The Emperor’s Nephew
“A man should always complete the Torah portion together [at the same time] with the congregation, [reading] twice the Hebrew text and once the [Aramaic] Targum… [if he does so,] his days and years are prolonged” (Rabbi Huna ben Judah in the name of Rabbi Ammi, Berachot 8a).
This sage advice from Rabbi Huna is an excellent introduction to an unexpected Torah scholar named Onkelos, as it is the commonly accepted understanding of this advice that the Aramaic translation one should read is Targum Onkelos.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, Onkelos the convert was the nephew of the Roman Emperor. And while it is debated whether his uncle was Hadrian or Titus, neither was a friend of the Jews. Thus, when the Emperor discovered his nephew’s conversion, he sent soldiers to bring his nephew back to Rome. In fact, he sent three contingents of soldiers, all of whom were persuaded to convert to Judaism by Onkelos–even after the Emperor ordered them not to talk to, or even listen to him. (For the full story, see Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 11a.)
But Onkelos did not make his decision to convert lightly. The Talmud (Gittin 56b-57a) tells a fascinating story in which Onkelos, through the use of necromancy, called upon the departed souls of Titus, Balaam and “the sinners of Israel” and asked each, “Who is in repute in the other world?” Titus and Balaam, both renowned enemies of the Jews, both encouraged Onkelos to fight the Jews even as they themselves were being punished for their actions. The sinners of Israel, however, told Onkelos to “Seek their welfare, seek not their harm…”
Onkelos’ contribution to Jewish scholarship goes far beyond seeking the welfare of the Jewish people. His Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses incorporated the teachings he received from his own teachers, thus providing a vital translation and commentary in one.
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