Asarah BeTevet – the Other Tragedy

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The fast day of the 10th of Tevet symbolises the first of a series of events which led to the destruction of the First Temple; that day marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Persian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

‘Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah.’ (Kings II, 25:1-2)

The prophet Yeheskel [Ezekiel] was instructed by God to turn this day into a day of memory:

‘O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.’ (Yeheskel 24: 2)

Yet the date also marks an event for which the people of Israel fasted not one day but in fact three, namely the completion of the Torah’s translation into Greek, ordered by Ptolemy.

The resulting translation was considered a tragedy. If you are familiar with a foreign language and enjoy watching films or TV series in the original version, you will know that things get lost in translation. In addition Ptolemy wanted to Hellenise the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. Not a catastrophe you might object.

But by moving the Torah from the House of Study to the Greek Library, the whole process of reading and studying Torah the Jewish way was threatened. Reading Torah is not merely about perusing an ancient text. Reading Torah involves a confrontation with what others have written and still write about it and how it has shaped their lives, not just their intellect. It connects us to the Jews of the past and the Jews of today, to their lore, wisdom but also difficulties and struggles. When Torah study is carried out the Jewish way, the learner is challenged and might be led to change in the process.

In Pirkei Avot (1:6), the sages do not tell us to ‘find a teacher’ but urge us to ‘Make for yourself a teacher’. They incite us to connect actively to a tradition that began at Mount Sinai and is still vibrant today in the Houses of Study as well as in its more modern versions. They encourage us to seek relationship, not independence and intellectual neutrality.

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13 thoughts on “Asarah BeTevet – the Other Tragedy

  1. “The resulting translation was considered a tragedy.” – my family was discussing this the other day, in connection with the upcoming fast. Important lesson here in learning Hebrew.

  2. As someone who really does enjoy foreign
    language films and can pick up a good amount of the spoken words in a couple of European langagues, it is disconcerting to realise how the subtitles can sometimes be quite different from what is actually said. And with regards to Torah, you only have to look at two different translations to evidence the ‘room for manoeuvre’! So yes, Hellenising can be seen to be a tragedy.

    Even more of a tragedy though is losing the manner in which Torah is studied. It indeed does open worlds, if you have the opportunity to do it, both for yourself and the person with whom you can share the experience.

    • I totally agree with you on the subject of the Jewish way of learning.
      Here is a quote I came across the other day and which reflects my thoughts in a most skilful manner:
      ‘… the study of Torah, or rather ‘learning Torah’ involves not mastery, but a readiness to be addressed. Learning with a chavruta a study-partner, attentive to him (her) as well as the Torah, entails a willingness to give up mastery, and place oneself at risk.’ (William Kolbrener)

    • I am not sure about translations of the whole Torah but I read an essay where the (Orthodox) writer complained about different translations of Shir Hashirim; strangely enough he seemed to prefer the King James Version (translated from the Hebrew) to that of Artscroll. JPS is closer to the language used in the King James Version.

      • The Artscroll version of Shir Hashirim is horrendous. It’s a love story between a man and a woman that may or may not represent God and the Jewish people. But Artscroll takes the liberty to put that interpretation directly into its translation, meaning they completely botch the meaning of the text. I’ve never read the King James Version, but I guess that’s a closer translation to the original.

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  5. You make a good point here, and I was interested to read the comments about the ArtScroll Translation of Shir HaShirim. I’m not very familiar with that megillah, but I will keep the translation quality in mind.

    Whenever I am able to read the text in Hebrew, which takes a certain amount of extra energy, it is much more geshmack. I remember learning once, a long time ago, that even just looking at the Hebrew letters is also beneficial.

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