Our Gemara quotes a series of halakhot taught by Rabbi Zeira in the name of Rav Ḥisda. Several of them focus on how the public Torah reading must be done. He teaches, for example, that:
- The congregation cannot respond “Amen” until the reader has finished his blessing
- The reader cannot begin the reading until after the congregation has finished their response of “Amen“
- The metargem – “he who translates” – cannot begin his translation until the reader has completed the passage
- The reader cannot continue the Torah reading until the metargem has finished his translation.
The job of the meturgeman was to partner with the ba’al koreh who was reading the Torah and translate that reading – one pasuk at a time – into a language that could be understood by all. That language was the standard one spoken by people at that time – Aramaic. The Targum that was used in the synagogue was Targum Onkelos, the same one that appears in standard Ḥumashim. Many of the rishonim insisted on keeping the tradition of the meturgeman alive even after the language was no longer understood by the masses.
Although we are not familiar with the practice today, the meturgeman was an essential fixture in the synagogue during Torah reading in the time of the Mishna and the Talmud, as well as for generations that followed. For Jews of Yemenite extraction, the meturgeman is part of the standard Torah readings in their synagogues to this day, and in some communities the Yemenites also added an Arabic translation that was penned by Rav Sa’adia Ga’on.
There is another type of meturgeman who is occasionally referred to in the Gemara; he is the individual whose job it was to “broadcast” the teachings of the Sage to the audience who came to hear him – an essential job prior to the invention of the loudspeaker. Such a meturgeman not only presented the words of the Sage, but offered explanations and clarifications of the teachings, as well.