Interlinear text of Hebrew Numbers 6.3–10 with Aramaic Targum Onkelos from the British Library.
Hebrew text (right) and Aramaic Onkelos (left) in a Hebrew Bible dating from 1299 held by the Bodleian Library

Targum Onkelos (or Onqelos; Jewish Babylonian Aramaic: תַּרְגּוּם אֻנְקְלוֹס‎, Targūm ’Unqəlōs) is the primary Jewish Aramaic targum ("translation") of the Torah, accepted as an authoritative translated text of the Five Books of Moses and thought to have been written in the early second century CE.


Authorship of the Targum Onkelos is traditionally attributed to Onkelos, a famous convert to Judaism in Tannaic times (c. 35–120 CE).[1][2] According to the Talmud, the essential content of Targum Onkelos was already known in the time of Ezra (immediately after the Babylonian captivity). However, it was later forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Onkelos.[3]

While the Aramaic translation of the Torah is traditionally attributed to Onkelos, a translation of the Torah into Greek is mentioned in the Talmud as being made by Aquila of Sinope.[4] However, most scholars hold these to be one and the same person.[5] According to Epiphanius of Salamis, the Greek translation was made by Aquilas before he converted to Judaism, while the Aramaic translation was made after his conversion.[6] This is said to have been under the direct guidance and instruction of the tannaim Joshua ben Hananiah and Eliezer ben Hurcanus.[7] Indeed, the same biographical stories that the Jerusalem Talmud attributes to Aquila, the Babylonian Talmud attributes to Onkelos.[8]

Rabbi Yirmeya said, and some say Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba: The translation of the Torah was composed by Onkelos the convert based on Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

— Tractate Megilla 3a, Babylonian Talmud

Rebbi Jeremiah in the name of Rebbi Ḥiyya bar Abba: Akylas [עקילס, Aquilas] the proselyte translated the Torah before Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Joshua; they praised him [and said to him], you are a superhuman beauty

— Tractate Megillah 1:9 [10b], Jerusalem Talmud

The overwhelming similarities between the biographies of Aquila and Onkelos has led many to conclude they are the same person. Zvi Hirsch Chajes identified the Aramaic "Targum Onkelos" as Aquila's Greek translation, translated once again into Aramaic. Likewise, A.E. Silverstone (1931:73) has shown quite consummately that Aquilas wrote both the Greek and the Aramaic versions, insofar that "both versions betray the same outstanding characteristics."

A modern scholar has argued that the Aramaic translation must date to the late fourth-early fifth centuries, due to reusing language from other midrashim composed at that time, and thus could not have been composed by Aquila/Onkelos, who lived in the second century.[8] Others, dissenting, have concluded that Onkelos' Aramaic translation originated in Syria Palaestina in the first or early second centuries CE, but that its final redaction was done in Babylonia probably in the fourth or fifth century CE.[9] Onkelos' revised translation became the official version used in translating the Torah on each Sabbath day, displacing the earlier Palestinian Aramaic traditions which had been widely used. The Babylonian Talmud refers to the Torah's Aramaic translation (Targum Onkelos) as "targum didan" ("our translation"), as opposed to that of the more ancient Palestinian Targum.[10] The earliest text samples (Exodus 15:9–12 in Hebrew-Aramaic) appear on two incantation bowls (5th–7th centuries CE) discovered at Nippur, Babylonia.[11][12]

Ritual use

In Talmudic times, readings from the Torah within the synagogues were rendered, verse-by-verse, into an Aramaic translation. To this day, the oldest surviving custom with respect to the Yemenite Jewish prayer-rite is the reading of the Torah and the Haftara with the Aramaic translation (in this case, Targum Onkelos for the Torah and Targum Jonathan ben 'Uzziel for the Haftarah).[13][14] The custom to read the Aramaic Targum each Sabbath day in the synagogue during the weekly Torah lection was eventually abandoned by other communities in Israel, owing largely to the author of the Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim §145:3) who did not encourage its practice, saying that they do not understand the meaning of its words.

Where the custom is to read the Aramaic Targum during the public reading of the Torah on Sabbath days, the story of Reuben (Gen 35:22)[15] and the second "Golden Calf" episode (Ex 32:21–25)[16] are read but not translated, as they involve shameful events.[17] Similarly, the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24–26) is read but not translated, since the blessings are only to be recited in Hebrew.[18][19][17]

The reading of the Targum, verse by verse, in conjunction with the Torah that is read aloud on the Sabbath day is not to be confused with a different practice, namely, that of reviewing the entire Parashah before the commencement of the Sabbath, and which practice has its source in the Talmud, and which the codifiers of Jewish law have ruled as Halacha:[20] "A person should complete his portions of scripture along with the community, reading the scripture twice and the targum once (Shnayim mikra ve-echad targum)."[21] Here, the reference is to completing the reading of the Parashah at home or in the Beit Midrash, along with others, reading in tandem, during which reading each verse is repeated twice; once by the reader himself, followed by a repetition of the same verse by the entire group, and lastly by the initial reader himself who cites the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos.[22]

The days in which the Parashah was read depended largely upon custom. Some had it as their custom to break down the reading into two days. Among Yemenite Jews, Wednesday mornings were given over to the first half of the Parashah, while Thursday mornings were given to the second half of the Parashah. Others read the entire Parashah on Thursday mornings, while others on Thursday nights.[22]


Onkelos' Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses is almost entirely a word-by-word, literal translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, with very little supplemental material in the form of aggadic paraphrase.[23][dubiousdiscuss] However, where there are found difficult biblical passages, Onkelos seeks to minimize ambiguities and obscurities. He sometimes employs non-literal aggadic interpretations or expansions in his translated text, usually in those places where the original Hebrew is marked either by a Hebrew idiom, a homonym, or a metaphor, and could not be readily understood otherwise.

The translator is unique in that he avoids any type of personification, or corporeality, with God, often replacing "human-like" characteristics representing God in the original Hebrew with words that convey a more remote and impersonal sense. For example, "my face" (Heb. panai) is replaced by "from before me" (Exodus 33:23),[24] while "beneath his feet" is replaced by "under his throne of glory" (Exodus 24:10), and "The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai" by "The Lord manifested himself upon Mount Sinai" (Exodus 19:20).[25] Samuel David Luzzatto suggests that the translation was originally meant for the "simple people". This view was strongly rebutted by Nathan Marcus Adler in his introduction to his commentary to Targum Onkelos Netinah La-Ger. He often updates the names of biblical nations, coinage and historical sites to the names known in his own post-biblical era.

In matters of halakha, the targum entirely agrees with Rabbi Akiva's opinions. Some authors suggest that Akiva provided for a revised text of the essential base of Targum Onkelos.[26]

Some of the more notable changes made by Onkelos, in which he attempts to convey the underlying meaning of a verse, rather than its literal translation, are as follows:


Further reading


  1. ^ Ben Maimon, M. (1956). Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by Michael Friedländer (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publishers. p. 14 (part 1, ch. 2).
  2. ^ Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures - The Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean), University of Chicago Press 1935, p. 30, who writes that Aquila of Sinope (known also as Onkelos), who was a relation of Hadrian, had been made the overseer of Jerusalem's rebuilding in around 115 CE.
  3. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3a
  4. ^ Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9
  5. ^ Jastrow, M., ed. (2006), Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, OCLC 614562238, s.v. עקילס. There, he writes: "Aḳilas, Aquila, the alleged translator of the Bible into Greek, frequ. surnamed הַגֵּר, the proselyte, and identified with אונקלוס." Others who hold that Aquilas and Onkelos are names representing the same individual are Moses Margolies, author of P'nei Moshe (Jerusalem Talmud, Demai 6:7); Elijah of Fulda, author of a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud (Demai 6:7); the author of Korban Ha-Edah (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9 [10b]), Heinrich Graetz (Silverstone, A.E., 1931:32); S.D. Luzzatto (Silverstone, A.E., 1931:32), Eliyahu of Vilna (Silverstone, A.E., 1931:34–35), et al. Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi, who wrote a commentary on Midrash Rabba, entitled Yafeh To'ar, opined that Aquilas and Onkelos were two separate individuals.
  6. ^ Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures - The Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean), University of Chicago Press 1935, pp. 29-32
  7. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3a; Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9 [10b]
  8. ^ a b The History and Dating of Onkelos
  9. ^ Philip S. Alexander, "Targum, Targumim", Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, p. 321; Charles Kannengiesser, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, p. 129
  10. ^ Wagner, Stanley M. (2010). "Translation, Midrash and Commentary Through the Eyes of Onkelos" (PDF). Jewish Bible Quarterly. 38 (3): 192.
  11. ^ Christa Müller-Kessler, "The Earliest Evidence for Targum Onqelos from Babylonia and the Question of Its Dialect and Origin," in Journal for the Aramaic Bible 3 (2001), pp. 181–198.
  12. ^ Christa Müller-Kessler, Die Zauberschalentexte der Hilprecht-Sammlung, Jena und weitere Nippur-Texte anderer Sammlungen (= Texte und Materialen der Frau Professor Hilprecht-Collection 7; Wiesbaden, 2005), pp. 12–13, pl. 1.2.
  13. ^ Yehuda Ratzaby, "Ancient Customs of the Yemenite-Jewish Community", in: Ascending the Palm Tree – An Anthology of the Yemenite Jewish Heritage, Rachel Yedid & Danny Bar-Maoz (ed.), E'ele BeTamar: Rehovot 2018, p. 60 OCLC 1041776317
  14. ^ Mishnah (Megillah 4:4); Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 3a). In the book She'iltoth by Rav Ahai Gaon (P. Nitzavim § 161), he writes: "And when he reads [from the Torah], a translator must respond [to each verse], and they are to adjust the tone of their voices together [so that they are the same]. But if the translator cannot raise his voice, let the reader [from the Torah] lower his own voice."
  15. ^ Zipor, Moshe A. (2009). Rofé, A.; Segal, M.; Talmon, S.; Talshir, Z. (eds.). "The Blessing of the Priests is not Read and Not Translated?". Textus - Studies of the Hebrew University Bible Project. 24. The Hebrew University Magnes Press: 223. OCLC 761216587.; cf. Mishnah (Megillah 4:10)
  16. ^ Tsadoḳ, ʻAzriʼel, ed. (1992). ha-Tag' be-kheter Yiśraʼel (in Hebrew). Vol. 1. Bene-Beraḳ: Makhon No'am Yehudit. p. 188. OCLC 1086136740.; Mishnah (Megillah 4:10)
  17. ^ a b Kiara, S. (1972). Ezriel Hildesheimer (ed.). Sefer Halachot Gedolot (in Hebrew). Vol. 1. Jerusalem. p. 474.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link), s.v. הלכות צורכי צבור
  18. ^ Zipor, Moshe A. (2009). Rofé, A.; Segal, M.; Talmon, S.; Talshir, Z. (eds.). "The Blessing of the Priests is not Read and Not Translated?". Textus - Studies of the Hebrew University Bible Project. 24. The Hebrew University Magnes Press: 231. OCLC 761216587.
  19. ^ Tractate Soferim 7:2
  20. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hil. Tefillah 13:25; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 285:1, who writes that one should take care to review the entire weekly biblical lection (Parashah) for that particular week, or what is known as shenayim miqra we'ehad targum, (lit. "two scriptural verses and one [verse] from the Targum"), i.e. reading aloud its verses along with its designated Aramaic translation, known as the Targum. Beyond this, Rabbi Joseph Karo does not say how this should be done.
  21. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 8a-b)
  22. ^ a b Ratzaby, Yitzhak (1996). Shulhan Arukh ha-Mekutzar (Orach Chaim) (in Hebrew). Vol. 2. Benei Barak. p. 9 (item # 13). OCLC 875084492.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ Michael L. Klein, "Converse Translation: A Targumic Technique", in: Biblica (1976), vol. 57, no. 4, p. 515
  24. ^ Ben Maimon, M. (1956). Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by Michael Friedländer (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publishers. p. 31 (part 1, ch. 21).
  25. ^ Ben Maimon, M. (1956). Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by Michael Friedländer (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publishers. pp. 35–37 (part 1, chs. 27–28).
  26. ^  Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "AKIBA BEN JOSEPH". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls., citing F. Rosenthal, Bet Talmud, ii. 280
  27. ^ The literal words used in the Hebrew text are: "and you shall be like elohim." The word elohim, however, is a Hebrew homonym, having multiple meanings. It can mean either God, angels, judges, potentates (in the sense of "rulers" or "princes"), nobles, and gods (in the lower case). In most English translations of Genesis 3:5 it is rendered as "gods" (in the lower case), and which, according to Onkelos, is a mistranslation and should be translated as "potentates."
  28. ^ Cited by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, chapter 44.
  29. ^ Cf. Philo of Alexandria, The Special Laws ii.1, who wrote that from this verse it is learnt that one should never lightly assay to invoke the name of God.
  30. ^ Rabbi Zechariah Dhahiri said in his commentary Ṣeidah la’derekh (Victuals for the Road) on Genesis 43:16, "For these men shall dine with me baṣa'harayim (בצהרים‎). It has been translated [in Aramaic] בשירותא‎, to instruct that it was not really noon time, but at its end, when he eats during the time of the meal at evening. The proof of which is had at what David said, may peace be upon him, 'Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice' (Ps. 55:17), which [noon time] is actually during the Afternoon Prayer. Moreover, the Sages have already said that that time is when there is but left in the day an hour and a half [before sunset]. This, then, is the matter, `for these men shall dine with me baṣa'harayim` The words of Onkelos are correct" (END QUOTE). See Ṣeidah la’derekh, published in Taj – Pentateuch, 2 volumes, Hasid Publishers, Jerusalem 1991 (Hebrew) (OCLC 68810829), s.v. Gen. 43:6, copied from Jewish Theological Seminary, Lutzki MS. 931, New York. Written in 1685 (anno 1,996 of the Seleucid Era).
  31. ^ Onkelos' words are explained by the biblical exegete Rashi in his commentary on the same verse, saying that Onkelos' translation is a play on words and that it is an allusion to King David who, at first, was an important personage during the reign of King Saul, in this case compared to a "cub" (Hebrew: גור), hence: "governor" (Aramaic: שלטון), but in the end, he was like unto a "lion" (Hebrew: אריה) when he was anointed king of Israel.
  32. ^ In accordance with a teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 3:9 [13a]): "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: May God forbid! The angel [of death] did not seek to kill Moses, but rather the infant!" Still, the matter is disputed, some holding that it was Moses, Zipporah's bridegroom, whom the angel of death sought to kill for not performing the circumcision on one of their sons, as relayed in the Palestinian Aramaic Targum.
  33. ^ Cf. Rashi's commentary on the same verse. The nails are allowed to grow out.