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Home » D'varim Parshah

Devarim: Torah in Chinese

Submitted by on July 23, 2006 – 4:58 amNo Comment | 6,594 views

Translating Torah

Thirty – seven days before his passing Moses set out to teach the Torah. You might think that Moses would use his remaining weeks to teach hitherto unrevealed mysteries, but he did no such thing. Instead he translated the Torah into seventy languages. (1)

All this for a people who did not even speak these languages. Have you ever attended a service in a language you did not understand? I have and I must tell you that it left me uninspired. Why did Moses teach the Torah in languages his students didn’t understand?

This question should actually be asked of G-d. The Talmud teaches that G-d uttered the Ten Commandments in all seventy languages though only the Hebrew version was heard. What was the point of speaking in languages that no one understood, let alone heard? (2)

These questions are compounded when we consider that the written Torah includes several words in Aramaic, Greek, Kapti and Afriki, languages probably unknown to the Jews of that time! (3)

Talmud in Aramaic

One can argue that translating the Torah and Ten Commandments into secular language paved the way for future Jewish worship in the diaspora. torah in chinese - innerstreamLest one argue that the Torah should only be studied and practiced in Israel, these secular words would testify that Torah is not the exclusive property of Hebrew speaking countries. (4)

But this would not explain why the Talmud was written in Aramaic? It can be argued that Aramaic was the Jewish vernacular of that time and our sages wrote the Talmud in a language understood by most Jews of that time. Still, does writing in the vernacular outweigh the value of documenting G-d’s Torah in G-d’s language? (5)

Linguistic Origins

The seventy languages were formed at the Biblical Tower of Babel. In 1764 BCE seventy  nations gathered to build a tower from which they planned to wage war against G-d. The group was perfectly united in their heresy so G-d set out to divide them.

G-d inspired each tribe to form its own language. The group, now divided along lingual lines, could no longer cooperate in their joint endeavor. Unable to understand each other, instructions and requests drew blank stares or incorrect responses. They soon grew frustrated with each other and dispersed. (6)

Is it Appropriate?

The tower of Babel was not built of stone, but of brick. Bricks are man made but stones are created by G-d. This is precisely the difference between Hebrew and other languages. Hebrew is a divine tongue, its letters formed by G-d. The secular languages are products of human convention. Should G-d be worshiped in a language of human convention? (7)

Furthermore, this story indicates that secular languages were spawned in the heretical tower of Babel. Should a language spawned in heresy be used in ecclesiastic worship?

Everything Must Serve

Our sages taught that every created being must serve to enhance G-d’s glory. If this is true of physical objects then it must surely apply to languages too, even languages of human convention. (8)

Moreover, letters and words are vessels that contain ideas, sentiments and knowledge. Because all knowledge comes from G-d there must be a spark of divinity in every letter, regardless of language. If the secular languages are not used in ecclesiastic worship the divine sparks embedded in them would remain forever captive in their secular mold.

When G-d uttered the Ten Commandments in all seventy languages he bridged the gap between letters of heresy and letters of faith and thus elevated the secular language for use in divine service. In a similar vein, Moses’ translation of Torah into all seventy languages empowered us to draw the secular and mundane into the sanctity of Torah. (9)

Removing the Bulwark

Why did Moses wait nearly forty years before he translated the Torah? Why were G-d’s translations of the Ten Commandments not heard by the nations? Because of Sichon and Og, monarchs of the Emorite and Bashanite kingdoms.

Neighboring nations paid these powerful and influential kingdoms to defend their borders against the Jewish approach. The mystics saw in these kingdoms not only a physical bulwark against the Jews, but also a spiritual bulwark against the Torah. They resisted the Torah’s influence over the seventy nations and the Torah’s use of the seventy languages.

When these powerful kingdoms were finally vanquished Moses was permitted to translate the Torah. Their death spelled the end of their resistance. The path was now paved for the secular to be sanctified and the mundane to be uplifted. The seventy languages could now be drawn into the sacred realm of Torah. (10)

This is why our sages wrote books on Torah in secular languages rather than the holy tongue. The Talmud was written in Aramaic. Maimonides wrote books in Arabic. Rashi often translated Hebrew words into French.  This tradition is continued today when we translate and study the Torah in the English language.

Every time the Torah is taught in a secular language the letters and sentences of that language are drawn into the realm of the sacred and their sparks are redeemed. This gradually purifies our world and brings us inexorably closer to the time of total divine revelation, the Messianic era.


  1. Deuteronomy 2, 5. See Midrash Tanchumah Devarim 2. There were seventy nations in Biblical days, hence the seventy languages. See footnote # 6.
  2. Bab. Talmud, Shabbos, 88b.
  3. Genesis 31, 47 and Exodus 13, 16.
  4. See Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, 1740-1810) and Ksav Sofer (R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, Pressburg, 1815-1879) on Deuteronomy 2, 5.
  5. See for an interesting discussion on the Talmud and Jewish vernacular.
  6. Genesis 11, 1-9
  7. See Likutei Sichos, VI, p. 13-25 (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994).
  8. Ethics of our Fathers, ch. 5, 11.
  9. See Shem Mishmuel (R. Shmuel Salir, Rebbe of Sochaczev, 1855-1927), 5676, on Deuteronomy 2, 5 and Torah Ohr (R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813), Shemos 87b.
  10. See Shem Mishmuel, 5676, and Sfas Emes (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur 1847–1905), 5646, on Deuteronomy 2, 5