Sunday, 18 November 2018


Tafsir Rasag - Arabic Translation (in Hebrew script) of the Torah by Rav Saadia Gaon.

In this article we are going to look at the fascinating, if not surprising, notion of Rav Saadia Gaon (882[1]-942) using some Islamic sources for his translation of the Torah into Arabic. Sometimes he changes the meaning of the text to conform to his own personal opinions and other times even to certain Islamic principles!
I have drawn primarily from Professor David M. Freidenreich’s scholarly work in this field, and this article is largely based on one of his research papers.[2]
We will examine just “why on several occasions the gaon [i.e Rav Saadia Gaon[3]] prefers Islamic interpretations over the existing rabbinic and biblical alternatives.”
Rav Saadia ben Yosef al-Fayumi[4] lived during the Abbasid Caliphate[5] and was one of the first rabbis to write in Arabic (not to be confused with Aramaic). He was an outspoken opponent of Karaite Judaism and hence a firm supporter of Rabbinical Judaism. His major work, Emunot veDeot was an early attempt to synchronize belief in Divine Revelation (emunot) with rational observation (deot).
He was appointed Gaon over Sura which was very unusual as that city only elected its own natives as its leaders.[6] In those times, each major centre was controlled by a Gaon and a Reish Galuta (or Exilarch). The Gaon was theoretically in charge of religious affairs while the Reish Galuta controlled the politics and administration. Unfortunately, his appointment to head the Sura Academy in 928 - by David ben Zakkai, the Reish Galuta himself - did not end well. This was because Rav Saadia refused to sign the ruling of the Reish Galutu regarding a certain inheritance case, despite the fact that it was signed in the rival city of Pumpedita.
The Reish Galuta’s son then threatened Rav Saadia, and Rav Saadia’s assistant retaliated. Soon the Gaon and Reish Galuta simultaneously excommunicated each other – and each appointed another candidate in place of the other.
R. Saadia’s translation of the Torah into Arabic is known as the Tafsir, which means ‘interpretation’ (or more accurately ‘interpretation; usually of the Qur’an’).
His Tafsir is not the first Arabic translation of the Torah but was the most authoritative. It was largely accepted and endorsed by rabbinic Judaism, is still considered, to this day, as the official Arabic translation of the Torah.
An interesting detail about Rav Saadia’s translation is that he completely eliminates anthropomorphic references to G-d. So, for example, during the creation narrative, he doesn’t use the expression “And G-d said” – instead he translates it as “And G-d willed”.
Also, the expression “And G-d descended” (upon Mt Sinai) is rendered as “And G-d revealed Himself”.
In the Hebrew text of the Torah, each day of creation has a concluding sentence, such as: “And it was morning and it was evening, Day One.” In R. Saadia's Tafsir, the order is switched to accommodate a more literary style with that sentence serving rather as an introduction to the next day. The paragraph is redesigned to start: “After the evening and morning of the first day...” and continues with a narrative of Day Two, and so on.
R. Saadia employed great latitude in his translations and often brought the text more in line with Halachic and rabbinic thinking. Thus, instead of “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” becomes a far simpler: “Do not eat milk and meat together”.
R. Saadia Gaon frequently, and apparently glibly, gave Arabic names for places and animals. This prompted R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), who was a severe critic of R. Saadia Gaon’s Arabic translation, to openly challenge him quite scathingly:
Freidenreich translates Ibn Ezra as follows:
 “[Saadia gave Arabic names][7] to families, cities, animals, birds, and rocks. Maybe he saw this in a dream. And he certainly erred in some cases...
Because he translated the Torah in the language of Ishmael [i.e. Arabic] and in their script, [he translated unknown Hebrew words] so that they will not say that the Torah contains words[8] which [the Jews] do not understand.”
[As an aside, see: Ibn Ezra Quotes Karaite Sources Several Hundred Times. - Did Rav Saadia’s known opposition to Karaites have anything to do with Ibn Ezra’s attack on him?]
R. Saadia Gaon openly acknowledges his taking of textual liberties from time to time.
However, he stresses that the purpose of his Tafsir is “solely a translation of the plain text of the Torah...And if it is possible for me to insert a certain word or letter through which the meaning and intention will be revealed to one for whom an allusion is more satisfactory than a statement, I have done this.”[9]
Freidenreich explains that some scholars believe that “Saadiah, breaking with the universal Rabbinite practice of using Hebrew characters, wrote the Tafsir in Arabic script for an Islamic audience.
By ‘script’ we are referring only to the script and not to the language, which all agree was in Arabic.
However, others (including Freidenreich himself) argue that he wrote his Arabic translation in Hebrew script for a Jewish audience. This view is corroborated by the fact that to date, no Arabic script texts have been found in any of the Genizahs. In fact, an 11th century Tafsir in Hebrew script has been discovered which strongly supports the latter view.
Freidenreich writes: “As Muslims at that time could not read Hebrew or Hebrew characters, this clearly indicates that Saadiah wrote his translation of the Torah with a Jewish audience in mind...”
Freidenreich then drops an ideological bombshell:
“It is my contention that Saadiah deliberately and selectively relied on Islamic sources...Saadiah’s Tafsir shows evidence of conscious attention by the author to the stylistic expectations of his assimilated audience and of his use of specifically Islamic terms, traditions, and sources to provide more detailed or more rationally acceptable interpretations of certain biblical passages.”
Then he adds in a footnote:
“Saadiah is the first rabbinic commentator to base his biblical interpretation on philological [the study of texts][10] and rational principles, as was standard in qur’anic interpretation of his day.”
‘NUR ALLAH’:        
Rav Saadia Gaon was not reluctant to use the term Allah for G-d.
When referring to G-d‘s presence he uses the expression ‘nur Allah’ or Light of G-d.
When R. Saadia comes to the word Kohen, he translates it as ‘Imam’.
Amazingly, Aharon haCohen become Aharan the Imam – this despite the fact that R. Saadia could have used another Arabic word Kahin for Cohen!
The reason could be that Kahin has astrological connotations. Either way, we still see R. Saadia’s open usage of highly nuanced terms from the dominant religion of his day.
R. Saadia Gaon also had no qualms about using the expression ‘rassul Allah’, or messenger of G-d, to refer to Moshe Rabbenu.
Other medieval rabbis also used that same expression to refer to Moshe, possibly to emphasize that Moshe was no “less worthy of divine revelation than Muhammad.” This would have been quite an assertive expression to use at that time especially under Moslem domination, although the Qur’an itself uses that same turn of phrase ‘rassul Allah’ to refer to Moshe as well.[11]
Lest one think that R. Saadia Gaon was an apologist or an assimilationist, Freidenreich quotes Eliezer Schlossberg who argues that in some of R. Saadia’s commentary, he in fact attacks Islam because the poor manner in which they treated the Jews.
However, Freidenreich argues that that would apply more to R. Saadia’s other writings, but not specifically to the Arabic translation of Torah known as the Tafsir.
Freidenreich cites Moshe Zucker who calculated that there are 350 instances where R. Saadia makes the text conform to rabbinic law, such as in the abovementioned case of ‘do not eat milk and meat together’.
By the same token, he also found forty-five instances where R. Saadia appears to offer translations that run counter to the rabbinic grain:
In the following example, R. Saadia contradicts a Babylonian Talmudic practice of ‘temporary marriages’. (Incidentally, this practice was rejected by the Talmud Yerushalmi.):
 The notion of a ‘temporary marriage’ was quite common amongst Babylonian rabbis (see here).
We find[12] that when Rav went to Darshish and when R. Nachman went to Shechantsiv, they asked; “Who will be my [wife] for a day?” This was also a common practice amongst the Persian societies where the Babylonian Talmud was incubated.

Although the Babylonian Talmud generally discouraged taking different wives in different places for fear that children born of these unions may unwittingly one day marry each other – exceptions were made for the great sages, who because of their importance, would rely on the likelihood of the mothers telling their children who their fathers were.
Interestingly, the practice of ‘temporary marriages’ was also debated in Islamic law: The Qur’an may have permitted ‘temporary marriages’, and Shi’is still practice it although it is outlawed by Sunnis.
R. Saadia Gaon was strongly opposed to such practices.
Thus we find that when the Torah warned; ‘There shall not be a promiscuous woman among the daughters of Israel’[13] – he changed the meaning entirely by substituting ‘one who enters a temporary marriage’ (mumta’a) for ‘promiscuous woman’ (kedeisha). 

He similarly translates the word ‘zonah’ (prostitute) in the Yehudah and Tamar story, as mumta’a (temporary marriage).[14]
Thus R. Saadia “effectively creates an unprecedented biblical prohibition against temporary marriage...”  This, he may have done do discourage Jews from following the then common cultural practice of ‘temporary marriage’ as a legalized form of prostitution. Remember, R. Saadia lived “in an environment dominated by Sunni norms and therefore internalized the strong Sunni condemnation of the practice of temporary marriage.”
 In Parashat Lech Lecha[15], the Torah describes how the angel of G-d meets Hagar after Sarah sent her away, and announces the imminent birth of Yishmael who was to have many descendants.
This event takes place ‘on the road to Shur’.
According to the Torah itself (Shemot 15:22), Shur is to the west of the Sea of Reeds, which places it on the Sinai Peninsula which is close to Egypt.
However, R. Saadia translates Shur (in the Hagar and Yishmael story) as hajr al-hijaz or the Rock of the Hijaz, which refers to the Black Rock of the Kaaba in Mecca!

Here we have an instance where R. Saadia Gaon intentionally ignores the biblical description of Shur as being in the Sinai. Instead, he changes it to refer to Mecca – which is where, as it happens according to Islamic tradition, Abraham took Ishmael and Hagar after they were expelled by Sarah and where Abraham built the Kaaba!
This is clearly an Islamic influence as no other Jewish tradition refers to the Hijaz region of Arabia as a place of historical or spiritual significance.
Although in this instance there are textual variants based on different manuscripts, R. Saadia again refers to Mecca in his translation of another verse[16] where Meisha and Sefara become Mecca and Medina respectively:

Interestingly, another Torah commentator, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra also refers to an Islamic reference regarding the spring where the angel meets Hagar, which is “associated with the Islamic pilgrimage.”
Another example of possible Islamic influence on the Tafsir of Rav Saadia Gaon, can be seen in how he translates Joseph’s ‘begged’ or garment which Potiphar’s wife ‘caught hold of him by’.[17]
Throughout the rest of the Tafsir, R. Saadia translates the Hebrew word ‘begged’ as ‘thawb’ in Arabic. However, in the story of Joseph, he suddenly translates that ‘begged’ as ‘qamis’ which specifically means ‘shirt’, and not just a garment.
This may parallel the version of the story of Joseph as recorded in the Qur’an[18] where ‘qamis’ is used to describe the ‘shirt’ (or coat) which Joseph wore. No Jewish sources specify that it was a shirt, only that it was a garment.
Another example of possible Islamic influence on the Tafsir, can be found in the story of the Parah Adumah or Red Heifer, whose ashes the Torah says has are to be used to purify those who have become impure from contact with the dead.

The Talmud (Shekalim4:2) specifies that the cow must be completely red, it must be older than three years, it must be unblemished, it must never have worked and it must be purchased with Temple funds set aside specifically for its purpose.
In the Qur’an, a parallel to the ‘Red Heifer’ is described[19]: The Children of Israel ask Moses to clarify details of the cow to be sacrificed. Moses responds that it should be middle-aged, unblemished, never used for work and the pleasing colour of 'tsafra'yellow (not red).

Freidenreich writes:
“There is, however, one significant departure from the [Hebrew[20]] biblical text: according to every manuscript and edition of the Tafsir which I have been able to examine, the color of the cow is safra [yellow[21]], the qur’anic word used to describe the cow’s color. It appears that Saadiah considers the red heifer to be yellow.”

Bamidbar 19

Freidenreich concludes that:
“Saadiah certainly was not trying to syncretize Judaism with Islam or write an Islamicized translation of the Torah for the benefit of Muslims; had he so desired, he could easily have incorporated many more references to the Qur’an into his Tafsir.
The gaon was, however, willing to take from Islam those terms, traditions, and insights which he found to be valuable for his own purposes, and he was able to integrate them successfully into a work that remains quintessentially Jewish, so much so that his Tafsir came to be accepted as the authoritative rabbinic translation of the Torah into Arabic.”

Bringing all the above into some form of modern context:
It may be of value to relate R. Saadia’s Tafsir, to R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s German translation and commentary to the Torah. This also created a stir amongst the more traditionally conservative Jews of his era. Yet, when one understands the milieu, background and environment in which he wrote - his works take on very different, if not crucial, meaning.
The same may be said for ‘The Pentateuch and Haftorahs of Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Dr J.H. Hertz, which many too, have criticised for its more than occasional reference to non-Jewish commentators.
This is what Solomon Schechter wrote of Hertz in 1901:
 “[T]he new century does not open under very favourable auspices for Judaism…[O]ur Scriptures are the constant object of attack, our history is questioned, and its morality is declared to be an inferior sort…[T]he younger generation…if not directly hostile, are by dint of mere ignorance sadly indifferent to everything Jewish, and incapable of taking the place of their parents in the Synagogue…”
Schechter argued that an English commentary on the Five Books (and the rest of the Bible as well), written under Jewish auspices, was needed to respond to these challenges.[22]
Perhaps one must view the Tafsir of Rav Saadia Gaon in a similar manner.

[1] Some say 892.
[2] The Use of Islamic Sources in Saadiah Gaon’s Tafsir of the Torah, by David M. Freidenreich. (Columbia University).
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Fayum was in Upper Egypt.
[5] The Abbasid Caliphate was the third Caliphate after Muhammad. The name comes from Muhammad’s uncle Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566-653CE). It was centred in Baghdad (established in 762) and succeeded the Umayyad Caliphate in the Abbasid Revolution in 750. ‘Persianate customs’ were adopted, and science, scholarship and art were encouraged in what was to become the Golden Age of Islam.
[6] Another ‘foreigner’ was Yehudai Gaon, about a century earlier, during the mid-700s, see here.
[7] Parenthesis mine.                          
[8] In some manuscripts ‘commandments’ (mitzvoth instead of milot).
[9] Translation by Freidenreich.
[10]Parenthesis mine.
[11] Qur’an 61:5.
[12] Yoma 18b, and Yevamot 37b.
[13] Devarim 23:18. “Lo tiheyeh kedeisha mi’bnot Yisrael
[14] Bereishit 38:15.
[15] Bereishit 16:7.
[16] Bereishit  10:30.
[17] Bereishit 39:12.
[18] Qur’an 12.
[19] Qur’an 2: 64-71.
[20] Parenthesis mine.         
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] The Story of the Hertz Chumash.

Sunday, 11 November 2018


A fragment of  Targum Onkelos

A typical Chumash with Targum Onkelos in Aramaic on the left, next to the Torah text in Hebrew on the right.

 On opening almost any Chumash, one notices an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text which is often printed directly opposite the words of the Torah. This is known as Targum Onkelos (or ‘the translation of Onkelos’).

According to tradition, Ezra the Scribe was the first to translate the Torah into Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of the Jews of Babylon, and when they returned with Ezra to Eretz Yisrael to build the Second Temple, they had forgotten Hebrew and hence the need for an Aramaic translation.

Ezra’s Aramaic translation was lost to history and it was only centuries later that Onkelos produced his Aramaic translation of the Torah.

Onkelos, also known as Onkelos haGer, was a convert to Judaism.

Who exactly was Onkelos - when did he live - what was his story – and how did the translation of a convert get to share centre stage together with the Torah text itself?


For a lovely introduction to Onkelos, one can read a short portrait published by Kehot which deals with some of the episodes “in the Talmud and Midrash where we find enough material to put together the life story of this great giant in Jewish history..."

“...Onkelos...was blessed not only with a clear head and exceptional brain, but also with a golden and pure heart and a lofty soul. He soon realized that idolatry is foolish and that the Jewish religion is the real G‑dly religion. On the quiet he began to serve G‑d, the Creator of heaven and earth, and he waited for the opportunity of formally accepting the Jewish religion.”[1]
One can read about how legions upon legions of Roman soldiers sent by Emperor Hadrian, ended up converting to Judaism when they tried to arrest Onkelos for his conversion to Judaism.
In this article, however, we will take a look at some other historical references which add to the tapestry of the very interesting personality of Onkelos.

Onkelos, as he is known in the Talmud Bavli, is thought to be the same person also known in the Talmud Yerushalmi as  Aquila[2] the convert (of Sinope, Turkey 35-120[3]CE).

According to the Talmud, he was a nephew of Titus. According to Medrash Tanchuma, he was a nephew of Emperor Hadrian.


Jewish tradition has it that Onkelos translated into Aramaic the ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ pshat or literal meaning of the Hebrew text of the Torah. He received this ‘correct version’ from Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Yehoshua ben Chanania.

According to some accounts, he was also a student of R. Akiva.


Onkelos not only translated the Torah into Aramaic but also into Greek.           
There is a Talmudic view that a Sefer Torah written in Ancient Greek can qualify as a kosher Torah scroll which may be read in synagogue.


“The difference between the scrolls of a Sefer Torah and the scrolls of Tefillin and Mezuzot, is that Torah scrolls may be written in any language, whereas Tefillin and Mezuzot must only be written in Hebrew script.
R. Shimon ben Gamliel [disagrees and] says: Torah scrolls may only be written in Greek [and, obviously Hebrew, but not in any other language].”[4]


Onkelos’ Greek translation was so highly regarded in Greek-speaking synagogues, that his Greek Targum soon replaced the older Greek translation of the Torah known as the Septuagint, dating back to 3rd-century BCE. 

[The Septuagint was the early translation of the Torah into Greek by the seventy rabbis who all came up with the same translation despite being placed in separate rooms.]

Furthermore, the Christians too preferred Onkelos’ Greek translation over the Septuagint because they claimed the Septuagint incorrectly translated some messianic passages.

According to Alec Eli Silverstone[5], Onkelos only began to study Hebrew when he was forty years old. Learning a new language at that age and then producing authoritative translations must have been a momentous task.


Silverstone cites the writing Bishop Epiphanius (310-403CE) of Salamis, Cyprus, who claims Onkelos was appointed by his relative Hadrian to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem 47 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Jerusalem was to be re-named Aelia Capitolina.

Epiphanius records that while working in the holy city, Onkelos became so impressed by the “wonders performed by the Apostles” that he converted from paganism to Christianity and was baptized.


In consequence...of his continued devotion to the practice of astrology, he was expelled from the Church, and, embittered by his treatment, was induced through his zeal against Christianity to become a Jew, to study the Hebrew Language, and to render the Scriptures afresh into Greek with the view of setting aside the Christological passages which were drawn from the Septuagint.”

According to Epiphanius’ account, Onkelos converted to Judaism almost out of a sense of spite for the church which had expelled him.

Silverstone questions the historicity of Onkelos’ alleged conversion to Christianity as, besides Epiphanius, no other source, Jewish or Christian, makes any mention of this conversion.

What is interesting, though, is Epiphanius’ mention of expulsion from the church because of his interest in astrology. 

If this is correct, then it is ironic how Onkelos was able to cross over and later convert to Judaism, where he may have found a wider acceptance of astrology (although this would have been more repressed in the Holy Land than in Babylonia, see here).


Another account of Onkelos and his motivation to move from paganism to Christianity and then to Judaism can be found in an interesting book[6] by Humphrey Prideaux (1648-1724):
[Note, this is an old English text so read ‘f’ as ‘s’.]

According to this version, as the popularity of the Septuagint became widely accepted by the Christians, it fell out of favour with the Jews.

So, because the Septuagint was no longer as revered as it used to be, it became necessary to write a new Greek translation. The man to do this new translation was Aquila, or Onkelos.

Prideaux goes on to tell about Onkelos’ past. He started as a pagan and was drawn to magic and astrology. When he allegedly witnessed the miracles that the early Christians were able to perform, he wanted to achieve the same spiritual power to perform miracles – so he converted to Christianity.
However, he was not worthy or sincere enough for ‘so great a gift’.

Onkelos was not sufficiently obedient to the church and continued with his magic and astrology and as a result, was eventually excommunicated from the church.

Onkelos then converted to Judaism and became a student of Rabbi Akiva. He became a master of the Hebrew language and compiled two Greek translations of the Torah.

The second translation was more acceptable than the first and this was then used in synagogues by the ‘Hellenistical Jews’ instead of the original Septuagint.

This second edition Greek translation continued to be used until the end of the Talmudic period (500CE) when the custom of reading the Torah in Greek was abolished. From then on the rabbis decreed that it was only to be read in the original Hebrew - but for those who did not understand Hebrew, it was offered with another translation, this time in Chaldee or Aramaic. This Aramaic translation too, was the work of Onkelos (i.e. what we refer to today as Targum Onkelos).

According to this account, Onkelos did three works of Torah translation – two in Greek and one in Aramaic.

The new rabbinical decree that the Torah only be read in the original Hebrew or in the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, was not, however, accepted by the populace and they rebelled against it insisting that the old custom of reading the Torah in Greek be re-established.

Things got so disruptive, Prideaux continues, that Emperor Justinian had to get involved. He ruled from 527 to 565, just at the close of the Talmudic period, and was also known as Saint Justinian the Great, of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Justinian declared that Jews continue to read their Torah in their synagogues in Greek. They could, however, choose between the Greek of the Septuagint or the more recent Greek of Onkelos’ translations (or in any other language of the country in which they lived), defying the decree of the rabbis.



It is important to remember that the Jewish world was divided over the issue of the efficacy of astrology:

Rambam (1135-1204) the rationalist was vigorously opposed to the belief in any astrological influence over a human being. He also said that he had read all the extant literature on astrology and bemoaned the fact that just because something was widely written about, didn’t mean that it was correct.[7]

Ramban (1194-1270) the mystic, as well as most medieval Jewish philosophers, believed in astrological influences.

It is interesting to note that Ramban claimed that Onkelos converted to Judaism specifically because he was attracted to its mysticism.

It is also surprising that he dated the Targum to just after the time of Aristotle (384-322BCE) and seems to negate the date of around 130CE which is recorded in the Talmud. This places Targum Onkelos about 400 years earlier![8]


According to groundbreaking research by R. Israel Drazin, it appears possible that Onkelos may only have translated the Torah into Greek, and it was only much later, at around 400 CE that an Aramaic translation began to circulate. [9]

[1] Onkelos. By Nissan Mindel. Published and copyrighted by Kehot Publication Society.

[2] Or Akilus עקילס in Hebrew.

[3] Or 130CE.
[4] Megilla 8b.

[5] Aquila and Onkelos. By Alec Eli Silverstone, p. 151.

[6] Old and New Testaments Connected in the History of the Jews and Neighboring ...By Humphrey Prideaux

[7] See: Letter on Astrology, Lerner translation, Pages 227-236.
[8] I. Drazin, Dating Targum Onkelos by means of the Tannaitic Midrashim, JJS, Autumn 1999.
[9] Thanks to Mendy Rosin for pointing out this important research which could change the way we view 'Targum Onkelos'.