Tazria: Lost in Translation

Something always gets lost in translation, at least when you translate Biblical Hebrew into English.  For example, the Torah often refers to “the hand of God”.  But many English translations say “the power of God”.  This is a legitimate translation, but it loses the poetry of the original image.

Another loss happens when a Hebrew word has two very different meanings.  Almost all translators pick the meaning that makes sense if you read the passage either as a straightforward description of an event, or as a set of instructions for carrying out laws or rituals.  They are right to do so.  Yet all too often, the English word that expresses the most straightforward meaning in that particular context does not hint at the alternative meaning.  So an extra shade of meaning is lost in translation.

As I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She forms seed”, a reference to the first section), I noticed that one section in the middle had so many words with double meanings, it told two different stories.  Here is a straightforward translation:

If the cloth has an affliction of skin-disease in it — in a cloth of wool or in a cloth of linen; or in the warp or in the woof for the linen or for the wool; or in leather or in anything crafted of leather. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:47-48)

And the touch is greenish or reddish in the cloth or in the leather or in the warp or in the woof or in anything crafted of leather — then it is an affliction of skin-disease, and it shall be shown to the priest.  (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:49)

This passage appears to refer to some sort of mildew or fungus that attacks cloth and leather, and resembles a skin disease.  The Torah then gives instructions for the examining priest to conduct tests and make a ruling about the status of the spot on the cloth or leather.  If he determines that it is indeed a skin-disease, he burns the material.  If he determines it is not, he declares it ritually pure and usable.

But the key words in this passage all have alternative meanings:

beged = cloth, garment; deception, treachery, faithlessness

tzara-at = skin disease; depression, discouragement

shti = warp, one kind of woven material; drinking

eirev = woof, weaving; mixed company, mingling

melekhet = craft, thing crafted; mission

or = leather, skin

yerakrak = greenish (from yerak = greens, herbage; spit + rak = thin, only)

adamdam = reddish (from adam = red; human + dam = blood)

Furthermore, wool in the Torah is the material associated with Canaan and the ancestors of the Israelites, while linen is an expensive Egyptian import.  And the first time “skin” appears in the Torah is when God clothes Adam and Eve in the skins of animals before sending them out of Eden.

If we translate the same passage using the alternative meanings of the Hebrew words and the associations embedded in the Torah about wool, linen, and skin (and add connecting phrases  in parentheses), this is what we get :

The faithlessness (of a person who is deceiving someone) results in  an affliction of discouragement.  (This happens) when one is being unfaithful to one’s own heritage or pretending to belong to another culture.  Or (it happens) when one is drinking (to excess), or  mingling (with the wrong people) in one’s own culture or in another culture.  One adopts the behavior of an animal, or goes on a mission that has to do with animal behavior.

And the affliction (feels as if one is) spitting (on oneself), or (as if one has) human blood (on one’s hands.  This feeling comes) while one is being unfaithful, or while one is behaving like an animal, or while one is drinking, or while one is mingling (with the wrong people),  or while one is engaged in any mission regarding animal behavior.   Then one is afflicted with discouragement and depression, and one must show it to the priest.  (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:47-49)

Now the passage refers to the psychological effects of being unfaithful, to a person or to God.  When we realize our own faithlessness is making us depressed, we must reveal ourselves to someone in the role of the priest, someone who can help us.  This person will examine the situation and decide how serious our treachery is.  Then we must either burn up our old lives and start over again, or reform our ways so we can continue our current lives in a pure and honest way.

Which interpretation of the instructions regarding a disease (or depression) in cloth (or faithlessness) is the correct one?  The person who wrote down the original Hebrew probably intended the straightforward, non-psychological meaning.  Yet traditional Jewish commentary on this chapter of Leviticus  insisted that the “disease” afflicting cloth and leather was not natural.  Two famous 12th century authorities who usually approached Torah from very different perspectives, Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides) and Ramban (Rabbi Moses Nachmanides) agreed that this “disease” was actually a supernatural warning from God that the owner was doing some evil.  The problem had to be addressed not only with physical burning or washing, but with personal reform.

I suspect these traditional commentators were influenced by the various alternative meanings of the words in this passage.  Without them, the psychology underneath the arcane ritual might get lost in translation.

2 thoughts on “Tazria: Lost in Translation

  1. This is fascinating, Melissa, and is such an example of the depth of possibility in this study. So many levels of meaning, seeming separate but actually coming together in a metaphysical way. I wonder if further study of it, with root w

  2. Wow, this is fascinating.. Thank you for bringing out all these layers of meaning. I will bring this to my congregation tomorrow when I lead Torah study. Good Shabbos!

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