“And Yisrael and all that was his set out and came to Be’er Sheva, and he slaughtered sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzchak. And Hashem said to Yisrael in visions of the night, and He said, "Yaakov, Yaakov!" And he said, "Here I am." And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Yosef will place his hand on your eyes.” (Beresheit 46:1-3)
Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers and tells them to bring their father, their families and all of their possessions to Egypt. He will resettle them in Egypt and they will be saved from the ravages of the famine. The brothers return to Cana’an and they tell their father that they have found their lost brother Yosef and that he is the ruler of Egypt. Yaakov agrees to travel to Egypt and see Yosef.
Yaakov and his family come to Be’er Sheva. There Yaakov has a vision and Hashem speaks to him. Hashem reassures Yaakov that he need not fear going to Egypt. He tells Yaakov that in Egypt, Bnai Yisrael will become a great nation. He tells Yaakov that He will descend with him to Egypt and that He will bring him back to Cana’an.
Unkelus renders his Aramaic translation of the passage literally. Maimonides notes that this is unusual. One of the fundamental principles of the Torah is that Hashem is not a material being. This means that He does not have material form. Also, the characteristics of a material body and its behaviors and activities cannot be ascribed to Hashem. For example, movement and position are characteristics of a material body. It is not possible for a non-material body to move or have position. However, for the sake of lucidity, the Torah often uses such expression in relation to Hashem. Of course, it is not the intention of the Torah to suggest that Hashem is material. The Torah resorts to these expressions in order to communicate its message in a manner that is accessible to the common reader.
Unkelus goes to great lengths in his translation to avoid communicating any anthropomorphism – any suggestion that Hashem is material. However, in this instance, Unkelus’ translation characterizes Hashem as descending to Egypt and then bringing Yaakov, or his descendents, back to Cana’an. This is precisely the type of expression that Unkelus typically reworks in order to remove the seeming anthropomorphic connotation. Maimonides cites numerous instances in which Unkelus reworks similar phrases in order to remove the suggestion of anthropomorphism.
Let us consider one of these examples. In Sefer Shemot, Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that they should prepare for revelation. He tells them that Hashem will descend upon Mount Sinai. The expression “He will descend” is rendered by Unkelus as “He will reveal Himself.”
Maimonides explains that we would expect Unkelus to rework our passages based upon the same principle. Rather than translating the passages literally, Unkelus should rework it to avoid the anthropomorphic suggestion.
Maimonides responds with a subtle but important distinction. He explains that the Torah introduces these passages by telling us that Hashem spoke to Yaakov in a vision. The subsequent passages are an exact description of the message Hashem delivered to Yaakov. Hashem said to Yaakov, “I will descend with you.” Of course, Yaakov understood this message in its proper manner – divorced of any anthropomorphic element. Unkelus sees no need to rework this phrase. Any reworking of the phrase would undermine the intent of the Torah to communicate to the reader the exact contents of the vision.
However, in instances in which the Torah is engaged in the narrative of events, Unkelus takes care to eliminate any anthropomorphic reference. Similarly, in Moshe’s directions to the people, Unkelus reworks the narrative to eliminate the anthropomorphic suggestion.
Nachmanides disagrees with Maimonides’ position and raises numerous objections. Let us consider one of his objections. Earlier in Sefer Bereshit, Yaakov fled from his father’s home and traveled to Charan. On his journey, he had a dream in which Hashem spoke to him. Hashem told Yaakov, “I will be with you.” Unkelus reworks this phrase to “My word will be with you.” Nachmanides notes that in this instance, the Torah introduced the prophecy by telling us that it occurred in a vision. According to Maimonides, there is no need for Unkelus to rework this phrase. It is part of a vision. Unkelus should have rendered the phrase literally.
Based on his objections Nachmanides comes to a completely different interpretation of Unkelus’ intentions. Nachmanides suggests that we should compare the translation of our passage to the translation of Yaakov’s earlier prophecy during his journey to Charan. In our passage, Unkelus describes Hashem Himself descending with Yaakov. In the earlier prophecy, Unkelus describes Hashem as assuring Yaakov that His word will be with him. Nachmanides suggests that these are very different ideas and assurances. There is a difference between Hashem Himself descending with Yaakov and His word accompanying him. Nachmanides does not elaborate on the exact distinction. He explains that the distinction can only be understood through Kabbalah. Although Nachmanides often includes Kabbalistic explanations in his commentary, he does not explain the meaning of these explanations.
Nachmanides explains that Unkelus’ translation is not designed to avoid anthropomorphic suggestions as it includes many. Instead, it is designed to communicate the Kabbalistic interpretation of the passages. Specifically, Hashem’s interactions with humanity and the material world vary. Some are more “intimate” – in the Kabbalistic sense – than others. Unkelus’ translation is designed to communicate the “intimacy” of the interaction cited in each passage.
Maimonides and Nachmanides differ in their understanding of Unkelus’ fundamental objective in his translation of the Torah. Both agree that Unkelus is not solely concerned with providing a literal translation. They agree that other considerations motivated Unkelus to deviate from the literal translation. According to Maimonides, Unkelus’ work is not a mere translation. It is a reworking to the Torah designed to present the text in a clear and accurate form. Because of this objective, he eliminates any anthropomorphic references. It is not the Torah’s intent to suggest that Hashem is material. True to his objective, Unkelus reworks the text and presents a reworked version free of anthropomorphic references.
Nachmanides presents a radically different interpretation of Unkelus’ objective. According to Nachmanides, Unkelus’ work is designed to incorporate an element of Kabbalistic scholarship into the text. It is a presentation of the Torah’s text interwoven with this Kabbalistic element. In other words, according to Maimonides, Unkelus is clarifying the text. According to Nachmanides, he is elaborating on it.
This dispute has an interesting practical implication. The Talmud explains that we obligated to review the weekly portion each week. This review consists of reading each passage twice and the Targum – Unkelus’ rendering – once. Tosefot ask whether the Talmud’s stipulation of Unkelus can be extended to other translations. For example, can one fulfill his obligation though studying the passages in an English translation? Tosefot and others conclude that the Talmud’s requirement cannot be fulfilled with other translations. They offer an interesting explanation for their position. Other translations may occasionally provide some commentary on passages. However, Unkelus’ work interprets various passages that are not possible to comprehend from the original text.
According to Maimonides, this argument makes perfect sense. Unkelus provides an accurate and clear presentation of the material of the Torah. Another translation may not meet this standard. Therefore, the Talmud’s specification of Unkelus cannot be extended to other translations.
However, according to Nachmanides, Tosefot should have presented an even stronger objection to other translations. They do not include a Kabbalistic element! One of the essential elements of Unkelus’ work is not included in these other translations.