Targum and Oral Law in Orthodox Judaism

Where in Deuteronomy do we find any reference to the passage below?

“Mosheh the prophet said: When I ascended the mountain of Sinai, I beheld the Lord of all the worlds, the Lord, dividing the day into four portions; three hours employed in the law, three with judgment, three in making marriage bonds between man and woman, and appointing to elevate or to abase, arid three hours in the care of every created thing: for so it is written: The Mighty One whose works are perfect, for all His ways are judgment, a faithful God before whom no iniquity comes forth, pure and upright is He. [JERUSALEM. (The same words to) three hours, uniting the marriage yoke of the husband to the wife . . . . a faithful God and true; falsehood is not before Him; He is just and upright in judgment.]”

It isn’t in the Torah, the written Torah, that is. You will, though, find it in the Oral Torah (which has, like the Written Torah, been written down), specifically the Targum, which, for many Orthodox Jews, is part of the Oral Torah.

 What is the Targum’s connection to the Oral Law?

 “The entire Oral Law, says Rabbi Bernie Fox, can be viewed as an interpretation of the Torah. What level of interpretation is required to fulfll the obligation of reviewing the weekly portion? The Talmud is establishing this minimum level. Targum represents the minimum. Reading the parasha (portion) and studying the targum fulfill the obligation of studying the parasha….How does targum fulfill the requirement of interpreting the parasha? There are two possibilities. This is because targum has two aspects. Targum is a brief commentary based upon the Oral Torah written in the form of a translation. It is a translation and a commentary. The second opinion in Tosefot [medieval commentaries on the Talmud] is that the essential characteristic of targum is that it provides insight from the Oral Torah. It is written in the form of a translation. However, study of a mere translation does not fulfill the requirement of reviewing the parasha. A commentary providing insight from the Oral Torah is essential. Targum satisfies this requirement. Another translation might not.”

I now return to the Targum passage, which I quoted at the beginning.

Mosheh the prophet said: When I ascended the mountain of Sinai, I beheld the Lord of all the worlds, the Lord, dividing the day into four portions; three hours employed in the law, three with judgment, three in making marriage bonds between man and woman, and appointing to elevate or to abase, arid three hours in the care of every created thing: for so it is written: The Mighty One whose works are perfect, for all His ways are judgment, a faithful God before whom no iniquity comes forth, pure and upright is He. [JERUSALEM. (The same words to) three hours, uniting the marriage yoke of the husband to the wife . . . . a faithful God and true; falsehood is not before Him; He is just and upright in judgment.]”

 The above Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan Targum) passage is a commentary – which many outside Orthodox Judaism will probably find hard to fathom – on Deuteronomy 32; which verse I am not sure; though, Alfred Edersheim ( “Life and Times of Jesus,” chapter 4, p. 148, note 673) maintains that it is Deut. 32:4, which reads:


4 He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.

Edersheim’s examples provide a “general impression of Rabbinism:”

 “Terrible as it may sound, Edersheim says, it is certainly the teaching of Rabbinism, that God occupied so many hours every day in the study of the Law. Compare Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deut. Xxxii. 4 (quoted above)… Nay, Rabbinism goes farther in its daring, and speaks of the Almighty as arrayed in a white dress, or as occupying himself by day with the study of the Bible, and by night with that of the six tractates of the Mishnah. Compare. also the Targum on Cant. v. 10.”

Now, Let’s move to the Targum on the Canticle of Canticles ( Song of Songs) v. 10., which Edersheim has just referred to:

 י דּוֹדִי צַח וְאָדוֹם, דָּגוּל מֵרְבָבָה

 10 My beloved is radiant/glowing and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.

 Here is the Targum’s interpretation, or commentary, which would be a better description of the Targum’s operation:

 Canticle of Canticles 5:10

 Then the Assembly of Israel began to speak in praise of the Lord of the World, and this is what she said, “The God I desire to worship is that One Who by day is dressed in a robe as white as snow and is occupied with the twenty-four books of the Law, the words of the Prophets, and the Writings; and Who by night is occupied with the six Orders of Mishnah and the glorious splendor of His face blazes like fire from the intense wisdom and judgment–for He innovates new traditions every day and will reveal them to His people on the Great Day. And His banner is over a myriad myriads of angels who minister before Him.”

in his  “Rabbinic Reception of Early Bible Translations as Holy Writings and Oral Torah,”  Willem Smelik describes the connection between the Targum, the Written and the Oral Law. He provides the following example of a “perculiar digression” (which “seemingly appears out of the blue”) from the written text of Genesis 33:20 to illustrate the difference between Written and Oral Torah. This example is a “critical illustration of the plurality of meanings hidden in the Hebrew text, it becomes highly meaningful in its present co-text” (Smelik distinguishes between the linguistic setting of a text [co-text] from the non-linguistic setting of that text [context]). Here is the example:

 “R. Aha, Smelik says, offers an interpretation of Gen. 33.20 which describes how Jacob sets up an altar for God and names this altar El elohe Yis-rael, ‘God is the God of Israel’. For the Rabbis it was unacceptable to relate God to an altar in this way, rendering a literal translation of this verse problematic. Now, according to R. Aha, not the altar was named, but Jacob himself. R. Aha also said: R. Eleazar said: How [do we know] that the Holy One blessed be He called Jacob God? Because it says, ‘And the God of Israel called him “God” ‘ (Gen. 33.20). If you suppose that Jacob called the altar ‘God’, then ‘and Jacob called it’ is required. But [it is written]: ‘And he called him’, that is Jacob, ‘God’. And who called him ‘God’? ‘The God of Israel’.”

 I don’t see how R. Eleazar gets the above hermeneutic (?) from Genesis 33:20, which says: “And he erected there an altar, and called it Elelohe-Israel.”

וַיַּצֶּב־שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא־לֹו אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

This seems to be R. Eleazar’s take of Gen 33:20:

 And he (Jacob) erected there an altar, and (He, that is, God) called him (Jacob) Elelohe-Israel.

 Smelik said above that for “the Rabbis it was unacceptable to relate God to an altar in this way, rendering a literal translation of this verse problematic. So, what solution does theTargum find? Answer: Call a man God.

But what about “God is not a man that He should lie…?” (Numbers 23:19), which is the favourite verse used by Jews to counter the incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. (See my “Milking the teats off the text the rabbinical interpretation of numbers 23:19”).

 For many/most orthodox Jews, the Targum (Oral Law, for many Jews)  fits in beautifully with the Written Torah. Others will probably have a problem with this; which reveals the deep chasm between the rabbinical and Christian (and for that matter, the non-orthodox Jewish) mind.

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One thought on “Targum and Oral Law in Orthodox Judaism

  1. As you seem to know, the term “elohim” has been used by the Bible to refer to G-d. What you appear not to appreciate is that the word denotes a judge, and it is used by the Bible to refer to G-d only when the Bible is emphasizing G-d’s role as a judge. For instance, see Exodus 3:14 or 6:2-3, which are but two examples of the Bible referring to G-d with appelations other than “elohim”.

    Even more, the Bible uses “elohim” to refer to legal authorities generally. For instance, in Ex. 7:1, the Bible quotes G-d calling Moses (who was G-d’s servant, and who was certainly not G-d) “elohim”.

    So, while the Bible is clear on the point that “G-d is not a man” (Num. 23:19), it is almost equally as clear, if not quite as emphatic, on the point that men are meant to have leaders, both human and divine.

    As you can see, with our translation wrinkles ironed out, we no longer have the incompatibility you feared between the Rabbis and the Bible. Whew!

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