Onkelos the Convert

June 14, 2006

“Twice with the ‘Mikra’ (text) and once with the ‘Targum’ ” (Aramaic translation of the text by Onkelos) is the way that the Sages in Masechet Berachot 8a advise the Jew to study the Weekly Parashah. And who was this Onkelos? This question is partially answered in Masechet Megilah 3a, where we find, “Rabbi Yirmiyah (alt: Rabbi Chiya bar Abba) said, ‘The translation of the Torah was made by Onkelos the Convert, that he learned from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. The translation of the Prophets was made by Yonatan ben Uziel, who learned it from Chaggai, Zechariah and Malachi.’ ” The Gemara later asks from a source in Nechemiah that the “Targum” came into existence in the time of Ezra, several hundred years before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and Onkelos the Convert! The Gemara answers that while it is true that the initial translation of the Torah into Aramaic was done in the time of Ezra, the vast majority of the Jewish People forgot it. However, the tradition came down to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, who taught it to Onkelos, who wrote it down again for all of Israel.

What do we know about the conversion of Onkelos? The Talmud tells us in Masechet Gittin (56b-57a) that on the return of Titus to Rome from Yerushalayim, where he had defiled and destroyed the Holy Temple, HaShem wanted to drown him with a huge wave. Titus said, “The G-d of the Jews has power only on water, where he defeated Pharaoh…come and do battle with me on land.” HaShem said, “O wicked son and grandson of wicked men…I have a certain small creature; go onto land and do battle with it.” When Titus reached land, a flea entered his nose, then moved to his brain, where it proceeded to grow immensely, causing Titus indescribable pain. On his deathbed, he told his servants, “After I die, cremate me and scatter my ashes over the Seven Seas, so that the G-d of the Jews will not be able to find me and bring me to Justice.”

At this time in history, Rome was a persecutor of Israel, but at the same time, many thousands of Romans, impressed with the religion of the Jews, and with their fierce devotion to it, were converting to Judaism. In the same Gemara, we find, “Onkelos, son of Kalonykos, was the son of Titus’ sister, and he wished to convert to Judaism. He raised by witchcraft the spirit of Titus from the dead. He asked his uncle, ‘Who is on top in the World-to-Come?’ Titus answered, ‘Israel.’ Onkelos asked further, ‘I am thinking of converting to Judaism. What is your opinion of that?’ The spirit answered, ‘The Jews have to fulfill too many Laws – you will not be able to do it all. Instead, persecute Israel, and you will be on top, at least while you are alive…’ Onkelos asked him, ‘What is your punishment?’ He answered, ‘What I decreed upon myself. Every day I have to find wood, which is used to burn me, and my ashes are scattered over the Seven Seas.’ ” Despite the advice of his uncle, Onkelos did convert to Judaism, and studied Torah under the greatest Sages of the Jewish People. So great and holy was his translation of the Torah into Aramaic, the language of the People at that time and the language of the Talmud, that we find in Berachos (8a-8b), “Rav Huna bar Yehuda (alt: Rabbi Ami) said, “A person should always finish the Torah with the Community by reciting the text twice and the Targum once, and even for place-names like Atros and Divon (where the Targum seems not to add much by the mere repetition of the names). For anyone who does so will have his lifetime increased.”