Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tezaveh/Zakhor 5764 March 6, 2004


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




The Targums to the Book of Esther


Prof. Michael Sokoloff

Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages



The Mishnah stipulates that the Torah should be read with targum, i.e., translation into Aramaic, verse by verse, and the haftarah, with translation after no more than every three verses.  This requirement is formulated in Mishnah Megillah 3.2 as follows:

The Torah reader shall not read fewer than three verses, and shall not read to the translator more than one verse [at a time], and three in the Prophets.

In other words, the Torah reader must read a total of at least three verses [for each person who gets an aliyah, who is called to the Torah] but he must pause for the translator and after each and every verse, whereas the person who reads the haftarah from the Prophets may read as many as three verses consecutively.

Regarding the Five Scrolls, there apparently was no halakhic obligation to read the translation along with the scrolls, but presumably these books also needed to be read with translation, like the rest of the readings from the Bible.

Books such as the Scroll of Esther undoubtedly needed to be translated for their listeners, although the relatively simple and late language of this book, dating from the Second Temple period, made it closer to the language of the Sages.  Nevertheless, there were some words in the Megillah that even the Sages did not understand, as we learn from the Babylonian Talmud ( Megillah 18a):

Do we really know what was meant by the words, ahashteranim, sons of the Ramakhim?  [This expression is rendered in the New JPS translation as steeds “used in the king’s service, bred of the royal stud,” with a note that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.]

The Mishnah stipulates that reading it [the Scroll of Esther] in translation into any language is not considered to fulfill the commandment.   The Talmud comments on this as follows:

How so?   Supposing the text were the Bible [i.e. written in Hebrew] and it was read as targum [i.e., in translation], that would mean it was being recited by heart.   Therefore can only be that it was written as Targum and read as Targum [translation].

From this we may conclude that in Babylonia, at the time of this anonymous comment, there existed a written Aramaic translation of the Scroll of Esther.  It must be noted, however, that unlike the Aramaic translations of the Torah and the Prophets ( Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan), which as far as we can tell were written in the land of Israel in the first few centuries of the Common Era, the Aramaic translations of the Scroll of Esther which have come down to us are far later and of uncertain provenance (see below).

The Scroll of Esther is unique in that we have (at least) two Aramaic translations, called the First Targum and the Second Targum, or Targum Sheni.  Both, as we noted, are relatively late and apparently were composed after the Talmudic period.  Both Targums include lengthy aggadic additions, although those of the Second Targum are considerably longer than the First Targum, so that it is essentially an Aramaic midrash in the guise of a translation.

We also have a responsum of Rabbi Hai Gaon (939-1038) which provides us evidence that in his day there existed several Aramaic translations of Esther in Babylonia.   This is what he wrote (Ginze Schechter, 2, p. 86)

Whence comes your translation [of the Scroll of Esther]?   And whose is it?   For there is no translation of the Writings by Jonathan ben Uzziel at all [see Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3a].   What you have is none other than a translation by laymen.  Moreover, here in Babylonia there are several different versions of Aramaic translations of Esther, one containing many additions and homilies, and the other not.

A prime example of the way in which the translator expanded on the text to the point of making it an independent midrash can be found in the Second Targum to Esther 1:2.   The translator recounts that the throne on which Ahasuerus sat had originally been made for Solomon by Hiram, King of Tyre.   At this point the author works in a poem written in alphabetical verse, from aleph to taf and back again from taf to aleph, in praise of King Solomon.  Here is a free translation of the first few lines:

The Holy One, blessed be He, made him king

From one end of the earth to the other.

The Lord chose him before he was born;

Loving him while he was yet in his mother’s womb.

After the poem comes a detailed description of the royal throne and all its levels, adornments, and decorations, as well as an account of how it was transported to Egypt by Shishak, then taken as booty by Sennaherib, who left it to Hezekiah in Jerusalem, then again taken to Egypt by the pharaoh Neca, then plundered by Nebuchadnezzar, who brought it to Babylonia, where it was inherited by Darius and then Ahasuerus.   A similar account can also be found in Midrash Abba Gurion and in Pannim Aherim le-Esther.

Readers who find the Aramaic of this targum difficult can avail themselves of the modern Hebrew translation entitled Patshegen ha-Ketav, printed in editions of Mikra’ot Gedolot.

For further reading see:

B. Grossfeld, 
The First Targum to 
New York
, 1983.
Idem, The 
Targum Sheni to the Book of 
New York
M.  Klein & R. 
Kasher, “New Fragments to Esther from  the  

, 61 (1990), pp. 89-124.