The Lesson of Hanukkah
Judaism, Hellenism and the Hanukkah that Might Have Been
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
On Hanukkah, we celebrate the fact that many hundreds of years ago, the Maccabees defeated the forces of Antiochus, and liberated Israel from Greek rule. This victory wasn’t just about political independence – it was also about religious freedom. The Greeks had outlawed many Jewish practices, and actively tried to replace Judaism with Hellenism and its worship of beauty. By defeating the Greeks, the Maccabees ended this persecution and allowed the Jewish people to return to Judaism.
The story of Hanukkah raises a perplexing question: was the clash between Judaism and Hellenism inevitable? Are these two ways of life just completely incompatible, to the point that the Jews would have had to either assimilate or revolt? And, if that’s the case, what about those of us who are faithful Jews today, who also appreciate beauty and aesthetics? Are we living a contradiction?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he analyzes a fascinating story recorded in the Talmud about a different encounter between Jews and Greeks, one which ends much more peacefully than the story of Hanukkah. This story may hold the key to understanding the right way for Judaism and Hellenism to interact – and where, if anywhere, the ideas of Hellenism can fit in Jewish life.
What if there were two Hanukkahs? We only celebrate one of them, of course, but what if there were two?
There are two Pesachs, as it were; there is a holiday that we call Pesach Sheni, the second Pesach, it takes place 30 days after the first Pesach. In case you were tameh, impure, and you couldn't bring Pesach offering during the first Pesach, you can bring it 30 days later during the second Pesach.
Is there a second Hanukkah? It turns out that the Gemara in Yoma speaks of an event that takes place exactly 30 days after Hanukkah. An event that sounds suspiciously like Hanukkah, a meeting between Greeks and Jews.
Are There Two Hanukkah Stories?
What takes place in that event is not a war, as we have in the actual Hanukkah, but something else entirely. I want to suggest to you that the event which the Gemara talks about in Yoma is a kind of prototype for Hanukkah; in a way, it is the real Hanukkah and the Hanukkah that we celebrate is just an approximation of it, a Hanukkah Sheni, 30 days earlier. The Gemara tells us a story. It gets to the story because it is debating an issue: is a kohen allowed to wear the bigdei kehunah outside of the beit hamikdash?
So the Gemara cites an incident in which Shimon Hatzadik, one of the greatest leaders of the generation, who happened to be kohen gadol, when he wore bigdei kehunah outside the beit hamikdash. And this is the story: B’esrim v'chamisha b'Tevet, on the 25th day of Tevet, that day is known as Yom Har Grizim hu, the day of the Mount of Grizim. Mount Grizim is where enemies of the Jews, known as Cuthim, lived; and the Cuthim were plotting to destroy the Temple.
Anyway, the Gemara says, this day, Yom Har Grizim, is a holiday of sorts. It is the day that the Cuthim tried to get permission to destroy our Temple from Alexander of Macedon, and provisionally, Alexander the Great gave them permission to do so.
Bou v'hodiu l'Shimon Hatzadik, they came and told Shimon Hatzadik, that Alexander had permitted the destruction of the Temple. mah asah? What did he do? Lavash bigdei kehunah, he put on the clothes of the kohen gadol, v'netatef bigdei kehunah, wrapping himself in these clothes, umiyakirei Yisrael imo, and he went out with a delegation of other Jews to meet Alexander.
V'avukot shel or beyadeihen, and as they went out to greet Alexander, they were clutching torches, torches of light. V'chol halaylah halalu, and all night long, holchim mitzad zeh v’halalu holchim mitzad zeh, these men in this delegation, Shimon Hatzadik with these other elders, went out holding these torches, ad sha’alah amud hashachar, until the morning came, until dawn came.
Keiven shaalah amud hashachar, once dawn came, Alexander saw them coming from afar and asked the Cuthim, the enemies of Jews, mi halalu, “Who are these people approaching us?” Amru lo, the Cuthim said, Yehudim shemardu becha, “They are Jews who are rebelling against you, sire.”
Keiven shehigia leAntipatras zarchah chamah, as they reached a place called Antipatras, the sun came out in all of its glory. Upagu zeh bezeh, and in full daylight, the delegation led by Shimon Hatzadik met up with Alexander of Macedon. Keiven shera’ah l’Shimon HaTzadik, as Alexander of Macedon saw Shimon Hatzadik, the kohen gadol, approach, yarad mimerkavto v'hishtachah lefanav, he got down from off of his chariot and bowed down before Shimon Hatzadik.
Amru lo, the other Greeks that were with Alexander said to him, melech gadol kamotcha, such a great king as you, yishtachaveh leYehudi zeh, “What are you doing bowing down to this Jew?” Alexander said to them, “Every time I go out victorious in war, I see a vision, an apparition of this man. He is always going before me in battle. Now I am going to bow before him.”
Alexander said to Shimon Hatzadik's delegation, lamah batem, “Why did you come?” Amru, they said, efshar bayit shemitpalelim bo aleicha va'al malchutcha shelo techarev, “Could it be that the house that prays for you, Alexander, and for your kingdom, that you not be destroyed - that our enemies should seduce you into destroying that very house?! We are praying for you!” Alexander was convinced; the Temple was saved.
It’s a short little story; what do we make of it?
There are a couple of puzzling elements. Why is Alexander seeing apparitions of Shimon Hatzadik, like, what's the deal with that? Was that just a device that the Almighty used as a way of saving the Jews in this time of trial? Or is there meaning in that?
And coupled with that question: when Shimon Hatzadik says, “We are praying for your success, Alexander”; was that true or was that just a convenient lie? I mean, it seems like it is true, because independently, Alexander seems to have been seeing these apparitions of Shimon Hatzadik leading his troops in battle. So Alexander already thought that this was true. So it kind of seems that this is actually the case.
So why would that be so, what skin is there for Shimon Hatzadik in the game of Alexander's conquests? When Greece battles Persia, what is it our business who wins?
Which Is the Real Story of Hanukkah?
There seems to be some sort of affinity between these men. And it’s strange because, in the actual Hanukkah, we see ourselves as the enemies of the Greeks. It's a war which the Maccabees wage against the Syrian Greeks but this isn’t a war at all. In this meeting, they were allies.
This meeting takes place several generations before the actual Hanukkah, but it is the first high-level contact between Jewish culture and Greek culture. And it happened on the 25th of Tevet; Hanukkah happens exactly 30 days before that, 25th day of Kislev. Could it be that this event, this first meeting between Greeks and Jews, is in some kind of way a prototype for Hanukkah?
The actual Hanukkah, the one that takes place 30 days before this, is the Hanukkah that came to be. But it is not necessarily the Hanukkah that had to be. It could have been something else.
The Background Behind Hanukkah's Story
In the Hanukkah that we celebrate, it's all about the menorah, it's all about these candles that would burn all night. Are there lights that burn all night in this story too?
Turns out, there are, those are the torches – torches that the elders held in their hands as they went outside of the Beit Hamikdash, to greet Alexander. Isn't that an interesting coincidence? Candles on the menorah that would burn all night long, torches in this delegation that burned all night long.
Not only did they burn all night long, they seem to continue burning even in the morning. We are told that they are holding these torches when dawn comes. What are they doing holding torches, when at the end they are going to meet Alexander in the daylight? The oil in the torches are only designed to keep the torches burning in the night but the torches continue burning hours after the oil was due to expire. Just like the later miracle of Hanukkah, when the oil kept on burning.
Interestingly, that quality of the oil, its ability to keep on burning longer than its appointed time, seems to be associated in particular with the influence of Shimon Hatzadik.
The Gemara and the Midrash tell that for the 40 years that Shimon Hatzadik reigned as kohen gadol, a miracle would happen with the oil of the menorah. The miracle happened with the westernmost candle. You see, all of the candles had exactly the same amount of oil in them. But the kohen gadol, Shimon Hatzadik, would light the westernmost candle first, before all the other ones, and after all the other ones had long burned out, the western candle would keep on burning.
And now, in this story with Alexander, the light of the torches keeps on going, the light is outside the Beit Hamikdash now. The light is going to greet Alexander.
Not only is the light outside the Beit Hamikdash, but the clothes of the kohen gadol are outside the Beit Hamikdash too. That's the whole reason, actually, why the Gemara in Yoma starts talking about this story, because it wants to shed light on that debate: are you allowed to wear the clothes of the kehunah gedolah outside the Beit Hamikdash?
So here you have the clothes, the beautiful splendor of the clothes of the kohen gadol outside the Beit Hamikdash, and in a certain way you have the light of the menorah, the torches, outside the Beit Hamikdash too. The clothes of the kohen gadol, the light that normally burns inside, all of this is going outside now. It's going to greet Alexander. Why?