In today’s daf (Megillah 9a-b) we are taught that beyond a Torah scroll being written in the classic כתב אשורית, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel also permitted Torah scrolls to be written in יונית (Greek). The Gemara then relates the story of how King Ptolemy placed 72 elders in 72 different houses and then instructed each of them to write a Greek translation of the Torah and that, inspired by God, each made the same thoughtful changes while translating the Torah. After this, Rav Yochanan asks for the reason for Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel’s justification for singling out Greek as being the only language, beyond כתב אשורית, into which a Torah scroll may be translated. The answer is then provided by quoting Bereishit 9:27 which states: ‘May God enlarge Yefet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem’, and which is then understood to mean: ‘the words of Yefet shall be in the tents of Shem’ (nb. to understand the connection between this verse and the overall teaching, it is important to note that one of the sons of Yefet was יון – see Bereishit 10:2).
Based on this explanation it would appear that already from the earliest chapters of history, Greek was identified as a language that the Jewish people may include ‘in the tents of Shem’ – with the implication of this being that this the story told in today’s daf involving King Ptolemy and the 72 elders is some sort of affirmation of this timeless truth.
But as the Rambam explains (in his commentary to Mishna Megillah 2:1), this is not so. As he writes: ‘and that which our Sages individuated the Greek language from all others was due to the fact that it was known to them, and the fact that a Torah scroll was only permitted to be translated into Greek is due to the fact that [the 72 elders] previously translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy and that this translation was then disseminated amongst the Jews to the point that Greek became like a second language to them on par with אשורית. This is why they ruled that Greek was an acceptable language. Beyond this, Greek was considered to be an important language in their eyes.’
What this means – as further explained by R’ Nachum Rabinovitch in his Yad Peshuta commentary (to Hilchot Tefillin U’Mezuzah V’Sefer Torah 1:19) – is that it was only because Greek was then considered an important language, and only because the Torah had previously been translated into Greek, that there was a justification – as subsequently expressed through the citation and explanation of Bereishit 9:27 – to translate Torah scrolls into Greek.
Nowadays, however, this is not the case, as the Rambam writes (in his Hilchot Tefillin U’Mezuzah V’Sefer Torah ibid.): ‘[the] Greek [that our Sages spoke of] has since been diminished from the world; it has been confused and lost’ – meaning that Greek is nowadays not known to many, it is no longer considered as important as it once was, and while we still have the Septuagint, various emendations have been made over the years whereby it cannot be considered as being reliable. Given this, the Rambam rules that: ‘therefore, we do not write any of these three (i.e. Tefillin, Mezuzot or Torah scrolls) other than in אשורי’.