Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter
The Greeks exhibited a single-mindedness in their determination to eradicate the Jewish People that in some measures surpassed even that of Haman. The way they went about it, and their points of attack, can serve to highlight for us the most meaningful aspects of our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
I In his introduction to Hilchos Chanukah, the Rambam describes the nature of the persecution of the Jews under the rule of the Yevanim — the ancient Greeks: “During the period of the Second Beis Hamikdash, the Greek kings issued decrees against the Jews, abolishing their religion by not allowing them to engage in the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvos…”
Expounding on the motive behind these evil decrees, the Rambam’s grandson, Rav David Hanaggid, conjectures that it stemmed from a deep-rooted hatred toward the Jewish People, greater than that of the most-rabid anti-Semitic oppressors throughout the ages. In his opinion this was a diabolical scheme to successfully eradicate the Jews. While others — such as Haman — attempted to physically destroy the Jews, the Yevanim shifted their focus to destroying Yiddishkeit instead, which they believed would eventually result in the annihilation of the Jewish People. How so?
Ancient Greek civilization boasted numerous brilliant philosophers, such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The profundity of their comprehension was unrivaled. Using their massive intellects, they arrived at a clear recognition not only of Hashem’s existence, but also of His unique hashgacha pratis vis a vis His Chosen People. They correctly perceived that as long as Jews were faithful to Hashem, learning Torah, and performing mitzvos, all efforts to destroy them would fail, since Hashem would ultimately save His faithful from the clutches of their oppressors.
However, if the Jews could be influenced or forced to abandon the mitzvos, the Jews would lose Divine protection. Once bereft of Hashem’s defensive shield, their destruction would be assured. Towards this end, the Greek kings issued decree after decree attacking the core values of Yiddishkeit, in an effort to destroy Yiddishkeit, and with it, the Jews.
What follows is an analysis of some of the Yevanim’s decrees and why they focused specifically on those areas.
In al hanissim we declare that in addition to eradicating the mitzvos in general, the Yevanim specifically aimed to make the Torah itself forgotten from the Jewish People — “l’hashkicham Torasecha.” This would seem to be referring to the study of Torah, and the Rambam indeed cites a Greek decree of that time forbidding Jews to be involved in Torah study. Indeed, there were no less than five attempts to attack the Torah and its study, each progressively worse than the one that preceded it.
1. Maseches Sofrim tells of a time that five Jewish elders were commissioned by King Talmai to translate the Torah into Greek. Chazal severely criticized the work they produced, equating the day of that translation to the day on which the Jewish People sinned with the Golden Calf.
2. The Gemara tells of another time that Talmai gathered 72 Jewish elders and placed them in 72 separate rooms, personally instructing each sage to accurately translate the Torah into the vernacular, which they did. The day of this translation — the 8th of Teves — began a three-day period during which the world was filled with darkness. It is marked as a tragic day and designated as a day of optional fasting.
3. Making the Torah accessible to the Greeks did not suffice to alter its standing in the eyes of the Jews. We therefore find in Sefer Hatishbi that King Antiochus issued a decree forbidding the public reading of the weekly parshah. It was in response to this decree that the Jews instituted the reading of the haftarah, using it as a substitute for the banned portion that was to be read that week.
4. Upon realizing that abolishing the public reading of the Torah did not sufficiently accomplish their sinister goals, the Yevanim eventually issued an all-out ban forbidding the study of Torah in any forum and in any form.
5. Not satisfied with these bans, Apostomus, a Greek general, burned a sefer Torah, essentially obliterating the Torah scroll itself. While this was not a specific decree per se, this unprecedented move had the potential to result in the total eradication of Torah study in an era when the only the only written form of Torah were the Torah scrolls (and the rest of Tanach). Absent these scrolls, its study would be impossible.
The following are two possible motives for the Greeks’ sustained efforts to abolish the study of Torah. The Maharal posits that the G-dly nature of Torah and mitzvos was an anathema to the Greeks. Culture and custom did not concern the Yevanim, but rather the fact that through their Torah study and fulfillment of mitzvos, the Jews were connecting to a Higher Power and a higher, spiritual world order.
A possible additional approach is based on the Sefer Hachinuch’s definition of the Torah and its study as the fundamental entity that which sets us apart from all other nations as the Am Hanivchar, thereby bequeathing us eternity. Perhaps it was this that drove the Greeks to disrupt the study and influence of Torah.
The Yevanim were faced with one of two options. First, to downgrade the value of Torah and its study to that of “just another discipline” equivalent to all other forms of wisdoms, to be studied and interpreted by all, Jew and gentile alike. If this proved unsuccessful, they would need to somehow prevent the Jews from any form of Torah study. As has been demonstrated, both methods were employed in their attempt to achieve their ignoble goal.
Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and Bris Milah
Megillas Antiochus records that the powerful and wicked Greek general, Bagris, issued and enforced a decree against Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and bris milah — forbidding the observance of Shabbos, the acceptance of witnesses’ testimony to determine the beginning of each new lunar month, and the circumcision of baby boys. Maaseh Chanukah credits this decree to King Antiochus himself, maintaining that Bagris merely implemented the decree and instituted the death penalty for dissidents.
The simultaneous ban on these three mitzvos leads to the reasonable assumption that there is a common thread connecting all three and, to the Greeks’ mind, necessitating the eradication of all three. What might that be?
The Nesivos Shalom of Slonim posits the following thesis. Emunah is the cornerstone of Yiddishkeit, and is comprised of two elements. The first is belief that Hashem alone is the Creator of everything, controls everything, and is aware of everything that transpires with each of His creations. Second, the belief that Hashem designated the Jews to be His chosen People, and that He therefore conducts Himself with them in ways that are often beyond the general laws of nature. All three mitzvos — Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and milah — reflect both of these aspects.
Keeping Shabbos is a testament to the fact that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. However, its observance is limited to the Jewish People, to the extent that if a non-Jew were to keep Shabbos, it is deemed a capital offense.
Following a lunar calendar and observing Rosh Chodesh, also brings out these points. Faith in Hashem can be the result of chakirah, extensive intellectual probing, but, alternatively, it can be based on emunah peshutah, an intuitive awareness of what one knows intrinsically to be true.
The solar system, with its dependably predictable cycles and seasons, represents the approach of chakirah, while the moon, which waxes and wanes and sometimes disappears entirely, represents the awareness of that which may not always be visible but we know exists. Jews use the lunar calendar because it mirrors their national experience, in which we inexplicably endure throughout history as Hashem’s People until the end of days when the entire world will recognize Hashem’s existence and our role in His world.
This message is especially poignant on Rosh Chodesh, when no moon is visible at all. It is also the subject of the Bircas Halevanah we recite monthly and declare about the Jewish People “sheheim asidim l’hischadesh kemosah — they will become renewed like it.”
Bris milah, for which a Jew is willing to spill his child’s blood, visibly manifests his belief in Hashem. Moreover, the circumcised Jew now bears a physical sign — os bris kodesh — that he is part of the King’s legion.
To advance their primary goal of creating a wedge between the Jews and Hashem, the the Yevanim would likely have sought to eradicate those mitzvos which highlight this connection, specifically Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and bris milah.
To read more, subscribe to Mishpacha in print