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Shiur #01: Reading Targum During Keriat Ha-Torah

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #01: Reading Targum During Keriat Ha-Torah


By Rav Moshe Taragin



            The mishna in the beginning of the third perek of Messekhet Megilla describes the procedures of keriat ha-Torah.  Although a megilla may be read by two people simultaneously, keriat ha-Torah must be rendered by a lone chanter.  Unlike a megilla reading, which may be discerned in "stereo," the Torah must be read by a single voice.  Elaborating upon this rule, the gemara mentions the custom of reciting Targum Onkelos in association with keriat ha-Torah, and concludes that Targum, just like the actual Torah reading, must be rendered by one reader. The gemara does not immediately explain the function or purpose of reciting Targum in accompaniment of keriat ha-Torah.


            Rashi asserts that the purpose of the recitation of Targum during keriat ha-Torah was to translate difficult sections of the Torah for the undereducated.  As Aramaic, was at the time, a universally spoken language, it was more easily understood than the actual Torah reading.  Since Rashi attributes the function of Targum to mere translation, he must supply a technical reason that Targum should not be recited by multiple people.  Rashi explains that if Targum were read by many at the same time, it might be misunderstood, leading to possible confusion and even halakhic violation.  Targum requires a single reader not because of its own significance per se but because multiple readers may lead to significant halakhic problems.


            The Rav zt"l explained the halakha differently. He claimed that Targum comprises an essential element of keriat ha-Torah; it is not a mere translation.  He bases this position upon a gemara in Megilla (3a) that suggests that Ezra instituted the reading of Targum alongside keriat ha-Torah (implying that Onkelos did not author Targum but rather restored a work that had been lost).  This institution of Targum may be detected from a pasuk in Nechemia perek 8, which describes a communal Torah reading held immediately upon the return from Bavel.  The pasuk describes that they read the Torah and EXPLAINED it.  The gemara claims that the reference to "explaining" refers to the institution of Targum reading. 


What, precisely, did Ezra innovate by adding "explanation" to Torah recital? His innovation can best be appreciated by tracing the source of keriat ha-Torah.


            The origins of keriat ha-Torah stem from a pre-Sinaitic response to a national crisis.  Having wandered three days after keriat Yam Suf without Divine contact, the Jewish nation experienced a religious crisis.  In response to this predicament, Moshe instituted keriat ha-Torah every third day to assure constant "contact" with the Divine Word.  As this legislation occurred PRIOR to the legislative moment of Har Sinai, the demand could not possibly have been a normative obligation of Torah study.  How could Moshe have obligated a thrice weekly Torah study quotient before Hashem instructed a mitzva to study Torah? The Rav zt"l claimed that Moshe demanded "exposure" to the word of God rather than cognitive Torah study.  The origins of keriat ha-Torah are experiential, not cerebral.


            It is precisely this structure of keriat ha-Torah which Ezra updated by instituting the reading of Targum.  By adding Targum, Ezra reshaped keriat ha-Torah as an experience which incorporates actual comprehension alongside experiential contact with the word of God.  As the verse in Nechemia asserts, Ezra insisted that the Torah reading should also be "meforash," explained, to enable a thorough understanding of the Torah. 


According to the Rav, public recital of Targum is not merely a post-keriya translation but an essential element of keriat ha-Torah to insure full comprehension.  In fact, according to Rashi's opinion that Targum is a mere translation, one can certainly wonder why the gemara required a source from a pasuk and why a legislative decision of Ezra was required to institute  it.  After all, as a translation, its function is merely technical and it should be included based on need, without the need for a legislative precedent. 


            An interesting Ran may corroborate the Rav's view of Targum.  The gemara in Megilla (23a) asserts that a minimum of twenty-one pesukim of Nevi'im must be read as the haftora.  The Ran allows eleven pesukim to be read, relying on the ten pesukim which will be read as Targum to complete the quota of twenty-one.  Since he calculates Targum as part of the minimum of pesukim necessary to build a haftora, the Ran may agree that Targum is an incorporated element of keriat ha-Torah. 


            Of course, this perspective may indeed justify the condition that Targum of Torah be rendered by a single reader and not jointly.  Rashi had explained the limitation based on potential confusion.  Perhaps, in as much as Targum comprises an element of keriat ha-Torah, it must be rendered in the same fashion as keriat ha-Torah.  In fact, the Yerushalmi in the beginning of the fourth perek of Megilla records two incidents in which Rav Shmuel, an Amora, corrected people who were reading Targum in improper circumstances. In one case, the reader wasn't standing and in the other he was reading alone without a partner symbolically standing alongside him.  In each case, the corrections which Rav Shmuel offered are taken as rules that govern actual keriat ha-Torah, during which the reader must stand and must be accompanied by an additional person symbolically mediating the ceremony.  These incidents merely reinforce the sense that Targum is not a practical translation but a post-Ezra element of keriat ha-Torah.


            Another source in the Yerushalmi suggests an additional and complementary status for Targum.  Rav Shmuel noticed a chazzan chanting Targum from a text.  He critiqued him, demanding that Torah she-be'al peh be recited orally rather than form a text.  Prior to the landmark decision of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi to transcribe Torah she-be'al peh, it was forbidden to render it from a text.  Evidently, appending Targum to Torah reading was an attempt to include actual Torah she-be'al peh alongside Torah she-bikhtav to ensure a comprehensive Torah experience.