The Simple Meaning

And Hashem said to Moshe: Come to Paroh for I have made his heart heavy and the heart of his servants. [This is] in order to place My signs in his midst. And [this is] in order that you will tell your son and grandson that I mocked [those] in Egypt and [tell of] My signs that I placed among them. And you will know that I am Hashem. (Sefer Shemot 10:1-2)


I. The purpose of the coming plagues

Hashem addresses Moshe. He tells him that the coming plagues are not intended to persuade Paroh to release the Jewish people. Hashem has made Paroh’s heart heavy. Despite the suffering he and his people will experience, he will stubbornly refuse to free Bnai Yisrael. The coming plagues are intended to demonstrate Hashem’s omnipotence. Future generations will recount these events – the wonders that Hashem will perform.


The translation of the above passages is based upon Rashi’s comments. Hashem tells Moshe that in recounting the coming events, future generation will describe Hashem mocking the Egyptians.[1] However, Unkelus and many others provide an alternative translation of the second passage. In their translation, Hashem tells Moshe that He has hardened Paroh’s heart in order that “you will tell your son and grandson the wonders that I performed in Egypt and the signs I placed among them.”[2] These commentators remove from the passage reference to Hashem mocking Paroh. 


These alternative translations describe differently the purpose of the coming plagues. According to Unkelus, their objective is solely to demonstrate Hashem’s omnipotence – His complete sovereignty over nature. Rashi’s interpretation of the passage suggests a second objective. The coming plagues are intended to humiliate Paroh. Hashem will demonstrate to His people that the mighty ruler of Egypt is powerless and even pathetic. He will come to Moshe and plead with him to immediately lead forth the Jewish people from his land. He will beseech Moshe to pray to Hashem on his behalf.[3] The mighty will be humbled before Hashem. 


Why is this second objective important? According to Unkelus, the message of the plagues is educational or intellectual. The plagues provide objective and incontrovertible evidence of Hashem’s omnipotence. This, in turn, demonstrates that Hashem is the creator.[4] The events are to be recounted in each generation. Conveying to our children and grandchildren the narrative of our redemption from Egypt will establish in each generation these fundamental convictions. 

Rashi is suggesting that the coming events are also designed to produce a profound emotional impact. They will reshape Bnai Yisrael’s perception of Paroh and of mortal masters. The Jewish people will observe the utter destruction of the king who was their master. The humiliation of Paroh will communicate to them that there is no sovereign greater than Hashem. Even the mighty Paroh will grovel before Him.


II. Arguing with Unkelus

It is notable that Rashi rejects Unkelus’ Aramaic translation of the passages. Rashi comments in Mesechet Kiddushin that Unkelus’ Aramaic translation was received by Moshe at Sinai.[5] Rashi notes that his comment is based upon the Talmud’s discussion in Mesechet Megilah. There, the Talmud explains that the Torah was given to Moshe with its targum – translation. With the passage of time, this translation was forgotten. Unkelus, the proselyte, studied under Ribbi Eliezer and Ribbi Yehoshua; based upon these studies, he reconstructed the targum. Despite Rashi’s acknowledgment of the impressive origins of Unkelus’s translation, in this and in many other instances, he takes issue with it. 


Rashi’s treatment of Unkelus’ translation raises an interesting question. Given his acknowledgment of its origins, why does Rashi feel entitled to contest it and substitute his own interpretations of words and phrases in the Torah? Furthermore, why was the Torah given to Moshe with a translation? Why was this necessary?


He preserves kindness for thousands of generations. He forbears iniquities, rebellions, and sins. He forgives those who return to the Law and those who do not return He does not forgive… (Sefer Devarim 34:7)


III. Valid and invalid translations

The first step to answering these questions is provided by a discussion in Tractate Kiddushin. The Talmud discusses a person who has presented himself as one able to read the Torah. Now, he is called upon to prove his assertion. He is understood to be claiming a level of literacy. To satisfy his claim, he must read and translate three passages. 


The Talmud adds that he does not satisfy this requirement though providing his own translation. He must provide Unkelus’ translation. Why is his own translation not adequate? The Talmud explains that one who translates passages literally promotes falsehood. One who adds interpretation is a blasphemer.[6] Rashi explains the meaning of these comments. Some passages are not intended to be understood literally. If one translates one of the passages literally, one attributes to it a false meaning. One who adds interpretation may pervert the meaning of the passage. This is blasphemy. Rashi continues and explains that Unkelus’ translation is not subject to these concerns. It is authoritative.[7] It translates literally those passages that are to be so understood and it interprets properly those passages that are not to be understood literally. 


The Talmud’s discussion reveals the purpose of Unkelus’ translation. The Torah can be understood at various levels. The Talmud explains that included among these levels is the simple meaning of its passages. Each passage has a simple or plain meaning. However, sometimes the simple meaning is not literal. 


This is illustrated by the above passage. The translation is based upon Unkelus’ Aramaic translation. Hashem reveals to Moshe the extent and limits of His kindness. He tells Moshe that “He forgives those who return to the Law and those who do not return He does not forgive”. Rashi observes that this is not the literal translation of the phrase. Its literal meaning is “He does not entirely forgive”. According to Unkelus, this literal meaning is not the simple meaning of the passage. He is providing the simple meaning. 


IV. The Sinai translation

Now, we can identify the reason Hashem gave Moshe the Torah with its translation. The significance of this translation is not that it expresses the content of the Torah in another language. Its importance is that it provides the simple meaning of the text.


In other words, Hashem gave to Moshe the Written Law – the Five Books of the Torah – and the Oral Law. This Oral Law interprets the Torah and finds meaning in every word and phrase. However, the Oral Law also includes the simple meaning of each passage. The translation given to Moshe conveyed this simple meaning. Unkelus’ Aramaic translation is a reconstruction of this ancient translation.


Another question can now be answered. The Talmud in Kiddushin taught that one who claims he can read the Torah proves the truth of his assertion by reading three passages with Unkelus’ translation. Why is his claim satisfied only if he provides Unkelus’ translation? The answer is that this person has claimed literacy in the Torah. This means he can read the passages and that he knows their meaning. Unkelus’ translation is the simple meaning of the passages. If he cannot provide this translation, he has merely demonstrated that he can read Hebrew. He has not demonstrated literacy in Torah.


V. Disputing Unkelus

Unkelus’ Aramaic translation was not received by Moshe at Sinai. That translation was lost. Unkelus’ translation is his reconstruction of the original translation. He based his translation upon the teachings of Ribbi Eliezer and Ribbi Yehoshua – masters of the Oral Law. Because he created his translation using this resource, his translation is authoritative. It does not mean that his work cannot be challenged or disputed. Rashi used his vast knowledge of the Oral Law to critique Unkelus’ work. On occasion, he concludes that the simple meaning of the text is different from that proposed by Unkelus. In those instances, Rashi states his objections and offers his alternative.


VI. Lessons from Rashi and Unkelus

In virtually every age, the conclusions of our Sages are challenged. Generally, the new generation suspects that the interpretations of the Sages reflect the attitudes and values of their era. Certainly, their ancient interpretations are not in-sync with our modern more enlightened perspectives! Yet, the Talmud asserts that one who composes his own “updated” translation promotes falsehood and engages in blasphemy. Sensitivity to contemporary values cannot take the place of thorough and penetrating scholarship. One must be a master of the Written and Oral Law if one proposes to compose a translation of the Torah.


The same is true of interpretation of its laws. To interpret the Torah and apply its laws to issues arising in the modern milieu, it is not adequate to understand the contemporary setting. One must have enormous erudition in the vast body of Torah law.   

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 10:2.

[2] The  dispute over the proper translation of the passage focuses upon the literal meaning of the word “hitalalti/התעללתי”. 

[3] Sefer Shemot 12:31-32.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:16.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Kiddushin 49a.

[6] Mesechet Kiddushin 49a.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Kiddushin 49a.ll