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Early Translation of the Pentateuch
The sages tell us Moses did not only speak to Israelites in Hebrew; he also translated the scriptures (Pentateuch: the first five books of the Old Testament) into the seventy languages of the original seventy nations of the world.
This was opening the possibility for future translations of the scriptures, as in our time, communicating aspects of scriptural thought to very disparate kinds of people: men and women with different lifestyles, with different questions. The scriptures have answers for them all, but these have to be translated in a way which they can understand.
Now, this is a sensitive and possibly dangerous process. A false phrase in the translation might lead a person in the wrong direction, with serious consequences. In fact, the sages were very anxious about an actual event in the Second Temple period, when the Pentateuch was translated into Greek. The Hellenistic king of Egypt was fascinated by the idea of the Hebrew scriptures, and ordered the sages to produce a translation. He was worried they might falsify something, so he made 72 sages sit in separate cubicles, so that each one would write an independent version. Providentially their translations tallied with each other, even when it came to delicate passages which could easily be misconstrued. (Each letter and mark in scripture was counted as well as the words. After the count of differing copies they had to match exactly or it was accomplished again.)
Nonetheless, the later Jewish sages commented that the day the scriptures were translated into Greek “was as difficult for the Jewish people as the day when the Golden Calf was made, because the Torah cannot really be translated.” What is meant by the comparison with the day the Golden Calf was made?
(Incidentally, the worship of the Golden Calf caused Moses to break the Tablets of the Law on the 17th of Tammuz, commemorated with a fast. This began the Three Weeks which culminate with the fast of the Ninth of Av, when both Temples were destroyed.)
The sages were worried about a false translation of the Torah. In a sense, that is exactly what the Golden Calf was: a false translation of spirituality. The people wanted something spiritual which would be here, in our lower world. A true translation of holiness would be the Sanctuary, or the Temple. According to Nachmanides, the Golden Calf was actually intended to substitute for Moses. Moses’ role was to connect the Jewish people with God. A false translation of this role was the Golden Calf: an idol, which would only separate people from God.
However, ultimately the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek had a positive effect: it communicated the word of God to all nations.