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Issue #56 - 07/10
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Eli Dahan

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Aramaic Translations

Dear friends,

Nearly two months ago, we discussed the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a translation of the (mainly) Hebrew Bible into Greek, which was started at about the 3rd century before the Common Era. However, in the ancient Roman Empire, there was another prominent language that was spoken by a large section of its Jewish population, namely Aramaic. Think for example about the Judaeans exiled to Babylon, of whom only a fraction returned to Judaea (Israel).

We can therefore speak of three important languages for the Jewish people during Late Antiquity (2nd century B.C.E. until the 8th century C.E.): Greek in the Western part of the empire, Hebrew as a religious language and likely also spoken until the early second century C.E. in Israel (Judaea before 135 CE, Palestine after 135 CE), and last but not least Aramaic, in the eastern part of the empire. In this context, Israel and Egypt would more or less represent the borders between west (Greek) and east (Aramaic).

Persian empire.Persian empire

In the past, Aramaic had a significant influence on the Jewish exiles and subsequent communities. After the Babylonians exiled the Judean kingdom, they lost control to the Persians, who became the ruling power in the Near East. Their official language was Aramaic and under their rule, starting in the 6th century before the Common Era, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East.

The Aramaic translations (Targum(im)) attest to the fact that many Jews adopted Aramaic as their mother tongue. Between the third century C.E. and the early Middle-Ages, several Aramaic translations were produced, with some traditions often going back to much earlier times. The important translations are: Targum Onkelos, Targum Jonathan, Targum Neofiti, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.

Since translations always contain a measure of interpretation, studying them is always instructive. In our last newsletter, we used the lexicon to determine a clear and specific meaning. Yet a translation of Late Antiquity can also be greatly instructive, since you are learning how people who were around long ago understood the Hebrew Bible. The Aramaic Targum(im) are not only instructive for their translations, but also for the frequently included commentary. Let’s take a look at an example of how an Aramaic translation dealt with a verse of the Hebrew Bible.

In Genesis 35:8 we find an account of the death of Deborah, a nurse of Rebecca:

וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה וַתִּקָּבֵר מִתַּחַת לְבֵית־אֵל תַּחַת הָאַלּוֹן וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת׃

And Deborah, the nurse of Rebecca, died. And she was buried under Beth-El, under the oak. And he called its name Allon-Bakhut.

There are several tensions in the text. We will focus on one. In the last sentence “And he called its name Allon-Bakhut.” the subject is 3rd person masculine singular (3ms), however there is no explicit 3ms subject in the whole verse. When we compare several English translations we see various solutions for this anomaly. (Comparing translations is a great way of finding anomalies in the Biblical (Hebrew) text.) Let’s look at various translations of this phrase: the King James Version and Revised Standard Version, “it was called…”; the Jerusalem Bible, “they called it…”; and the (Artscroll) Stone Edition, “he named it…”.


In this case, the Stone Edition is in the literal sense the only faithful translation of the Hebrew text. Namely, we have a 3ms subject in an active verb. The reason why the other translations did not choose the literal rendering as in the Stone Edition is the absence of the identity of the 3ms subject. One might wonder who the 3ms subject represents. One of the later Aramaic translations provides an interpolation that tries to explain who this was:
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (Aramaic)Cemetery

ומיתת דבורה פידגוגתא דרבקה ואתקברת מן לרע לביתאל בשיפולי מישרא וברם
תמן אתבשר יעקב על מיתת רבקה אימיה וקרא שמיה אוחרן בכותי}א{

And Deborah the nurse of Rivkah died, and she was buried below Bethel at the lower
parts of the valley, and for-a-fact there Jacob was informed about the death of Rivkah his
mother, and he called its name 'another crying'.

Regarding our question, this verse has been elaborated significantly. First, we can note that Jacob has explicitly become the subject that was unspecified in the Hebrew Bible. Such a conclusion is actually rather logical, since when one looks in the preceding verses, Jacob is clearly the only masculine singular actor. Incidentally, the Septuagint added Jacob here explicitly as the subject as well. However, the second notable aspect in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is the rather extensive elaboration “for-a-fact there Jacob was informed about the death of Rivkah.” This elaboration is indeed significant, since not only was Jacob explicitly included in the story, but also his mother’s death was pronounced (next to the fact that Deborah had died, which is the Biblical occasion). The justification of this elaboration is not readily apparent. Tree
It seems to have been informed by a rabbinic (midrashic) tradition recorded in the homiletical work (homily means sermon), Genesis Rabbah 81:5. In the Bible the place name is called Allon-Bakhut. When these words are read literally, it means “oak of weeping.” In our Targumic translation we see “another crying.” In Greek the word allon happens to mean “another.” It appears that in this way our Targum (or its predecessor) arrived at “another (allon) crying (bakhut).” The “other” crying implies more times of crying and the additional crying must have therefore been for someone else, namely Rivkah (Rebecca). In the example above, we saw how a textual difficulty, even visible in our English translations of today, was solved in the past. Beyond solving the textual difficulty, the translation also contained commentary.

This commentary shows how, long ago, certain expositors of the biblical text presented their homily on Genesis 30:8. Studying biblical interpretation, especially of Late Antiquity, is not only interesting, but potentially may also be enlightening to our understanding of the text today. Consulting Aramaic translations, which happen to also have been translated in English, may be a welcome method of inquiry to the serious student of the Bible.

Have a great week!

Stefan Bosman

The Biblical Hebrew team

Word in Hebrew Transliteration Pronunciation Meaning
אַלּוֹן ˒allôn allon oak
בָּכוּת    bakût bakhut weeping
תַּרְגּוּם    targûm targum translation
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