the Reasons for the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet

            January 2013    
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The Tenth of Teveth, the Translation into Greek of the Torah and Why it was Tragic

By Shimon Shenker

The fast of the 10th Tevet commemorates three occurrences that befell the Jewish people; on the 8th Tevet the Torah was translated into Greek and, the sages say, this was as calamitous for the Jewish nation as the day of the making of the golden calf. On the 9th of Tevet, Ezra and Nechemia, leaders of the Jewish people's return to the Land of Israel from Babylon and builders of the second Temple died; an irreplaceable loss. On the tenth of Tevet, Nevuchadnetzer, king of Babylon began his three year siege of Jerusalem, resulting in the destruction of the first Temple.

This translation is known as the Septuagint or in Hebrew the Targum HaShivim, (Translation of the Seventy) and upon first consideration, the equivalence of the translation of the Torah into Greek, with the other great national tragedies seems overblown and bizarre.

What was the significance of this translation and how did it come about? A consideration of traditional Jewish sources can enable us to arrive at an understanding of this event and its consequences.

The Talmud (Megilah, 9a) recounts the following incident:

"It happened that King Talmi, (the Greco-Egyptian King Ptolemy II, reigned 283 - 246 BCE), gathered seventy two (Jewish) sages and housed them in seventy two houses. And he didn't reveal to them for what purpose he had gathered them. And he visited every one of them and said to them, "Write for me the Torah of Moses your teacher!". G-d put into the heart of each of them and all of them agreed (individually and without knowledge of the others) on one translation"

All of the sages independently adjusted the Greek translation from the literal reading of the text in fifteen places to avoid misunderstandings that would result in a heretical or slanderous interpretation of concepts and personalities in the Torah. As mentioned above this translation is known as the Septuagint or in Hebrew the Targum HaShivim, (Translation of the Seventy)

For example, regarding the verse, "In the beginning created G-d" was adjusted to say "G-d created in the beginning", (Genesis 1:1), the great medieval French commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), writes:

"This was so that they should not say that "In the Beginning", (Bereishit), is a name and thus there are two deities, the first creating the second."

The Vilna Gaon, (1720 - 97), claimed that this concept is alluded to in the practice of restarting the reading of the Torah immediately upon its completion on Simchat Torah. The final verse in Deuteronomy reads, "Before the eyes of all Israel", followed, according to this custom, by the first verse of Genesis, "In the beginning the Lord created". The Vilna Gaon taught that this means that only before the eyes of all Israel should "In the beginning the Lord created" be written, for Ptolemy however, write, "The Lord created in the beginning".

This adjustment of the literal meaning of the Torah was necessitated by concern for misinterpretation. This concern in turn, arose from the inevitable lack of recourse to the explanations found in the Oral Torah by the Grecian reader, who would approach this Greek Torah as a work of world ethical literature, in much the same vein as the modern reader may approach Aristotle or Kant today, rather than as a text which contained layers of meaning, accessible only through a tradition of exegesis, simultaneously a work of mysticism and law, history and moral guidance.

The classical Greek concept of beauty is the beauty of external form, that which is perceivable to the observer; the Septuagint is a fixed piece of literary art, to be engaged and appreciated by the objective, detached reader as a spectator.

The student of Torah however is a warrior in the war of Torah, toiling to master it and creating his own Torah through the prism of his understanding, rooted in the tradition of methodology of exegesis but emerging with something personal. The effort of understanding is paramount and the expression of the individuality of the student, the actual arrival at the correct understanding of the Jewish law is a gift from Heaven. The Torah student engages with the Torah as a participant.

Thus the Talmud, (Sofrim Chapt.1,Mishnah 7), declares that the day of the completion of this translation was, "As hard for Israel as was the day of the making of the Golden Calf!, for the Torah was not able to be translated as to its full extent."

The golden calf was made as a representation of Israel's relationship with G-d, a figurehead, not a replacement of the deity, the comparison of this translation with the golden calf is that whilst both are objects of beauty, they are without true substance, whilst worshipping the golden calf may lead one to believe that he has a relationship with G-d Himself, he has in fact achieved nothing. So too, study of the Septuagint can lead man to consider himself as having understood the Torah whereas he has only in fact, seen a shadow.

This is the reason for mourning the translation of the Torah and this is the national tragedy, the world's understanding of the nature of the Torah, including all too often our own, is that of literature, ancient, dated and lacking in relevance for the modern age.

Of course, the Septuagint is not the only translation of the Torah. There are also the Targum Yonotan ben Uzziel, the Targum Yerushalmi and the Targum Unkelus.

Whilst the Targum haShivim, written by seventy great sages with Divine inspiration is considered a tragedy, the Targum Unkelos is prescribed by the Talmud, to be studied together with the Torah portion, as a commentary, every week. What is the reason for these two opposite attitudes regarding these two translations?

Targum Unkelus, (Translation of Unkelus), was written by Unkelus the Convert, the brother-in-law of the Roman Emperor Titus, known in Jewish tradition as Titus the Wicked, destroyer of the second Temple, (reigned 79 - 81 common era). Unkelus Traveled to Israel to convert, studying there under the Talmudic sages Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania during the end of the second Temple period.

According to the Talmud, Unkelus did not himself compose this translation, but committed a pre-existing tradition which had been largely forgotten to writing. According the great medieval commentator, Rashi, this translation was in fact part of the Oral Torah given to Moses at Sinai. Thus, although a translation, Targum Unkelus has the status of prophetic revelation through Moses. (There is a differing opinion amongst other medieval authorities that the Targum was originally composed by prophets subsequent to Moses).

Targum Unkelus is, therefore, part of the Oral Torah, a word-by-word commentary of the Torah, not an Aramaic rendering of the original. Targum Unkelus is not an alternative to the Hebrew original but rather complimentary thereto. For this reason the Talmud requires that the Targum Unkelus be studied together with, (not instead of), the Torah portion in Hebrew;

"Says Rav Huna bar Yehuda, says Rav Rabbi Ami; 'A person should always finish the parsha with the community, twice in Hebrew and once in Targum.'" (Berachot 8a)

Regarding this, Tosafot, (an aggregate of commentaries from the generations immediately after Rashi) rejects the notion that translations in other languages are sufficient for this requirement because Targum Unkelus explains the verses.

The Targum haShivim however, was intended by Ptolemy II to be Written Torah, the actual Torah itself, transcribed into Greek, which as we have said, it could never hope to be. Presented as such, the Septuagint could only ever mislead rather than explain the Torah and formed the basis for a later religion which took form from a perversion of Jewish concepts and persecuted the Jewish people in their name.

The tragedy of the Septuagint is the contraction of the divine and infinite into something mundane and wholly finite. For this, we mourn on the fast of the tenth of Tevet.


from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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