Daily Israel Report

Judaism: The 10th of Tevet: Lost in Translation?

Of all the events the fast marks, is the Septuagint a Greek tragedy?
Published: Friday, December 13, 2013 9:49 AM


This Friday (from dawn till nightfall) is the Tenth of Tevet (Asara b'Tevet), one of the 'minor' Jewish fast days associated with the destruction of the Temple. It commemorates the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia - an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah.

Other tragic Jewish historical events that are commemorated on the Tenth of Tevet include the traditional anniversaries of the deaths of Ezra & Nechemia (on the ninth of Tevet) who represent the restoration of Torah study and practice after a long spiritual drought, and the return (albeit in disappointingly small numbers) of the Jews to the land of Israel from exile.

In our time, an additional element was added to Asara  b'Tevet - it has been declared as Yom Ha'kaddish HaK'lali - a day of saying Kaddish and remembering victims of the Holocaust whose actual dates of death will remain forever unknown to their families and all of Israel.

But there is one more tragic event (which occurred on the eighth of Tevet) which is linked to and marked on this fast day - the "tragedy of the Targum Shiv'im", the first (and coerced) translation of the Torah into Greek (The Septuagint). The day is considered as "dark" as the day of the Sin of the Golden Calf.

But what's so tragic about a translation? 

At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the people of Israel lived under Persian dominion. After the fall of the Persian Empire, Israel was subjugated to Greece. Ptolemy, one of the Greek Kings who succeeded Alexander (The 'Great') of Macedonia, wanted the Jewish Sages to translate the Torah into Greek.

The way he went about it, however, proved his motives were highly questionable. He did not assemble the Jewish scholars all in one place so that they might consult each other on the translation. In the Talmud it is related:

'King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moses, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did' (Tractate Megillah 9).

Ptolemy found that each translation was exactly the same as the other. Even in places where the Sages intentionally altered the literal translation, the results were still identical; this constituted an "open miracle" and public sanctification of God's Name.

If the interpretations of the Elders had varied widely, it would not blemish either the Torah or its interpreters in Jewish eyes, since we know that the Torah is open to different interpretations. To non-Jews, however, any dispute in interpreting the Torah would cast blemish on the Torah, and on the Torah Scholars who interpret it. God, in His infinite mercy, allowed all 72 scholars to translate the Torah identically, thereby foiling the evil plan of Ptolemy.

Yet the day on which the 72 Elders concluded their Greek translation of the Torah, the 8th of Tevet, was a day of sorrow for Israel, despite the clear hand of God in the events of the day. The sages call it as tragic a day for Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made. In Megilat Ta'anit, the Sages described the event as follows:

On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.' To what may the matter be likened? To a lion captured and imprisoned. Before his imprisonment, all feared him and fled from his presence. Then, all came to gaze at him and said, 'Where is this one's strength?

Likewise the Torah, as long as it was in Hebrew and was interpreted by the Sages, evoked reverence, and many feared to cast blemish upon it. Even the non-Jews who desired to study the Torah, had no contact with the Torah until he or she had acquired a knowledge of the Holy tongue and the prescribed ways for understanding the Torah.

Once the Torah was imprisoned in the Greek translation, it was as if the Torah were divested of reverence. Whoever wished to, could now gaze at the Torah. Anyone who wanted to find fault with its logic, could now do so, based on the translation. The Sages, therefore, likened the event of this day, to the day on which the Golden Calf was made. For just as the Golden Calf had no reality, and yet its servants regarded it as having real substance, likewise the translation, devoid of the true substance of Torah, allowed non-Jews to imagine that they already knew the Torah.

This task which Ptolemy imposed on the 72 Elders was beyond human capacity. The Torah was written so that its content might be open to a great variety of possible interpretations. The Torah was given in the Hebrew together with a prescribed method for interpreting its words, verses and letters; thereby eliciting the wide range of meaning which scholars see in them. There is no language whose words are as rich in possible connotation as is Hebrew, the holy language.

Any translation of the Torah must ignore all the treasures of interpretation, allusion, and meaning contained in each word, and translate only the literal meaning. In another language, the Torah becomes like an empty vessel, empty of its entire wealth of meaning, which is the essence of Torah. Only the literal meaning alone is left.

There are many verses in the Torah whose literal meaning can be translated in many different ways. The likelihood of many different sages all translating such a verse the same way is very small. That all such verses were translated the same was indeed a great miracle.

Furthermore, there are many verses in the Torah which, if translated literally, would be misunderstood by the non-Jews, and would cause them to deride the Torah sanctity. These verses had to be translated in such a way to preserve the intent of the verse rather than the literal translation.

For example, the sages translated "We will make Man" with "I will make Man" so that the non-Jews would not say that there are more than one God.  All 72 sages translated all of these difficult verses with the same variation.

Literal translation of the Written Torah without the inseparable Oral Law, opens the Torah to misunderstanding and distortion, the effects of which have haunted us throughout the generations.

Maybe the Bible just doesn't translate well, perhaps the lone exception being The Byrds early 1960's hit song Turn, Turn, Turn which takes its lyrics from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose, under Heaven. A time to be born, a time to die/A time to plant, a time to reap/ A time to kill, a time to heal/ A time to laugh, a time to weep/ A time of war, a time of peace…

We live in 'a time' where 'reality' shows rule the airwaves. I find it ironic that many native Israelis competing on these singing shows like The X Factor and Ha'kochav Ha'abah ('Rising Star') choose to sing in English rather than in their native Hebrew tongue.

One of the most outspoken judges on Ha'kochav Ha'abah, PR man Rani Rahav, often complains when contestants don't sing in Hebrew, but his voice seems to be that of a lone wolf .

Personally, I tend to disagree with Rahav, especially regarding certain performers on the show he judges. What's wrong with watching the Gatt brothers, the electric guitar playing duo who grew up secular in Eilat and now perform together in full Haredi attire befitting their very orthodox current lifestyle, sing 'Hotel California' in English in perfect harmony?

On the other hand, we have no lack of good Hebrew songs.

Upon the recent passing of legendary Israeli singer and songwriter Arik Einstein, he was mourned by thousands of Israelis (including Israel's ambassador at the UN) because his songs touched them all in so many ways. A friend related to me that when she was in ulpan class, some of the first songs they learned in Hebrew were Arik Einstein's classics. Although his songs can and have been translated, they really only work in Hebrew. Einstein sensitively sang: 'Oof gozal', which is packs more of an emotional punch than 'fly away little bird'. His song 'Se'ah le'at' loses much of its feeling when translated as 'drive slowly'.

True, perhaps Einstein's 'Ani ve'ata ne'shane et ha'olam' can be fittingly translated as 'You and I will change the world'. But the line which follows: 'amru et ze kodem, lefanei, lo meshane' which I saw translated as 'Others have said it before me, but that doesn't matter' while perfectly accurate as a translation, surely doesn't express the meaning and feeling that Einstein intended when he sang it in Hebrew.

We live in era where any text, phrase or word can be translated to any language which just a click of a button, thanks to Google Translate and other such programs. But perhaps the tragedy of the Tenth of Tevet was not in the translation of the Torah into Greek (or any language for that matter), but the fact that it defused the desire for those who wished to study Torah to learn it from the original holy Hebrew text. Why bother learning Hebrew when a translation to a language you already know would suffice?

An American friend of mine, who has lived in Israeli for many years, told me how she was once inspired to contact the legendary Israel Prize winning scholar and Torah teacher Nechama Leibowitz. She was very excited to speak to her as she had all her books on the weekly Torah portion in her library at home and so very much enjoyed learning from them. She finally found her Jerusalem home phone number and called her.

After taking note of my friend's thick American accent, she asked my friend if she had read her books on Torah in Hebrew or in the English translation.

My friend sheepishly admitted that her Hebrew was still quite poor and she had read the English translation.

Nechama Leibowitz voiced her strong disapproval as she replied in her thickly German accented English. "Don't you understand?!" she said forcefully. "It was not "God" who created the world – it was "Elokim"!"

Perhaps Robert Frost said it best: "Poetry is what gets lost in translation."


The writer has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University.