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Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices.

Onkelos was a convert who translated the Torah into Aramaic based on the way it was taught by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. His explanation is considered so indispensable that the Sages of the Talmud instituted that it should be reviewed weekly by every Jew, alongside that week’s Torah portion (Brachos 8a). One of the main features of Onkelos’ translation is that he eschews anthropomorphisms. [I, 27] Where the text of the Torah suggests corporeality on the part of God, Onkelos translates in such a way that would remove the possibility of misunderstanding. So when the Torah says “God came down” (Exodus 16:20), Onkelos renders it “God manifested Himself.” When the Torah says “And God heard,” Onkelos translates it as “It was heard before God.” The Rambam praises Onkelos for this.

On rare occasion, Onkelos leaves the Torah’s anthropomorphisms intact. When he does this, he has good reason, based on a given verse’s context. By way of example, the Rambam gives us Genesis 46:4, “I will go down with you to Egypt.” There, the Torah is relating what Yaakov heard in his vision, not something that God actually does in the narrative. Actions attributed to God – like “God descended upon Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:20) do have their anthropomorphisms removed. (The Rambam provides a potential second reason for the anthropomorphism being left in Genesis 46:4. It’s possible that the “I” in “I will go down with you” refers not to God but to the angel who delivered God’s message to Yaakov. We will discuss this idea further IY”H in a future installment on the nature of prophecy.)