Lost in translation - Devarim

Thursday, 15 July, 2021 - 9:11 am

Για να το διαβάσουμε στα Ελληνικά, κάντε κλικ εδώ

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When my family came to Greece, 20 years ago, my parents did not know Greek. There are a few funny stories that happened then but one of my favorite ones is about a translation mishap. They wanted to write that Yom Kippur is a “fast day”, i.e., a day where we do not eat or drink, but the translator wrote that Yom Kippur is a…. “quick day”! We certainly hope that the Fast of Yom Kippur passes quickly! 😉

The 5th Book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which we begin this week, recounts the words of Moses to the Jewish people during the last days of his life. An important work Moses did during this time was to translate the Torah in the 70 languages that existed then. Since Moses did it, the act of translation is something positive, isn’t it?

Years later, the Hellenistic king of Egypt Ptolemy ordered to translate the Torah in Greek. He closed 72 sages in 72 different rooms so that each one does his own translation without being able to discuss or coordinate with the others. It was a miracle that all the translations were identical, including identical changes in 13 places (where they each sage felt that a literal translation would constitute a corruption of the Torah's true meaning).

Was this translation something positive? Our Sages said that the day this translation was done was as difficult for the Jewish people as the day of the sin of the Golden Calf! Then, Moses had ascended to the heavens for 40 days to be taught the Torah by G-d. But the Jews miscalculated the amount of days Moses was to be absent. They thought Moses had to be back before the 40 days had actually been completed. Since Moses did not come back, they believed he was lost and that they needed another channel to communicate with G-d instead of Moses. So, they made the Golden Calf, which turned out to be one of the most severe sins of the entire Jewish history.

The intention of the Jews was a good one. Essentially, this was also the purpose of the Holy Temple, to constitute a material place through which G-d would reveal Himself to the world. But they did a critical mistake. When G-d defines a means of communication with us, it is clear that this is only a means. Not something with its own powers. But when we decide what will connect us to G-d, then we are in danger of falling into idolatry.  

It is the same with the translation. When G-d ordered Moses to translate the Torah, it was clear that it would be a holy endeavor and that there would be no misunderstandings because of this translation. But when the translation was a human idea, there was the danger of mistakes happenings and translation having unfortunate consequences.

Finally, the translation of the Torah in Greek did not have negative consequences. On the contrary, the light of the Torah reached more people, even Gentiles. Also, since then, the only language in which it is allowed to write a Sefer Torah besides for Hebrew is Greek. In practice, we do not do it, since we do not have the original translation of the 72 Sages (later versions that carry the name “Septuagint” are not believed to be true to the originals).

Let us remember that good intentions are not enough. When we do something that we were not ordered to, we need to be careful it should not end up turning something negative.

Also, let us remember that the Torah exists also in Greek and other languages (even if the translation is not completely accurate). We do not need to wait to learn Hebrew to study the world of G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,


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