While the story of Chanuka is well known, Rabbinic sources relating to these events are terse and obscure. Other holidays are biblically based and mandated, hence are far richer in terms of primary sources. Even Purim, which is also created by rabbinic decree, has both a megilah and a tractate in Mishna and Talmud. Chanuka remains the most mysterious of the holidays. Much of the information we have comes from historians, religious and secular, who have had to base themselves on extra-canonical sources.
We know that the Greeks subjected the Jews to various oppressive decrees, the most familiar to us revolving around the violation of the Temple. Tradition tells us that what was built as a place of worship to God became violated and impure. Some sources suggest that the temple became a place of depravity and licentiousness.
What is [the reason for] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)
Tradition speaks of other aspects of the persecution – not only against the Temple but decrees against other forms of Jewish practice. The Greeks prohibited circumcision, keeping the Shabbat and declaring the new moon.1
Yet despite the public humiliation of the Temple and the attack against our most basic institutions, the persecution of the Greeks against the Jews became associated in Rabbinic literature with one particular, strange phrase:
And darkness symbolizes Greece, which darkened the eyes of Israel with its decrees, ordering Israel, 'Write on the horn of an ox that ye have no portion in the God of Israel.' (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 2:4)2
While it is clear that the Greeks had rejected the Jewish idea of God, and of monotheism, this particular phrase seems strange: What is the relationship between Greek anti-Semitism and the horn of an ox?
The other decrees are more easily understood: The Greeks rejected the idea of Creation, thus the idea of Shabbat was an absurdity to their way of thinking. Similarly, the idea of a "new month" was absurd: For Jews, the new month indicates renewal and a testimony to Creation. The Greeks clearly rejected this notion. Moreover, the Torah teaches us this process of renewal and the testimony it bears are within the domain of the Jew: The new moon occurs only when declared by the Rabbinic court, indicating that the so-called forces of nature are placed under our control. This tenet of Jewish philosophy is encapsulated in the midrash in which the angels ask God when the new moon is and God responds, "Ask the Jews." God, as it were, is seen to have abdicated the right to declare the new moon, which is a physical reality, and given it over to the courts, making it a religious act. This idea must have been particularly offensive to the Greeks, for whom natural phenomena were sacrosanct, not influenced or dictated by man, and certainly not by the Jews.3
The Greeks worshiped nature as perfection; the Jewish idea that even the human body required circumcision to perfect or complete it, was repulsive to them. Testimony from the Greek period reveals to what extent the Greek worship of the human form made inroads in the Jewish community: We are told of Jews who underwent dangerous and painful surgery to "reverse" at least the aesthetic aspects of circumcision, indicating the extent to which some Jews were swayed by Greek values.
These three decrees have a common theme: the Jews believe that there is something beyond the physical; there is a metaphysical reality – God. The Greeks focused exclusively on the physical. The fact that Chanukah is eight days, equal to the days leading to circumcision, is no accident: Both Chanukah and milah point to metaphysical reality - the very point of contention between the Jews and the Greeks. For Jews, circumcision represents man's ability to control the physical, to transcend physical urges by connecting to God, the ultimate metaphysical being. Judaism sees man as a complex combination of the physical and the metaphysical; Creation is the moment when the physical form is imbued with a dash of the metaphysical - a soul. The very number 8 points to something which exists beyond the 7 days of the week.
We now understand the Greek objections to Shabbat, milah, and the observance of the New Moon; why insist that Jews write on the horn of an ox that we have no portion in the God of Israel? The decree is obscure, and countless commentaries have offered explanations. Perhaps the most basic explanation is that this was a "walking advertisement", a means of putting the Jews' rejection of God on parade. If so, the central mitzvah of Chanukah, lighting candles in order to publicize the miracle, may be seen as counteracting the "negative publicity".
The specificity of the decree, that the public heresy of the Jews be carried on the horn of an ox, may have a deeper meaning. The most famous ox in Judaism was the golden calf, which symbolized mass rejection of God, the nadir of the Jewish community. The Maharal (Ner Mitzvah, page 14) explained that the Greek decree was a conscious effort to sway the Jews to reject God once again; the choice of an ox horn as the vehicle reflected this goal. The weakness with this approach is the choice of an ox and not a calf, and the insistence that they write specifically on the horn, a detail not singled out in any tradition describing that earlier monumental sin.
There is a second association that may relate to Chanukah: When Ya'akov blesses Yosef he uses the term "Alei Shur." Some would translate this phrase"arise ox," but the Midrash explains the actual meaning: "the daughters (or branches) run over the wall." 4
The daughters run over the wall. You find that when Yoseph went forth to rule over Egypt, daughters of kings used to look at him through the lattices and throw bracelets, necklaces, ear-rings, and finger-rings to him, so that he might lift up his eyes and look at them; yet he did not look at them. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 98:18)
However when Moshe blesses the tribes he refers to both an ox and horns in reference to Yosef:
The firstling of his herd, grandeur is his, and his horns are like the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth. (Devarim 33:17)
We see that ox certainly refers to Yosef but what connection does this have with the story of Chanuka?
When one looks at Jewish history from the perspective of the Hellenized Jews, Yosef represents a fascinating precedent: Here was a biblical figure who acculturated. From their perspective, Yosef had joined the Egyptian royal court and left his family traditions behind. Moreover, as we saw from the blessing of Ya'akov and the alternative meaning of "Alei Shur," Yosef was incredibly good looking. The Torah attests to his physical beauty:
And Yosef was handsome and good-looking. (Breishit 39:6)
When we recall that the Greeks placed such a premium on aesthetics and the physical form, Yosef may have seemed an even more attractive role model: He had looks, he joined the Egyptians, and he had cultural and political stature in the foreign culture into which he assimilated. The Greeks may have been "tipped off" by assimilated Jews that using Yosef as a role model would convince more traditional Jews to leave Jewish practice. Use of the horn of an ox would have been a trigger for them, a code or symbol to guide them along the path of assimilation, used to remind them of Yosef, the symbol of the "modern Jew".
Yet Yosef, despite the Hellenists' propaganda to the contrary, remained steadfast in his traditions. Despite temptation, Yosef never cut corners or lost sight of his identity. In fact, Yosef is often referred to as the one who "guarded his covenant (brit)." 5
While the Hellenized Jews were performing surgery to cancel the brit, Yosef was guarding his.6
The Hellenized Jews, then, misused Yosef as an example. However, examining Yosef as a role model may deepen our understanding of the issues in question. While the Greek worldview put a premium on aesthetics, the Jewish worldview did not reject it. The Torah does not ignore Yosef's physical beauty, dismiss it, belittle it. Rather, Judaism considers that beauty; as with all physical things, physical beauty must be imbued with spirituality and thus elevated. The beauty referred to in the Torah was misconstrued by the Hellenists, for in all cases, the Torah's understanding of beauty is far different from that of Greek philosophy. A case in point is the Jewish tradition that the most beautiful place on earth was Jerusalem with the Temple standing at its epicenter:
Ten portions of beauty descended to the world: nine were taken by Jerusalem and one by the rest of the world. (Kiddushin 49b)
Perhaps this is what infuriated the Greeks: the obligation to elevate the physical – to seek the metaphysical, and not simply enjoy the physical on its own terms.
The conflict between these two opposing philosophies, indeed between the Greek and Jewish cultures in general, is actually rooted in a much earlier episode and a more basic relationship.7
God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall live in the tents of Shem.(Bereishit 9:27)
Shem and Yefet were brothers; Shem is the father of all the Semitic peoples, Yefet is the ancestor of Greece. The name Yefet indicates beauty, but the Torah speaks of the beauty of Yefet manifesting itself in the tents of Shem. Moreover, the term used is v'yishkon, to dwell: the root of this word is shared with Mishkan - tabernacle - as well as, or more importantly, Shechinah – God's presence. The beauty of Yefet is to be manifest in the Temple of Shem, but only with the presence of God manifest, only when the Shechinah is felt. The Greeks and the Hellenized Jews rejected the holy, rejected the God of Israel, and desired only the physical beauty. They sought the beauty of Yefet without the metaphysical awareness of Shem. Judaism sought a marriage of the physical and the spiritual.8
This may lead us to a deeper understanding of the horn on which the Jews were commanded to write.9 Many commentators note that the term horn is written in the singular. The image is of a unicorn, with one horn in the center of its head. Rav Nachman of Breslov suggested that the unicorn represents a man wearing tefillin.10 Tefillin, with one on the head to represent the mind, and the other on the hand to represent man's strength, is the symbol of the merger of physical and spiritual. The Greeks, in decreeing that Israel be led away from God by inscribing on the unicorn's horn, aimed to defile this symbol of purity of mind, to reinterpret and refocus the image of refilling, by giving the horn a new message. This, according to Rav Nachman, is the meaning of the "horn of the ox".
The idea of the unicorn may allow us to go one step further. According to the Sages, when Adam sinned he brought a unicorn as an atonement offering: 11
Our Rabbis taught: When Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun he said! 'Alas, it is because I have sinned that the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form - this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!' So he sat up all night fasting and weeping and Eve was weeping opposite him. When however dawn broke, he said: 'This is the usual course of the world!' He then arose and offered up a bullock whose horns were developed before its hoofs, as it is said [by the Psalmist], 'And it[my thanksgiving] shall please the Lord better than a bullock that hath horns and hoofs.'
Rav Judah said in the name of Shmuel: The bullock which Adam offered had only one horn in its forehead, as the verse says, 'And it shall please the Lord better than a bullock that is horned and hoofed'. But does not 'horned' imply two horns? — Said R. Nahman b. Isaac: 'Horned' is here spelt [defectively]. (Avoda Zarah 8a)12
The Talmud on the same page mentions another holiday from antiquity which was celebrated by Adam for eight days in the winter:
Our Rabbis taught: When Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, 'Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!' So he began keeping an eight days' fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, 'This is the world's course', and he set forth to keep an eight days' festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.
While the pagan holiday celebrates a purely physical, astronomical phenomenon, devoid of any spiritual content, the holiday of Chanukah, celebrated at the same time of year, points out the Divine Hand in our lives and celebrates the victory of light over darkness, purity over impurity, the miracle of a small flask which lasted for eight days; in a word, the metaphysical.
When Adam sinned, the world changed. On the one hand, Adam became diminished, losing some of his luster, his beauty. On the other hand, the necessity arose for a place where man and God could rekindle their relationship; hence the Temple. After his sin, Adam brought a pleasing offering to God in an attempt to rekindle the relationship between them. Greek philosophy rejects the very notion of a God with whom man can communicate; in rejecting God, they rejected the Jewish idea of the Temple and of offerings.
For Yakov inherited the beauty of Adam; hence those garments found in him their rightful owner and thus gave off their proper aroma. Said R. Jose: 'Can it really be so, that Yakov's beauty equaled that of Adam, seeing that, according to tradition, the fleshy part of Adam's heel outshone the orb of the sun? Would you, then, say the same of Yakov?' Said R. Eleazar in reply: 'Assuredly Adam's beauty was as tradition says, but only at first before he sinned, when no creature could endure to gaze at his beauty; after he sinned, however, his beauty was diminished. Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 142b
Furthermore we are told that Yosef inherited the beauty of Yakov.
"These are the generations (tol'doth, lit. offspring) of Yakov: Yosef." Or, again, we may take the words to signify that whoever looked at Yosef thought he was looking at Yakov. Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 180a
But this beauty is not about pure aesthetics, it is another mode designed to relate to God.
Observe further that Adam's beauty is a symbol with which the true faith is closely bound up. This is hinted at in the passage: "And let the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us" (Ps. 90:17), as well as in the expression, "to behold the graciousness of the Lord"(Ibid. 27:4). And Yakov assuredly participated of that beauty. (Zohar, Section 1, Page 142b)
This is what the Greeks never understood, they saw beauty as an ends in of itself and not as a conduit toward the spiritual and metaphysical.
Thus says the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. And who is like me? Let him declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the eternal people; and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them relate to themselves... The carpenter stretches out his rule; he marks it out with a pencil; he fits it with chisels, and he marks it out with the compass, and makes it after the figure of a man (Adam), according to the beauty of man; that it may remain in the house. (Yishayahu 44:6-13)
The beauty of man can be found in the house – the beauty of Adam which is his image of God can be found in the House – the Temple. The Greeks, who did not understand holiness – the connection with the metaphysical – with God, settled for beauty - aesthetics. The Maccabees redeemed the Temple – in order to once again show the world the real beauty diminished ever since the sin of Adam.
1. See Megilat Antiochus in Otzar Midrashim page 186. There is a source which describes similar decrees: "For the Government had once issued a decree that [Jews] might not keep the Sabbath, circumcise their children, and that they should have intercourse with menstruant women." Meilah 17a However this source describes the Roman period. (return to text)
2. Also found in Bereishit Rabbah 16:4, 44:17, Shmot Rabbah 15:16, Vayikra Rabbah 13:5,15:9, Pesikta Rabbati 33, Yerushalmi Chagiga 11a, Tanchumah Vayechi 13. (return to text)
3. See Sfat Emet Chanukah 5636 (return to text)
4. There is a tradition that the term Aley Shur relating to Yosef actually caused the Golden Calf - see Rashi Shmot 32:4. (return to text)
5. Shela Hakodesh uses this term in his commentary to Bereishit, Torah Or Vayeshev 2,7. Many later books also utilize the term including Rav Tzadok form Lublin, and the Sefat Emet.(return to text)
6. Sefer Megale Amukos, 252: The Gematria (numerical value) of "Yosef" is the same as that of "Antiochus." Baal HaTurim on Breishit 32:6 - "Shor" in Gematria equals "Keren Yosef." (return to text)
7. See also Megila 9b "R. Simeon b. Bamaliel says that books [of the scripture] also are permitted to be written only in Greek." R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Johanan: The halachah follows R. Simeon b. Gamaliel. R. Johanan further said: What is the reason of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel? Scripture says, God enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; [this means] that the words of Japheth shall be in the tents of Shem. But why not say [the words of] Gomer and Magog? - R. Hiyya b. Abba replied: The real reason is because it is written, Let God enlarge [yaft] Japheth: implying, let the chief beauty [yafyuth] of Japheth be in the tents of Shem. (return to text)
8. The Talmud describes the Temple as a place of beauty: Raba lectured: What is meant by the verse, [And he asked and said: 'Where are Samuel and David?'] And one said: 'Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah': What connection then has Naioth with Ramah? It means, however, that they sat at Ramah and were engaged with the glory [beauty] of the world. Said they, It is written, Then shalt thou arise, and ascend unto the place [which the Lord thy God shall choose]: this teaches that the Temple was higher than the whole of Eretz Israel, while Eretz Israel is higher than all other countries. (Zevachim 54b) (return to text)
9. It is interesting that they were forced to "write", as we noted at the outset, the period when the struggle with the Greeks took place was a time after the biblical canon was complete, religious creativity was now centered in the "Oral Torah" and not the "Written Torah". (return to text)
10. Lekutei Moharan Mehadurah Kamma 38:6. (return to text)
11. See comments of Kli Yakar to Vayikra 1:1. (return to text)
12. Based on Psalms 69:32 And it shall please the Lord better than an ox or a bull that has horn and hoofs. (return to text)