It’s Tevet! Let’s get lost in translation!

So as of yesterday we have officially passed over from the month of Kislev into the new month of Tevet, a month which features no holidays or festivals save for the tail end of Chanukah, but which does include a number of relatively minor fasts.

One of these fasts is the 8th of Tevet, an optional fast-day commemorating the date in 313 B.C.E. when the Torah was translated in to Greek at the behest of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, an event which has been described by one rabbinic source as “as bad for the Jews as the day on which the Golden Calf was made” (Masechet Soferim 1:6 – a non-canonical addendum to the Babylonian Talmud probably composed in the 8th century or so).

It might be instructive to take a look at how this translation came to be: The Ptolemaic kings (a dynasty of Greek kings, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who ruled over Egypt after his death) were notable for their love of knowledge and learning. It was they who created the famous Library of Alexandria, devoted to collecting texts from all over the known world. King Ptolemy II wanted a copy of the Torah for the library, and for this purpose he commissioned a group of 72 Jewish scholars to produce a translation into Greek, the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. According to tradition Ptolemy put each of these 72 scholars in a separate chamber and had them produce their own translation independently of all the others. Miraculously, the text each of them produced was identical. This text, the “authoritative” translation of the Torah into Greek, is known as the Septuagint (a Greek word referring to the text’s 72 authors), and was used as a holy text by the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria, as well as the Christian church later on. (For more details on the story, I suggest taking a look at Masechet Megillot 9a, as well as the Letter of Aristeas.)

When it comes to the question of why this act of translation was so bad, opinions are mixed. Some claim that Ptolemy’s segregation of the Jewish translators was an effort to trip them up, that if the translations had come out different it would have been held up as proof that the Torah was a human creation rather than a divine gift. Some focus on the problems inherent in translation, suggesting that the availability of an “authoritative” translated work cuts people off from the sacred original text. Still others regard it as a tragedy precisely because it made the Torah, which they see as being God’s gift to the Jews alone, accessible to other people.

Now as for me, as a rabbi I am certainly a strong advocate for reading Jewish text in the original language, because there are so many nuances, ambiguities and subtleties of expression that are difficult to render in translation, and because translation inevitably leaves us beholden to the editorial decisions of the translator. Nevertheless, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the idea that textual accessibility should be included among the great many threats to the Jewish people commemorated with a public fast. For all my love for the text in its original language, I can’t help but see accessibility as a good thing, both for Jews who may not have the privilege of an extensive education in the classical language of the Jewish tradition, and for non-Jews who may be inclined to explore Judaism and the wealth of wisdom contained therein. You can say what you like about the perils of cultural appropriation, but for me the bottom line is this:

Violence and misunderstanding increase whenever communication and mutual comprehensibility cease.

And so, as we enter this month of Tevet, I invite you to join me in turning this fast into a feast… of words! Do you have a favorite translation of the Torah, one that captures something interesting about the text and makes it accessible to those who don’t have mastery over the original language? What are some of your favorite works in translation?

I’ll start: My first ever encounter with Jewish text was Robert Alter’s translation and commentary of the Book of Genesis. His artistry and attention to detail really captured my imagination when I read it back in college, and may have set me on a path which eventually led to my conversion to Judaism!

Exploring Jewish Prayer: Amidah pt. 1, Avot v’Imahot

Check out the first in a series of videos I’m doing about getting into Jewish prayer!

In this one, we explore the first blessing of the Amidah, the central part of the prayer service. It focuses on our connection with our ancestors, how we benefit from their acts of loving kindness, and how our own acts of loving kindness translate into redemption for our descendants!

Mixed Multitudes: The Firstborn Son

I should have felt resentful toward the Hebrews, for whose sake the curses of their God had befallen my people, but in fact all I felt that night as I lay in my bed waiting to die was an immense sense of relief. I remember thinking, My life is about to be over. After tonight, I will never have to lie to anyone about who I am again. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of mercy.

When I awoke the next morning, I was filled with confusion. At first I thought it hadn’t happened, that the Pharaoh had defeated the Hebrews’ God after all. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Hebrew slaves. Ah well, I thought, it just shows that it is better not to hope, not even for release. But then I heard the wailing from outside, a cry of anguish rising up from the houses of my town such as I had never heard, and a kind of wonder crept over me, for I knew that it had happened after all. But why had I of all the firstborn sons of Egypt been spared?

I went to see their prophetess. I found her with a group of other women, face and arms covered with flour, hurriedly mixing dough in preparation for their departure. 

“That will never have time to rise,” I observed.

She didn’t even look up, focused on her work. “We’ll make do. Now what is it you wanted? Better make it quick — as you can see, we’re in kind of a hurry.”

Haltingly, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the women upon me, I told her who I was and put my question to her: “Why was I, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, spared?”

Now she did look up, when her eyes met mine they crinkled up and she laughed. My heart went cold — somehow this daughter of slaves knew what I had never uttered to a living soul.

“Do you think anything is hidden from the eyes of God?” she said. “The firstborn son of your house is dead, but you were spared. If you ask me, I think you’ll be better off without him. Now come along and help me with this bread.”

Still smiling, I got down on my knees alongside the other women of Israel and began to knead.

Mixed Multitudes: The Boy Next Door

The boy next door was about my own age. It’s funny, but I can’t seem to remember what his name was anymore. When we were small he would show up at our door every morning, politely asking if I would come out to play. I always did. His parents were Egyptian and mine were Hebrew, my parents slaves and his free, but that didn’t seem to matter… that is, until my brother Chayim was born. Nowadays when a woman gives birth to a son it’s a cause for celebration, but back then the prayer on every pregnant woman’s lips was that God would give her a daughter. We daughters, you see, were allowed to live. The Pharaoh’s men came for my brother Chayim on the day of his brit milah. After Chayim was taken, whenever the boy from next door came to ask for me I would hide and pretend I wasn’t there. I could no longer bring myself to play with a child of the people who had stolen my brother from me.

Then the man of God came. We watched as plague after plague rained down upon the Egyptians, and in my heart I was glad, for the sake of my brother who was never allowed to live. But after the darkness departed and the Pharaoh still refused to let us go free, the word reached us that God was planning to visit one more plague upon the Egyptians — the death of every firstborn male. Standing outside our house, watching my father as he painted the doorposts with blood to ward away the angel of death, I looked over at the house next door, and saw the boy I used to play with looking back at me through the window. From the look on his face I could tell he knew well what was in store for him. All at once the memory of our time spent playing in the courtyard came flooding back, and I knew what I had to do. I talked with my mother and father, and they talked with his mother and father. That night, when we celebrated the Passover feast, there was one more sitting at our table than there had been the night before. And when we departed Egypt the next day, my brother Chayim went with us.