Bar- Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yigash 5765/ December 1 6 , 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Greek Bible – Light or Darkness?

Dr. Aryeh Reich
Faculty of Law


The eighth of Tevet, which sometimes falls on the eve of the Sabbath of Parashat Va-Yigash, was the day on which, according to Jewish sources, the Torah was translated into Greek.   One might think that translating the Torah into Greek would have been a joyous occasion, an event that would enable the Jewish people to fulfill their destiny of being a “light unto the nations” by spreading G-d’s teaching to the rest of the world, especially to the more civilized populations, namely those who spoke Greek.   But that is not the picture that emerges from our sources.  For example, in Megillat Ta’anit, an ancient scroll of the holidays in the Jewish calendar which even preceded the Mishnah, this date – the eighth of Tevet – is included in the list of days on which one ought to fast. We quote:   “On the eighth of Tevet, during the rule of King Ptolemy, the Torah was written in Greek, and darkness fell on the world for three days.”

Further details concerning this event can be learned from Masekhet Soferim: [1]

Once there were five elders who wrote the Torah in Greek for King Ptolemy, and that day was as hard for Israel as the day the golden calf was made, for the Torah could in no way be translated adequately.  According to another story, King Ptolemy gathered together seventy-two elders and placed them into seventy-two houses, without revealing to them why he had summoned them.  Then he went to each and every one of them and told them to write for him the Torah of Moses your Teacher; the Omnipresent put wisdom into the heart of each one of them, so that they became all of one mind and wrote him the Torah itself, making thirteen changes.

Other sources – Greek, Latin, as well as Hebrew – testify to the origins of the Septuagint. [2]   The most detailed accounts are in the Letter of Aristeas, a hagiographic work of the second century, B.C.E.   This work, as well, recounts how King Ptolemy summoned seventy-two elders from the land of Israel and requested that they translate their Torah for the library at Alexandria.   This Letter, just like Masekhet Soferim, refers to a translation of the Torah alone, but other sources refer to translation of the entire Bible. [3]

What accounts for the negative attitude taken by the Sages to translating the Torah into Greek?   This question becomes all the more poignant in the light of the miraculous way in which the translation is said to have come about, the Holy One, blessed be He, giving “wisdom into the heart of each one of them, so that they became all of one mind,” so much so that they had the wisdom to make changes in thirteen different places in order to prevent any mishap. [4]   If so, the eighth of Tevet ought to have been viewed as a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving for this miracle, not as a day of fasting.

We shall show that the answer to this puzzle lies in the source from Masekhet Soferim, cited above:  for the Torah could in no way be translated adequately.”  The Torah, since time immemorial, has been perceived in Jewish tradition as a divine text containing countless levels of meaning, ranging from the plain sense, through homiletic interpretation, to mystic hints and intimations.   To wit, note the well-known homily from the Talmud: [5]

“One thing G-d has spoken; two things have I heard” (Ps. 62:12).   One passage of Scripture emanates to several meanings; and a single meaning does not derive from several passages.   Rabbi Ishmael taught:  “Behold, My word is like fire – declares the Lord – and like a hammer that shatters rock!” (Jer. 23:29).  Just as this hammer produces several sparks, so one passage of Scripture produces several meanings.

The Torah was given to Israel in the holy tongue, and only in its original language can its many levels of meaning be retained.  The way it has been interpreted by Jewish scholars through the generations, every verse, word, letter and even decorative crowns on top of certain letters served as the basis for countless rules of halakhah and ideas.   Whoever sought to translate the Torah into another language could never preserve this multiplicity of significance, but would be forced to choose one meaning alone, and usually one on a simple level, abandoning all others.  Thus the Torah could not help but become a shallow, flat text, without the special colorful depth of the original.  This is apparently what was meant by the comment in Megillat Ta’anit that with the translation of the Torah into Greek “darkness fell on the world for three days.”

Some people mistakenly think that the multiplicity of interpretations and views in Judaism is problematic; as if it were possible to have only one absolute truth and none other.  This is not Judaism’s way.  The differences of opinion between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were proclaimed by a voice from heaven to be “both the one and the other, words of the Everliving G-d.” [6] The gemara speaks admiringly of the brilliant disciple of Rabbi Meir who for each and every thing that was impure would give forty-eight reasons for impurity, and for each and every thing that was pure would give forty-eight reasons for purity, and of the veteran disciple in Jabneh who would give one hundred and fifty reasons why a crawling creature was pure (even though by Jewish law of course it remains impure forever). [7]

If someone is sentenced to death without there being at least one judge who argues in his defense, the sentence is not carried out until at least one be found who will defend him. [8]   A pluralistic outlook is one of the cornerstones of Judaism, in utter contrast to Catholicism, where the Pope dictates to his believers what views they should hold.   The day that one seeks to do away with this pluralism and turn the Torah into a monolithic human text darkness descends on the world for three days (perhaps as against the three days of restriction that preceded the giving of the Torah, the day light descended on the world).  In the terms used by Masekhet Soferim, that day was as tragic as the day the golden calf was made; it was as if the divine validity and sublime sanctity of the Torah had been taken away from it, turning it into a semblance of divinity, like the golden calf of which they said, “This is your god, O Israel” (Ex. 32:4), even though it was nothing but inanimate matter. [9]

In the end the Torah was translated into Greek by these Jewish sages and later was translated by other Jewish scholars to many other languages as well, by choice and not by order of a king.  The reason for this was that there was no alternative; since not everyone understands the holy tongue, were the Bible not translated into other languages its message, including its universal teachings, would not have reached all of mankind.   Yet we must not forget that in the action of translation great concessions must be made, giving up the ideal of the multiple levels of meaning and color in the original divine text.   It was this ideal that Megillat Ta’anit sought to emphasize and preserve for all eternity.

[1] Chapter 1, 7.  Also see the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 9a.

[2] A detailed review may be found in Encylopedia Mikra’it, Vol. 8, pp. 777-778, under Tanakh, tirgumim [Bible, translations of].

[3] For example, Epiphanes’ composition, “On Weights and Measures” (403-320 B.C.E.).

[4] The reference is to verses that were not translated according to their original sense, rather their content was changed in order to prevent misunderstandings or undesirable conclusions being drawn by non-Jewish readers.   The verses at issue are cited in Masekhet Soferim and in Tractate Megillah, although in Megillah fifteen different places are cited.  Regarding the reason for the changes, see Rashi’s commentary on the source in Megillah, where he explains each place that was changed in the translation and which difficulties they sought to avoid thereby.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a; also cf. Shabbat 88b.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b; also cf. Hagigah 3a.

[7] Eruvin, loc. sit.

[8] Mishnah, Sanhedrin 5.5.

[9] It is worth noting that this harsh expression appears in the writings of the Sages only with reference to one other event and that is the day a sword was stuck in the Bet Midrash in the wake of a bitter fight between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  See the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 17a; Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1.4.  That event, too, had an element of silencing others’ opinions and an attempt at preventing pluralistic thought concerning Jewish halakhah.  When Hillel challenged the school of Shammai, accusing them of inconsistency in their position, Shammai answered:   “‘If you pester me, I shall declare even the olive harvest impure.’  They stuck a sword in the Bet Midrash and said, ‘whoever enters, enters; but none shall leave.’  That day Hillel sat subordinate to Shammai as one of his disciples, and it was as hard for Israel as the day the golden calf was made.”  Thus Hillel was forced to sit before Shammai as one of his disciples, unable to express a dissenting opinion.