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ON CHANUKAH
A special Torah from Dixie supplement

by Chaim N. Saiman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them nor will I abhor them, to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them - for I am Hashem their G-d" (Leviticus 26:44).

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But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them nor will I abhor them, to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them - for I am Hashem their G-d" (Leviticus 26:44).

The Talmud interprets this verse to be referring to the four exiles endured by the Jewish people, and the righteous individuals who would help the Jewish nation persevere during those trying times. It lists the exiles in the following order: In the days of the Chaldeans, in the days of the Greeks (Chanukah), in the days of Haman (Purim), and in the days of the Persians. Concerning Chanukah, the Talmud states: "In the days of the Greeks, for I gave them Shimon Hatzadik, Chashmonai and his sons, and Matityahu the high priest" (Tractate Megillah 11a).

The comments of the rabbis here seem perplexing. There is much academic literature devoted to the proper historical placement of Shimon Hatzadik. However, under no possible method of arranging the historical sequence of events could Shimon Hatzadik have lived in Chashmonaim times. According to the Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers, he lived at least four generations earlier than the Chashmonaim, and many other scholars place an even greater amount of time between the two. What confuses matters even further is that Shimon Hatzadik is not merely placed in the context of the Chanukah story, but is even viewed by the sages as playing a major role in the salvation of the Jews at that time! Why does the Talmud juxtapose him with the Chashmonaim when it is a historic impossibility?

It is clear that the Sages did not understand the conflict of Chanukah as simply the victory over the Syrian-Greeks which negated all military logic, for if they did, Shimon Hatzadik has nothing to do with the salvation that Hashem offered at the time. Rather, the Talmud understands the Chanukah conflict as starting with the encounter of Shimon Hatzadik and Alexander the Great many years earlier, and continuing until a partial resolution was reached with Matityahu and his descendants.

In essence, what we have proposed thus far is that the Talmud views the Chanukah conflict, and therefore its resolution, not in the limited scope of the Maccabee's guerilla fighters warding off the imperialistic Greeks. Chanukah brought to the surface an encounter which had been latent since the Hellenization of the Middle East began with Alexander the Great. It is the entire outcome of the clash between the Greek and Jewish society, culture, and philosophy. This era, which encompassed almost two hundred years, brought together the most advanced civilizations of the time and had a most significant impact on the future course of Jewish history.

Although it would be futile, even arrogant, to attempt to describe the totality of Hellenism and the consequences of its introduction in Judea, we must venture to determine the discriminating nature of the Hellenistic conflict. Previously, there had never been a direct assault on the religion or culture of Israel, for there was never a civilization advanced enough to pose an intellectual or philosophical threat to the Torah of Israel.

It has been said that "Civilization began in Athens". This statement hallmarks the reality that Western civilization's origins lay in ancient Greece. We must identify the uniqueness of Grecian culture that lead it to such a prominent role in forging the future course of world history. Although the Greeks succeeded in developing a world empire, it is my co ntention that this was not the unrivaled achievement which led Hellenism to be the dominating factor in subsequent history.

The most revolutionary of Grecian ideas was anthropocentrism. The notion that the center of the universe and the solutions to the existential problems lie within the human experience, was an innovation of the Greeks. This unprecedented idea that Man need not look above to the heavens to ascribe him purpose and fulfillment, was never before expressed by Mankind. This new reality can be seen as the threat of Alexander the Great invading Israel. The Greeks came and introduced revolutionary methods by which to perceive reality. The Hellenists valued human logic and intuition, not heavenly mandate. Torah no longer had to contend with idolatry; Greek logic and culture became the new enticement to the Jewish soul.

To this challenge rose Shimon Hatzadik. The first Mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers describes him as being "from the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly". From Shimon Hatzadik a direct line of Tannaitic tradition is traced. He is the earliest authority quoted by name in Mishnaic literature. The studying of the Tannaim based on hermeneutic rules and analytical principles is the Jewish response to Hellenism. Shimon Hatzadik was a member of the group which closed the Biblical epoch by canonizing the Bible and abolishing paganism; yet he begins the Tannaitic tradition, securing Jewish continuity in the Hellenistic society. Shimon Hatzadik provided the link between the prophet and the sage.

Although many historians have difficulty reconciling the meeting of Shimon Hatzadik and Alexander the Great with historical reality, we can nonetheless decipher the allegorical content of the Aggadah. Alexander the Great was the man whose mission it was to conquer the world and spread the superior Greek culture to it. Therefore, when the Talmud wants to symbolize the spread of Hellenism, Alexander the Great is used as its representative. Similarly, when the Talmud wants to relate the triumph of Judaism over Hellenism, Shimon Hatzadik is the obvious delegate. It was Shimon Hatzadik who saw the end of the prophets, and began Tannaitic activity. Only such a person, who lived the past, and bridges it to the future, can meet the most powerful man in the world and bring him to his knees.

Assuming the broad meaning of Chanukah, that it represents the entire interaction of Hellenism and Judaism, it is now clear why Shimon Hatzadik is credited with the resolution of the Chanukah conflict, for he played a major role in Judaism confronting, adapting, and defeating the threat of the Greeks to the Torah of Israel. In the reality of a world dominated by logic and rationalism, Shimon Hatzadik had the foresight to ensure the eternal quality of the Torah.

We can now venture to discuss the implications of this approach to understanding Chanukah. Possibly the most intriguing question asked about any Jewish holiday is that of relevance. Relevance, in a world so far removed and so different from the circumstances under which the particular event being commemorated took place. Chanukah is no exception.

We can begin by referring back to the Talmudic passage with which we began, which presents yet another historical anomaly. The Maharsha, author of a monumental 17th century Talmudic commentary, notes that the order in listing the troublesome periods of Jewish history is inaccurate. Purim preceded Chanukah by over two hundred years, yet the Talmud interchanges the Chanukah and Purim stories, placing Chanukah first. The Maharsha then brings an alternate reading from the Yalkut Shimoni, a comprehensive Midrashic anthology, which places the Purim episode prior to Chanukah. Using the Yalkut Shimoni version the Biblical words "to obliterate them" refer to the Chanukah episode. However, the reality of the incidents of Chanukah does not indicate that an obliteration of the Jewish people was at hand. The Hellenized Jews cert ainly went to painstaking efforts to retain a nominal sense of Jewish continuity. Why then do the Yalkut Shimoni and the Maharsha suggest that there was a complete obliteration during the Chanukah era?

To consider the danger during Chanukah, a brief review of the situation that existed prior to it is needed. When the Children of Israel sinned at the foot of Mt. Sinai by creating the golden calf, Hashem threatened to destroy them (Exodus 32). After Moses' heartfelt plea (ibid. 32:11-14) Hashem decides to spare the Jews. Hashem then gives Moses the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy as a sign that the Jewish people will be forgiven for their sins in the future as well. The uncertainty was whether this promise, which ensured that Hashem would forgive idolatry, could be applied to secularization. The mistake of the Hellenized Jews was not in believing that idols were the true G-d, rather that Man himself replaced G-d. Paganism was a confused aspiration to the Divine, but were the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy capable of forgiving a total negation of spirituality?

The answer lies in the following Mishnah: "In front of it the border of the Temple Mount there was a wall ten cubits high, and it had thirteen breaches in it, which were breached by the Kings of Greece. The Jewish people returned and sealed them, and instituted thirteen prostrations in place of them" (Tractate Middot 2:3).

The existence of the Temple rested on the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, on Hashem being able to forgive sins of idolatry and paganism. However the advent of the Greeks threatened the very foundation of the Temple. Secularism breached the covenant of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Hashem could tolerate his people looking for and not finding Him, but not to look at all was unforgivable - until Chanukah. When the Maccabees regained the Temple, this was a sign that the breaches in the Temple wall could be sealed; in the Grecian era of Westernism, rationalism, and secularism, Hashem would still redeem His people even if they sin.

Chanukah's importance to us is then glaringly obvious. We live not in a world of this idol or that idol, rather of G-d or no G-d. Chanukah should give us the courage to remember that for all the power, grandeur, and intellect of Alexander the Great, he remained humbled before Shimon Hatzadik.

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Chaim N. Saiman, a native Atlantan, is currently completing a Business Degree in Finance from Georgia State University while studying abroad at Yeshivat Har Etzion and taking courses at the Machon HaRav Herzog Teachers Institute just outside of Jerusalem. He is also on the editorial staff of the Israeli-based publication Alei Etzion.

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