Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 7 January 2017 / 9 Tevet 5777

Asarah B'Tevet, Ezra and the Translation of the Torah

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

The Shulchan Aruch states: On the eighth of Tevet during the days of King Ptolemy, the Torah was translated into Greek and three days of darkness came to the world, on the ninth of Tevet it is unknown what took place, and on the tenth, the king of Bavel besieged the city of Yerushalayim to destroy it (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 580:1, see end of Masechet Ta’anit). The commentaries ask an obvious question: It is clear from the Selichot that we say on Asarah B’Tevet that Ezra HaSofer passed away on the ninth of Tevet. If so, then why does it say that it is unknown what happened on the ninth? (Taz on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 580:1, Chatam Sofer, Derashot, drush l’chet Tevet and Parshat Vayigash)

Before proposing an answer to this question, let us analyze another question. Why is it that the translation of the Torah is such a negative event? On the surface it can be argued that the translation of the Torah can be very productive since it can enable many who do not know Hebrew to learn the Torah. If so, why is it looked at in such negative terms? It says in Masechet Sofrim: It once happened that five elders translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy, and that day was as catastrophic as the day that the golden calf was made because the Torah “could not be fully translated” (Masechet Sofrim 1:7). This statement of Chazal is teaching us something fundamental about the Torah. The Torah contains layers and layers of depth to such an extent that one verse can include many different explanations. The different explanations are derived through methods of derivation (given to us along with the Torah at Mount Sinai) that draw on similarity in words used in different verses, words that either contain extra letters or are incomplete with omitted letters, dots on top of letters or words, and even the shapes of the letters and the words — all intended to bring out the deeper meaning behind the literal text. This is why the translation of the Torah was such a tragedy, as when it was translated according to only the simple meaning of the text all of the depth behind the Torah was left out. This is what Chazal mean when they say that it could not be fully translated.

The Gemara says in the name of Rabbi Yosi: It was fitting for the Torah to be given through Ezra if not for the fact that Moshe preceded him… nevertheless even though the Torah wasn’t given through him, the script was changed through him (Sanhedrin 21b). What is the meaning of this Gemara? The commentaries explain that the Torah was given in Ashurit script. This script was very holy, and each nuance of the shape of the letters in this script, and the crowns above them, was full of depth. In fact, the Gemara says that Rabbi Akiva was able to derive halachot just from the crowns above the letters (Menachot 29b). However, being that this script was so refined and holy it was only used for the Torah that was in the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark). As a result, only the learned rabbis and prophets knew the script, while the common people were totally unfamiliar with it. However, as the generations went by, anti-Semitism and tragedies increased, and there was a worry that perhaps the Torah that was learned from the shapes of the letters would be forgotten altogether. Therefore, just like Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wrote down the Oral Law as “The Mishna” (even though it was not meant to be written) to preserve it, so too Ezra Hasofer decided to institute the teaching of this script to the common people to preserve it for the generations to come. This is what the Gemara means when it says that even though the Torah wasn’t given through Ezra, the script was changed through him. By comparing the giving of the Torah to the changing of the script Chazal are telling us that in its own right the changing of the script was also a form of giving over the Torah.

Now we may address the question of why it says that it is not known what happened on the ninth of Tevet, when we know very well that it was the day that Ezra Hasofer passed away. The Chatam Sofer says that when Ezra passed away everyone recognized the big loss that came with it. After all, it was Ezra Hasofer who taught them the Ashurit script and all the Torah that could be learned from it. Therefore they held the eighth of Tevet as a fast day. However, a few years later after the Torah was translated to Greek and the people became used to the literal translation of the Torah, they no longer valued the contribution of Ezra in reinstituting the Ashurit script. This is because according to their crooked understanding that there is no depth behind the Torah there was no difference in the language or script in which the Torah is presented. That is why they started to question the reason to fast on the day when Ezra passed away. When Megillat Ta’anit wrote that it is unknown what happened on the ninth, it was essentially writing the greatest tragedy of all: The people lost the value for the Torah’s depth to such an extent that they no longer saw the passing of Ezra as a tragedy. This itself is the greatest calamity.

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