ט״ז בתמוז ה׳תשע״ד (July 14, 2014)

Megilla 3a-b: Translating Scripture

There is a long history of the Bible being translated into the vernacular, but the attitude of to translations is not entirely positive.

According to our Gemara, Ḥumash was translated into Aramaic by the convert Onkelos, based on the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. When the Navi was translated by Yonatan ben Uzziel, based on the teachings of Haggai, Zekhariah and Malakhi, the land of Israel shook and a heavenly voice called out, “Who has allowed my secrets to be shared with flesh-and-blood?!” In response, Yonatan ben Uzziel accepted the responsibility for having done so, adding that God certainly knew that his intention was not to bring honor to himself or his family, but rather to add to the honor of God. Nevertheless, when he wanted to continue his work and translate Ketuvim, the heavenly voice forbade him from completing his work, since those books include the secrets of the end-of-days.

In his Pardes Rimonim, Shem-Tov ibn Shaprut explains the expression that the land of Israel shook as a metaphor for the objections raised by the Sages throughout Israel against the translation and its publication. The Gemara itself explains that there were greater objections about Navi than Ḥumash because the Ḥumash is more straightforward, while Navi has parts that cannot be understood without translations and elucidation. Rabbeinu Hananel explains that the Sages simply saw it as objectionable to publicize issues that the Torah had only hinted to. The Ri”d argues that the problem stems from the fact that translations make study too easy, and that people would come to rely on the translation rather than working through the material on their own. The Penei Yehoshua suggests that there was a fear that only the translation would be studied and the original texts would be ignored.

Today we have Aramaic translations of the books of the Ketuvim, as well (in fact, Megillat Esther has two). Already during the time of the second Temple a translation of Sefer Iyyov was available. Nevertheless, the Ge’onim write that these were qualitatively different than the translations described here, in that they were never officially sanctioned, were not authored by leading rabbis, and were not seen as necessarily offering the true meaning of the text.

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