Targum Onkelos

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Interlinear text of Hebrew Numbers 6.3–10 with Aramaic Targum Onkelos from the British Library.
Hebrew text (right) and Aramaic Onkelos (left) in a Hebrew Bible dating from 1299 held by the Bodleian Library

Targum Onkelos (or Onqelos), תרגום אונקלוס‎, is the Jewish Aramaic targum ("translation") of the Torah, accepted as an authoritative translated text of the Five Books of Moses and thought to have been written in the early 2nd-century CE.


Its authorship is traditionally attributed to Onkelos, a famous convert to Judaism in Tannaic times (c. 35–120 CE).[1][2] According to a story in the Talmud, the content of Targum Onkelos was originally conveyed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. However, it was later forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Onkelos.[3]

While the Aramaic translation of the Torah is traditionally attributed to "Onkelos", and the translation of the Torah to Greek was performed by Aquila of Sinope, most scholars hold these to be one and the same person.[4] According to Epiphanius, the Greek translation was made by Aquilas before he converted to Judaism, while the Aramaic translation was made after his conversion.[5] This is said to have been under the direct guidance and instruction of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer.[6] Indeed, the same biographical stories that the Jerusalem Talmud attributes to Aquila, the Babylonian Talmud attributes to Onkelos.[7][8] The overwhelming similarities between the biographies of Aquila and Onkelos has led many to conclude they are the same person. Zvi Hirsch Chajes identified the Aramaic "Targum Onkelos" as Aquila's Greek translation, translated once again into Aramaic. Likewise, A.E. Silverstone (1931:73) has shown quite consummately that Aquilas wrote both the Greek and the Aramaic versions, insofar that "both versions betray the same outstanding characteristics."

A modern scholar has argued that the Aramaic translation must date to the late 4th-early 5th centuries, due to reusing language from other midrashim composed at that time, and thus could not have been composed by Aquila/Onkelos (who lived in the 2nd century).[7] Others, dissenting, have concluded that Onkelos' Aramaic translation originated in Palestine in the 1st or early 2nd centuries CE, but that its final redaction was done in Babylonia probably in the 4th or 5th century CE.[9] Onkelos' revised translation became the official version used in translating the Torah on each Sabbath day, displacing the earlier Palestinian Aramaic traditions which had been widely used. The Babylonian Talmud refers to the Torah's Aramaic translation (Targum Onkelos) as "targum didan" ("our translation"), as opposed to that of the more ancient Palestinian Targum.[10]

Ritual use[edit]

In Talmudic times, readings from the Torah within the synagogues were rendered, verse-by-verse, into an Aramaic translation. To this day, the oldest surviving custom with respect to the Yemenite Jewish prayer-rite is the reading of the Torah and the Haftara with the Aramaic translation (in this case, Targum Onkelos for the Torah and Targum Jonathan ben 'Uzziel for the Haftarah).[11][12] The custom to read the Aramaic Targum each Sabbath day in the synagogue during the weekly Torah lection was eventually abandoned by other communities in Israel, owing largely to the author of the Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim §145:3) who did not encourage its practice, saying that they do not understand the meaning of its words.

Where the custom is to read the Aramaic Targum during the public reading of the Torah on Sabbath days, the story of Reuben (Gen 35:22)[13] and the second "Golden Calf" episode (Ex 32:21–25)[14] are read but not translated, as they involve shameful events.[15] Similarly, the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24–26) is read but not translated, since the blessings are only to be recited in Hebrew.[16][17][15]

The reading of the Targum, verse by verse, in conjunction with the Torah that is read aloud on the Sabbath day is not to be confused with a different practice, namely, that of reviewing the entire Parashah before the commencement of the Sabbath, and which practice has its source in the Talmud, and which the codifiers of Jewish law have ruled as Halacha:[18] "A person should complete his portions of scripture along with the community, reading the scripture twice and the targum once (Shnayim mikra ve-echad targum)."[19] Here, the reference is to completing the reading of the Parashah at home or in the Beit Midrash, along with others, reading in tandem, during which reading each verse is repeated twice; once by the reader himself, followed by a repetition of the same verse by the entire group, and lastly by the initial reader himself who cites the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos.[20]

The days in which the Parashah was read depended largely upon custom. Some had it as their custom to break down the reading into two days. Among Yemenite Jews, Wednesday mornings were given over to the first half of the Parashah, while Thursday mornings were given to the second half of the Parashah. Others read the entire Parashah on Thursday mornings, while others on Thursday nights.[20]

Methodology of Targum Onkelos[edit]

Onkelos' Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses) is almost entirely a word-by-word, literal translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, with very little supplemental material in the form of aggadic paraphrase.[21] However, where there are found difficult biblical passages, Onkelos seeks to minimize ambiguities and obscurities. He sometimes employs non-literal aggadic interpretations or expansions in his translated text, usually in those places where the original Hebrew is marked either by a Hebrew idiom, a homonym, or a metaphor, and could not be readily understood otherwise.

The translator is unique in that he avoids any type of personification, or corporeality, with God, often replacing "human-like" characteristics representing God in the original Hebrew with words that convey a more remote and impersonal sense. For example, "my face" (Heb. panai) is replaced by "from before me" (Exodus 33:23),[22] while "beneath his feet" is replaced by "under his throne of glory" (Exodus 24:10), and "The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai" by "The Lord manifested himself upon Mount Sinai" (Exodus 19:20).[23] Samuel David Luzzatto suggests that the translation was originally meant for the "simple people". This view was strongly rebutted by Nathan Marcus Adler in his introduction to his commentary to Targum Onkelos Netinah La-Ger. He often updates the names of biblical nations, coinage and historical sites to the names known in his own post-biblical era.

In matters of Halakha, the targum entirely agrees with Rabbi Akiva's opinions. Some authors suggest that Akiva provided for a revised text of the essential base of Targum Onkelos.[24]

Some of the more notable changes made by Onkelos, in which he attempts to convey the underlying meaning of a verse, rather than its literal translation, are as follows:

  • (Genesis 1:2) (Aramaic: וְאַרְעָא הֲוָת צָדְיָא וְרֵיקָנְיָא, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and the earth was devastated and empty"], instead of "...and the earth was without form and void."
  • (Genesis 2:7) (Aramaic: הות באדם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָא, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and it became in man a speaking spirit"], instead of "...and man became a living soul."
  • (Genesis 3:5) (Aramaic: וּתְהוֹן כְּרַבְרְבִין, in Hebrew characters), [= "...and you shall be like potentates"[25]], instead of "...and you shall be like gods."
  • (Genesis 3:15) (Aramaic: הוּא יְהִי דְּכִיר מָה דַּעֲבַדְתְּ לֵיהּ מִלְּקדְמִין וְאַתּ תְּהֵי נָטַר לֵיהּ לְסוֹפָא, in Hebrew characters) [="…he (i.e. Eve's offspring) shall remember what you (i.e. the serpent) did to him at the beginning, but you (i.e. the serpent) shall hold it against him at the end"], instead of "he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."
  • (Genesis 18:8) (Aramaic: וְהוּא מְשַׁמֵּשׁ עִלָּוֵיהוֹן תְּחוֹת אִילָנָא, in Hebrew characters), [= "...and he waited upon them under the tree, etc."], instead of "...and he stood by them under the tree, etc."
  • (Genesis 20:16) (Aramaic: הָא יְהַבִית אֶלֶף סִלְעִין דִּכְסַף לַאֲחוּיִיךְ הָא הוּא לִיךְ כְּסוּת דִּיקָר חֲלָף דִּשְׁלַחִית דְּבַרְתִּיךְ וַחֲזֵית יָתִיךְ וְיָת כָּל דְּעִמִּיךְ וְעַל כָּל מָא דַּאֲמַרְתְּ אִתּוֹכָחְתְּ, in Hebrew characters) [= "…behold, I have given to your brother one-thousand silver coins in specie. Lo! It is for you an honorable remittance, for my having sent [unto you] and having controlled you; and for my having seen you [in private] and everything that is with you, and how that you have been proven [to be honest] in all the things you have spoken"], instead of "I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to you a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with you, and with all other: thus she was reproved."
  • (Genesis 22:14) (Aramaic:וּפְלַח וְצַלִּי אַבְרָהָם תַּמָּן בְּאַתְרָא הַהוּא. אֲמַר קֳדָם יי' הָכָא יְהוֹן פָּלְחִין דָּרַיָּא. בְּכֵין יִתְאֲמַר בְּיוֹמָא הָדֵין בְּטוּרָא הָדֵין אַבְרָהָם קֳדָם יי' פְּלַח, in Hebrew characters) "And Abraham worshipped and prayed there in that place, and said before God, 'Here shall coming generations worship the Lord.' Wherefore, it shall be said on that day, 'In this mountain Abraham worshipped before God'."], instead of "And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen."[26]
  • (Genesis 27:13) (Aramaic:עֲלַי אִתְאֲמַר בִּנְבוּאָה דְּלָא יֵיתוֹן לְוָטַיָּא עֲלָך בְּרִי, in Hebrew characters) [="…Concerning me it was said in prophecy no curses will come upon you, my son, etc."], instead of "…'Let your curse be on me, my son, etc."
  • (Genesis 31:53) (Aramaic:וְקַיֵּים יעֲקֹב בִּדְדָּחֵיל לֵיהּ אֲבוּהִי יִצחָק, in Hebrew characters) [="…and Jacob made an oath by him whom his father Isaac feared" (i.e. the God of his father, without naming Him)],[27] instead of "…and Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac."
  • (Genesis 38:26) (Aramaic: וַאֲמַר זַכָּאָה, מִנִּי מְעַדְּיָא, in Hebrew characters), [= "...and he said, 'She is in the right. It is from me that she is pregnant', etc."], instead of "...and he said, 'She has been more righteous than I', etc."
  • (Genesis 45:27) (Aramaic: וַחֲזָא יָת עֶגְלָתָא וכו' וּשְׁרָת רוּחַ קוּדְשָׁא עַל יַעֲקֹב אֲבוּהוֹן, in Hebrew characters) [="and when he saw the wagons, etc., a holy spirit came over Jacob their father"], instead of "…the spirit of Jacob their father revived."
  • (Exodus 1:8) (Aramaic: וְקָם מַלְכָּא חֲדַתָּא עַל מִצְרָיִם דְּלָא מְקַיּיֵם גְּזֵירַת יוֹסֵף, in Hebrew characters), [= "And there arose a new king in Egypt who did not fulfill Joseph’s decrees."], instead of "And there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph."
  • (Exodus 4:25) (Aramaic: וַאֲמַרַת בִּדְמָא דִּמְהוּלְתָּא הָדֵין אִתְיְהֵב חַתְנָא לַנָא, in Hebrew characters), [= "...and she said, 'By the blood of this circumcision the groomed infant has been given to us'." (i.e. the child was on the verge of dying until he was circumcised)],[28] instead of "…and she said, 'Surely a bloody husband are you to me'."
  • (Exodus 14:8) (Aramaic: וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נָפְקִין בְּרֵישׁ גְּלֵי, in Hebrew characters), [= "...and the children of Israel went out openly."], instead of "...and the children of Israel went out with an high hand."
  • (Exodus 22:28 [27]) (Aramaic: דַּיָּינָא לָא תַקִיל, in Hebrew characters) [= "You shall not have a judge in contempt"], instead of "You shall not revile the gods."
  • (Exodus 23:5) (Aramaic: אֲרֵי תִחְזֵי חֲמָרָא דְּסָנְאָךְ רְבִיַע תְּחוֹת טוּעְנֵיהּ וְתִתְמְנַע מִלְּמִשְׁקַל לֵיהּ מִשְׁבָּק תִּשְׁבּוֹק מָא דִּבְלִבָּךְ עֲלוֹהִי וּתְפָרֵיק עִמֵּיהּ, in Hebrew characters) [="If you see the donkey of one who is hated by you fallen down under its load, and you have since refrained from interacting with him, lay aside what is in your heart against him, and unload [the burden] with him."], instead of "…and you would forbear to help him, you shall surely help with him."
  • (Exodus 23:19) (Aramaic: לָא תֵיכְלוּן בְּשַׂר בַּחֲלַב, in Hebrew characters), [= "...You shall not eat flesh with milk."], instead of "...You shall not seethe a kid [of the goats] in its mother's milk."
  • (Leviticus 13:45) (Aramaic: וְעַל שָׂפָם כַּאֲבִילָא יִתְעַטַּף וְלָא תִסְתָּאֲבוּ וְלָא תִסְתָּאֲבוּ יִקְרֵי, in Hebrew characters) [="…and he shall cover-up his moustache like a mourner, [whereas] let one cry Be not defiled [by him]! Be not defiled!"], instead of "…and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean."
  • (Leviticus 23:43) (Aramaic: בְּדִיל דְּיִדְּעוּן דָּרֵיכוֹן אֲרֵי בִּמְטַלַּת עֲנָנִי אוֹתֵיבִית יָת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, in Hebrew characters) [="That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in the shade of my cloud, etc."], instead of "That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, etc."
  • (Numbers 15:15) (Aramaic: קְהָלָא קְיָמָא חַד לְכוֹן וּלְגִיּוֹרַיָּא דְּיִתְגַּיְּירוּן, in Hebrew characters), [= "One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the proselytes that sojourn with you"], instead of "...and also for the stranger that sojourns with you."
  • (Numbers 12:1) (Aramaic: וּמַלֵּילַת מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל עֵיסַק אִתְּתָא שַׁפִּירְתָא דִּנְסֵיב אֲרֵי אִתְּתָא שַׁפִּירְתָא דִּנְסֵיב רַחֵיק, in Hebrew characters), [= "And Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses concerning the beautiful woman whom he took [in marriage], for the beautiful woman whom he had taken [in marriage] he had distanced (from himself)."], instead of "...spoke out against Moses concerning the Ethiopian woman whom he had married, etc."
  • (Deuteronomy 20:19) (Aramaic: אֲרֵי לָא כֶאֱנָשָׁא אִילָן חַקְלָא לְמֵיעַל מִן קֳדָמָךְ בִּצְיָרָא, in Hebrew characters), [= "...for a tree of the field is not like unto man to remove himself from you during a siege."], instead of "...for the tree of the field is man's life to employ them in the siege."
  • (Deuteronomy 22:5) (Aramaic:לָא יְהֵי תִּקּוּן זֵין דִּגְבַר עַל אִתָּא, in Hebrew characters) [= "Let no man's ornament of war (weapon) be put on a woman"], instead of "A woman shall not wear that which pertains unto a man."
  • (Deuteronomy 23:18) (Aramaic: לָא תְהֵי אִתְּתָא מִבְּנָת יִשְׂרָאֵל לִגְבַר עֶבֶד וְלָא יִסַּב גּוּבְרָא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִתָּא אָמָא, in Hebrew characters) [= "There shall not be a woman of the daughters of Israel married to a man who is a slave; nor shall a man of the sons of Israel be married to a woman who is a maidservant"], instead of "There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel."
  • (Deuteronomy 33:6) (Aramaic:יֵיחֵי רְאוּבֵן בְּחַיֵי עָלְמָא וּמוֹתָא תִּנְיָנָא לָא יְמוּת, in Hebrew characters) [="May Reuben live with eternal life and may he not die a second death"], instead of "Let Reuben live, and not die, etc."


  • N. Adler, "Netinah La-Ger" (Heb.)
  • S. D. Luzzatto, "Oheiv Ha-Ger" (Heb.)
  • Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed (English) OCLC 1031721874
  • N. Samet, "The Distinction Between Holy and Profane in Targum Onkelos" (Heb.), Megadim 43 (2005), pp. 73-86.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Ben Maimon, M. (1956). Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by Michael Friedländer (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publishers. p. 14 (part 1, ch. 2).
  2. ^ Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures - The Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean), University of Chicago Press 1935, p. 30, who writes that Aquila (known also as Onkelos), who was a relation of Hadrian, had been made the overseer of Jerusalem's rebuilding in around 115 CE.
  3. ^ Talmud, Megillah 3a
  4. ^ Jastrow, M., ed. (2006), Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, OCLC 614562238, s.v. עקילס. There, he writes: "Aḳilas, Aquila, the alleged translator of the Bible into Greek, frequ. surnamed הַגֵּר, the proselyte, and identified with אונקלוס." Others who hold that Aquilas and Onkelos are names representing the same individual are Moses Margolies, author of P'nei Moshe (Jerusalem Talmud, Demai 6:7); Elijah of Fulda, author of a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud (Demai 6:7); the author of Korban Ha-Edah (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9 [10b]), Heinrich Graetz (Silverstone, A.E., 1931:32); S.D. Luzzatto (Silverstone, A.E., 1931:32), Eliyahu of Vilna (Silverstone, A.E., 1931:34–35), et al. Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi, who wrote a commentary on Midrash Rabba, entitled Yafeh To'ar, opined that Aquilas and Onkelos were two separate individuals.
  5. ^ Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures - The Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean), University of Chicago Press 1935, pp. 29-32
  6. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3a; Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9 [10b]
  7. ^ a b The History and Dating of Onkelos
  8. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 3a) "The Targum of the Torah was said by Onḳelos the proselyte, according to the instructions of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua."
    Jerusalem Talmud (Meg. 1:9 [10b]) "Aquilas the proselyte translated the Torah before R. Eliezer and before R. Yehoshua, and they praised him and said to him: 'You have become more comely than all the sons of mankind' (Ps. 45)."
  9. ^ Philip S. Alexander, "Targum, Targumim", Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, p. 321; Charles Kannengiesser, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, p. 129
  10. ^ Wagner, Stanley M. (2010). "Translation, Midrash and Commentary Through the Eyes of Onkelos" (PDF). Jewish Bible Quarterly. 38 (3): 192.
  11. ^ Yehuda Ratzaby, "Ancient Customs of the Yemenite-Jewish Community", in: Ascending the Palm Tree – An Anthology of the Yemenite Jewish Heritage, Rachel Yedid & Danny Bar-Maoz (ed.), E'ele BeTamar: Rehovot 2018, p. 60 OCLC 1041776317
  12. ^ Mishnah (Megillah 4:4); Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 3a). In the book She'iltoth by Rav Ahai Gaon (P. Nitzavim § 161), he writes: "And when he reads [from the Torah], a translator must respond [to each verse], and they are to adjust the tone of their voices together [so that they are the same]. But if the translator cannot raise his voice, let the reader [from the Torah] lower his own voice."
  13. ^ Zipor, Moshe A. (2009). Rofé, A.; Segal, M.; Talmon, S.; Talshir, Z. (eds.). "The Blessing of the Priests is not Read and Not Translated?". Textus - Studies of the Hebrew University Bible Project. The Hebrew University, Magnes Press. 24: 223. OCLC 761216587.; cf. Mishnah (Megillah 4:10)
  14. ^ Tsadoḳ, ʻAzriʼel, ed. (1992). ha-Tag' be-kheter Yiśraʼel (in Hebrew). 1. Bene-Beraḳ: Makhon No'am Yehudit. p. 188. OCLC 1086136740.; Mishnah (Megillah 4:10)
  15. ^ a b Kiara, S. (1972). Ezriel Hildesheimer (ed.). Sefer Halachot Gedolot (in Hebrew). 1. Jerusalem. p. 474., s.v. הלכות צורכי צבור
  16. ^ Zipor, Moshe A. (2009). Rofé, A.; Segal, M.; Talmon, S.; Talshir, Z. (eds.). "The Blessing of the Priests is not Read and Not Translated?". Textus - Studies of the Hebrew University Bible Project. The Hebrew University, Magnes Press. 24: 231. OCLC 761216587.
  17. ^ Tractate Soferim 7:2
  18. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hil. Tefillah 13:25; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 285:1, who writes that one should take care to review the entire weekly biblical lection (Parashah) for that particular week, or what is known as shenayim miqra we'ehad targum, (lit. "two scriptural verses and one [verse] from the Targum"), i.e. reading aloud its verses along with its designated Aramaic translation, known as the Targum. Beyond this, Rabbi Joseph Karo does not say how this should be done.
  19. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 8a-b)
  20. ^ a b Ratzaby, Yitzhak (1996). Shulhan Arukh ha-Mekutzar (Orach Chaim) (in Hebrew). 2. Benei Barak. p. 9 (item # 13). OCLC 875084492.
  21. ^ Michael L. Klein, "Converse Translation: A Targumic Technique", in: Biblica (1976), vol. 57, no. 4, p. 515
  22. ^ Ben Maimon, M. (1956). Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by Michael Friedländer (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publishers. p. 31 (part 1, ch. 21).
  23. ^ Ben Maimon, M. (1956). Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by Michael Friedländer (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publishers. pp. 35–37 (part 1, chs. 27–28).
  24. ^  Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "AKIBA BEN JOSEPH". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls., citing F. Rosenthal, Bet Talmud, ii. 280
  25. ^ The literal words used in the Hebrew text are: "and you shall be like elohim." The word elohim, however, is a Hebrew homonym, having multiple meanings. It can mean either God, angels, judges, potentates (in the sense of "rulers" or "princes"), nobles, and gods (in the lower case). In most English translations of Genesis 3:5 it is rendered as "gods" (in the lower case), and which, according to Onkelos, is a mistranslation and should be translated as "potentates."
  26. ^ Cited by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, chapter 44.
  27. ^ Cf. Philo of Alexandria, The Special Laws ii.1, who wrote that from this verse it is learnt that one should never lightly assay to invoke the name of God.
  28. ^ In accordance with a teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 3:9 [13a]): "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: May God forbid! The angel [of death] did not seek to kill Moses, but rather the infant!" Still, the matter is disputed, some holding that it was Moses, Zipporah's bridegroom, whom the angel of death sought to kill for not performing the circumcision on one of their sons, as relayed in the Palestinian Aramaic Targum.

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