Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 1 December 2018 / 23 Kislev 5779

Chanuka: The Greeks versus the Kohanim

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
ArtscrollLibrary

There are sources that match up each of the four kingdoms that subjugated the Jewish People to one of the four primary sins — i.e., spilling blood (murder), illicit relations, idol worship and lashon hara. The Greek empire, say the sources, matches up with the sin of murder. The Ohr Gedalyahu points out that this idea is not easily understood. The Levush points out that one of the main differences between the holiday of Purim and Chanuka is that in the story of Purim Haman’s main attack was against the physical bodies of the Jewish people, whereas the Greek decrees were against the neshama and soul of the Jewish People. The Greeks were not interested in destroying the Jewish people physically, as long as they gave up their religion. Based on this, the parallel between the Greeks to the sin of murder seems completely out of place. How then are we to understand the words of the sources that make this parallel?

Beginnings of Atheism

In order to understand the essence of what ancient Greece is about, we first need to study the time period in which the Greeks ruled. The Greeks’ rise to power took place following the period of prophecy. What is the significance of this? The Gemara points out that the desire to serve idols was not as easy to overcome in the past as it is today (Sanhedrin 102b-103a). As is evident from the constant rebuke of the prophets to the Jewish People, idolatry was a powerful force in the world, which many people stumbled over. What caused this desire to be weakened? The Gemara explains that as a response to the people’s failure to overcome the desire to serve idols, Chazal prayed to G-d to take away the temptation for it altogether. They felt that even though the reward for overcoming this desire was great, it was not worth losing the number of people who simply couldn’t withstand the test.

The Gemara tells us that G-d responded to their plea and weakened the desire for idol worship. However, it was at a cost. Once the desire to serve idols was taken away from the world, prophecy also needed to come to an end (Yoma 69b). The simple reason for this is that if prophecy existed without the counterbalancing desire for serving idols, there would be no real free will to choose. Therefore, once G-d took away the desire for serving idols, He decided to take away prophecy from the world in order to retain the balance of the revelation of good and evil. Following this, the test for mankind shifted from worshipping idols to worshipping nature (see the Vilna Gaon on Seder Olam, chapter 30).

With this we can understand the significance of the Greeks rise to power following the era of prophecy. The Ramban points out that Greek philosophy strongly rejected the existence of anything that could not be seen, heard, felt or tested in the laboratory. This philosophy made them reject the existence of a spiritual world. As long as prophecy was around, there was no way to deny the existence of a spiritual world. The mere fact that the words of the prophet turned out to be true was a testimony to the existence of a Higher Being. However, following the period of prophecy there was suddenly room for doubting the existence of a spiritual world altogether. This is precisely why the Greeks, whose ideology consisted of denying the spiritual world, began to rise to power at this time (Sefer Re'eh Emunah in the name of Rav Moshe Shapira zatzal).

Defiling the Holy

In order to give credence to their philosophy, the Greeks tried to contaminate any spiritual idea and bring it down into pure physicality. This was the Greek approach to anything having to do with spirituality, and thus the Greeks did not destroy the Beit Hamikdash but rather contaminated it; they did not throw us out of the Eretz Yisrael but rather brought galut into Eretz Yisrael; they did not destroy the Torah but rather had it translated to make it like any other history book. To the Greeks, the Beit Hamikdash was just another building, Eretz Yisrael was just another country, and the Torah was just another book of legends (see Pachad Yitzchak, Chanuka 6:4).

The Greeks’ approach to the Jewish People was no different. In essence the Greeks were more interested in infiltrating Jewish spiritual life than destroying their physical existence. Although it is true that many Jews were killed under the Greek rule, it was only due to their rejection to Greek philosophy. Through banning anything that set Jews apart from the other nations (such as brit mila), they wished to proclaim that the Jews were just another race. Through all this, the Greeks wished to gain acceptance for their motto of “physicality is everything”.

Spiritual Killing

Based on this idea we can begin to understand the connection between Greece and the sin of spilling blood. Death in Judaism is defined as the separation of the soul from its physical garment — i.e., the body. The Maharal explains that murder is referred to as spilling blood because the nefesh of a person resides in his blood. Hence, spilling blood is akin to separating the body from the soul. The Ohr Gedalyahu explains that when Chazal tell us that the kingdom of Greece represents spilling blood they mean that the Greeks, more than any other nation, tried to separate the spiritual depth behind everything by emphasizing only its physical make up. By ignoring the soul and concentrating only on the body, they, so to speak, took the spiritual reality out of the world, leaving behind a body without a soul. This is the “spilling of blood” that the Greeks represent (Ohr Gedalyahu al Ha’Moadim, Chanuka, Choshech zo Lavan).

Based on the above we can also understand why it was specifically the Kohanim who fought off the Greeks. The Kohanim, more than any other group, represented the exact opposite ideology than that of the Greeks. While the Greeks came to separate the physical world from its spiritual root, the Kohanim, through their service in the Beit Hamikdash, were the ones who were in charge of connecting the physical world to its spiritual core. While the Greeks brought darkness to the world, the Kohanim illuminated the world by lighting the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash. Finally, while the Greeks represented the power of spilling blood in the world, the Kohanim are specifically commanded to stay away from a dead body. This is because the physical body without the soul represents the opposite of the Kohen’s job of bringing together the physical and spiritual components of the world (Shem M'Shmuel, Emor 5673). This is precisely why the Greeks’ ploy to take away spirituality from this world had to be defeated by the Kohanim, whose entire purpose was to be a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. May we merit continuing the work of the Kohanim and eradicate any remnant of the Greek ideology that still plagues us today.

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