Chanukah 5781


Intellectual superiority[1]

בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ: והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על-פני תהום וגו’‏
In the beginning of G-d’s creating of the Heaven and the Earth. The land was unformed[2] and empty[3], and darkness on the surface of the deep…[4]

Our Sages teach us[5] that it was predetermined[6] that the Jewish people would undergo four periods of subjugation. These periods were caused by four kingdoms, all alluded to in scripture: Babylonia, Persia / Media, Greece, and Rome. The verse that describes the early process of creation says that the land was tohu (unformed), bohu (empty), and darkness on the surface of the deep. Tohu refers to Babylonia, vohu refers to Persia / Media, darkness refers to Greece, and the deep refers to Rome. Our Sages clarify that the reason that Greece is referred to as darkness because they darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with their decrees. How are the other kingdoms alluded to with these adjectives?

The Babylonians were a wild and uncivilized nation. The prophet Yeshayahu said[7] they weren’t even a nation. They were lacking all intelligence and understanding, and anything resembling a human being. This would explain how they could indiscriminately torture, maim, and kill the Jewish people, as they went ahead and destroyed the First Temple. As such, they are rightly described by the word tohu, which can mean something unformed and unintelligible.

While the word bohu can mean empty, our Sages connect it to the word bohul[8], quick[9] and impulsive. While the Persians weren’t as uncivilized as the Babylonians, and they had some level of intelligence, they were so impetuous that they lacked a settled mind. The king Achashverosh’s inconsistent[10] and impulsive behavior is noted by our Sages. They say[11] almost wittily that he killed his wife (Vashti) due to the advice of his close one (Haman), and he killed his close one (Haman) because of his wife (Esther)[12]. Since this nation was so disorganized, impetuous and destructive, it’s no wonder that the Jews got caught in their grasp and subjugation.

The Greeks however were neither tohu nor bohu. Quite the opposite. They were some of the greatest wise men and philosophers of all time. This quality of theirs actually led to their subjugating the Jewish people. They specifically made decrees against the Jewish people, and this was due to their jealousy. They realized that the Jewish Sages were greater than them in their intellect and wisdom. The Greeks would spend ages experimenting and trying to discover the secrets of the universe, when the Jewish Sages could extract it within moments from the holy Torah[13]. The Jews’ investment and connection to Hashem’s Torah was the source of their superiority. As such, the Greeks made it their mission to sever that connection[14].

They wanted to darken the eyes of the Jewish people and remove the shine of the Torah from their minds. Therefore, they specifically decreed against three mitzvos: Shabbos, Bris Milah, and sanctifying the New Moon[15]. These mitzvos in particular show the greatness of the Jewish people and their uniqueness among the nations. Shabbos is weekly testimony that the Jewish people give that Hashem created the Universe and rested on the seventh day. This mitzvah in particular shows that the Jewish people are Hashem’s ambassadors in this world, with the sole job to declare Him the Creator.

The same is true with the mitzvah of sanctifying the New Moon. It demonstrates that the Jewish people have power over time. They alone decide when the holidays are to be held, by declaring which date is the first of the Jewish month. Even if Hashem so to speak had in mind one day for Rosh Chodesh, the first of the month, the Jews can decide a different day as needed[16]. They also have the ability to choose when to add a new Jewish month to the year. These all have major practical halachic ramifications[17]. This power made the Greeks extremely jealous.

Finally, we also find the Jewish people’s grandeur with the mitzvah of Bris Milah. Ritual circumcision is a physical sign of the relationship between the Jews and their Creator. It’s known as Hashem’s Holy seal, which He commanded us to implant on our bodies[18]. This makes the Jewish people different than all other nations. Bris Milah is like a badge of honor.

Since these three mitzvos in particular show the lofty status of the Jewish people, it’s no wonder that the Greeks became jealous. They prided themselves on their intellectual superiority. They considered themselves to be the epitome of what it means to be a perfect human being. The Jewish people, with their special relationship with Hashem, and these mitzvos which demonstrated their greatness, presented a challenge to this assumption. Therefore, in an effort to wipe out the Jewish religion, they made harsh decrees against them.

This also explains why they specifically contaminated all of the oil in the Temple[19]. They felt that if they stop the Jews from lighting the Menorah, they’ll be finished[20]. Why is that? The Greeks were jealous of the Jews’ intellectual prowess. They knew that the Jewish mind, their sagely wisdom, all came from the Torah. The Menorah represented Divine wisdom, and was the medium to bring it forth into this world[21]. Our Sages tell us[22] that someone who dreams about olive oil will merit to wisdom. The Greeks were aware of all this. In an effort to ensure their intellectual dominance, they tried to snuff out the Torah and its source[23]. They made all of the oil for the Menorah impure.

Thankfully, there was one jug of pure oil that they missed. The Maccabees were able to defeat the Greek army, and relight the Menorah with this jug of pure oil[24]. While the Greeks’ influence is still around to this day, their main efforts were a failure. They tried to wipe out the Jewish people. As with every nation that has tried before and after them, their failure gave a new reason to be thankful to Hashem. Let’s use this Chanukah season to express our gratitude to Hashem for the miracles He performed, and still performs to this very day.

Have a lichtegeh Chanukah!


[1] Based on Be’er Yosef L’Chanukah (printed after parshas Mikeitz)

[2] Based on Ramban to Genesis 1:1

[3] Based on Targum Onkelos to v. 2

[4] Genesis 1:1,2

[5] Bereishis Rabbah 2:4

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

[7] Isaiah 23:13

[8] Esther 6:14

[9] Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, and Maharal in Ohr Chadash ad. loc.

[10] מלך הפהפכן היה (Megillah 15b)

[11] Esther Rabbah 1:1

[12] See also Megillah 12b with Rashi s.v. אלמלא, where Chazal say that he impulsively sent out letters to the kingdom which were so embarrassing that no one took him seriously from that point on

[13] See Bereishis Rabbah 20:4 and Bechoros 8b

[14] See Shabbos 89a and Rambam’s Iggeres Teiman

[15] Megillas Antiochus Chapter 1. While this isn’t part of the Jewish canon, and thus didn’t make its way into Tanach, it is respected as a historical account as to what happened to the Jews at that time. It’s quoted by the Rishonim and Achronim, such as Tosafos Rid (Sukkah 44b s.v. חביט, who brings those who actually had the custom to read it on Chanukah) and Chidah (Chadrei Beten 1:22)

[16] Rosh Hashanah 25a

[17] See Yerushalmi Kesubos 1:2, that this ability even has the power to change nature itself

[18] See Sefer HaChinuch § 2

[19] Shabbos 21a

[20] See Bach to Tur Orach Chaim 670

[21] See Rabbeinu Bachaye to Exodus 25:31

[22] Berachos 57a. See also Bava Basra 25b

[23] Perhaps this is the intent of what we say in the Al HaNisim prayer: כשעמדה מלכות יון הרשעה על עמך ישראל להשכיחם תורתיך. See also Mishneh Torah Hilchos Chanukah 3:1

[24] See the rest of the Be’er Yosef, who says this answers the question that is asked (for example, by the Mizrachi in his chiddushim to the Semag Hilchos Chanukah) what was so special about finding a pure jug of oil. Since the lighting of the Menorah can be done even if the entire congregation is impure (Mishneh Torah Hilchos Tamidim UMussafim 3:10), even if all the oil was impure it would have been fine. Since the Greeks’ whole intention was to cut off the spiritual flow of knowledge from the Jewish people, even if they could technically light the Menorah, it wouldn’t be the same. He also goes on to explain how even though all of the above kingdoms had some excuse for why they subjugated the Jews, the Romans had no purpose. That’s why they’re referred to as תהום, the deep. Their cruelty knows no end, and is beyond comprehension