During the period when the Jews suffered bitterly under the rule of the hated Emperor Hadrian who quelled the uprising of Bar Kochba, razed the great city of Bethar and murdered many Jews, among them Rabbi Akivah (approximately in the year 3880, 52 years after the destruction of the second Beth Hamikdosh), there arose a bright star that lights up the Jewish heavens even to this day. We are referring to the great Onkelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic, a translation (which is also an interpretation) known as "Targum Onkelos." It is printed almost in every Chumash. "Targum Onkelos" is so holy that when one reviews the weekly portion (as one is supposed to do every week) it has to be reviewed twice in the Chumash and once in Targum.
Who was Onkelos? From whom did he descend? How did he become a religious convert? The answers to these questions are found in the Talmud and Midrash where we find enough material to put together the life story of this great giant in Jewish history.
Onkelos was a member of the Roman royal family. His mother was Hadrian's sister and his father was called Klonikas.
Onkelos was a very educated man and was well-versed in all the Roman and Greek cultures. He was blessed not only with a clear head and exceptional brain, but also with a golden and pure heart and a lofty soul. He soon realized that idolatry is foolish and that the Jewish religion is the real G‑dly religion. On the quiet he began to serve G‑d, the Creator of heaven and earth, and he waited for the opportunity of formally accepting the Jewish religion.
Once, Onkelos came to his uncle Hadrian and said: "For many years I. have been poring over books and manuscripts, studying until I have become familiar with all the languages and sciences. But what have I gained from it all? It is time for me to go out into the world and start doing business. You know that I am not familiar with worldly things, whereas you the great Roman emperor are well-versed in worldly affairs. I have therefore come to ask your advice as to what kind of material I should buy and sell?"
Hadrian was greatly flattered that his wise nephew should ask his advice and he said: "My kingly riches are at your disposal. Take as much money as you need for business. I would advise you to seek material that is extremely cheap due to the fact that people do not realize its worth; material that few people are seeking: You will be able to buy it cheaply and after explaining its real value to people you will be able to make a nice profit!"
Onkelos the Prince soon left the royal palace. He traveled from Rome and started out for Jerusalem, in the land of Judah. Once there, he took upon himself the religion of the persecuted Jews and converted. He became a disciple of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hirkanos and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, the great Tanaim who were disciples of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai. He gave himself over entirely to the study of the Torah. His perseverance and dedication were so great that his teachers became concerned about his health, but Onkelos continued learning day and night until he became well-versed in all the secrets of the Torah.
Onkelos took very much to heart the fact that many Jews during the Babylonian Exile had forgotten their holy language, and had started speaking Babylonian, Ashdodic, Aramaic and different types of dialects.
When the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile, Ezra the Scribe translated the Torah into Aramaic so that everybody should be able to understand it, but the translation was lost. Onkelos now decided to translate the Torah into Aramaic once more, according to the explanations handed down from generation to generation, through Ezra the Scribe and back to Moses. This translation that we have even today is "Targum Onkelos."
After a short time Hadrian found out that his nephew had accepted the Jewish religion and had become one of the foremost Jewish scholars. The emperor was beside himself with rage, and he sent a company of soldiers to arrest Onkelos and to bring him in chains to Rome.
'When the. Roman soldiers arrived, Onkelos greeted them in a friendly manner and he talked to them about religion and knowledge. His words impressed them so much that the soldiers threw themselves at his feet and begged him to convert them. to the Jewish religion, as he had done himself.
'When Hadrian saw that his soldiers did not return, he sent another company of brave warriors with instructions to bring Onkelos in chains.
This time he gave orders not to have any discussions with Onkelos, but to arrest him on the spot and bring him to Rome, because Hadrian had heard what had happened to his first messengers.
Onkelos again warmly received the royal messengers. "I know that the Emperor forbade you to have any discussions with me. You must obey the royal command; I also obeyed him; I will therefore ask you one question: you know very well what goes on in the Roman, imperial Court. The common soldier carries the torch for the officer; the officer carries it for the captain; the captain for the general and the general for the emperor. Tell me, for whom does the emperor carry the torch?"
"The emperor is not obliged to serve anyone," they answered him. "He is the highest authority in the country!"
"Take a look," Onkelos answered them. "The G‑d of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth, who delivered the Jews from Egypt, the G‑d over everything, in spite of His greatness, still deemed it fit to lighten the way for His servants, the Jews, with a pillar of fire for forty complete years!"
These words made a great impression on the soldiers, and they immediately gave up their mission and became faithful disciples of Onkelos.
Once more, Hadrian sent a company of troops with high officers at the head, with the express orders not to say one word to Onkelos and not to answer any questions, but to arrest him immediately.
The messengers arrived and started to carry out the emperor's orders without delay. They led him out of his. house. At the door Onkelos stopped, and joyfully kissed the Mezuzah.
The messengers gazed at him in wonder, and could not restrain themselves from asking him:
"What does that thing on the door symbolize, and why are you so happy at being taken to Rome, where your uncle will surely have your head chopped off?"
"I laugh at foolish people. A king sits in his palace and has guards around him to protect him from danger. But the Jewish King, the L-rd of the world, allows his servants to sit quietly at home and He protects them from outside. That is the Mezuzah on our door!"
The royal messengers fell entirely under the influence of Onkelos's words and it did not take long before they also became his faithful disciples.
When Hadrian saw that he would not be able to bring his nephew by force, he decided that there must be some special reason for all this. He had a strong desire to see his nephew, so he swore that he would not harm him if he would come to visit him voluntarily.
Onkelos started out for Rome. When he presented himself to the Emperor, he was surprised to see that Onkelos had lost much weight. Onkelos assured him that he had gained much Torah and wisdom instead. Hadrian then asked him why he had left his home, and his religion and accepted the religion of a small nation that was persecuted and ill-treated by all the other nations of the world?
"I listened to your good advice," Onkelos answered him with a smile. "You advised me to buy a material for which there are few customers. I traveled throughout the world and I could not find anything that has fewer customers than the Jewish religion. I bought it and I found that I had made a bargain. The holy Jewish Prophets have promised that the poor persecuted Jewish nation will become a nation of princes; that the kings throughout the world will consider themselves honored to serve them; and the Torah, which is now down-trodden, will be recognized by all nations, and Jerusalem will be the lighthouse of the whole world.