Lost in Translation

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

A man once had his elderly father spend Shabbat with him. His father was from the “old country,” Orthodox, and spoke mainly Yiddish, with only a spattering of English in his vernacular.

On Shabbat morning, the old man accompanied his son to the Conservative shul that he regularly attended.

As it happened to be Parshat Yitro, the rabbi had prepared a lengthy sermon in which he discussed each of the Ten Commandments in candid, down-to-earth fashion. Since he had difficulty understanding, however, the old man would occasionally nudge his son and whisper, “Vos hat er gezugt?” “Vat he said?” And the son would accommodatingly whisper to his father the particular explanation of the commandment that the rabbi had just given.

The rabbi was soon explaining the commandment to keep the Shabbat holy, and painted a picture of a family, after being tugged apart by school, work, and busy-ness throughout the week, coming together on Shabbat to spend time, to really see and listen to each other, and to focus on loftier things.

“Nu?” the old man asked, nudging his son. So the son whispered to him what the rabbi had said.

The old man was nodding through Commandments Nos. 5 and 6 — honoring one’s parents and not murdering — but then a quizzical expression came onto his face when the rabbi got to Commandment No. 7 — the prohibition against adultery. The rabbi was graphically describing a hotel room, a married man, and a mistress in a corset, with garters, stockings and a riding crop, while his wife remained at home with the children, missing her husband. The rabbi slapped his hand on the lectern — whether out of pain for the disruption to the family unit, or in emulation of the riding crop, was unclear.

The son felt a gentle elbow in his ribs.

Nu?” his father asked. “Vat he said?”

The son was really uncomfortable relaying the rabbi’s graphic description of adultery — so he lied.

Tatte,” he said, his face reddening, “the rabbi went back to the laws of Shabbos to say that one may not, um, light a fire or even turn on the water heater on Shabbos.”

“Ah,” the old man nodded sagely.

After the services, the old man told his son that he wanted to greet the rabbi. After the son made the introduction, the old man told the rabbi in Yiddish:

Yasher koach! That was a great speech! But there’s one thing I wanted to share with you from the old country. What you said right before you klapt the shtender — in Poland, we used to have a shiktzah for that!”


Sometimes things get lost in translation.

Last week we talked about how the Torah often refers to the Jewish people collectively as “B’nei Israel” — the Children of Israel. However, when it came to the giving of the Torah, G-d wanted to make sure that nothing would be lost in translation. It was therefore important that the two primary groups comprising the Jewish people — men and women — receive the Torah in their own particular language. After all, the Torah is not merely our book of laws; indeed, much of Torah does not involve legalities at all. Rather, “Torah” comes from the Hebrew word “Hora’ah,” which means to teach, to guide, as the Torah was intended to be a guide and beacon to the Jewish people throughout the ages.

And, after all, “language” is more than just a vocabulary and dialect. Language means the keys to unlocking one’s understanding and comprehension; not just intellectual comprehension, but a real and personal awareness and appreciation of what was communicated.

Something as fundamental and dynamic as the Torah needed to be communicated to both men and women in their respective languages.

Thus, in this week’s Parshah, Yitro, as G-d prepares to give the Torah to the Jewish people, he instructs Moses:  “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the B’nei Israel.”[1] The biblical commentaries are in agreement that “the house of Jacob” is a reference to the women; whereas in this particular spot, “the B’nei Israel” refers to the men.[2] Indeed, many translations translate “B’nei Israel” here as “the sons of Israel,” as opposed to its common translation, “the Children of Israel.” And indeed, the orthodox Jewish girls’ school “Beis Yaakov” is so named because of the reference in this week’s Parshah.

So, to the women, G-d commands that Moses “say”; to the men, G-d commands that he “tell.” Again, the commentaries state that “say” is an expression of softness, whereas “tell” is an expression of harshness. G-d was commanding Moses to speak to the women softly, yet to the men, harshly, emphasizing the many punishments and legal details. Why G-d chose softness for women and harshness for men will be the subject of a different essay on another occasion. For the purposes of this week’s column, however, it is clear that G-d wanted the Torah to be communicated to both men and women in the particular language that would reach them.

On a deeper level, it is clear from the syntax of the Ten Commandments that G-d actually intended to speak to each and every Jew personally and individually. This, too, is a concept that gets lost in translation.

In the English language, the pronoun “you” is both singular and plural. If one wants to make clear, verbally, that one is speaking to a crowd, one might say: “You guys,” or “all of you” — but additional words are needed to make clear that the speaker is referring to more than one person. This is not so in Hebrew. The Hebrew language is very sensitive to the distinctions between plural and singular, and male and female.

Thus anyone with a basic familiarity with Hebrew will know that the Ten Commandments were communicated in the singular. There isn’t one instance throughout the Ten Commandments that word “you” (or “thou” or “ye”) is used in its plural sense.

Because G-d wasn’t speaking to a crowd, or a group; He was speaking to an individual — each individual — personally and intimately, giving the Torah, and its power, light, and purpose, to each one of us.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Exodus, 19:3.

[2] See Rashi, quoting Mechilta and Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos, 87a.

Rated PG