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!

3 thoughts on “It’s Tevet! Let’s get lost in translation!

  1. While I was raised by two rabbis, I don’t think I truly understood how the Torah and the stories within shaped people’s lives, or that the Hebrew language was a distinct language and not just a bunch of strange words spoken before dinner and at morning services, until maybe nine. Why? Not sure, but until I got to Columbus Torah Academy at that age, I didn’t know any Hebrew and I didn’t realize the story of creation was anything more than a story.
    Rabbi Weil realized I was far behind the other students, arranged for me to take tutoring, and gave me a book, The Little Midrash Says, so I could read the same stories the other students. For the first time, the stories of the Torah, told to me in English and with a lot of commentary and supplementary stories to go with the stories, made sense, had a chronology.
    And if it hadn’t been written in English, it would never have made sense to me.

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