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Jewish World Review
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Was the translation of the Torah into Greek a miracle or a catastrophe or both?
Although secular historians question whether Alexander the Great ever entered Jerusalem, the Talmud records in striking detail the Jewish tradition of Alexander's arrival in the Holy City.
With his conquest of the Persian Empire, Alexander acquired dominion over Israel and its inhabitants. These included not only the Jews but the Samaritans, a mongrel people who had nursed an ideological grudge against the Jewish sages for generations. Seeing the current change of political fortunes as an opportunity to advance their own political agenda, the Samaritans presented themselves to Alexander proclaiming their loyalty and offering urgent warnings of Jewish treachery. "Crush the Jews and destroy their Temple," they beseeched Alexander," before they have an opportunity to rebel against you."
The High Priest at that time was Shimon the Righteous, the last surviving member of the Great Assembly of Sages that had led the Jewish people back from exile in Babylon. Military resistance against Alexander's army was unthinkable, and diplomacy seemed hopeless as well. Nevertheless, Shimon adorned himself in his priestly garments and set forth with a small entourage to greet the approaching conqueror.
THE TABLES TURN
When Shimon presented himself before Alexander, the Samaritan advisors were flabbergasted as they witnessed the mighty Emperor climb down from his chariot and prostrate himself upon the ground before this "insignificant" Jewish Priest. Alexander explained that on the eve of every battle, he had been visited in a dream by the vision of a man leading him to victory and this was the man he had seen in his dream! In a sudden reversal of fortunes, Alexander received Shimon as a friend and ally, and ordered that the Samaritan advisors be dragged to their deaths by horses.
Alexander appeared in every way the model of a benevolent ruler. According to some, he studied Jewish philosophy with the sages, and may even have returned to teach his mentor, Aristotle, what he had learned among the Jews. But Alexander was too driven by ambition to stay long in one place. He soon embarked on his last campaign, to India, and subsequently died in Babylon at the age of 33.
Having failed to make preparations for transfer of authority, Alexander left the door open for a power struggle among his officers. The Jews soon found themselves under the rule of Alexander's general Ptolemy, who had seized control of Egypt and the surrounding regions. A capable and authoritarian ruler, Ptolemy devoted most of his reign to military adventures in an effort to expand his kingdom. And although the Jews of Israel lived in relative physical security, the influence of Greek culture and philosophy seeped gradually and inexorably into the hearts and minds of a large minority of Jews. Jewish Hellenism began to blossom.
When Ptolemy II ascended the Egyptian throne in the year 3476, he at first appeared to be a far more benevolent ruler than his militant father. To a certain extent this was true: the young Ptolemy was an ardent scholar who managed a relatively peaceful kingdom where intellectual and cultural pursuits occupied much of society. Ptolemy even seems to have been a protector of the Jewish middle-class from the excesses and power-plays of the political elites.
A TROJAN HORSE FOR THE JEWS
According to the Talmud, it was Ptolemy II who, toward the end of his 40-year reign, commissioned the Septuagint, the "Translation of the Seventy." Ptolemy's love of literature might appear to have been his sole motivation in commanding the translation of the Torah, but his method of "commissioning" the project suggests a more sinister objective. Ptolemy summoned the 71 sages of the Sanhedrin and isolated each of them in a separate room, only then issuing his command that they translate the Torah into Greek.
Like a many-facetted diamond that acquires a singular appearance from every angle, the Torah possesses virtually endless levels of interpretation including the literal, the allegorical, the analytical, and the mystical. As a result, the translation of the Torah from the uniquely versatile language of Biblical Hebrew into another tongue offered the very real possibility that the 71 separate translations would differ significantly from one another.
Had Ptolemy discovered discrepancies between the sages' translations, he would then have found justification to denounce the Torah as a mere religious icon, open to subjective interpretation and therefore not binding based on its literal meaning. Such a claim would have been disastrous, legitimizing Hellenist ideology and discrediting the sages in their opposition to the influence of Greek culture.
Miraculously, all 71 sages produced identical translations, despite their emendation of ten separate passages subject to easy misinterpretation. Despite this undisguised miracle, the Talmud teaches that when the sages completed their translation, on the 8th day of the month of Teiveis, darkness descended upon the world and remained for 3 days, a tragedy commemorated by the fast of the 10th of Teiveis (which also commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple).
Like the sun lost behind the pall of darkness, the brilliance of the Torah had become eclipsed to all those who would now depend upon its rendering in a foreign language, with all its levels of depth and meaning lost. The Torah had become "like a lion in cage," no longer the king of the beasts striking fear into all who heard its roar, now behind bars and stripped of its freedom and power; so too had the Septuagint reduced the Torah to just another cultural document.
The Jews of Egypt rejoiced that this translation would bring them respect and regard from the gentiles among whom the lived. The sages lamented that the translation would cause the Hebrew language to become forgotten among Egyptian Jews and hasten their assimilation. The crises of the next generations, leading to the spiritual darkness that preceded the miracle of Chanukah, proved that the sages' fears were not unfounded.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
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The day the sun stood still
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Independent Judea under Shimon HaMaccabee
The Great Revolt begins
Dedication of new walls of Jerusalem
© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson