Chanukah 5778

How the Greeks unintentionally increased Torah[1]

כשעמדה מלכות יון הרשעה על עמך ישראל להשכיחם תורתך
When the wicked kingdom of Greece stood against Your nation of Israel, to make them forget Your Torah[2]

What makes something unique reveals part of its inner dimension[3]. One of the things that is unique about Chanukah is it is chronologically the last holiday to have been established in Judaism. What this tells us is Chanukah filled a void that was missing in the Jewish calendar. It filled it with something that will take us until the end of days. What this is will be explained with some background into the history behind the holiday itself.

Chazal teach us[4] that Hashem built into creation four periods of subjugation of the Jewish people. These periods were caused by four kingdoms, all alluded to in scripture[5]: Babylonia, Persia / Media, Greece and Rome. The verse that describes the early process of creation says והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על-פני תהום, and the land was tohu (unformed[6]) and vohu (empty[7]) and darkness on the surface of the deep[8]. Tohu refers to Babylonia, vohu refers to Persia / Media, darkness refers to Greece, and the deep refers to Rome. The subjugation of Greece is referred to as darkness because the Greeks החשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזרותיהן, they darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees. The Greeks expended great effort to get the Jews to assimilate. Unlike the Purim story, which describes the Persians’ attempt at destroying the lives of the Jews, the Chanukah story describes the Greek’s attempts at destroying the souls of the Jews[9].

We are still in the Roman exile; the other three subjugations are in the past. However, if we look closely, we’ll see that of the previous three subjugations, only that of the Greeks has made a lasting impression. Besides the influence of Greek culture which permeates Western civilization, our tradition tells us[10] that the first ever machlokes, dispute in the interpretation of Jewish law, occurred during the period of the Greek subjugation. Before that period there was no machlokes; everything was unanimous[11]. This was caused by forgetting the law, which came about from the darkness the Greeks created[12]. Since then, the number of machlokes in halacha have become seemingly endless. The amount of diverging opinions on each nuance of the law seems to grow each day. Even with the amazing victory Hashem granted the Jews over the Greeks, this tiny seed of machlokes has spread into a gigantic forest. However, something deeper lies under the surface.

Chazal tell us[13] that sometimes the Torah is preserved through its annulment. When Moshe broke the tablets after witnessing the Jews worship the Golden Calf[14], Hashem told him[15] yesher koach! In the end, this act saved the Jews from losing the Torah forever. Their betrayal was eventually forgiven. However, it came at a cost. We are taught[16] that had the first tablets not been smashed, no one would have ever forgotten something they had learned. In order to keep the Torah, it had to be annulled on some level. However, we learn from here something astounding: it’s possible that the Torah can actually be increased through its being forgotten; to the point that we can receive a yesher koach from Hashem. It is said that when Moshe died, three hundred halachos were forgotten by the people[17]. However, they were all returned by Osniel ben Kenaz through his genius intuition. These intuitively discovered halachos were an increase to the previous Torah that existed. They hadn’t been expressed in this form before. This came from forgetting it.

The same is true with machlokes. All machlokes comes from forgetting the Torah, yet at the same time Chazal tell us[18] that both opinions can be considered the word of G-d. If both opinions came about through the give-and-take of the oral Torah, then even the opinion that is rejected from practice is considered Torah. Therefore, machlokes reveals the strength of Torah much more than if there had been a unanimous approach to it.

What comes out from this is the darkness created by the subjugation of Greece still has its effects today. However, this shouldn’t be looked at as a remnant of the subjugation, something that we weren’t saved from. On the contrary, the light of the Torah that was buried deep came forth from this darkness. The Torah’s annulment created its ultimate preservation. Through this forgetting opened the wellsprings of Torah, which are renewed each day with new discoveries and insights.

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah!

[1] Based on Pachad Yitzchok Chanukah § 3

[2] From the al hanisim prayer in birkas hamazon and shemoneh esrei

[3] This is seen from the Maharal who explains in Chiddushei Gur Aryeh to Shabbos why the mashechta begins with the melacha of hotza’ah as opposed to the other melachos. He writes it’s because it is unique to shabbos, as there is no melacha of hotza’ah on yom tov

[4] Bereishis Rabbah 2:4

[5] See Daniel 7:2-7 and the first half of the Maharal’s work on Chanukah, Ner Mitzvah for a treatment on this topic

[6] Based on Ramban to Genesis 1:1

[7] Based on Targum Onkelos ad. loc.

[8] Genesis 1:2

[9] Mishnah Berurah 670:2 s.k 6 quoting the Levush

[10] Rashi to Chagigah 16a, whose source is the Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:2

[11] See Tosafos ad. loc. who answer contradictions to this idea

[12] החשכה, darkening, has the same letters as השכחה, forgetting

[13] Menachos 99b. See for a different treatment on this idea

[14] Exodus Chapter 32

[15] Rashi to Deuteronomy 34:12, quoting Menachos loc. cit.

[16] Eruvin 54a

[17] Temurah 16a

[18] Eruvin 13b