This is an excerpt from Rabbi Levi Cooper’s Relics for the Present. This section focuses on Berakhot 45a – It Loses Something in Translation. To purchase Levi’s books please visit Koren Publishers online.
From the Babylonian exile through mishnaic and talmudic times the prevalent custom was for the Torah reading to be coupled with a translation in the Aramaic vernacular. As with all translations, the Aramaic translation of the Torah was also an elucidation. After the Torah reader read each biblical verse in the original Hebrew, the translator rendered it into Aramaic (M. Megilla 4:4; B. Megilla 23b–24a). The purpose of this supplement was clear: to ensure that those present understood what was being read. The Talmud offers a rule about the relative volume of two synagogue functionaries: the translator of the Torah reading is not permitted to raise his voice above that of the reader (B. Berakhot 45a).
While this custom was codified as Jewish law, it is practised today only in select communities. This ritual faded as its utility became limited, when the Aramaic vernacular fell into disuse and people no longer understood the translation (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 145).
The Talmud offers the following biblical source for the volume rule, a source which – as we will presently see – is puzzling: Moses would speak and God would respond to him with a voice (Exodus 19:19). The verse appears in the context of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish people heard the first two commandments from the Almighty, while the remaining eight were transmitted by God to Moses, who relayed them to the people. The Talmud notes that in the biblical verse the word translated with a voice is superfluous; the verse is perfectly comprehensible without it. The Talmud goes on to explain that the added word indicates that the Almighty responded to Moses in a voice equal to that of Moses.
Why did the Almighty need to suit His voice to that of His translator-transmitter, Moses? The talmudic rule, it would appear, would indicate that it is the responsibility of the translator-transmitter to check his volume. The Almighty – as the reader of the original Torah verses – could have spoken as loud as He wished; all Moses needed to do was to ensure that his voice was no louder than God’s!
One possible explanation is that Moses needed to speak loudly so that all the people assembled at Mount Sinai could clearly hear what he was saying. True, God needed to speak only to Moses; but had the Almighty just whispered, then Moses as the translator- transmitter would not have been permitted to speak loudly. God therefore raised the volume of the Divine voice, so that Moses too could speak loudly (Tosafot).
One of the commentators suggests – albeit with great hesitation – that maybe Moses was the reader and the Almighty was his translator, and that is why God’s voice needed to suit Moses’ voice. Explaining this possibility, the commentator notes that Moses would have read the Torah in Hebrew, yet not all present would have understood the language. Elsewhere in the Talmud it says that whenever God spoke, the words were miraculously heard in seventy languages (B. Shabbat 88a). Thus the Almighty served as a translator for Moses, the reader, and it was God who needed to lower the volume of the Divine voice (Maharsha).
While this explanation fits the talmudic interpretation of the biblical verse, it is certainly surprising to think of the Almighty as Moses’ translator, and even more startling to think of Moses as the original reader. Indeed, in a number of biblical passages Moses is described as explaining the Torah; that is, serving in the classic role of the translator-transmitter (Deuteronomy 1:5, 27:8).
Considering the notion that the volume of God’s voice took stock of the volume of Moses’ voice, another commentator proposes that not only must the translator-transmitter check his voice, but the reader too must aim to use the same volume level as the translator-transmitter (Iyun Yaakov). This approach is buttressed by the continuation of the talmudic passage, which cites a slightly different version of the volume rule: “The translator is not permitted to raise his voice above that of the reader. If it is not possible for the translator to match the voice of the reader, then the reader should reduce the volume of his voice to the level of that of the translator.” Why must the reader lower his voice? Up until now we have been working under the assumption that the reader should be louder than the translator! The codifiers indicate that there may be an omission in the talmudic text. After stating that the translator must not be louder than the reader, the text should read that likewise the reader must not be louder than the translator. If the translator is unable to match the reader’s volume level, the reader should lower his voice so that both the reading and the translating are at the same volume (Maimonides).
Thus we see that it is incumbent upon both reader and translator to speak at the same level of volume. The Almighty therefore lowered the Divine voice as reader so that it matched the human voice of Moses as translator-transmitter when he presented the commandments to the people.
What is the reason for these volume directives? According to one commentator, the rules have a hierarchical purpose. The congregation should not mistakenly think that the translator-transmitter is greater than the reader. To avoid such an error, the translator-transmitter may not be louder than the reader (Ben Ish Hai).
We might develop this idea further. Each of the two functionaries – the reader and the translator – represents a different value. The job of translator was introduced because the sages recognised the importance of understanding what was being read. In instituting this office, our sages were striving to provide access to the tradition even for those who could not comprehend the text in its original language.
By limiting the volume of the translator, however, the sages were hinting that while it is true that ideas may transcend the boundaries of language, nevertheless, there is no substitute for hearing the original text. Any translation, perforce, contains an element of interpretation. The translator-transmitter is an intermediary; for an unmediated encounter with the text it is imperative to gain access to the original.
By demanding that the translator-transmitter and the original reader speak at an equal volume, the Talmud is balancing two values: access and authenticity. On the one hand, it is important to provide everyone with an opportunity to explore the Torah. On the other hand, we should not abandon or forgo the ideal of being able to access the original, primary sources of our heritage.
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Levi currently teaches Hasidut, Maimonides, and Midrash at Pardes. He has also taught Bible, Talmud, and Philosophy of Halakha. He previously served as the director of the Fellows programme and the director of the Kollel, as well as heading the Pardes Educational Seminar to Turkey.
Originally from Australia, Levi holds an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. from the Law of Faculty, Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Israel Bar Association. He has been awarded post-doctoral research grants from Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and University of Haifa. In 2016, Levi was an Academic Visitor at University of Oxford’s Faculty of Law and St. Hugh’s College.
In addition to his work as Pardes, Levi is a Teaching Fellow at the The Buchmann Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.
Levi volunteers as the spiritual leader of Kehillat HaTzur VeHaTzohar in Zur Hadassa, a mixed religious and secular neighbourhood outside Jerusalem. He served in the IDF’s Golani Brigade and continues to do Reserve Duty as a commander in an infantry unit. Levi’s communal work also includes being a member of the Tzohar rabbis organisation, an educational advisor to the Jewish community of Istanbul, Turkey, and an educator with Heritage Seminars. He serves on the Readers’ Association of the National Library of Israel and is one of the founders of the Lavi Primary School in Zur Hadassa.
Levi has authored articles in Judaic studies and prepared educational materials for use in high schools. He publishes a column in the Jerusalem Post and has served as contributing editor for Jewish Educational Leadership, the journal of Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center.
Levi’s doctoral dissertation explores the interaction between Hasidism and Halakha, and his current research focuses on the evolution and normalisation of Hasidic lore. Levi is married to Sarah and they have 6 children.