Imagine you were given a document that holds all the answers to the meaning of existence. The only catch is that this document is written in an ancient language that very often causes the text to read as cryptic and contradictory. If there was a way to decipher that text and reveal all of life’s biggest secrets, would you make it a priority to study?
Thankfully, this scenario is not hypothetical. In every book of Tanach, there is what is known as Targum1 which translates and gives further context to each word. The Targum of the 5 Books of Moses was transmitted from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua to Onkelos2 who wrote it down approximately 2000 years ago in order to maintain the oral tradition of the Torah that was given at Sinai.3 Around the same time, the Targum for the Books of Prophets was composed by Rav Yonatan ben Uzziel4 based on a tradition going back to the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.5 Lastly, the Targum for the Chronicles (Ketuvim) was recorded by Rabbi Yosef ben Hiyya.6 Targum is written in the ancient language of Aramaic which is perhaps why it tends to be less focused on. This is a giant missed opportunity as in addition to providing further context into what is truly happening in the text, it also prepares young students for when they become of age to learn the Talmud which is also written in Aramaic.
In Masechet Megillah of Talmud Bavli, the Rabbis ask what the definition of Targum is. They respond with “מפרש זה תרגם’’ meaning, “explicit, that is Targum.” “Explicit,” meaning that the text is stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt. The Targum goes about accomplishing this objective in various ways. One iteration of Targum is when the Aramaic provides another word similar to the one in the Torah text which begs the question as to why the Infinite Creator chose this specific word as there are no synonyms in Biblical Hebrew and every single one of Hashem’s words has a specific intention.
Why בראשית and not בקדמין?
The very first word of the Torah (בראשית) is an example of this. Meditating on the word בראשית reveals incredible depth including the answer as to why the word בראשית is specifically used to chronicle the creation of the universe. As opposed to the word קדם7 which is used to describe a moment in time, בראשית is used to describe the beginning of time itself when there was no “before” and the Infinite Creator who is outside time itself was all there was. This can be seen by looking at the first symbol of the word, the symbol Beis ב, which is closed off on the right side depicting forward movement. The numerical value of ב is two, symbolizing that when the Infinite created the universe, there was now a finite “other” to go along with the Infinite Oneness.
Megilat Esther with Targum. Via AhavaEchad.org
Another iteration of Targum is when the Targum inserts additional information that one would otherwise have never been able to access as easily.
An example of this is in the second verse of Megillat Esther when the text mentions Achashverosh’s throne. The Targum fills in the backstory behind how Achashverosh attempted to acquire King Solomon’s throne and mount it. Many monarchs amongst the nations attempted to acquire King Solomon’s throne during the time of exile to display their rulership and while many did manage to acquire it, no one was able to sit on it. In fact in the cases of the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar, the King Pharaoh-Necho, among others, in their attempts to ascend the throne, were “kicked off” by the golden lion that was embroiled into the throne which sometimes caused serious injury. When Achashverosh attempted to ascend the throne he was also kicked off which compelled him to order a team of great Egyptian engineers to build him a replica for him to sit on. After three years, the replica was completed and THAT is the reason for the celebratory feast that kicked off the entire story of Purim.8
These are just some of the ways in which Targum provides added depth, beauty, and revelation to the Torah experience.
Literally meaning a “translation”
The Roman Emperor Titus asked his nephew Onkelos to find something that wasn’t worth much today but would be invaluable in the future. Onkelos returned with Judaism and converted along with a large swath of Romans.
Perhaps in response to the Septuagint.
Rav Yonatan was the greatest student of Hillel the Elder
Talmud Bavli, Megillah 3A
Rav Yosef’s nickname was Rav Yosef “Sagi Nahor” meaning “too much light” in a reference to his state of blindness. Despite not being able to see due to his condition, he was still able to SEE more than anyone else.
The root of the Aramaic word בקדמין meaning “Before.”
Click here for more on King Solomon’s throne.