Our rabbis tell us that there are three crowns in the universe: the crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood and the crown of Torah. While the crown of kingship is not open to every man to possess, it is handed down from the king to his son. And while the crown of the priesthood is only for the seed of Aaron, the High Priest, the crown of Torah is free to each and every man to wear.
Every person, be he the son of a rabbi or the son of the humblest and most ignorant individual, can (if only he desires it and works diligently at it) become a great scholar and put the magnificent crown of Torah on his very own head.
Indeed, this is the story of a man who became a great Tanna (Rabbi of the Mishna) and whose father was not a great scholar, not even a Jew! This is the story of a man who was born a heathen, and who nevertheless, by will power and effort, rose to put on his own head the crown of Torah. This is the story of the great Unkelus, whose interpretation of the Torah is ready by every Jew as an obligation, weekly.
Unkelus And Hadrian
In the days immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple, there lived a terrible ruler of Rome by the name of Hadrian. He was the same Hadrian who had Rabbi Akiba and the ten martyred rabbis put to death. He completed the exile of the Jews from Israel by defeating and wiping out the army of Bar Cochba.
This evil man had a sister, who had a son by the name of Unkelus. Naturally, coming from the royal family of Rome, Unkelus lacked for nothing materialistic in his life and had he so chosen, he could have lived the rest of his life in the luxury and laziness that dominated the Roman upper class life.
Unkelus, however, was unhappy. Something within his soul told him that his life was empty, lacking in the important things that make existence meaningful. He therefore began to investigate all the wisdoms and philosophies of the world, seeking for the answer that seemed to elude him.
In his search, he came across Judaism and it was as if a great light had shone across his path. Excitedly he devoured the books and listened to the words of the Jewish scholars with whom he engaged in conversation. Finally, he was convinced that this was the Truth for which he had been looking. He decided to become a Jew.
Going to his uncle, the Emperor Hadrian, he said:
“O, great Caesar, I have come to an important decision that I feel that you must know about.”
“What is it, my nephew,” asked Hadrian.
“I have decided, Sire, to give up this dissolute life and the foolish idols and paganism that we worship. I am going to embrace the Jewish faith.”
The emperor could not believe his ears.
“What! You – a member of the royal house of Rome – embracing Judaism? There is no more miserable people alive, no more persecuted and stubborn race. Do not be a fool and sacrifice your noble past and glorious future.”
Unkelus, however, had thought very carefully about this great decision and nothing could persuade him to change his mind.
“I, too, am surprised, my uncle,” he said. “How can you call this noble race by such names? They are truly a wise and brilliant people. Even the youngest among them knows that the Almighty created the heavens and the earth and that He alone rules and moves all.”
Hadrian, seeing that his nephew was convinced, said:
“If so, let me advise you to go and study their Torah but do not enter into their covenant.”
“That is impossible. No one can understand and draw fully the greatness from their Torah unless he both learns it and also observes it.”
Hadrian now grew furious with his nephew.
“I give you warning. If you go through with your insane plan to become a Jew, your end will be sad and bitter.”
Unkelus Answers Hadrian
“O Caesar,” answered Unkelus, “let me ask you [for] some advice before leaving. I prepare now to go out and do some business in the world.
“Tell me, in your great wisdom, what is the merchandise that I should buy and which will bring me the greatest profit?”
“Seek for yourself,” said Hadrian, “that merchandise which few people are interested in selling. If you buy that, you will realize a great profit from your venture.”
Hearing this, Unkelus replied:
“It is as you say, O Caesar. That product that men despise is the one to go after and acquire. I shall therefore go after the Torah to the L-rd. For it is this product that few seek and most of the masses of the world despise. I, however, shall go after it and realize from it great spiritual wealth.”
So speaking, Unkelus bowed to Hadrian and left his presence.
Unkelus Learns Torah
Unkelus now undertook the long and dangerous journey to Eretz Yisrael. Upon arriving there, he went directly to the yeshiva of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.
“My masters,” he said to them, “I have come from Rome and of the royal household. I have decided to become a Jew and desire to learn Torah.”
The two scholars embraced Unkelus and began to teach him Torah. They were amazed at the brilliance of his mind and the diligence of his soul. Soon he had excelled mightily in his studies and took his place among the scholars of Israel.
One thing disturbed Unkelus in his newly-acquired people. In those days, few of the common people spoke or understood Hebrew. Because of this, the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) was foreign to many of them.
“I will make an interpretation of the Torah in Aramaic, the tongue of the people, so that all Jews will have the opportunity to learn our glorious Torah.”
And so he did. When the other rabbis saw it, they were amazed at its clarity and correctness and they decreed that every man should – weekly – go over the chapter of that particular week, twice in the original text and once with the translation of Unkelus.
Hadrian Sends An Army
Back in Rome, when the emperor, Hadrian, learned that not only had his nephew carried out his plan to convert to Judaism but that he had even become a great scholar who had written an interpretation of the Torah, his anger knew no bounds and he decided to kill him.
Calling one of the captains of his legions, he said to him:
“Take a battalion of troops and go to Judea. When you arrive there, seize Unkelus and bring him back to Rome.”
Unkelus Converts The Troops
“O, noble Romans, hearken unto me,” said Unkelus. He then proceeded to describe to the Romans all the beauties and truths of Judaism. So well did he speak that he convinced all the Romans and they, too, decided to become Jews.
When Hadrian heard this he fumed with anger and sent yet another battalion legions. These troops, however, fared no better. No sooner did they arrive than Unkelus was there to greet them, too, and describe to them the beauties of Judaism. And they also decided to leave their pagan heritage and embrace Judaism.
Hadrian now called together a third battalion and warned them:
“When you see Unkelus, do not listen to his attempt to convert you.”
When the troops appeared before Unkelus, he said:
“I know that the emperor has warned you not to listen to me, but at least answer one question that has bothered me very much.”
When the troops agreed to listen to just one question, Unkelus said:
“We all know that when the lieutenant goes out at night, the sergeant carries a torch to light his way. Similarly, the lieutenant holds the torch for the captain and the captain for the general. The general in turn holds it for the emperor. For whom, however, does the emperor hold the torch?”
“Just so,” replied Unkelus. “There is no greater being than the emperor, and therefore he holds a torch for no one.
“When the Almighty took the Jews from the land of Egypt, it was He, Himself, who lit the path for his people – as it is said: ‘And the L-rd goes before them in the day in a cloud to guide them and at night in a pillar of fire…’”
When the Romans heard this, they said to themselves:
“It is true. This proves how great are the people of Israel. Let us, too, become a part of this noble race.”
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Page last updated - 06/09/2006