Rabbi Moshe Spetter
Former Rosh Kollel in Greater Washington
One of the most tragic events that happened in the month of Tevet was translating the Torah into Greek in the days of Talmai. In the Selichot for the tenth of Tevet we mention this event: “The King of Greece forced me to write the Greek religion.”
This event is mentioned in Masechet Sofrim (Chapter 1, Halacha 7):
“There were once five wise Jews who wrote the Torah in Greek for King Talmai, that day was as difficult for the people of Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made, the Torah could not have been fully translated.”
Another story about King Talmai was that he called together seventy-two wise men; he sat them in seventy- two separate houses and he did not tell them the reason for the gathering. He then came to each one of them separately and asked them to write the Torah. Hashem gave them the wisdom so that they all wrote the exact same words with the exact thirteen changes, “God created at the beginning”…
Why is this incident remembered as difficult as the day the Golden Calf was made, and what is the implication for translating the Torah and Torah interpretations (including this one!) into a foreign language.
The reason mentioned in Masechet Sofrim itself is that “the Torah cannot be fully translated”.
We can explain that reason in two ways:
1. In every translation there is interpretation. There is no translation that will not change the initial meaning of the original text. For this reason it is forbidden to translate the Torah. Moreover, especially in the Torah where every letter must be exact and where we learn many Halachic issues from each sound, translation loses much of the depth.
2. In the days of Talmai it was impossible to fully translate the Torah because it was necessary to change some of the text in order for Talmai and his wise men to accept it and in order for him not to be angry at the Jewish people.
If we look closely at what it says in Masechet Sofrim we can see that the Torah was translated twice in the days of Talmai. The first time was the translation of the five wise men and it could be that this translation was problematic. Later on was the translation of the seventy-two? wise men in which Hashem gave them the wisdom so that each and every one of them translated the Torah in the exact same way. This “miraculous” translation was a good one.
According to the first interpretation, it is impossible to translate the Torah. According to the second interpretation, however, if one translates in a good manner, then it is possible to translate the Torah.
Rabi Eliezer Ben Yoel Halevi (Germany, 1140-1220) tells that a Ger Zedek approached him and said that he learned the Torah from Priest’s books after getting permission to do so from the wise men of Shapira. Rabbi Eliezer disagreed with this because he believed that it is forbidden to write the Torah in a foreign language.
Rav Shlomo Kloger (1785-1869, Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo, Yoreh Deahsiman 257) explains his opposition to Moshe Mendelssohn and his writings. Among other reasons, he is against translating the Torah into German. The famous book for women, Tzena U’r’ena, which was written in Yiddish, is not problematic because it is an interpretation of the Torah and not a translation of the Torah.
In our days, Rav Moshe Hakatan (Klein, Mishne Halachot part 12, siman 135) disagrees to writing Torah interpretations in English. He explains his opposition by saying that the Torah may be exposed to non-Jews and there are several problems with that:
1. It is forbidden for non-Jews to learn Torah.
2. The writers are aware of the fact that non-Jews may be reading their writings and, therefore, they will write in a way that will satisfy them and will change the truth of the Torah.
3. Non-Jews who understand the Torah will be able to reinforce their claim that they are the real children of Hashem.
On the other hand, Rav Weinberg (Sridei Esh chapter 2, siman 56) explains the common custom of translating the Torah into different languages, and he says that it is obvious that it is not forbidden to translate the Torah. The prohibition for non-Jews to read the Torah is only if they learn it in depth and not if they read it superficially. Wise Jews like Rabbi Sa’adya Gaon and the Rambam wrote some of their writings in Arabic which was the national language at the time.
The Hebrew language is the language in which we received the Torah, and the Torah Shebeal Peh (the Mishna and Talmud) is based upon it. Even though there is a great advantage for having the Torah and its interpretations translated into other languages, there are many aspects that cannot be translated and the learner misses out in his learning. It is appropriate that whoever can learn Hebrew, shall do so, and then he will be able to learn the Torah in its original language.