Talmud Tips

For the week ending 3 February 2018 / 18 Shevat 5778

Avoda Zara 9 - 15

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Guard Outside the Door

Onkelos told the Roman soldiers, “A king of flesh and blood sits inside and his servants guard him from the outside, whereas regarding the Holy One, Blessed is He, His servants are inside and He guards them from the outside.”

The gemara relates the context in which this was said. Onkelos the son of Klonimos, born into a Roman royal family, was a convert from the Roman paganism of the times to Torah Judaism. The Caesar sent a unit of his soldiers to bring Onkelos to him (presumably to be killed for rebelling by converting), but Onkelos drew them close to G-d through Torah verses, and they all converted. Subsequently, Caesar sent another group of soldiers to bring him, and warned them not to say anything to him. As they were walking on the way, he said to them that he would like to tell them something ‘secular’: “It is the custom of the world that when a minor official walks with a greater one, the lesser one carries a torch and walks ahead to light the way. This is the manner of all levels of officials, all the way up the 'power chain'. But does the king light a torch for any person?” Onkelos asked rhetorically. They said, “No”. He told them, “But the Holy One, Blessed is He, takes a torch and goes ahead of the Jewish People, as it is written: And G-d would go before them by day with a pillar of cloud to lead them on the way, and at night with a pillar of fire to give them light, so they could travel (in the desert) day and night (Shemot 13:21). They also all converted.”

But Caesar didn’t give up. The story continues: Caesar then sent yet another group of soldiers to fetch Onkelos, and instructed them not to have any discussion with him at all. After the soldiers took him and they were all leaving his home, Onkelos saw the mezuzah on his doorpost and placed his hand on it, saying to them, “What’s this?” Their interest was quite piqued, and they said to him, “You tell us.” He said to them, “The custom of the world is that a king of flesh and blood sits inside and his servants guard him from the outside, whereas regarding the Holy One, Blessed is He, His servants are inside and He guards them from the outside — as it is said: “G-d will guard your going out and your coming in from now and forever (Psalms 121:8).” These soldiers converted as well, and Caesar — realizing that it was a lost cause to capture Onkelos, and ruing the fact that he had already lost three divisions of soldiers who converted to Judaism — stopped sending any more troops.

Onkelos was a very great Torah scholar who translated the Torah into Aramaic. A translation is a complicated matter, as anyone who has translated an important text can attest. Since every translation is in essence an “interpretation”, more than mere knowledge of the two languages is necessary. The translator must be absolutely true to the meaning of the source text, and therefore Onkelos’ tremendous feat was his ability to translate the Chumash in accordance with the teachings of our Sages that had been handed down from generation to generation, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu. His translation, one that we still have today, is known as "Targum Onkelos", and is widely studied by Jews everywhere as part of the mitzvah of “Shnayim Mikra v’echad Targum” — the mitzvah for each individual to study the Torah portion of the week twice each week in the Chumash, along with the “Targum” translation of “Targum Onkelos”.

In is important to point out that the halachic authorities write that the practice of kissing the mezuzah has a basis in this historical event recorded in our sugya, in which Onkelos touched the mezuzah as he left his house in custody of the Roman soldiers. Besides our showing love for the mitzvah of mezuzah by touching and kissing a mezuzah when passing by one, we also recall the message of Divine Providence taught to us by Onkelos: G-d protects us and our homes. (See the Rema in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 285:2, and the commentaries there, for a discussion of various customs regarding touching the mezuzah, and what is said when doing so.)

The Aruch Hashulchan, by Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein (Eastern Europe, 1829-1908), states that some great halachic authorities write that when one leaves his home he should place his hand on the mezuzah and say the following prayer: “May G-d guard me in my going out and in my coming back.” And he should do this and say this likewise when he returns home. (285:3) Rabbi Epstein writes that this practice is to some extent based on what we learn on our daf regarding what Onkelos did and said when he was passing by his mezuzah.

  • Avoda Zara 11a

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