesting to note that “the talmud
icdictum was written when there were many important exegetical collections, like
GenesisRabbah
,
Mekhilta
,
Sifra
and
Sifrei
. Yet, the oft-quoted recommendation urged only thereading of 
Onkelos
when reviewing the Torah portion. Furthermore, by the time the
Shulchan Arukh
was written, and the law promulgated, most of the classical medieval
biblical commentaries were already in circulation.” Nevertheless,
Targum Onkelos
wasconsidered indispensable in order to understand the biblical text.

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