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Which Targum to Read? PDF Print E-mail
Written by harav   
Monday, 28 January 2013 20:56


Which Targum to Read?

Yom 1, 16-11-65 —16 Sh'vatt 5773 — 27-01-2013


What do you suggest people in Israel do for shnayim mikra v'echad targum?  Here in America, I read an English translation instead of Onkelos since it seems obvious to me that there is no point in translating a passuk from one language I don't understand fully into another language that I don't understand at all.  Several poskim permit this and I'm sure you do as well based on your hashkafa. My question is what should Israelis do?  In other words, supposing I moved to Israel in the future: What should I advise my children, G-d willing, to do?  Read the modern Hebrew translation?  Not read any targum whatsoever?



1. The practice of reading a Targum is a very ancient one, as noted by Rambam who states that this became the practice in the days of 'Ezra HaSopher (approximately 2400 years ago) in order that the congregation understand what is being read from the Tora. At that time, most people spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew and the Targum that was used was in Aramaic. Certain Rishonim therefore felt that reading an Aramaic Targum nowadays serves no purpose (see Tosaphoth, M'ghila 23b; Rosh, M'ghila 3:6 and Tur OH 145).

2. The question of dropping the Targum was first raised nearly twelve centuries ago, and many authorities, including all the G'onim, were vehemently opposed. Rav Nattronai Gaon z'l (head of the Y'shiva in Sura, Bavel, 853-858 CE) criticised those who claimed that it was "unnecessary to translate the Tora reading into Aramaic but rather into our own language which the public understands" in very strong terms indeed. He quotes many Talmudic statements to demonstrate that the Targum is a requirement. He goes as far as to say that those who refuse to comply should be excommunicated (niduy) (Responsa of Rav Nattronai Gaon, I, no. 45, pp. 152-154, quoted by Rav 'Amram Gaon, SDRAG, pp. 66-67). When Rav Hai Gaon z'l, about one century later, was made aware that the Jews of Spain had ceased to read the Targum in schul, he was dismayed and wrote to them that the Targum is an essential element of the public Tora reading (see Ossar HaG'onim, B'rakhoth, pp. 18-19).

3. Historically, most Jewish communities dropped the Targum at some point; today only the Temani communities maintain this ancient tradition. It may strike some as somewhat surprising that the traditionalist approach of the G'onim was defeated. Imagine if this discussion were to have taken place today. More about this below (no. 8).

4. If I thought that the issue of whether or not to read the Targum hinged upon the question of how many people nowadays understand the Aramaic, I would have no hesitation accepting what the Tosaphoth et al write. However, having now davened for years in a Temani schul and having experienced the reality and the ramifications of reading the Targum, I can state with certainty that there is much more to it than that.

5. Firstly, there is the all-important issue of creating a pause for thought between one pasuq and the next. Even a native Hebrew speaker requires such a break. Biblical Hebrew is far more concise, and differs in many significant ways, from modern Hebrew. The vocabulary and style of the Tora and the N'vi'im must be studied from childhood in order to be fully comprehensible. That pause allows one to digest what one has just heard; without it we are missing a great deal.

6. Secondly, the Aramaic Targum is the most ancient and authoritative commentary on the Tora that we possess. The first primary source to which we should turn in order to correctly understand the Tora is the Targum – assuming you can understand it. Which brings us to the next point.

7. Hebrew and Aramaic are very closely related and share many root words. Parts of the T'nakh are written in Aramaic, as is much of both Talmudim. Understanding Aramaic contributes directly to understanding Hebrew and vice-versa. For a Jew, the most natural and most obvious introduction to Aramaic should be the Targum read in schul every week. If a person hears the Targum regularly, if it is part of the schul experience, he will come to understand it. It's like a muscle: use it or lose it. Most Jews today find Aramaic foreign precisely because they were never expected to know it. And this means that major parts of our Tora literature, starting with the Targum, are simply lost on them. This is a tragedy, and it is avoidable.

8. Ironically, it is likely that the Babylonian practice of completing the reading of the Tora in an annual cycle contributed to the Targum's demise; an annual cycle frequently requires long weekly portions. When reading the Targum in addition to the Tora, the time required is more than doubled. The original practice of Eress Yisrael was to read the Tora once every 3.5 years, which means that the weekly Tora reading is significantly shorter. One can well imagine that some people found davening on Shabath too drawn out. The fact that Aramaic was not the vernacular lent weight to the argument that davening could be curtailed by dropping the Targum. This is a good example of the masses ignoring their teachers' exhortations and creating a new reality on the ground. Historically, many Halakhoth were "paskened" in this manner. Whether all such developments are positive and/or justified, and whether certain things need to be re-examined is an interesting and important discussion.

9. It is relevant to point out that one of the pricipal, if not primary, reasons for the excessive length of a typical Shabath morning minyan is the number of unnecessary additions. R.Y'hudha Barceloni (Sepher Ha'Itim pp. 250-251) criticized the minhagh of adding the lengthy addition "HaKol Yodhukah.....El Adhon 'al Kol HaMa'asim etc." to the first B'rakha of Q'riyath Sh'ma on Shabath morning on a number of grounds. He omits to mention one of the most obvious arguments: that such additions are an unnecessary burden on the community in terms of time. If one adds to this other unnecessary piyuttim such as "'An'im Z'miroth", the frequent but misguided repetition of Qadish where no Qadish is called for (see Rambam's responsum no. 208) and the frequently lengthy and repeated "MiSheberakh"s between 'Aliyoth, to mention just a few examples, one soon realizes that if all superfluous and optional additions were dropped the time required for an average minyan would be shortened very significantly. The time thus saved could be reinvested in the Targum, something of far greater importance. We would do well to remember what Rambam writes in a several responsa (nos. 207, 208 and 261) regarding the adding of various prayers to the communal service: that non-essential additions are not to be allowed because the communal t'phila is for all, including the young, the old, the sick and others who cannot afford to be delayed, and that this is doubly true on Shabath and Yom Tov when Hazal deliberately shortened the Sh'mone 'Esre. Rambam (no. 261) goes on to say that all manner of voluntary additional T'phila is praiseworthy but should be a private matter never imposed on the community.

10. Rav Nattronai Gaon ends his responsum (mentioned above) by saying that he is not opposed to a second translation being read in addition to Targum Onq'los. We act upon this suggestion in our Nusah Eress Yisrael minyanim, where we read an additional Hebrew translation which is very enlightening. This is only feasible where a shorter parasha is read.

11. It must be admitted that if one observes what goes on in many schuls in general, and during the Tora reading in particular, much is left to be desired. In N'hemya 8:3 it states that "the ears of all the people were directed to the book of the Law". And the Talmud states that once the Tora scroll is opened it is forbidden to speak (TB Sotta 39a). Is it not time to adddress these issues?

12. In the meantime, a person can and should make the effort to begin to familiarise himself with the Targum. There are books which translate the Targum word for word, such as Yayin HaTtov. If at first this proves difficult, learn the first 10 p'suqim of the parasha each week making sure to understand every word. In time it will become easier and more comprehensible.

13. As for other translations, I find the translation in Rav Shimshon R. Hirsch's English commentary to be useful. Rav Hirsch's commentary in general is excellent. A person should use whatever translation or commentary is helpful. As for Hebrew speakers, your question is very pertinent. Most Israelis seem to think that they do not require a translation, but as mentioned above, this is untrue. A T'nakh with a modern Hebrew translation was published a few years ago – T'nakh Ram, by Avraham Ahuvya. Some educators came out against it, but I believe the criticism is misguided. I feel that an expanded translation, with explanatory additions embedded in the translation, is precisely what is needed to make the T'nakh accessible to the average Israeli. To read such a translation would be much more attractive than having to constantly shift one's eyes from text to commentary. It would be a very important development if such a translation were widely disseminated.

Rabbi David Bar-Hayim


Last Updated on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:38