> Holidays > Chanukah > Themes > Spiritual Growth

Defiling the Holy

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The Greeks wanted to tear out the heart of Judaism and reduce it to mere symbolism.

What was the Greek strategy for destroying Judaism?

Surprisingly, when the Greeks attacked the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they didn't try to destroy it or burn it down. Rather, they defiled it. They offered pig sacrifices and brought a statue of Zeus into the Temple. The Greeks transformed the Temple into a house of idol worship. No longer did light stream from the Temple; the word of God was silenced.

The Greeks didn't want to totally destroy Judaism. Unlike Pharaoh in Egypt, Haman of the Purim story, or Hitler, the Greeks did not want to exterminate the Jews.

Rather, it was “Judaism as a way of life” that the Greeks opposed. They sought "li-Challel" -- literally, to make it empty. They wanted to defile Jewish holy objects. To tear the heart and meaning out of Judaism. To take away the depth and reduce it to symbolism. To sap its spiritual core and to render it impotent.

This explains why the Greeks carefully scoured the Temple grounds searching for pure flasks of oil (bearing the seal of the High Priest). They knew that defiling the oil would silence the light of the Menorah -- the light of Torah which reflects the depth and meaning of Jewish national and religious life. The Greeks knew that was the way to best "conquer" the Jewish nation.

The Kabbalists point out that the Hebrew name of Greece, Yavan, is spelled with the three "straight" Hebrew letters -- Yud, Vav and final Nun. Yavan's entire goal was to create a culture which was clean, straight -- and devoid of true substance.

This is precisely what the Maccabees were fighting against. Which explains why, when the Jews were victorious, they made it their first order of business to purify the Temple and light the Menorah.


Is there anything really so objectionable about the Greek emphasis on beauty, athletics and the arts? What's so terrible about, "my son the sculptor," "my son the architect," or for that matter, "my son the javelin thrower."

How do we approach our own Judaism? Have we become Jews who reduce our observance to mere ritual, devoid of any meaning? Do we buy an expensive Mezuzah case, but settle for a cheap xerox copy of the holy passages inside? Do we host lavish Bar Mitzvah celebrations, but fail to give the Bar Mitzvah boy an authentic Jewish education?

It is perhaps the greatest irony that Chanukah, more than any other Jewish holiday, has been widely secularized. We give presents, spin dreidels, eat chocolate coins and fry latkes. The meaning of Chanukah remains largely unknown to the majority of Jews. Many American Jews stopped their Jewish education after Bar/Bat Mitzvah -- and are walking around with a 13-year-old's understanding of our heritage! We're handing the Greeks a posthumous victory!

In the flurry of winter gift-giving, Chanukah has lost much of its spiritual glow. It was this very trivialization that Judah and the Maccabees fought so hard against.

Should we give gifts? Of course! But there is more. This year, as the Chanukah flames burn bright, take the opportunity to re-ignite your love for Torah. There is no better way to honor the Maccabee victory... and to honor your own Jewish soul.


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