Oz Torah: Reading the Torah in translation – Ask the Rabbi


Q. I hear that our ancestors translated the Torah reading as they went. Why don’t we do the same?

credit: www.artlevin.com

A. The ancient practice was to call up one person to read the Torah and another “l’targem”, “to translate” (into Aramaic) (Mishnah Meg. 4:6).  Even a minor could be called up to read or translate.

According to Rav (Meg. 3a), this practice dates from the time of Ezra, from 444 BCE, when the public reading of the Torah was carried out “m’forash” – “distinctly” (Neh. 8:8), which Rav understands as “targum”, “with translation”.

As late as the time of Natan HaBavli, 9th cent., there was still a public translation into Aramaic with the Exilarch (political head of Babylonian Jewry) called up to read the Torah and the Gaon of Sura called to translate. The translation of the Torah was done verse by verse and of the haftarah, every three verses.

The “m’turgeman” (translator) was not allowed to use a book or look into the Hebrew text (as opposed to the Torah reader himself, who was not allowed not to look at the text) so that no-one would think his version was actually in the Torah itself and therefore authoritative and immutable.

These days an Aramaic translation would make sense to very few people. Other languages would be more relevant. But our current usage is to have good translations available in printed form and members of a congregation are encouraged to follow the reading by this means.


Q. For such a small country Israel has a wide climatic variety. Does this have any effect on Jewish identity?

A. The prayers for rain and dew always linked the land with its agricultural seasons. The variety of climate might have made the inhabitants of Israel more versatile.

Jerusalem Hills. credit:jewlicious.com

The hilly terrain of Jerusalem encouraged the Psalmist to look up to the hills and find Divine inspiration. The large dry areas elsewhere might have bred physical, psychological and moral hardiness. The fact that some brooks dried up in the summer and flowed again in the winter were an analogy to national history, which waxed and waned.

The sages said that “the air of Eretz Yisra’el makes you wise”, i.e. clear air makes clear minds.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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