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Hanukkah: The Spiritual Battle Between Light and Darkness

May 9, 2009 | by Dina Coopersmith

The Greeks enlightened the world with art, philosophy and science. So why does Torah associate them with forces of darkness?

The Chanukah story took place during the time of the Second Temple in the Land of Israel. This was the time of Greek occupation of the land, about 139 BCE. Yet we find references in Talmudic sources that these events were already hinted at in the creation story that took place more than 3600 years before:

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explained the (Genesis) verse: ...and darkness [on the face of the depths]. "This refers to Greece who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees, in which they said to them: 'Write upon the horn of a bull -- that you do not have part in the God of Israel...'" (Midrash Bereishith Rabba 2:4)

This first reference to the Greeks and the story of Chanukah is curious. For one thing, why does the word "darkness" most characterize Greece -- did they not bring "enlightenment" to the world in the forms of science, philosophy, art and more?

Secondly, we know the Greeks, in addition to defiling the Temple, enacted other harsh decrees, such as forbidding circumcision, the ceremonies of the New Month, the study of Torah and the observance of Shabbat. Why is a relatively tame decree -- writing a statement on the horn of a bull -- taken as the epitome of the darkness of their ways?


There is a basic ambivalence regarding Greece in Jewish sources.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: "Sifrei Torah cannot be written in any (non-Hebrew) language except Greek." R. Abahu says: "What is the reason for this? The statement: The beauty of Yefet adorns the tents of Shem." (Genesis 9:27) (Megilla 9b)

Yefet, the son of Noah, is known to be the ancestor of Greece, as Shem is the father of the Semites -- Israel. Greece has the gift of beauty -- yofi in Hebrew, from the root of its name, Yefet.

Which doesn't have a blemish -- this is the kingdom of Greece which is close to the path of emunah. (Zohar, Shmot 237)

There is something about Greece which is beautiful and positive. They are close to the path of faith, emunah, and our holy books can be written in their language.

Winston Churchill commented on the partnership of Israel and Greece:

No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both... (History of the Second World War, Ch. 13, p. 532)

And yet, there must be a catch. Why are they called "darkness"? What is the terrible struggle all about?


The Greeks are known for much wisdom and advancement in many areas: philosophy, athletics, theater, mythology, science and architecture.

There is a pattern which becomes apparent in all of these disciplines:

  • Aristotle's philosophy presupposed a Prime Mover who created the world but remains completely separate and uninvolved in it.
  • Science studied how the world functioned through laws of nature. These laws are supreme: static and unchangeable, and they rule the world.
  • Gods of Greek mythology are human-like and bound by forces of nature.
  • The Olympics glorified the body as the ultimate.
  • Greek art seems to be lacking a developed spiritual component. Will Durant writes:

    We miss in the Greek art the study of character and the portrayal of soul, and its infatuation with physical beauty and health leaves it less mature. ("The Life of Greece")

  • Even the Greek pursuit of wisdom is limited. Human rationale is the key to all wisdom and the human experience is the determining factor of reality. Writes Aristotle:

    The operation of the intellect ... aims at no end beyond itself and finds in itself the pleasure which stimulates it to further operation... (Ethics, viii)

This is because the Greek culture left out the soul -- the internal element, the metaphysical, the force of holiness in this world.


Jews, on the other hand, although they appreciate wisdom in all its forms, as "The People of the Book," were in fact diametrically opposed to the Greeks. The similarity between them -- then and now -- is only superficial.

The word for Jews is Yehudim, from the root hod, which means "glory." Glory, as opposed to beauty, is the kind of experience where the spiritual shines through the physical, to the point of overwhelming it.

When Moses came down from the mountain, having received the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish People couldn't look at him because his face shone with rays of glory. The holiness suffused the external surface so as to blind the audience who gazed at him.

The mission of the Jewish people is to infuse this world with holiness. There is, according to Jewish belief, an undercurrent of spirituality within the physical world which sustains it and gives it life -- God's sustaining "hand" in all creation.

Our challenge is to uncover that current, reveal it, and live with it. We eat and drink for a purpose, study wisdom in order to develop a relationship with the Almighty. Maimonides, the great rationalist, starts his monumental work, the Mishnah Torah, with the words:

The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a First Being... (Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1)


Wisdom is nothing if it is not based on the knowledge that there is a God, Who defines morality -- an absolute truth beyond human reason.

Greek gods had human weaknesses because men created them, and therefore for the Greeks there was neither morality nor any force above man. Judaism, on the other hand, subjugates itself to an infinite higher authority.

Only when this is the underlying premise, do beauty, wisdom and physicality have their rightful place.

If one adds the Hebrew letter tzadik (meaning "righteous") to the letters yud, vav, nun spelling Yavan ("Greece"), one gets Tziyon, "Zion" or Israel. Combining righteousness and morality to all that glitters gives us true glory -- the root of Yehudim, Jews.

But it is easy to be confused by all that glitters.


The ambivalence about Greece mentioned above explains the way we relate to the dominant culture of today, when we find ourselves submerged in December celebration. We, too, have become involved in non-Jewish "traditions" -- Chanukah gifts, parties, etc., simply grafting the observances typical of the season onto a holiday of our own.

But what is Chanukah really teaching us? What were we standing up for when we fought the Greeks and rededicated the Temple? What do the candles for eight days signify? How does that age-old struggle to remain a Jew in a non-Jewish world apply today to the challenges of the month of December?

The Greeks' main opposition to Jewish belief expressed itself in the statement, "You don't have a part in the God of Israel." You don't share any of that relationship, any spirituality or holiness. You can't have a spiritual influence or participation in Creation.

And "write it on the horn of a bull." Why the bull? Because the sin of the Golden Calf was the instance in which we exhibited our lack of belief in this principle, when we insisted on a physical representation of God, as opposed to having a direct relationship with a spiritual Being.


This was the epitome of the conflict.

The Greeks wanted us to assimilate, obliterate the differences and repudiate that special connection we share the God of Creation. The Jewish purpose is to find the Divine within the physical and relate to God through all the avenues which He makes available to us in this world. In that we take part in bringing creation to its ultimate fulfillment.

Rabbi Sheshet, in the Talmud, asks a question regarding the lighting of the menorah in the Temple:

Does He then require its light? Surely, during the entire forty years in the desert they traveled only by His light! But it is a testimony to mankind that the Divine Presence rests in Israel. (Shabbat 22b)

Of course, God doesn't need our light, and yet He wants our participation in creation -- to become involved in the physical and the mundane and enable the spiritual to break through and become vessels for God's glory.

That is what the Maccabees demonstrated in rededicating the Temple and lighting the menorah. We testify that "that the divine presence rests in Israel". We do share a "part" with the God of Israel. We will not assimilate and lose ourselves in the surrounding culture.

How ironic then, that as Chanukah arrives, more often than not in the month of intense Christian celebration, we lose sight of the forest for the glitter of decorated trees.

With these lessons, let us transform the beauty into glory and the darkness of Greece into the light of Chanukah.


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