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LET’S STUDY ONKELOS

A Guide for Rabbis, Teachers and Torah Students to Study and Teach the Parashat
Hashavua through the Eyes of its Most Important Translator

By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin

Based on the five volume, Onkelos on the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), Understanding the
Bible Text, by Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner, published by Gefen Publishing House,
Jerusalem/New York, 2006-2010.

STUDY GUIDE

VAYECHEE (CHAPTER 47:28–50:26)

SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION

Jacob is about to die and Joseph promises him that he will be buried in Hebron and
not in Egypt; Joseph takes his two sons to Jacob to be blessed; Jacob gives a favored
blessing to Ephraim, Joseph’s second-born; Jacob assembles his sons and blesses each
one separately; Jacob dies and Pharaoh grants Joseph permission to bury him in
Canaan; Joseph dies and is buried in Egypt.

ONKELOS REFERS TO THE MESSIAH, OR DOES IT?

The book of Genesis ends with one of the most difficult chapters in the Pentateuch.
Our commentary on 49:1, “JACOB” (page 333),1 describes its complexity:
JACOB. Genesis 49, like Exodus 15, Numbers 23 and 24, and Deuteronomy 32 and 33,
is a poetic narrative filled with ambiguous and obscure metaphors. In the twenty-five
passages of Jacob’s testament to his children (49:3–27), we find many unusual and
difficult terms, and words that are omitted in order to heighten poetic sounds. There
are passages that present difficulties in determining whether Jacob is speaking of the
past, present, or future, and whether he is referring to his children or their
descendants. The Onkelos Targum paraphrases almost every phrase of twenty-three
of the twenty-five passages. While it is clear that the paraphrase is attempting to

1
All page numbers refer to the Onkelos on the Torah volume.
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explain the text, it frequently fails and the translation remains obscure. The Targum
uncharacteristically and purposely renders some verses contrary to their plain
meaning. Frequently and inexplicably, the Targum all too often offers more than one
interpretation of a single phrase. The irregular character of this chapter’s translation
is most probably the result of the efforts of scribes rewriting the ancient targumist’s
work by inserting alien duplicative material.

One example of the inscrutability and intricacy of the many passages that beg for
understanding in this chapter is 49:10 (pages 336 and 337), which contains the only
reference in the Targum to a Messiah. The verse is apparently, but by no means
certainly, addressing the future of the Judean dynasty begun by King David. The Hebrew
reads, “A staff will not depart from Judah, or the ruler’s staff from between his legs, until
he comes to Shiloh; and the nations will obey him.” The following commentary shows
the views of some commentators other than Onkelos on Scripture’s “Shiloh.”
UNTIL THE MESSIAH COMES. Scripture’s “until he comes to Shiloh,” which could also
mean “until Shiloh comes,” is one of the most captivating and obscure passages of
the Bible. There have been a multitude of suggested interpretations, and many
scholars have offered ways of emending the text in order to clarify it. Rashbam views
the verse’s initial two phrases as a description of David and his son Solomon, who
would reign over all twelve Israelite tribes—until Solomon’s son traveled to Shiloh,
which was close to Shechem, in an attempt to retain the solidity of his sovereignty
after his father’s death. But ten tribes seceded from serving him, and set Jeroboam as
their king. Hence, according to Rashbam, the next phrase refers to Jeroboam, whom
“the nations will obey.” Chazkunee agrees with Rashbam that the section of the verse
discussed here refers to Solomon’s son and that Shiloh was the site where the Davidic
kingdom was split, but offers that Shiloh could also refer to the prophet Ahijah who
came from Shiloh and tore Solomon’s son’s garment into twelve pieces to foretell the
split in the Davidic kingdom (I Kings 11:30–31).

The commentary continues with the view of Onkelos and others on “Shiloh.”
Although there is no explicit mention in the Pentateuch of a Messiah, Onkelos,
Genesis Rabbah, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b), the other Targums, other
Midrashim, and other commentators such as Saadiah, Rashi, Nachmanides, and
Radak, treat the final (Hebrew) letter “hay” of the word “Shiloh” as if it were a “vav.”
As such they translate the word as “his,” and consider the pronoun a reference to the
Messiah. Ibn Ezra notes that some commentators also interpret Shiloh as if the letters
“yud” and “hay” were reversed, yielding “draw out”; others read it as “shelil,”
“embryo”; and still others take it as a simple reference to the city of Shiloh to which
Jacob is referring as the location of the Tabernacle until the onset of David’s reign.
Rashi adds that we can read “Shiloh” as two words meaning “tribute to him.” The
fact that this prophecy of the everlasting reign of David’s family was not fulfilled
should not be regarded as problematic, since, as the Tosaphists wrote, “The prophets
did not prophesy what will be, but, rather, what should be.”

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In the commentary that immediately follows, we find the suggestion that Onkelos’
reference to the Messiah may actually be a scribal insert.
FOR THE KINGDOM IS HIS. This is added as part of the Targum’s explanation of
“Shiloh” (see prior commentary). However, it is probable that this addition is the
Onkelos targumist’s only interpretation, while the wording “until the Messiah comes”
is a late interpolation of a pious but inexact copyist.

To add to the discussion, we cite the views of two additional commentators in our
appendix (page 465):
Bechor Schor interprets 49:10 as Jacob’s prophecy of when the Davidic line of kings
will begin. The verb “yavo,” in “ad kee yavo Shiloh,” means “destroyed,” as in Isaiah
60:20, and means that a member of the tribe of Judah would not become king over
the Israelites until the Tabernacle that was situated in the city of Shiloh was
destroyed–a prediction that was fulfilled. Bechor Schor maintains that verse 18 is
stating that as long as God protects the tribe of Judah, Judah will protect the rest of
the Israelites.

Ibn Kaspi interprets verse 10 as a prediction concerning the end of the Davidic rule.
The term “shiloh” means “error,” as in II Samuel 6:7; the verb “yavo” means “occur”;
and “ad,” “until,” denotes when the promise will cease. Thus, Jacob is promising that
there will be Davidic kings until (“ad”) there occurs (“yavo”) an error (“shiloh”). This
error happened during the reign of King Zedekiah, the last king of David’s line, who
foolishly rebelled against Babylon. The Babylonians smote the Judeans, destroyed the
Temple, and “Judah was carried away captive out of his land” (II Kings 25:21). Jacob,
ibn Kaspi continues, is not predicting the destruction of the Second Temple, since
there were no Davidic kings during the Second Temple period.

In summary, 49:10 is obscure and there have been many radically different
interpretations of what it intends to say. Onkelos has two interpretations of Scripture’s
“Shiloh”; an unusual occurrence, since our targumist generally offers only a single view.
The Targum reads the verse to say that the tribe of Judah will produce a ruler—“for the
kingdom is his” to rule over the nation of Israel. This interpretation does not suggest
that the ruler will be anything other than a normal king. However, the Onkelos text in
our hands today also renders “Shiloh” as “until the Messiah comes.”
We suggest that the reference to the Messiah was not in the original translation
composed by our targumist. He does not generally offer two interpretations of a word
or passage and does not offer theological interpretations such as the advent of a
Messiah. The idea of the Messiah was added by an overzealous copyist who felt that this
was the Torah’s intent and that he had an obligation to make this clear to fellow Jews.

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ADDITIONAL DISCUSSIONS

ON ONKELOS

We know that our targumist eschews theological notions in his translation. Could
this be an exception because the anticipated “coming of the Messiah” was a hope
strongly entrenched in the hearts of persecuted Jews during the age when he lived?
Could it also be that he wanted to emphasize that the Messiah had not yet come, for the
belief that he had arrived was maintained by Christians and he didn’t want his fellow
religionists to be misled? Or, are we correct that the inclusion of the phrase “until the
Messiah comes” is an insert by a later copyist? After all, the concept of a miraculous
arrival of a “Messiah” is not explicit anywhere in the Torah.
There is one other reference to meshicha in Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic word that
can be translated as “Messiah” or as “anointed one.” The term “Messiah” has a
somewhat supernatural connotation, while “anointed one” can simply mean a priest or
king, both of whom were anointed with oil when they assumed their positions. The
word is in Numbers 24:17. Scripture reads “a scepter will stand from Israel.” Onkelos has
“an anointed one will be anointed.” We explain in our commentary, “AN ANOINTED
ONE WILL BE ANOINTED”:
Our translator understands the metaphor “scepter,” as he did “star,” to refer to a
“king,” but since he already used the noun “king” in the prior phrase, he inserted the
synonym “an anointed one,” which refers to kings who were anointed upon taking
office. He also understands “scepter” as a “ruler,” as in Genesis 49:10.

Thus, while Nachmanides sees this verse speaking of the Messiah and Messianic
times, we agree with other commentators who realize that our verse is mentioning
some future human king and we understand that this is what our targumist is saying.

GENERAL DISCUSSION

The word “Messiah” is derived from the Hebrew mashiach, “anointed one.” The noun
describes the ritual that symbolized the dedication of priests and Israelite kings for
service. In post biblical times, the word is used for a Messiah, a descendant of King
David, who many Jews believe will gather the Jewish exiles, restore the Holy Temple,
and usher in a period of peace and harmony. Tragically, while the idea of a Messiah is
based on a yearning for peace, the diverse views of different people about the Messiah
have led to division, dislike, and discord between people.
Why has there been and why is there still such intolerance between religious
communities based on irreconcilable theological views? Is the real cause of the hatred
between many religious people something other than theology? Is it psychological? Will
the contemporary quest for dialogue help?

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FOR FURTHER STUDY

1. See 48:14 and commentary, “WISELY” (page 328). Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh
in an unusual manner.

2. See 49:27 (pages 344 and 346) and commentary. The targumist expands and interprets
Benjamin’s blessing.

3. See 49:29 and commentary, “WITH . . . IN” (page 347). Understanding a common
stylistic change in Targum Onkelos to avoid repetitions.