Understanding Onkelos – Book Review

If there is thing that I’ve noticed over the years, it’s that many people are afraid of Onkelos.

I’ve seen it both when I was teaching in yeshiva and now in my tutoring.

Fear of Onkelos

Imagine this scene:

I’m leading a group of eager guys through some verses in Chumash.We’re going along, all so happy as we learn Chumash with Rashi. Everything is beautiful. Then it all changes.

Sometimes it’s Rashi’s fault. He’ll go and quote Onkelos.

Sometimes it’s my fault. I’ll suggest that looking at Onkelos might help us understand a verse.

The reaction is almost universal. “Oh, Onkelos. Sigh. Do we have to?”

There’s a new book that seeks to take some of the mystery and perhaps even fear out of learning Onkelos.

It’s called Understanding Onkelos – The Greatest Bible Translator by Rabbis Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin.

I’ve been wanting to write a review about this book for a while. There’s just been one problem. My usual weekly routine has been to read the book on Shabbat. In my review I want to highlight a few of their insights into the parsha, but who wants to read about last week’s parsha?

So anyway, I’ve decided to do the review without including a discussion of the parsha.

Passover is coming soon! Click here to download a guide to simplify preparing for the festival. It's free. Passover Cleaning.


The authors claim that Understanding Onkelos is suitable for rabbis, teachers, and Torah students.

I think that claim is a little bit too broad.

I think the people who will find Understanding Onkelos most useful are Torah students who shudder when they think of looking at Onkelos.

This book will give them an easy and gentle introduction to Oneklos, his methods, and where he fits in the scheme of Torah commentary.

Onkelos on the Torah

What about the target readership of rabbis and teachers? Our authors also have a 5-volume set Onkelos on the Torah – Understanding the Bible Text which is suitable for more advanced readers.

How to Use This Book

The nearly 400 pages of Understanding Onkelos are divided into short chapters for each weekly parsha.

The chapters begin with an outline of the parsha. Then one or two verses are chosen as the basis of a more in depth discussion.

There is not a fixed pattern to these discussions. Here are some examples of topics covered:

  • word choice in Onkelos,
  • how Oneklos deals with difficult to translate words,
  • Onkelos and halachah,
  • how Onkelos compares to other translations,
  • Onkelos and his treatment of idols,
  • Oneklos and his treatment of God’s names.

After the main discussion of each parsha, the section “On Onkelos” addresses aspects of his commentary that were peripheral to the main discussion and asks more in depth questions.

Finally, each chapter concludes with “For Further Study” where the authors point out a few of the interesting Onkelos comments that are discussed in their 5-volume set Onkelos on the Torah.

What’s Missing?

I have only one complaint about Understanding Onkelos. I wish that the authors would have included the original Hebrew and Aramaic for the verses discussed in each chapter. This is a small complaint, but to my mind it would have made this guide more self-contained.

I do want to give the authors a huge pat on the back. They’ve included an Index. At a time when so many Jewish books are skipping this vital tool, I think Rabbis Wagner and Drazin are to be congratulated.

My Verdict

If you are afraid of Onkelos (on any level) then you should pick up Understanding Onkelos and start learning to appreciate his translation and commentary.

On the other hand, I think that if you are a rav or a teacher, then you will be disappointed in Understanding Onkelos. Your better bet is to invest in the 5-volume set Onkelos on the Torah.

Understanding Onkelos – The Greatest Bible Translator by Rabbis Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin. Published by Targum Press.

Disclosure: I was given a review copy of Understanding Onkelos by the publisher.

Your Turn

Please share your joys or frustrations about learning Onkelos in the comments.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.