3 Days in Tevet: the Septuagint


The 8th: The Septuagint


"In happened with King Ptolemy, that he gathered seventy-two elders, and gathered them in seventy-two houses, and did not reveal to them the purpose for which he had gathered them, and he went in to visit each of them, one by one, and he said to them, ?Write for me the Torah of Moshe your teacher.? The Holy One, Who is Blessed, gave to the heart of each of them, one by one, wisdom, and all of them arrived at a single understanding." (Tractate Megillah 9a)

The incident described in the above quoted text took place in the third century BCE in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, then under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, which emerged after the demise of Alexander the Great. Were King Ptolemy's motives pure? Did he simply want to enable the study of Torah for non-Hebrew speakers? Or were his motives less than sincere, seeking to create a breach in the integrity of Torah? Truly, what was Ptolemy's motivation behind separately sequestering each of the seventy two sages? Was he perhaps seeking to receive seventy two translations of Torah replete with discrepancies? If this was not the case wouldn't it have been advantageous to convene the seventy two in a single study hall so that they could pool their wisdom and create a single flawless translation?

As it transpired, the seventy two sages were each visited with ruach hakodesh - Divine inspiration - and each sage produced a translation identical to the others. Even more remarkably, each of the seventy two sages saw fit to amend the Hebrew text of the Torah in fifteen different verses, due to misunderstandings that could arise in a literal translation. Again, guided by ruach hakodesh, each of the seventy two made the exact same amendments.

Yet, despite the remarkable accomplishment of the seventy two sages, who produced a brilliant translation of the Hebrew Torah into Greek, the day of the completion of the Septuagint, (literally, Greek for "seventy" referring to the seventy two sages), the eighth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, is considered to be a dark day in the annals of Jewish history. Why is that so?

The five books of Torah, (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), are each comprised of verses, which are comprised of words, which are made up of combinations of Hebrew letters. Each Hebrew letter is made up of strokes of a quill. Each quill stroke is made with black ink on the white surface of the Torah scroll. Every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is a world unto itself, multi-dimensional, multifaceted, containing worlds within worlds of meaning. These individual bursts of Divine energy are grouped into words, each of which, in turn, possesses layers upon layers of meaning. Books have literally been written which are entirely devoted to the revealing of the myriads of meanings contained in single words of the Hebrew Torah. When we then factor in the vowelization of the Hebrew words, (whose alphabet contains only consonants), the punctuation of each verse, the musical cantillation of each word, and, finally, the silent "crowns" which are added to the tops of specific letters when written in a Torah scroll, (all of which have been assiduously preserved throughout the millennia) and the spiritual insights and worlds of meaning which each of these elements possess, it becomes evident that any translation of the Hebrew Torah into a foreign language, even when done with the finest of intentions and by the greatest and most scrupulous of sages, can only capture but a fragment of the meaning contained in the original.

Perhaps an analogy would more succinctly describe the matter: A translation of the Torah into a foreign language can be compared to taking a cellphone snapshot of the Milky Way. On a certain extremely rudimentary level it can be considered to be an accurate rendering of the galaxy, but certainly not even beginning to approach the very thing it has endeavored to capture. But let's now imagine, not a cellphone, but the great Hubble telescope. Docked in the fathomless infinity of outer space, the Hubble telescope is able to transcend light years of time and space and capture brilliant images of the very forces of creation. By studying these images, scientists have been able to increase mankind's knowledge of the nature and origin of our world. Truly a master translation of the very stuff of our world! But, alas, not the thing itself!

And so it is with biblical, (Torah), translation. The Hebrew text of Torah is not a description of the world that G-d created, it is that world. It is not a photographic depiction of the primordial sparks of creation, it is the sparks themselves!

The tragedy of the Septuagint translation, as understood by our tradition, is not the the translation itself. Today, most of the world knows Torah through translation, and it is good that this is so! The sincere study of Torah via translation can be ennobling and enlightening in ways unparalleled. What is essential is that the studier bear in mind always, that the translation he or she is studying is not Torah itself, but a human attempt at approximating Torah. Even the most insightful and inspired translations, which can reveal layers of understanding, are no more than brilliant Hubble telescopes casting their electron beam into great universe of Torah.

Unfortunately, Torah translation can become corrupted and misleading, in the best of hands, unintentionally, and in the worst of hands, intentionally so. Torah's truth can be twisted and distorted, falsified and invalidated. Unscrupulous men of ambition can manipulate translations in order to justify false and destructive doctrines and ensnare innocent and well-intentioned people. Such scenarios have occurred repeatedly throughout history, thereby justifying our sages' misgivings concerning the original translation of Torah into Greek. Fortunately, today, laudable translations of merit do exist, as does access to the Hebrew sources and to Jewish scholars and rabbis who faithfully uphold four thousand years of unbroken Torah tradition. Any Jew or Gentile, who sincerely wishes to avail himself of true Torah study, today can do so.

The eighth, ninth and tenth days of the month of Tevet are each considered dark days in the history of Israel. At one time each of the three days was observed by a fast. Today we fast only on the tenth. What happened on these three days?

The 9th of Tevet marks the passing of Ezra and Nechemiah who led the Jews exiled in Babylon back to Jerusalem. Learn more about their crucial role in Israel's history.

The 10th of Tevet marks the the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE. Learn more about this tragic day.