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March 25, 2011 / 19 Adar 2, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Megillah

Megilah: Chapter 1 Mishna 8

The connection between Mishnayot is not always evident. Sometimes it appears to be like a stream of consciousness. In this Mishna there is a discussion about in what language and how Sacred Books ( Books that appear in our Tanach - Hebrew Bible) Tefillin and Mezzuzot are to be written. [We are dealing with a sacred book - Megillah - written on a scroll so that is enough of a connection for the editors of the Mishnah.]

We are told that the Sacred Books can be written in any language. That's a bit surprising! Books of the Bible can be written in any script and any language! [We'll get back to that.] But the scrolls in the Tefillin and Mezzuzot can only be written in the Holy Language and the Holy Script. The Mishna, as it often does, continues with a different opinion. This time it is the opinion of Rabban Gamliel. He dissents and says that the Books of the Bible can be written only in Hebrew with the exception of Greek! In other words it's either Hebrew script and Hebrew language or it's Greek script and Greek language.

Well, that leaves us less surprised but surprised nevertheless. The whole thing seems Greek to us. The Rabbis in the Gemara use a verse from Genesis to justify the use of Greek for Scripture. The verse talks about one of the sons of Noah - Yafet - and interpret it to mean that the relationship between the Israelite nation and the descendents of Yafet will be friendly and peaceful. They go on to explain that Yafet comes from the word 'yafeh' which means beautiful and they identify beautiful with the beauty of Greece! That beauty includes the Greek language and from there they are ok with writing Holy Scripture in Greek!

The Gemara rules that the Law is in accordance with Rabban Gamliel. So we have learned now that writing Scripture in Greek was not only OK - it was an act of holiness! What were the Rabbis doing here?

I think what they were doing was no less than saving the Bible for future generations and in that way saving Judaism. By the time Greece is ruling in Palestine there are Jews scattered throughout the Greek empire who no longer knew Hebrew (can you imagine that - Jews living outside of Israel who didn't know Hebrew!) How were they to learn the sacred texts? How were they to learn the story of Esther? The Bible was translated into Greek and the Rabbis had to make a momentous decision - will this be permitted or not? Allow Jews to study the Holy Texts in Greek and besides what is lost in translation we will also lose motivation to learn Hebrew.

The Rabbis decided in favor of translation and then needed to sell the idea. They declared the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) to be the result of Divine Inspiration and therefore holy. There is a story in the Talmud describing how 70 scholars were put in 70 different rooms and each translated the Bible from Hebrew into Greek and each translation came out exactly the same! That can only happen if there is Divine intervention. Jews could study their sacred texts, argue about their meaning and even write commentaries in a language other than Hebrew and feel that they were in no way disengaged from the study of Torah.

At one time it was permissible to read the Torah out loud from a scroll written in Greek. Eventually that disappeared and the scrolls were only written and read in Hebrew. But the idea of translating Sacred Scripture into foreign languages had been effectively established and this wandering people could study its Holy Literature in whatever language they knew best and not feel 'guilty' (which is really hard for Jews to do!).

In Maimonides' magnificent Mishneh Torah he tells us that it was permissible to read the Megillah in Greek but that in his time this was no longer the case because the Greek language had undergone too much change and was no longer what it was in the days of the Mishnah. But by Maimonides time the precedent was set. The Scrolls would be written and read in Hebrew but they would be translated into all languages and studied and discussed in the languages of the Jews wherever they found themselves.

Any culture that refuses to translate its sacred text into modern idiom will eventually become irrelevant to the vast majority of its adherents and become a small esoteric subject without influence beyond its inner circle. By allowing our Sacred Texts to be translated we opened them up not only to the entire Jewish world but to the entire world. Do you know which book has been translated into more languages than any other in human history? It is the Bible and now that we know what we know - that isn't a surprise!

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Ed Farber
Beth Torah - Benny Rok Campus
Miami, Florida.

Rabbi Ed Farber grew up in Miami where he was active in the United Synagogue Youth movement. He graduated from Norland Senior High and the Greater Miami Judaica High School program. He was ordained as a Rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and served as the Rabbi of Temple Samu-El Or Olom in South Dade before coming to Beth Torah in 1995. In February of 2003 he was presented with an Honorary Doctorate by the Jewish Theological Seminary for his 25 years of service in the Rabbinate.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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