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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Greek Culture & Rabbi Wan Knobe

By Rabbi Sender Haber

When the Greek forces arrived in Jerusalem, they were not unhappy with what they found. There was a civilized culture, a very strong value system and an organized legal system in place. They further improved Israeli society by introducing the arts of architecture and mathematics as well as the secrets of physical well-being and agility. But they were still not satisfied. The Hellenists lived for the tangible and the Jews worshiped the intangible. Even the Greek gods, though they had never been sighted, took on the images of great warriors and mighty giants. The G-d in Jerusalem had no image.

The Greeks launched a campaign to make us forget G-d, they outlawed Shabbos, they banned circumcision and they instructed every farmer to etch into the horns of their cattle “we have nothing to do with the G-d of the Jews”. By removing some of the basics of our religion and forcing us to display anti G-d bumper stickers, they hoped that we would emerge a perfect Hellenistic society. The strategic Greeks knew better than to destroy the Beis Hamikdash, the Jewish Temple. Instead they introduced a tangible, more familiar (to them) idol into the sanctuary and extinguished the lights of the Menorah.

This was not a simple case of one nation attacking another. The Greeks were enraged by the fact that we had such conviction in a faith that they could not understand. Their goal was to annihilate our culture, not our people.

The Talmud tells us that, contrary to popular opinion, the Greek invaders did not break all of the oil jugs in the temple. They simply took each one and removed from the jugs the seal of the Kohen Gadol (the high priest) thus rendering it impure. The mission of the Hellenists in the Temple was not to destroy, it was to defile. They believed that the service of the Menorah could be fulfilled even with impure oil. They wanted to demonstrate that only tangible differences are of importance. The Hellenists loved our Menorah and perhaps even adopted it as the Olympic torch, but they could not understand why we were so meticulous about the purity of the oil. They expressed their feelings by making sure that there was no pure oil to be found in all of Jerusalem.

When the war was finally won and Greeks chased away, the sages of Israel were faced with a dilemma. Although the Torah prescribes only the purest oil for use in the Menorah, any oil can be used in extenuating circumstances, including the present situation.

On the one hand, The Sages were eager to re-ignite the Menorah immediately, to declare the amazing victory of G-d and the Jewish people. On the other hand, to use impure oil would be to admit partial defeat to the Greeks. It would be like saying “you were right, the oil does not need to be so pure after all”. They searched high and low until, miraculously, they came across a tiny flask of oil that still bore its original seal. It was not nearly enough to last the eight days it would take to procure a new batch of freshly extracted and supervised oil. Nonetheless, the people resolved not to use defiled oil only if absolutely necessary. Their mission was to light the menorah and begin anew, and it would be with only the best and the purest. The people would do what they could and the rest would be in G-d’s hands.

The Talmud writes that Chanukah is a holiday of thanks and praise. The Macabees knew that lighting the menorah was not just a celebration of our physical survival and victory. It was an appreciation of the philosophical victory over a nation that sought to destroy the Jewish people’s spiritual strength. This Chanuka, as we light our own Menorahs, let’s use our imaginations to contemplate and celebrate all of the struggles, both physical and spiritual, that have been fought and won in our miraculous survival through the centuries.

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