The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

On Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon of the Hebrew month of) Sh’vat, some three and a half millennia ago, Moses started translating the Torah into seventy languages. This was one of the last things Moses did—the pinnacle of his life of service to G‑d and the Jewish nation.

Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, took Moses upon him to expound this law, saying…

Deuteronomy 1:5

Rashi, the classical Biblical commentator, quotes Midrash Tanchuma on this verse, explaining: “to expound this law: He expounded it to them in seventy languages.”[1] (“This law” refers to the Torah in general.)

Later, Moses commands the elders to collect large stones:

And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. (Deuteronomy 27:8

The Talmud explains that the last two words of this verse in Hebrew, be’er hetev (translated in the verse above as “very plainly” or in other translations as “most distinctly”), imply that Moses translated the Torah into seventy languages.[2] Given that the Jewish people were entrusted with the universal mission of bringing monotheism and divine consciousness into the world, there is nothing surprising in Moses’s desire to make the Torah understandable not only to Jews but to all people.

There is a small problem, however. Less than three weeks ago, on the tenth day of the month of Tevet, we commemorated a confluence of several tragic events in Jewish history by a public fast. One of these tragic events was the translation of the Torah into Greek,[3] on the orders of King Ptolemy. If the Torah translation by Moses into seventy languages was praiseworthy, why was the translation of the Torah into Greek considered a tragedy worthy of public fasting for generations to come?

I would like to propose the following explanation. One may look at Moses’s translation of the Torah “horizontally” (in space) or “vertically” (in time). By a “horizontal” view, I mean a spatial dimension frozen in that particular moment in time, in which one finds seventy nations living contemporaneously with the Jewish people in biblical times, speaking seventy languages. This is what Rashi and Midrash Tanchuma refer to. However, there is a “vertical” view in time, where, during the future history of the Jewish people, they would be dispersed among other nations speaking their own languages. According to the Kedushas Levi, the classic text by the seventeenth-century Chasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev,[4] this anticipated dispersion is why Moses translated the Torah into seventy languages.

However, it seems to me that there is more to it. People evolve, languages evolve, and cultures evolve. Schoolchildren learning Shakespeare today require translation to modern language. In linguistics, language is defined as a structured system of communication that consists of grammar and vocabulary. Changes of language over time are studied by historical and evolutionary linguists. But language evolves in more ways than the acquisition of new words, the dropping of archaic words, and changes in grammar. If we understand language in a broader sense as a means to label, organize, and communicate our thoughts and experiences, languages change as we change.[5] If we could travel in time and meet people from the Middle Ages, it would be hard for us to communicate with them even if they spoke the same language. Their world was one of kings and knights, demons and witches, sorcery and witchcraft. Our world is that of science and medicine, technology and entertainment. Immanuel Kant argued that language stems from rational thought. But today, we think in different categories, using different metaphors and different symbols than those used by our ancestors. Language is intimately connected with the creation of meaning.[6] However, meaning evolves. The same words, objects, or concepts mean different things to us than to our ancestors.[7] The metaphors we use change, too.[8] We evolve, and our language evolves with us.

When King Ptolemy ordered the translation of the Torah into Greek, it was translated into the Greek of that period—a translation frozen in time.[9] And that was tragic. By contrast, Moses’s translation was a translation into future languages, future metaphors, and future ways of thinking. The Torah of Moses is a living, breathing organism whose many levels of meaning are relatable and understandable to people of future generations.

Midrash Rabba states that the Torah has seventy faces (that is, seventy levels of meaning).[10] Thus, for example, Tikunei haZohar—a part of the Zohar dedicated to the esoteric meaning of Genesis—provides seventy commentaries of the opening word of Genesis, Bereshit (“in the beginning”). HaKetav VehaKabbalah[11] states that Moses gave seventy interpretations for every verse. In one sense, these seventy interpretations are future interpretations, to make the Torah relevant and relatable to future generations.

A skeptical reader may ask, How could a Torah translation ostensibly authored by Moses some three and a half thousand years ago, of which no copy exists, possibly affect our understanding of the Torah today? We can address this question on two levels—rational and esoteric. On a rational level, by translating the Torah into seventy languages and revealing to us its seventy faces, Moses, the Lawgiver, who transmitted the Torah to us, gave us permission to translate the Torah into contemporary languages and to interpret the Torah in future generations using contemporary metaphors and allegories. By doing so, he converted what otherwise would have been a document frozen in time into a living Torah. Every generation of Torah students adds new layers of understanding through studying and interpreting the Torah according to their understanding. This effort makes the body of Torah knowledge grow and evolve, along with the people who study and interpret it.

On the esoteric level, the following story may help answer the question of the skeptic. Once, Rabbi Yosef Caro was laboring over a difficult passage of the Talmud, struggling to understand its meaning. After three days of wracking his brain, he finally understood the words of the Talmudic sages. Soon after that, Rabbi Caro overheard someone in the study house studying the same passage, and the student simply recited the difficult passage and the resolution he had arrived at. This caused Rabbi Caro consternation—how was it possible that a student was able to understand the passage with little effort—the same passage that he, a learned rabbi and a well-known Talmudic scholar,  had spent three days toiling over? Despondent, he consulted his friend, great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari. The master explained to the scholar that, in fact, it was his toiling at understanding that perplexing Talmudic passage that brought the answer to this world. Once the answer was known to him, this knowledge was readily available to everyone studying the same passage. It was thanks to his effort that the student was subsequently able to understand that Talmudic passage with ease.[12]

This parable explains that once Moses revealed his seventy interpretations of the Torah, even if we cannot read them, we can still discover these interpretations ourselves. Even though there is no record of such translation, on the esoteric level, this knowledge exists in the intangible form and is available to those who labor to find it. Perhaps Moses intended his seventy interpretations not to survive in tangible form—to give us the opportunity, merit, and joy of discovering them on our own.

The language of modernity is the language of science and technology. Therefore it behooves us to explain the Torah using the scientific metaphors of our age. By translating the Torah into seventy languages, Moses made this modern explanation possible—and understandable—for us.


[1] Midrash Tanchuma 2; Genesis Rabbah 49.

[2] Talmud, tr. Sota 35a. See also Tosefta tr. Sota 8:5.

[3] This translation became known as the Septuagint; however, it is not identical with the Septuagint in  existence today, as the text evolved over the ensuing centuries.

[4] Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809), also known as the holy Berdichever and the Kedushas Levi, was a Chasidic Rebbe in Poland (Ryczywół, Żelechów), Belarus (Pinsk), and Ukraine (Pinsk, Berdychiv). He was one of the principal disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch. Kedushas Levi was his commentary on the Torah arranged according to the weekly Torah portions.

[5]  Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), one the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, argued that philosophy is really the study of language itself. To him, language was more than vocabulary and grammar.

[6] Cognitive linguistics interprets language in terms of its concepts and studies the link between the language and the creation of meaning.

[7] For example, the word “wicked” can be interpreted as either “evil” or “wonderful,” depending on whether it is uttered by an old person or a youngster. The same applies to the words “bad” and “sick,” which in certain contexts can now mean “good” or “excellent.” The Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher speculates that “[i]n a hundred years’ time, when the original meaning of ‘wicked’ has all but been forgotten, people may wonder how it was ever possible for a word meaning ‘evil’ to change its sense to ‘wonderful’ so quickly.”

[8] A story is told about an old Jew studying a Chasidic discourse in a Russian synagogue after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. When news of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II reached the synagogue, the old Jew began crying. His friends asked him, “Why are you crying? Tsar Nicholas was no friend of the Jews!” The old Jew replied, “Today, the greatest metaphor used in Chasidic philosophy was murdered! How will future generations understand Chasidism?” Indeed, monarchy as used throughout Jewish religious writings as a metaphor for the Heavenly Kingdom is hard to relate to for people born and raised in liberal democracies who never saw a king. On the other hand, science and technology supply plenty of new metaphors never before available. Cinema, for example, is a precise and insightful metaphor for the process of creation. See my essay, “Physics of Tzimtzum I — The Quantum Leap” (, August 17, 2020). The hologram is a good metaphor for the Kabbalistic world, Adam Kadmon. See my essay, “Adam Kadmon and Holographic Universe” (, October 11, 2015). The collapse of the wave function is a great metaphor for Sotah. See my essays, “Suspected Adulteress as a Schrödinger Cat,” (, May 30, 2014) and “G‑d Collapses Sotah’s Wavefunction,” (, June 1, 2014).

[9] In fact, less than 400 years later, the Ptolemian translation was already dated, and a new translation of the Torah into Greek was required, which was completed by Aquila of Sinope. Moreover, according to the Mishna (tr. Megilla 1:8), a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) written in Greek is kosher as such. However, already at the conclusion of the Talmudic period (or soon thereafter),  this law no longer applied (See minor tr. Sofrim 1:6, c. sixth century). Maimonides (Mishna Torah, Laws of Tefilin, Mezuza, and Sefer Torah 1:19) explained that the reason is that contemporary Greek is not the same Koine Greek that existed in the time of Ptolemy and the Mishna.

[10] Numbers Rabbah 13:15.

[11] HaKetav VehaKabbalah is a Torah commentary penned by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, a nineteenth-century German Rabbi. It was published in 1839.

[12] Kesser Shem Tov, ch. 256.

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