Lost in Translation
By Rabbi Daniel Travis
…Reuven went and… (Bereshith 35:22)
When Rachel died, Yaakov moved his personal effects from Rachel’s tent to
that of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah. Reuven considered this a terrible
slight to his mother Leah, and moved Yaakov’s bed to Leah’s tent.1 Since interfering with his father’s
private matters was a very serious offense, the Torah implies that
Reuven’s transgression was much graver than that which he actually
In earlier generations it was customary to read the Aramaic translation of
the Torah’s verses publicly following the recitation of the Hebrew verses,
however the translation of this verse was not to be read to the
congregation after the reading of the Hebrew verse.3 The Aramaic translation did not present the deeper
Midrashic explanations of the verse. Rather its intention was to enable
those who were untutored in the Hebrew language to understand the literal
meaning of each verse. Since a translation of the above verse cannot
encapsulate its real meaning, it would leave the listener with the
mistaken impression that Reuven committed an immoral act. The Sages chose
to leave this verse untranslated, rather than to allow a negative
presentation of Reuven’s reputation.
Nowadays, in most congregations reading the Aramaic translation of the
Torah’s verses is no longer common practice. Nevertheless, since the
custom of reading the translation was initially enacted so that people
could understand the public Torah readings, it seems logical that we
should adopt a similar practice in synagogues today, reading a translation
of the Torah’s verses in the language of the country. However, the only
reason that the Sages permitted a public reading of the Aramaic
translation was because God gave it directly to Moses (and Onkelos
eventually established its proper text for later generations). Any other
translation is bound to contain inaccuracies – which would render it
false; and it is improper to read anything publicly in a synagogue that
contains elements that are false.4
The Torah’s books are unique among all forms of literature, for every word
can be interpreted in many different ways, all of which are accurate and
true. The Vilna Gaon said that he was able to expound a hundred and fifty
explanations on a single verse in Shir HaShirim.5 Such incredible depth of meaning is lost entirely when
Torah is translated into other languages.
1 Rashi on Bereshith 35:22.
2 Shabboth 55a.
3 Megillah 25a.
4 Response of the Chatham Sofer 6:86.
5 Introduction to Pa’ath HaShulchan, written by Rav Yisrael
Mishklow, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org