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 Translator By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin Based 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
TAZRIA (CHAPTER 12:1–13:59) SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION The laws of purity and impurity are amplified, commencing with the impurity acquired by a woman who bears a child and the process of her purification; the length of time a woman remains in her state of impurity differs if she gives birth to a male or female; priests served as officiants in the Sanctuary, as teachers, and as physical and spiritual health authorities; they were assigned the responsibility of identifying and treating various skin diseases which, if they develop into tzara’at, regarded both as a physical and spiritual malady, requires confinement to prevent contagion and, following the disappearance of symptoms, washing/purification; priests must also treat a tzara’at affliction that affects clothing.

ONKELOS’ END-ORIENTED DEFINITION OF TZARA’AT A MALADY DIFFICULT TO IDENTIFY
With chapter 12, the Torah introduces a new dimension into the communal life of the Israelites, the laws of tumah and taharah, “impurity” and “purity,” or, as it is also translated when one focuses on the physical nature of the disease rather than the spiritual one, “uncleanness” and “cleanness.” The first laws concern the birth of children, but soon move

1

into other parts of life, upon which we will now focus. We introduce these injunctions in our commentary on, “THE LORD,” 13:1 (page 89):1
In chapters 13 and 14, the Torah outlines the role of the priests in diagnosing and purifying people who have a skin condition that the Torah calls “tzara’at.” Transient skin conditions were treated over a prescribed period, after which the inflicted person was readmitted into the community. If the condition was seen to be permanent, when a cure was impossible, the individual was banished from the community until he was cured, perhaps even for the rest of his life. Verses 13:1-46 address the “tzara’at” that contaminates humans. The “tzara’at” that affects fabrics and leather is discussed in 13:47-59. The purification of a cured person from the transient “tzara’at” is in 14:1-32. The “tzara’at” of plastered or mud-covered dwellings is in 14:33-53. The chapters end with a postscript in 14:54-57. Neither chapter 13 or 14 nor any other biblical section reveals the cause of the malady. The sages of the Talmuds and Midrashim traced the source of the “tzara’at” to a spiritual malady, “lashon hara” (forbidden speech, literally, “evil language”), using a play on words: “metzora = motzee ra” (“bring forth evil,” i.e., speak in a forbidden fashion). However, there are scholars, Maimonides among them, who believe that “tzara’at” is a physical malady and the Torah laws were promulgated to treat the disease, with the priest serving as a health officer (Guide of the Perplexed 3:47). Most of the names of the various skin conditions in these two chapters are obscure. Onkelos generally refrains from defining them. The targumist sometimes simply repeats the Hebrew noun in an Aramaic form. Sometimes he veers off from addressing the word per se, and focuses instead, in an end-oriented manner, on what occurs after the contagion. Thus, for example, he does not define “tzara’at,” but tells us that it results in the person being quarantined.

It should be noted that the term tzara’at was for many years incorrectly identified as “leprosy,” a Greek word meaning “scaly.” Whether a physical or spiritual illness, it was a malady that required quarantine and the priests, who were responsible for preserving the cleanliness/purity of the Israelite camp, were responsible for diagnosing and treating the affliction. The Zohar, a book of Jewish mysticism, has a peculiar insight concerning the targumist’s rendering of tzara’at as “quarantined,” as noted in our appendix on page 302:
The Zohar, like many other post-Nachmanides Bible commentaries, reads more into the targumic rendering than the simple meaning that the targumist intended to convey. Onkelos rendered “tzara’at” (a word that is usually mistakenly translated as “leprosy”) as “shut up” or “quarantined” in verse 2 and many other verses throughout this chapter. It avoided interpreting the obscure meaning of the word, but focused on what occurs to the individual after he or she suffers the affliction, using the words from verse 5: the person is isolated from the community. (The word “quarantine” is derived from the Italian phrase “quarata giorni,” which means forty
1

All page numbers refer to the Onkelos on the Torah volume.

2

days, the amount of time that Venetians confined people who arrived in their ports during the devastating plague years of the fourteenth century. Interestingly, both the Italian forty and the biblical seven are oft-used scriptural numbers.) However, the Zohar posits that our targumist changed the biblical text to “quarantined” or “shut up” to teach that the upper lights of heaven are closed to this person.

Maimonides offers a more rational understanding of the disease, but discusses the rabbinical view of a spiritual impact upon the stricken person, as we explain in our appendix on pages 303 and 304:
Maimonides identifies the “tzara’at” as a physical disease in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:45, but also mentions the rabbinical view that it is a punishment for slander. While the Torah discusses the “tzara’at” of humans first and houses second, Maimonides states that the actual progression of the disease is the reverse order. Expanding upon the rabbinical interpretation, he explains: “the disease begins in the walls of the houses. If the sinner repents, the object (of the punishment) is achieved. If he remains disobedient, the disease affects his bed and house furniture. If he still continues to sin, the “tzara’at” attacks his garments, and then his body.” Maimonides, as a physician, points out the deterrent value of the process: “Tzara’at is a contagious disease and people almost naturally abhor it, and keep away from it.” Maimonides admits that he can find no reason why cedar wood, hyssop, crimson material, and two birds are used in the purification ceremony. He states that he knows the reasons represented in Midrashim, but regards them as imaginative. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:47, Maimonides states that all the biblical causes of impurity, including the discharges of males and females, menstruation, “tzara’at,” and the issue of semen, are “possible sources of dirt and filth.” The biblical laws accomplish several things: (1) They keep Jews away from unhealthy contamination. (2) They guard the sanctity of the Sanctuary. If the Jew is allowed to visit the Sanctuary frequently, the Jew’s feelings about the sanctity of the Sanctuary will be weakened. The numerous laws—covering such frequently occurring matters as sexual relations and menstruation—describe situations where individuals are precluded from visiting the Tabernacle. Thus, when they do visit, the occasion will be more meaningful. (3) They considerably lessen the superstition-based restrictions that the pagans associated with these conditions (Maimonides lists a host of restrictions that pagans placed on menstruating women and their spouses because of their fear of the woman’s menstrual condition). (4) They make the Jews’ daily lives easier because the biblical rules focus for the most part on the Sanctuary and, as mentioned in item 3, interfere minimally in daily life due to avoiding the above-mentioned pagan restrictions.

3

ADDITIONAL DISCUSSIONS ON ONKELOS Having cited the Zohar’s attempt to read into Onkelos a mystical meaning never intended by the targumist, we will add three other examples of misinterpretations in chapter 13, all found in verse 45 (pages 96 and 97) that reads as follows:
When someone has “tzara’at” (Onkelos: “a quarantining affliction”), his clothes must be rent, (the hair of) his head left loose (Onkelos: “wild”), and his upper lip covered (Onkelos adds: “like a mourner”). He must call out, “(Onkelos adds: “Do not be”) impure!” (Onkelos: “Do not be”) “impure!”

Our commentary (page 97, continuing on page 96) explains some of Onkelos’ deviations found in the verse that are interpreted in inappropriate ways:
RENT. The Hebrew “perumim” appears in the Bible only here, 10:6, and 21:10, where it carries the sense of “rend” and “bare (your heads).” The Targums’ word is an Aramaic synonym for Sifra’s Hebrew synonym for “perumim.” The act of rending one’s clothes symbolizes sorrow over death (Genesis 37:34 and II Samuel 1:11), sin (Numbers 14:6, II Kings 21:11, 19, and Ezra 9:5), and other misfortunes. DO NOT . . . DO NOT. The Aramaic adds “v’lo” twice before “impure” so that the reader would not suppose that the afflicted person is shouting “be impure, be impure!” (see page 302). The letters “vav,” “and,” which introduce each “v’lo,” are unnecessary; we left them untranslated. Literally, the Aramaic is “‘and do not be impure, and do not be impure,’ he must call out.” Even if one were to accept the first “and,” the second, as noted by Luzzatto (Ohev Ger) is certainly inappropriate and is clearly a scribal error (see page 302).

In our appendix on pages 302 and 303, we refute the attempts made by others to read into Onkelos interpretations that are unwarranted:
Lowenstein (Nefesh HaGer) argues that Onkelos rendered “parua,” “wild,” in verse 45 literally, without explaining it, to avoid deciding between the views of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, in the Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 15a. The verse states that the afflicted person leaves “his head wild,” and the targumist does not clarify what the word is describing. The talmudic rabbis disputed whether the word refers to hair or to “tephillin.” He claims that the targumist intentionally translated the word literally to avoid deciding the halakhah out of respect to the two rabbis, both of whom were his teachers. This theory that he remained silent out of respect for his teachers is doubtful. First, as we pointed out in our introduction to Genesis, these rabbis were not our translator’s teachers. Second, if the translator did deviate and rendered the word “long,” as Rashi and others, or “covered,” like Neophyti, he would not have hinted at the view of either rabbi, and would have favored neither of them. Thus, there was no need to be silent to show respect.

4

Adler (Netina LaGer) and Komlosh (Hamikra Beor Hatargum, page 215) curiously argue that Onkelos’ addition of “and do not (be impure) and do not (be impure)” in verse 45 was made to introduce the ethical teaching in the Babylonian Talmud, Pessachim 31. The Talmud, they say, advises Jews not to use indelicate terms such as “impure,” but to use the words “not pure.” They seem to miss the point. The targumist did not say “not pure,” and, indeed, contrary to the talmudic injunction, he retained the biblical indelicate term “impure.” All he did was add “and do not” before “be impure.” Adler reads volumes of halakhic rules even into single letters. Addressing the final “v’lo” in verse 45, he agrees that the prefix “vav” (“and”) is linguistically unnecessary and puzzling. However, he states that since the single letter “vav,” “and,” indicates that something is being added, Onkelos must have inserted the letter to add that the afflicted person must stay a large distance from the healthy population, or it was placed in the translation to add the halakhah that other impure individuals (other than the “metzora” discussed in this chapter) must also shout “do not be impure.”

GENERAL DISCUSSION How do the terms “purity” and “impurity” apply to our lives in contemporary times? The Torah introduces these laws by describing the “impurity” of a woman who gives birth, and a ritual she must perform at the end of her purification period, mandating different lengths of “pure” and “impure” days depending upon whether a male or female is born. How should we understand the concept of “impurity” when applied to one of the great celebratory events in life? How can a person become impure by having a baby, a natural event? How do we account for the distinction made between genders with regard to the length of times prescribed? Does having a male child differ from having a female child in regard to purity? How do we account for the juxtaposition in the Torah of these laws with the laws of tzara’at? Does it help to consider these laws as health measures?

FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. See 13:5 and commentary, “AS IT WAS” (page 91). Did Onkelos mistranslate the biblical phrase amad b’einav? Rashi, ibn Ezra, and Chazkunee did not think so. 2. See 13:33 and commentary, “SHAVE” (page 95, continuing on page 94). The targumist uses Sifra to translate a confusing biblical phrase. 3. See 13:51 and commentary, “MALIGNANT QUARANTINING [MARK]” (page 51). The Targum explains a rare word. 5