Today is the eighth day of the month of Tevet. On the 8th of Tevet of the Jewish year 3515 (246 BCE), the Torah was translated into Greek. In the ancient times, this day was commemorated by fast.
Seventy sages translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy. That day was as difficult for the people of Israel as the day on which the [Golden] Calf was made; for the Torah could not be fully translated. (Babylonian Talmud, Tr. Sefer Torah, 1:8)
Why does the Talmud compare translation of Torah into Greek to the tragedy of Golden Calf that brought terrible retribution the consequence of which we still suffer today? According to Medrash Tanchuma, Moses translated Torah into seventy languages before Jews crossed Jordan river on the way to the Promised land. Moreover, according to the Talmud, of all languages, Greek is the most suitable for the translation of Torah. In fact, Greek is the only other language aside from Hebrew in which a Sefer Torah may be written. (Jerusalem Talmud, Tr. Megillah 1:9).
Wasn’t this the mission of Jewish people to bring morality and monotheism to the pagan world? And, in fact, it was the Septuagint that laid the first foundation to the later development of monotheism among other nations. Why is that a tragedy comparable to the Golden Calf?
The Sages said, “Torah has seventy faces.” These means, every word of the Torah can have many meanings and may be interpreted in many way according to the Pardes (PaRDeS is an acronym of Pshat—simple meaning, Remez—allusions, Drash—homiletics and Sod—esoteric interpretation – four levels of Torah interpretation, each of which is further subdivided into pshat of pshat, pshat of remez, etc.).
No translation can adequately convey the infinite depth of the Torah meaning. All possible meanings are collapsed into a single word that may, at best, correctly translate only the literal meaning. It is akin to the collapse of the wave-function of the Torah, as it were, which reduces the plurality of possibilities into one. When Moses, who received the Torah on Mt. Sinai from G‑d and understood it on all levels, translated the Torah into seventy languages at the command of the Almighty, miraculously, he embedded in this translation the infinite depth of the Torah. When, on the other hand, Greek king, Ptolemy, ordered the translation, he specifically demanded the literal translation. It is this loss of the infinite depth of the Torah—the collapse of the Torah’s wave-function, as it were—that is mourned on this day.
To uncover hidden mysteries of the Torah and to expound them in many languages may serve as a Tikun – the rectification for this tragic event.
Very insightful, thanks for sharing.
Interestingly, the nature of the “difficulty for Israel” of the two events is somewhat similar, albeit from different directions. The implication of the translation is that the Torah is now no longer the special preserve of Israel, but may be studied by the gentiles. The golden calf was the first instance of an Israelite rebellion against G‑d. In both cases, the special relationship between G‑d and the Jews was damaged.