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Sunday, November 29, 2009

What This Blog's About

This blog aims to give the reader some food for thought about various aspects of each weekly Torah portion. While not averse to giving a comprehensive view of any given topic, I am more interested in pointing out some of the smaller things which the reader may have overlooked or, due to lack of familiarity with the Hebrew text, may be altogether unaware of.

The Talmud (TB B'rachot 8a) tells us that “One should always complete their (Torah) portions with the community (by learning) the text of the Torah twice and the Aramaic translation once.” The basic idea of this passage is clear: By the time the Torah portion is read in its entirety in shul on Shabbat, each person should have already read the Hebrew text twice and the Aramaic translation once. At the time this practice was instituted in Babylonia, Aramaic was the common language whereas not everyone was fluent in Hebrew. So reading the Aramaic translation would have been essential for the masses to comprehend the text. However, the emphasis was still on reading the original Hebrew text.

To what purpose was reading the Hebrew text if it wasn't understood by the reader? I can offer a couple of explanations. One is that reading the text of the Torah, indeed of Tanach, even without comprehension, is seen as an act of Talmud Torah, of learning Torah. Halacha states that simply reading the text of Tanach is an act of Talmud Torah whereas only by learning Mishnah or Gemara does one accomplish an act of Talmud Torah. This is indicated by the term used by the sages for Tanach: מקרא (mikra) which derives from the Hebrew root קרא (kara) meaning 'to read.'

I think there is at least one more reason, as well. I believe that the sages wanted to emphasize the importance of learning the text of the Tanach in the original Hebrew, particularly the Torah. Any translation, even in a cognate language such as Aramaic, is not more than a commentary. By reading a translation, the reader is ultimately a slave to the particular outlook of the translator.

In the last thirty or so years we have witnessed an explosion of English translations of classic Jewish texts; not just the primary texts, such as Tanach or Talmud, but many secondary and tertiary texts, as well, such as the classical commentaries on these seminal works. On the one hand, this publishing phenomenon has exposed countless numbers of people to works they might otherwise have never seen, much less read or learned. On the other hand, though, the translators in each case are the ones doing the learning for the reader. These translations generally do not provoke critical thought on the part of the reader—just the opposite is often true! The reader is to understand the translation as received wisdom, not to be questioned.

By making the individual read the Torah portion each week twice in Hebrew, the sages were thereby encouraging an intimate familiarity with the original text. By complementing that reading with the Aramaic translation, they were supplying a basic course in teaching one's self Hebrew.

(Ironically, perhaps, I learned Aramaic mainly by reading the Torah portion first in Hebrew, which I already understood, and then deriving the meaning of the Aramaic translation by reading it side by side with the Hebrew.)

I understand that not every reader here will take the time to read the parsha in Hebrew. However, I will be pointing out certain aspects of the Hebrew text in my comments and encourage the reader delve further.


  1. I agree that all translation is interpretation. Doesn't this create problems for the person who wishes to study Torah in Hebrew but isn't fluent in Biblical Hebrew? (I have actually seen a native Israeli misinterpret a word in the Torah, because they were interpreting it in modern Hebrew, and the meaning was quite different in Biblical Hebrew). I mean, if you don't speak the language, then reading the Hebrew is going to require you to look up translations of many, or potentially all of the words. Then looking up the translations will put us right back at square one: We are stuck with someone's interpretation of what the word means. Wouldn't it make more sense to skip the middleman, so to speak, and just read the translations of the Torah, rather than the translations of each individual word? Having multiple translations would give one the opportunity to get varied perspectives from experts, rather than having an individual who doesn't know the language have to guess as to which dictionary to trust.

    P.S. I'm honored to be the first to comment and first follower of your new blog. Looking forward to much learning.

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  3. I think these blogs are going to be just fantabulous and I am highly delighted to see them begin.I am eagerly awaiting some of your profound, insightful, carefully thought through and illuminating comments on the parsha.I am more than pleased to read from a scholar I absolutely trust to understand the text and explain things clearly!
    Very Best Wishes,sam

  4. b7eema: Here's the problem: No one speaks Biblical Hebrew. We know what we know through a combination of tradition and determining meaning through context and hints from other cognate languages. I think there is an inherent advantage in looking up words in various dictionaries and looking at various translations in that these tools give you a basis to determine meaning. Clearly, one will not come out with one single interpretation but that is part of a long standing tradition in Torah learning, namely שבעים פנים לתורה there are seventy faces (or facets or aspects) to the Torah.

    In any event, it is clearly better in my mind to pursue various possible meanings than to rely on a single translator.

  5. Regarding the relationship of malach to m'lacha, the thought came to me that when God created man, the text reads: Vayomer Elokim na'aseh" first person pleural. Now Rashi says that the angels were concerned with Hashem's decision to create a being having some Godly attributes such as speech and creativity, a being able to make choices, unlike the unitarian mission role of angels, and he claimed that the "we" means that God explained to them his rationale to put them at ease. But creation was done with the Elokim aspect of creating a physical world and the Rabbonim state that the natural world operates through angels. The exception is made when something occurs beyond natural law. The Haggadah states the the death of the first born was done directly by G-d and not by angels. Therefore when G-d spoke and the sequential steps in the creation the the universe came about, it was mediated by angels.