Megillah 9

Lost in translation.

In a mishnah at the bottom of yesterday’s daf, we learned that a Torah scroll can be written in any language. But Rabban Gamliel disagrees and says it may only be translated into Greek, which may come as quite a surprise just a month after Hanukkah, the holiday celebrating the Maccabean revolt against Greek culture.

On today’s daf, the Gemara tries to explain Rabban Gamliel’s preference for Greek in several ways. One of these attempts is a midrashic reading of a verse in Genesis:

God shall enlarge Japheth, and He shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27), (indicating that) the words of Japheth shall be in the tents of Shem.

This verse links two of Noah’s sons, Japheth and Shem, the ancestors of Greek civilization and the Jewish people respectively. The Gemara understands the verse to be saying not only that Japheth and Shem will dwell near each other, but that they will interact culturally, sharing language or literature. 

The Gemara goes on to play on the word Japhet, Yefet in Hebrew,which sounds like the Hebrew word for beautiful (yafeh), saying:

The beauty of Japheth shall be in the tents of Shem. 

The Gemara here shows respect for the Greek language, suggesting that the Torah may be translated only into a worthy language such as Greek. But elsewhere on the daf, we get a historical explanation for why Rabban Gamliel privileges the Greek translation of the Torah. This is the tale of the Egyptian King Ptolemy, who was said to commission the translation of the Bible into Greek. 

There was an incident involving King Ptolemy, who assembled seventy-two Elders, and put them into seventy-two separate rooms, and did not reveal to them for what purpose he assembled them. He entered and approached each and every one, and said to each of them: Write for me a translation of the Torah of Moses your teacher. The Holy One, Blessed be He, placed wisdom in the heart of each and every one, and they all agreed to one common understanding. 

In this story, Ptolemy tests the Jewish scholars to see if they can produce an accurate translation of the Torah without deliberating with each other. While he may have split them up because he was concerned the Jewish scribes might hide what is truly written in the Torah, the story raises a very real problem of translation: There are so many ways to translate a single text, and every translator must make interpretive decisions along the way. How could there ever be a perfect translation of the Torah?!

But in this story, the Greek translation (known as the Septuagint) is special, and perhaps holy in Rabban Gamliel’s eyes, because God intervenes so that the scholars are able to produce identical translations. Fascinatingly, the scholars all make the same changes to the text thanks to the divine inspiration they received. The Talmud lists a few of them. 

For example, instead of translating the first three words of the Torah literally, which could have been understood as saying some deity named Bereishit (“In the beginning”) created God, they changed the order to read “God created in the beginning.” Similarly, instead of a literal translation of Genesis 1:26 — “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness” — which could imply multiple gods, they wrote: “I shall make man in image and in likeness.”

According to the Talmud, the Greek translation was respected specifically because the translators were careful to counter Greek polytheism even as they translated the Torah into Greek words. In fact this ambivalent relationship to Greek culture, in which polytheism is rejected while Greek language is accepted, might be an appropriate model to think about the overall legacy of Jewish-Greek cultural interaction. Rabbinic Judaism borrowed many ideas from Greek culture (for example, the division of soul and body) yet took a clear stand against others (say, overvaluing physical beauty and strength). The Greek translation of the Bible is just one example of the hybrid nature of Jewish literature as it is translated and interpreted in new cultural contexts over the centuries.

For us who study ancient texts in translation, today’s daf is a reminder not to take any one translation as absolutely accurate. You can compare the original to the translation or even use multiple translations side by side to try to get a fuller picture.

Read all of Megillah 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 21st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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