- Yehudah, Kiddushin 49a, reminds us of the challenges of translation. He says anyone who translates the Torah completely literally is a liar, whereas adding to the text can be sacrilege (the Gemara says only Onkelos walked the line properly, and my current project studying where Onkelos strays from literality shows he often felt comfortable doing so). I am not nearly as careful or exact as a good translator needs to be, yet I have a couple of pet peeves, words or terms I think we hurt ourselves with infelicitous and even misleading translation.
Parashat Yitro hosts two. The centerpiece of the portion is ma’mad Har Sinai, when the Jewish people heard directly from Gd at Sinai, in the form of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, the first two from Hashem directly and the rest from Moshe, with Hashem amplifying Moshe’s voice to be heard throughout the people.
I purposely did not translate the phrase Aseret Ha-Dibberot because we commonly call them the Ten Commandments, the very phrase I wish to question. The Torah itself speaks of Aseret Ha-Devarim, the Ten Words, Sayings, or Pronouncements (I do not yet have a smooth phrase for it). In fact, there are likely more than ten commandments here—as Ramban points out in his glosses to Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, the words in the first two Dibberot teach five commandments.
Less technically, the Ten were often thought to be expandable into the 613; R. Saadya Gaon and other liturgical poets gave us piyyutim with renderings of how the 613 come from the Ten. These Ten Sayings weren’t about specific commandments, they were foundational ideas for the Jewish people, were said at that momentous event to capture what we were becoming by accepting the Torah. What mattered were Ten Sayings, however many commandments they reflected.
One of those Sayings stressed the need to refrain from any avoda zara, literally foreign worship (or, worship of a foreign power). Unfortunately clouding the issue, the Torah gives examples more common in its time than in ours, a statue or some other physical representation of the power being worshipped. It fools us into equating the problem with idolatry, worshipping a physical item (even as a representation of another power).
Today, people know to deny they worship idols. There’s many complications to the question of physical worship—halakha recognizes the idea of bowing to something out of respect or love rather than worship, yet also speaks of bowing as inherently a form of worship, a knot I cannot untie here—but there’s a simple formulation of avoda zara I am not sure we always remember.
Rambam, Laws of Avoda Zara 3;4, records the Mishnah from Sanhedrin 60b, that one who accepts any power as an eloha or says to it, eli ata, you are my power, has fully violated the prohibition of avoda zara, regardless of whether the item or idea the person names as eloha or el is physical. We might try to limit that to where the person declares this force the sole power running his/her life, except Rambam opened chapter two of those laws by making clear avoda zara includes where the person recognizes Hashem as Elokim, as the ultimate power.
We (and avoda zara is a problem for all humans, not just Jews) may not see any power in the universe as controlling our lives. We are required to recognize only Gd as One to Whom to turn to for help or protection.
I have long fretted over this, worried many well–meaning people come perilously close to crossing this line. We are allowed to recognize regularities in nature, for example, and adapt to them. Reading a weather report and dressing accordingly is not a form of worship to a power called weather (or science). But were a Jew to assume those are powers of the universe that control our lives on their own (even if we say Gd can intervene when Gd wants), we have a problem.
Similarly, a verse in the Torah permits tending to our medical needs. Were we to assume medical truths rule our lives, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice. We may say Gd has inserted regularities into how human health works, and has obligated us to do our best within those patterns. But if we come to assume we’re guaranteed good health by following the best of medical insight, and vice-verse, if we take doctors as the final word when health goes sour, we risk treating medicine as a power other than Gd. And worshipping it.
In the Ten Sayings, the reference to avoda zara is not limited to idols. So be careful with translations.