LET’S STUDY ONKELOS
A Guide for Rabbis, Teachers and Torah Students to Study and Teach the Parashat
Hashavua through the Eyes of its Most Important Translator
By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin
Based on the five volume, Onkelos on the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), Understanding the
Bible Text, by Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner, published by Gefen Publishing House,
Jerusalem/New York, 2006–2010.
MATTOT (CHAPTER 30:2–32:42)
SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION
The laws concerning vows are presented, which allow an annulment of the vow in the
case of a vow made by a wife or daughter; war is waged against the Midianites, they are
defeated and many are annihilated; the Israelite warriors who killed someone in battle, or
who came in contact with a corpse, must be purified, along with his garments and vessels;
the spoils of war are divided and distributed, and instructions are provided for making
these vessels acceptable for use; representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad approach
Moses with a request that their tribes be allowed to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan
River which has already been conquered; Moses remonstrates against them and warns that
God will punish them and the nation if they choose to remain behind and not participate in
the conquest of Canaan; Moses decides to allow them to settle their families on the east side
of the Jordan River on condition that they will cross over with the rest of the nation and
fight with their brethren to conquer the land, and they agree to do so.
HOW SERIOUS IS THE MANDATE TO STUDY THE PARASHAH
WEEKLY WITH THE ONKELOS TRANSLATION?
We have been advocating a return to the study of Onkelos in order to truly understand
the biblical text, thus also reinforcing the rabbinic mandate to do so. Rabbinic mandates
actually come on different levels of seriousness. All are important, but some are more
important that others, if we assess them and their impact on Jewish life.
There is an extraordinary discussion concerning Onkelos on what appears to be a very
simple and uninspiring verse (32:2, pages 286 and 287)1 that contains nothing but names
of places. It reads as follows: “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam,
Nebo, and Beon,” Our appendix (pages 418–419) presents the fascinating dispute focused
on this verse:
The rabbis mandated that Jews should read the Torah portion three times weekly,
twice in the original Hebrew and once in the translation of Onkelos. Verse 3 of our
chapter contains only names. Does the rabbinical mandate apply to verse 3?
The Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 8a, b, states that one should do the weekly reading
also for verse 3, and such a reading prolongs life. While this may be a hyperbolic
statement, it is clear that the rabbis wanted to emphasize that reading Onkelos is
Rashi on Berakhot 8a, b explains that the Talmud is insisting that although verse 3
has no Aramaic translation, no exceptions should be made, and one should still read
Onkelos. The Sperber and Berliner versions of our Targum, like the text held by Rashi,
are not translated, but there are Onkelos versions that do translate the names. (The
Onkelos in our edition contains the Aramaic translation of the names.) Rashi refers to
Megillah 3a, where the rabbis discuss who wrote Onkelos, and assures us that
Onkelos is the authorized text that the rabbis want Jews to read. This Targum was
composed before the time of its alleged author, whom Rashi identifies as “Onkelos”
(see our introduction to Genesis for more on the identity of the Onkelos targumist);
God gave it to the Israelites at Sinai; however, as the Talmud states, it was “forgotten
and then restored” by the Onkelos targumist.
Tosaphot seem to differ slightly with Rashi. Tosaphot agree with Rashi that when the
Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49a, states that Jews should read the Targum weekly,
they meant “our (authorized) translation” (“targum didan”) Onkelos. However,
Tosaphot contend that since Onkelos has no translation, one should read PseudoJonathan
to verse 3. Tosaphot also state that the rabbis required the Targum reading
because the Aramaic translation helps us understand the text. It is as Rav Yosef said
in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 3a, “Were it not for the Targum of this verse, we
would not have known what it meant.” Tosaphot to Bava Kamma 3b explains that
Rav Yosef was an expert in the Targum, a complex subject requiring years of
expertise. Thus, according to Tosaphot, since the purpose of reading the Targum is to
understand the text, Pseudo-Jonathan should be read.
There is a reasonable support for Rashi’s position that Jews should read Onkelos to
verse 3 even though it lacks a translation. The rabbis taught midrashic biblical
interpretations in the Midrashim and the Talmuds. However, they recognized in their stated principle “ein mikra yotzei mi’dei peshuto,” that, in essence, people should also know the plain, non-aggadic biblical intent. Therefore, they advised—some say mandated—Jews to read Targum Onkelos because Onkelos contains the text’s plain meaning. Recognizing basic psychology, they knew that if they allowed exceptions,
the minor exceptions would soon grow and ultimately the Targum would be ignored.
Once this is understood, one can see the difficulty with Tosaphot’s position. The
purpose of reading the Targum to understand the Torah’s plain meaning is defeated
when one reads the midrashic Pseudo-Jonathan. This purpose is also nullified by
those who maintain that since they cannot understand the Aramaic of Onkelos they
can fulfill the rabbinic requirement to read Onkelos by reading Rashi; unlike Onkelos,
Rashi generally contains midrashic material and not just the plain meaning of the
It would be edifying, once again, to quote the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim, Hilkhot
Shabbat 285:1 and 2, based on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tephillah 13:25)
verbatim, so that there will be no question in anyone’s mind concerning the authority of the
Even though a person listens to the entire Torah reading every Shabbat with the
congregation, he is (still) required to read individually every week the Torah portion
twice from the Scriptural text, and once with the Targum (Onkelos), even Ataroth
veDibon (verse 3).
If one has reviewed the parashah with Rashi’s commentary, it is as though he
reviewed it with the Targum, (however) God fearing persons will read the Targum
and Rashi’s commentary.
Interestingly, it is also permitted to fulfill the mandate of reviewing the Torah portion
twice and once with the Targum during the congregational reading of the Torah (Shulchan
Arukh, Orach Chaim, Hilkhot Keriat Sefer Torah 146:2 and Hilkhot Shabbat 285:5).
Now, admittedly, this law fell into disuse, and as we indicated in our Preface, “the
importance of accurate biblical translation gave way to an overwhelming preoccupation
with interpretation; textual analysis was replaced by contextual exegesis; and lovers of the
Bible focused almost exclusively on the brilliant commentaries that were composed to
‘flesh out’ biblical narratives and laws.” But it is also interesting to note that “the talmudic
dictum was written when there were many important exegetical collections, like Genesis
Rabbah, Mekhilta, Sifra and Sifrei. Yet, the oft-quoted recommendation urged only the
reading of Onkelos when reviewing the Torah portion. Furthermore, by the time the
Shulchan Arukh was written, and the law promulgated, most of the classical medieval
biblical commentaries were already in circulation.” Nevertheless, Targum Onkelos was
considered indispensable in order to understand the biblical text.
We revert to the question: “How serious is the mandate to study the parashah weekly
with the Onkelos translation?” In the first place, one can find justification for not fulfilling
this law on the basis of the dictum, keivan d’dashu bei rabim, since most Jews, even in the
Torah world, ignore this imperative, it no longer qualifies as a law that must be obeyed.
Second, most people are not sufficiently acquainted with Aramaic to be able to understand
or appreciate Targum Onkelos. Of course, now that Onkelos on the Torah is available with its
English translation of the Aramaic and an English commentary that excuse appears rather
lame. Third, these days there just isn’t enough time to do all of the Torah studying that we
feel we should study. We have to set priorities; and compared to the importance of other
requisite learning, reviewing Targum Onkelos weekly seems to be a very low priority. That
seems reasonable. Actually, unfortunately, in the Torah world today, even Tanakh, the Bible
itself, is given a low priority for students, who are expected to devote themselves entirely
to rabbinic literature—the Talmud and commentaries, responsa and Shulchan Arukh and
commentaries. How do you now feel about the importance of Onkelos in your own set of
Torah learning priorities?
We raise questions in our “Beyond the Text” (page 285) on chapter 31 that merit our
attention and are worthy of discussing. We bring them to your attention:
Chapter 31 contains God’s command to “Avenge the Israelite grievance against the
Midianites” (verse 2; see commentary). It is true that the Midianite hostile actions in
attempting to lure the Israelites away from God and the Torah required a response.
The question is whether “vengeance” is an appropriate motivation for hostility. Can
you think of circumstances today when “revenge” would be justified? God is known
as the “El nekamot,” “the God of vengeance” (Psalms 18:48). What can that mean? If
this is an attribute of God and we are required to emulate God, what imperative does
this impose upon us? What about the harshness of the military campaign against the
Midanites (31:17-18)? Could Moses have questioned the justice of God’s decree as
Abraham did when he was informed that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah
would be destroyed (Genesis 18:20–33)? What does the emotion of the desire to seek
vengeance do to the person who harbors it? What emotion might be substituted for
the desire for vengeance in order to be motivated to respond to evil?
It is difficult to find anywhere in rabbinic literature a justification for “anger.” The
sages have said: “there are four kinds of temperaments. One who is easily angered
and easily pacified—his loss (caused by his anger) is canceled by his gain (for his
ability to be pacified); he who is hard to anger and hard to pacify—his gain is
cancelled by his loss; he whom it is difficult to anger and easy to pacify is a pious one;
he whom it is easy to anger and difficult to pacify is an evil person” Mishnah Avot
5:14). Yet, our Torah describes Moses as being “angry” because of the actions of his
officers (31:14). Is it possible to define a type of anger as “righteous indignation” and
justify it? If we did not become “angry” at the existence of poverty, corruption in
government, injustice, inequity, and other moral perversions, would there be any
hope of eradicating them? Isn’t a dose of “anger” sometimes necessary to propel us
to action? How can we learn to control our anger?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. See 31:50 and commentary, “ARMLETS, BRACELETS, SIGNET RINGS, EARRINGS,
GIRDLE” (page 282). Defining some of the booty taken from the Midianites, a variety of
2. See 32:24 and commentary, “FOR YOUR SHEEP” (page 291). The targumist ignores the
misspelling of a biblical word.
3. See 32:41 and commentary, “VILLAGES . . . VILLAGES” (page 292), and appendix (page
420). Alternative translations of an obscure word.
MASEI (CHAPTER 33:1–36:13)
SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION
The journeys on which the Israelites embarked during the forty years they wandered in
the wilderness, from the day they left Rameses in Egypt to the day they now stand poised to
cross the Jordan River into Canaan and engage in its conquest, are reviewed; God calls upon
Moses to command the Israelites to drive out the inhabitants of the land and destroy all
vestiges of idolatry; the boundaries of the future land of Israel are delineated by God;
Canaan is to be divided among nine and a half tribes, since the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and
half of the tribe of Manasseh opted for land on the eastern side of the Jordan; leaders of
each tribe are appointed to preside over the distribution of the land following the conquest;
the Levites, who were not apportioned territory in the Holy Land, were given forty-eight
cities in which to reside, six of them—three on either side of the Jordan River—to be
designated as “cities of refuge,” to which one who committed an accidental homicide is
exiled until the death of the high priest, so that no “avenger” could seek the death of the
slayer; the legal difference between murder and manslaughter is defined; the daughters of
Zelophehad are instructed to marry within their tribe so that the land they inherited will
not be transferred to another tribe; all the lands allocated to the tribes must remain in the
tribes’ possession—even if land was temporarily sold to a member of another tribe, it
would revert back to its original owner during the jubilee year.
THE TORAH DOES NOT CALL ISRAEL HOLY
It has been called “the land of Canaan,” “Judah,” “Israel,” “Palestine,” “Eretz Ha’Ivrim (the
land of the Hebrews),” yet despite the multitude of references in rabbinic literature to the
land God promised the Jewish people as being the “holy land,” it is not designated “holy” in
the Torah. There seems to be a reluctance to refer to Canaan/Israel as being “holy.” It may
be that the designation “holy land” is not of Jewish origin, but originated by Christians
when they began to venerate their holy sites in the fourth century. This reluctance to
described land as “holy” is reflected in Targum Onkelos, and then later in the writings of
We see it in Onkelos’ treatment of Exodus 3:5. God speaks to Moses from the burning
bush, and says: “Do not come closer here. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place
on which you are standing is holy ground.” Our targumist is uncomfortable with referring
to the ground as “holy,” and explains the biblical phrase by substituting “site” for “ground.”
Rather than suggesting that earth can be holy, he focuses his attention on the Ten
Commandments that would ultimately be given on this site. Actually, neither the ground
nor the tablets of commands are significant, what is important is the people: this is a place
where the people can learn the commands, improve themselves and society.
Our targumist changes Exodus 3:1’s “the mountain of God” to “the mountain upon which
the glory of the Lord was revealed,” for the same reason: to avoid giving the impression
that a physical site, such as a mountain, possessed an intrinsic holiness. Here in 3:1,
holiness applies to the revelation of the glory of God. Again, the adjective applies to what
the people can obtain by God’s revelation, not to ground.
This targumic understanding of holiness as referring to people, to the potential growth
that people can acquire, can be seen in the other instances where the Torah uses the term
“holy.” The Torah assigns the term “holy” to a host of important elements in Jewish life. In
each instance, as the targumist teaches, the Torah is informing its readers that there is a
potential for human improvement when the practice is understood and performed
properly. Here are some examples:
The Sabbath was designated as “holy” (Genesis 2:3) because if it is observed in the
right way it can teach people about God and nature and help improve them.
The festivals are called “mikra’ei kodesh,” “sacred events” (Leviticus 23:2, and
elsewhere) for the same reasons.
The Jubilee year was called” kodesh” (Leviticus 25:12) because, among other things, it
helps stabilize society.
God calls upon the Israelites to construct a “holy sanctuary” (Exodus 25:8), a place
that could inspire the people to rise to a higher level.
Aaron’s priestly vestments were described as “holy garments” (Exodus 29:29, and
elsewhere) and the anointing oil was called “kodesh” (Exodus 37:29), for the same
The Israelites were required to become “holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We explain in our
commentary (Leviticus 19:2), “MUST BE HOLY,” that this command was understood to
require the Israelites to improve their behavior:
Nachmanides states that (by requiring the Israelites to be holy) the Torah cautions
the Israelites to embrace a holiness that transcends the mere observance of the law
by practicing moderation in all matters, even in behavior that is permitted, for it is
possible to become a base person even while technically fulfilling the Torah laws.
Thus, for example, the Torah does not specifically prohibit drunkenness and gluttony.
Yet, the requirement to be holy proscribes such inappropriate behavior.
MAIMONIDES AND NACHMANIDES ON HOLINESS
Actually, Maimonides and Nachmanides differ regarding the concept of holiness.
Yehudah Halevi, Nachmanides, and others, including many opinions in the Talmud, contend
that while the Bible does not call Israel a hallowed land—and in fact the five books of
Moses call it the land of Canaan—the Bible as a whole shows that the ultimate goal of the
Exodus and Judaism is to live in Israel because it is holy.
In fact, Nachmanides was convinced that all of the Torah laws were mandated only for
the land of Israel. He stated that Jews observe the laws of the Torah outside of Israel
because the rabbis, not the Torah, told Jews to do so. He contended that the holiness in the
land radiates, like positive radioactive material, and gives its inhabitants a more satisfying
and longer life.
Both Halevi and Nachmanides yearned to settle in the land of Israel and went to Israel
during the later years of their lives. Nachmanides lived in Israel for his final five years,
while Halevi, according to a tradition, was killed as soon as he arrived.
Maimonides held a contrary view.1 Maimonides, like Onkelos, felt that objects could not
be holy; that would be unnatural. If there were such a thing as a holiness Geiger counter,
and this counter were placed on Israeli soil, it would not click. He recognized Israel’s
historical importance to the Jewish people, and he personally had great fondness for the
land, but he did not think that it was holy and radiated a supernatural element that
improves one’s life.
YET MAIMONIDES AND ONKELOS CONSIDER ISRAEL IMPORTANT
1 Nachmanides did not agree with the listing of the 613 commandments that Maimonides placed in his Sefer
Hamitzvot. One disagreement was that Maimonides did not include the dwelling in Israel as a command, while
Nachmanides insisted that it was a biblical command.
All of the sages agree that Israel is a significant part of Judaism. Scripture leaves no
doubt about the centrality of the land for the Jewish people and the love that God has for it.
“It is a land which the Lord your God seeks, on which the Lord your God always keeps His
eyes from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deuteronomy 11:12).2
CAN LAND BECOME UNHOLY?
Occasionally, the Torah uses unusual language in referring to the land, as if the land was
a living entity. In our parashah (35:33 pages 314–317),3 after a warning is issued not to
accept money or a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime
Scripture informs us “do not make the land in which you live guilty (lo tachanifu et
ha’aretz), which is how the targumist translates tachanifu. The verse continues: “There is
no atonement for the land for innocent blood that is shed in it except through the blood of
he who shed it.” And in verse 34: “You must not defile the land in which you dwell for my
Shekhinah dwells in it, since I am the Lord (and) My Shekhinah dwells among the Israelites”
Onkelos’ position on the sanctity of land is clarified in our appendix in Numbers (pages
420 and 421):
A literal reading of verses 33 and 34 raises theological problems to some readers.
Verse 33 states that the inanimate land becomes “ch-n-f,” which the commentators
translate in somewhat different ways, but they agree that the dirt of the land
somehow is polluted. This, as stated, is problematical to some thinkers who find it
difficult to imagine both philosophically and scientifically that the earth would be
contaminated by the immoral or even crooked behavior of its inhabitants. Verse 34
states that the reason why the land should not be defiled is that God dwells in the
land because He dwells among the Israelites. This statement is disturbing to some
readers who would prefer to think of God as a universal deity who is concerned for all
people, all of whom he created, most of whom are non-Israelites. Furthermore, they
prefer to think that God is everywhere and is not like a monarch of a single state who
has a palace in the land.
These problems seemed to have bothered Chazkunee and ibn Ezra who understood
that the verses are taking poetic license and are speaking figuratively. They explain
that the land itself, of course, is not altered by the behavior of its inhabitants. Rather,
it is the inhabitants who act improperly who contaminate the thinking and behavior
of other inhabitants. This interpretation is entirely consistent with the biblical style
that generally speaks of a land (such as “Egypt”) when it means the people of the
land (“Egyptians”). Similarly, when Scripture speaks of the divine presence among the
2 Onkelos does not delete the anthropomorphic “eyes” in this verse because the targumist does not remove every
anthropomorphism. He probably felt that his readers would recognize that “eyes” in this passage is a figure of
speech for “attention,” since this is a commonly used idiomatic phrase. However, there are commentators who claim
that he did not change this verse to emphasize that God is especially concerned about Israel.
3 All page numbers refer to the Drazin-Wagner Onkelos on the Torah volumes.
Israelites, it does not mean to imply that other nations cannot also feel the divine
presence. Why doesn’t Onkelos explain the two passages in this fashion? Onkelos, as
stated frequently, cannot explain everything. It is a translation, not a volume of
theology or philosophy.
Yet the Onkelos targumist’s position becomes clear through an understanding of his
use of the term Shekhinah, a post biblical term akin to the scriptural “kavod,” the
“glory” of God. Shekhinah is widely used today by many people who have no sense of
its meaning. Some suppose that it is a separate deity. Others consider it a part of God
that can manifest itself. Saadiah considers it a special light created by God so that the
people would be able to see something. In Onkelos it is not a separate being. It is
used to express the feeling that people have that God is present in their lives on
earth, or that he transcends their lives and is, figuratively, in heaven. Accordingly our
targumist is saying in verse 34 as follows: do not defile yourselves since you have the
potential to feel the presence of the divine, and an individual with improper ideas and
improper behavior cannot have that feeling.
Our translator’s view can also be understood by looking at our comment on Leviticus
18:25 where there is a scriptural metaphoric description of the land that the targumist
alters: “This is how the land became defiled. I stirred up (My punishment for their) iniquity
against it, and the land emptied out (Onkelos translation) its inhabitants (Bible: “vomited
out,” here, and in verse 28). The commentary, “THE LAND BECAME DEFILED” elaborates:
Can land itself, or part of it, become defiled, or only the people in the land?
Nachmanides felt very strongly that the land itself can be holy or defiled. However,
Saadiah took the latter position and translated: “When the people of the land
became defiled, I stirred up My punishment for their sins.” The latter position is also
the view of our targumist and Maimonides.
Do you agree with our view that no inanimate object can be holy? Or would you prefer
to define Israel as a “holy land?” Why? If it is “holy,” why didn’t the Torah refer to it as a
It is absolutely clear that a vital element in the covenant between God and the Jewish
people is the promise that they were to establish themselves as a nation, living in the land
that God designated for them, and that the Torah would be, in a sense, their “constitution.”
Hundreds of the 613 commandments can only be fulfilled by those who actually inhabit the
land. The Jews experienced three exiles, one in 722 BCE, when the Assyrians conquered the
Northern Kingdom of Israel and took the ten tribes into exile where they lost their identity
(“the lost ten tribes”); in 586 BCE when the Babylonians conquered Judea and brought the
Jewish population to Babylonia where they ultimately established one of the strongest
Diaspora communities in their history. In 538 BCE, the Persian King Cyrus allowed them to
return to Judea and even rebuild the Temple, but in 70 CE when the Roman destroyed the
Second Temple, they created a third Diaspora that lasted until 1948 when the State of
Israel was established. In contemporary times, Israel’s sovereignty has been challenged not
only by the Islamic world, but by charedi, “ultra Orthodox” Jews who, for ideological
reasons, do not recognize the State or its “non religious” government.
Should the state of Israel undertake steps to assure that Israel becomes, or remains a
“holy” land? Why aren’t more Jews inclined to “return home” to the land that was meant to
be their national homeland? What can be done to strengthen Israel-Diaspora relationships?
Would you regard the establishment of the State of Israel and its continued survival despite
the warlike antagonism of its enemies as a miracle?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. See 33:4 and commentary, “KILLED” (page 294). As a literary technique to offer
clarification, the targumim often substitute words that reflect the end orientation or the
outcome of that which is intended by the Bible.
2. See 33:52 and commentary, “THEIR HOUSE OF WORSHIP” (page 298, followed by page
301). The targumist and others clarify a difficult biblical word, maskiyotam.
3. See 35:19 and commentary, “CONVICTED IN COURT” (page 313). See also verse 21. The
targumist objects to vigilante justice and clarifies the judicial procedure in the case of