What is the Jewish Targum?Beginning around the first century BC, the Hebrew language was mostly used only for schooling and worship while the commonly spoken language among Jews was Aramaic. Thus, during religious services an interpreter, known as a targumannu, would translate the Scriptures from Hebrew to Aramaic. He would often expand on the Scriptures with explanations, examples, and paraphrasing. By the first century AD, some of these Aramaic interpretations and commentaries had been written down. Two in particular made their way into religious services as official texts: the Targum Onkelos, an interpretation and expansion of the Torah (the Law), and the Targum Jonathan, an interpretation and expansion of the Nevi'im (the Prophets). These targumim continued to be used as official texts until the tenth century AD when most Jews no longer spoke Aramaic. Today, the Yemenite Jews are the only community to still use the Targum as liturgical texts.
However, because the Babylonian Talmud directs Jews to use the Targum for personal study saying, "A person should always review his portions of scripture… reading the scripture twice and the Targum once" (Berakhot 8a-b), the Targum remains an important resource to Jews today. Jewish editions of the Hebrew Bible that contain commentary still tend to print the Targum alongside the text. In scholarly studies, the Targum helps modern readers learn how a biblical passage has been understood historically.
It is important to remember that the Targum is an interpreter's personal reflection on the Scripture and is not itself the Word of God. The Targum is in some ways similar to The Living Bible or The Message today. Those versions are different author's paraphrases of Scripture rather than more exact word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translations of the original Hebrew or Greek texts. The Targum can provide helpful insight to one way a passage of Scripture can be understood and applied, but should not be seen as the definitive or only way to understand that part of God's holy Word.
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