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Targum is the Aramaic word for "interpretation" or "paraphrase". It forms part of the Jewish traditional literature and dates back to the time of the second temple. As paraphrases they are not considered to be completely accurate translations of the original Hebrew text. They do, however, provide background to the Hebrew text and can assist in accurately translating difficult passages.

The Origin of "Targum"

The origin of the Targum (meaning "translation"), many hold to be, the public reading by Ezra of the Torah of Moses before the assembled people of Israel while he stood of a wooden tower made especially for the occasion. The men with him "made it clear" (meforash) to the people, all who could understand, by reading to the people (Nehemiah 8). The succeeding generations understood, that what they were reading was the Torah of Moses in the Aramaic language, which had now become the people's tongue and not Hebrew. The Targum is the translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Tenakh in the Aramaic language . All the books of the Bible have been found in Aramaic except Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah - probably because these books already have large sections in Aramaic. At first, the Aramaic targumim (plural) could not be written down, as the post biblical Mishna (the Hebrew first part of the two part Talmud) could not be written down, so that people would not put it on the same level as the Hebrew Bible. But later, as the Mishna also, it was written down, and so other ways were devised for the elevation of the sanctity of the Hebrew text in the readings of the synagogue. The reader of the Hebrew was not to prompt or correct the reader (the meturgemon) of the targum lest it be thought that the two readings were on equal level. Paralleling the level of importance of the Biblical books, the targum was to be read after every verse of the Torah of Moses but only after every third verse of the Prophets. As the purpose of the targum is to "make clear" to the people, the targum displays a tendency to "bring down home" in language and a tendency to expansion into a paraphrase of the meaning of the Hebrew text. This allowed for the targums to bring in foreign words from the commonly understood Greek and Persian languages and allowed also for interpretive insight and contemporary and/or approved perspectives that were absent from the original Hebrew. The authorized targum for Judaism came to be the Targum Onkelos.

The Targum Onkelos

This targum, often printed nowadays alongside the Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, as the Mishna, was composed in Palestine, and bears the peculiarities of Palestinian Aramaic (Nöldeke, "Mandäische Grammatik," p. xxvii.). But making its way to the greater Jewish community of Babylon, it found its next to last, but most important redaction, there, and it became the Babylonian Targum (Targum Bavli). It is thought that it received the name Targum Onkelos, either from a convert (Ger Tsedek) named Onkelos who translated the Five Books into Aramaic, or by linguistic corruption of the name Aquilas, the Greek convert to Judaism who translated the Hebrew Bible into a literalized Greek to take the place of the Septuagint which was being used by Christians to prove the faith. (Targum Onkelos, making its way back into Palestine would get its final redaction under the name Pseudo-Jonatan Targum)

Targum Onkelos has been noted for its anti-anthropomorphism. That is, where the Hebrew text is very clear in visualizing the God of Israel in physical terms, even if meant to be understood metaphorically, Onkelos will not allow it to be so presented but will speak around it (paraphrase) or use an intermediary word between the physical description and God. In Genesis 32, Jacob is wrestling with "a man" but after the bout, Jacob says, in the original Hebrew text,"I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved". In Targum Onkelos, however, Jacob is made to say, " I have seen the angel of God face to face and my life has been saved". At times the intermediary word is the word "Word" - in Aramaic, Memra (the root is Aleph, Mem, Resh as in the Hebrew word 'Omer). Whereas the Hebrew text (Gen. 3:8) has it, "They (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden", Onkelos has it, "they heard the sound of the Memra of the LORD God walking about in the garden" Apparently, walking about in the garden conjured up too much of rustling of leaves and bushes to take figuretivly, and so it was the Memra that was heard and not the LORD God. This is the pattern in other places in Genesis. Prof. David Flusser of the Hebrew University notes that it is to this Targumic mindset that we owe our understanding of John 1:1 and not to Philo and the Alexandrian "logos" philosophy. " In the beginning was the Word (Memra) and the Word(Memra) was with God.. and the.Word (Memra)was God. John 1:1 is meant to rip away the distinction between God and the Memra and so declare that they are in reality one, ...and this One has, indeed, become flesh.

The Principal Targumim

Targum Onḳelos or Babylonian Targun (to the Five Books of Moses)

Targum Jonathan (to the Prophets)

Targum Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) (to the Prophets)

Targum to the Hagiographa

To the Psalms and to Job

To Proverbs: This Targum differs from all other Judæo-Aramaic translations of the Bible in that it shows Syriac characteristics, and also agrees in other respects with the Peshiṭta. See Aramaic Church

To the Five Megillot (Scrolls): Song of Songs,Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther

To Chronicles

Apocryphal Additions to Esther.

See Also


Jewish Encyclopedia: Targum