At this point, I’ve read most of the two already published volumes of Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch’s Masters of the Word (which is wonderful). I’d like to suggest a possible solution to one of the questions raised in the book.
In the chapter on Targum Onkelos, Rabbi Kolatch cites a modern scholarly debate about why Onkelos sometimes chooses to translate the legal portions of the Torah according to the peshat, even though he usually chooses to translate them according to the Torah Sheba’al Peh. Yehuda Komlosh rejects all three of the suggested solutions, on the grounds that none accounts for every exception to the rule, and instead posits that Onkelos decides to translate or not to translate according to the halakha at random.
Rabbi Kolatch only brings three examples of psukim which Onkelos translates according to the non-halakhic literal meaning, and I unfortunately do not have access to Komlosh’s book about Targum Onkelos (or thorough familiarity with Targum Onkelos), so I don’t know what the other examples are. However, I think that there is an explanation which would account for Onkelos’s unusual translations in the three psukim quoted in Masters of the Word. The three cases are:
- In Shemot 21:6, Onkelos translates “leolam” literally as “lealam”– for as long as the world endures, despite the fact that Chazal explain that it means “until the jubilee.”
- In Shemot 21:24 Onkelos translates “ayin tachat ayin” literally as “ayna chalaf ayna” — an eye for an eye, despite the fact that Chazal explain that the pasuk is referring to the monetary value of the eye.
- In Shemot 12:6 and Bamidbar 28:4 Onkelos translates “bein ha’arbayim” literally as “bein shimshaya”– twilight, despite the fact that Chazal conclude that the pasuk is referring to the afternoon.
In two of the three above cases, Chazal engage with the pasuk on a pshat level. A person who studied the words of Chazal and did not know the literal meaning of these psukim would not be able to understand what Chazal are talking about in the gemara and midrashei halacha. One of the cases is not really an exception to the Targum’s general policy, as I will explain below.
On Shemot 21:6, Rebbi in the Mechilta comments that “from here you can learn that ‘the world’ (haolam, with a hey, not a lamed) is for no more than fifty years.” In other words, he is using the fusion of the “peshat” meaning and the “derash” meaning to derive an esoteric lesson about the age of the world, as Ramban clarifies in his commentary on this pasuk.
On Shemot 21:24, Malbim–who, to put it mildly, is not an admirer of the medieval pshat movement’s approach to the halakhic portions of the Torah–comments, based on the back and forth about the meaning of these words in Bava Kama, that the Torah really is teaching that a person who blinds another person ought to have his eyes gauged out. Although the Oral Law ends up demanding payment in lieu of eye-gauging — for technical reasons that are brought down in Bava Kama — the rabbis all agree that the literal meaning of the pasuk is teaching us something; it is, however, a law that cannot ever be kept. It would not be possible to understand the discussion in Bava Kama without knowledge of the literal meaning of “ayin tachat ayin.” In fact, the Rambam thought that this homiletic pshat understanding of the pasuk was important enough to codify in his Mishneh Torah.
Instructions for the sacrifice of the pesach offering are given more than once in the Torah. In Shemot 12:6, the pasuk says that the offering must be brought “bein ha’arbayim,” which Onkelos translates as “bein shimshaya.” Presumably because of its linguistic similarity to the Mishnaic expression “bein hashmashot,” which means twilight, modern academic scholars assume that “twilight” is what Onkelos means here. This is not, however, Ramban’s reading of Onkelos. He states in his commentary that Onkelos and Rashi have the same opinion about the meaning of bein ha’arbayim: Rashi explains that bein ha’arbayim refers to the time of day which falls between the beginning of the sun’s movement to the west (ie. the early afternoon) and which ends just before nightfall (see Rashi for more information about where this definition comes from).
Gur Aryeh doesn’t like Rashi’s explanation: it does not make sense to him that bein ha’arbayim could be a reference to a time between two positions of the sun. He claims that what Onkelos really means by “bein shimshaya” is “between days,” and relates Onkelos’s translation to the rabbinic usage of “bein hashmashot.” However, he explains that the meaning of the Aramaic expression here, in Onkelos, is broader than that of the usual rabbinic usage. So what we have here are both Ramban and Maharal staunchly maintaining that the translation of Onkelos on our pasuk is in accordance with halakha. The phrase “bein ha’arbayim” appears a handful of other times in the chumash; Chazal consistently interpret it as mandating afternoon observance of certain mitzvot (most of which are mikdash related), and Onkelos consistently translates it as “bein shimshaya.”
It is worthwhile to reconsider the first two examples of Onkelos’s “pshat” or “non-halachik” explanations. What we have seen is that, in preserving the pshat meaning of these psukim, Onkelos is merely following Chazal. This “doubling up” behavior of Chazal is in accordance with Malbim’s rule from Ayelet HaShachar, which is brought down earlier in Masters of the Word, that, “in every place where the meaning of the language will bear two explanations, they [Chazal] will give a second explanation as well.” When considering the attitudes of later commentators towards the pshat of legal psukim, we can draw a distinction between complementary and contradictory pshat explanations. Rashbam does not have a problem with pshat commentaries which contradict the actual halakha. On Shemot 21: 6, Rashbam writes that “leolam” means “for all of the days of his life.” This is not an explanation which can coexist with “until the jubilee.” Certainly Rashi and Ramban, and possibly Ibn Ezra as well, refrain from writing contradictory pshat commentaries such as this one. On the other hand, just about all of the medieval commentators will more or less often, depending on their inclinations, write complementary pshat commentaries on legal psukim.
It would be neat and tidy to say that they write complementary pshat commentaries because they are following the examples of Onkelos and Chazal themselves. However, although I don’t know very much about this, my general impression is that, when medieval commentators do it, it has less to do with wanting to pile homilies on top of legal mandates, and more to do with varying understandings of which psukim are actually sources of legal instructions, and which are only “asmachtot,” or pegs. Sometimes there will be a local disagreement between Ramban and Rashi, for example, about whether something is a peg. But it probably would be possible to trace the attitudes of various commentators to the peg vs. source question. Ibn Ezra, for example, seems to have a tendency to view a lot of the connections between laws and psukim as pegs. Onkelos, at any rate, does not appear to go off on his own and declare that traditional drashot are pegs. He appears to closely adhere, in all cases, to the plain meaning of the teachings of Chazal, and, when they teach a homiletic pshat meaning in addition to a legal meaning, he will choose that one for his translation.