Tag Archives: Hagar

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

As we continue to celebrate the festive holiday of Chanukah this week, it is important to remember that not all of the Greeks were wicked and immoral. We have already written in the past about the influence of Greek philosophy and language on traditional Judaism, and that the enemies of the Chanukah narrative were the Seleucids, or Syrian-Greeks, not the mainland Greeks of Europe. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:6-18) records an alliance between Jonathan Maccabee—the kohen gadol and righteous leader of Israel after the deaths of Matityahu and Judah Maccabee—and the famous Spartans of Greece:

Jonathan, the high priest, and the council of the nation and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people send greetings to their brothers, the Spartans. In former times, a letter was sent to the high priest Onias, from Areus who was then king among you, to say that you are our kinsman… And Onias showed honour to the man who was sent to him, and accepted the letter, which contained a declaration of alliance and friendliness.

So, although we are in no need of these, since we find our encouragement in the sacred books that are in our keeping, we have undertaken to send to renew relations of brotherhood and friendliness with you, so that we may not become entirely estranged from you…

Coin depicting King Areus I of Sparta (309-265 BCE)

Jonathan points out that Israel does not need the help of the Spartans to defeat the Seleucids, as God’s help is all they need. Nonetheless, Israel and Sparta were always good friends, and Israel wants to keep it that way. In his letter, Jonathan mentions an earlier letter sent by King Areus of Sparta to Onias the kohen gadol (Onias is the Hellenized name for Choniyahu or Chonio, the son of Yadua the high priest, mentioned in Nehemiah 12:11, and discussed last week). This letter is recorded in the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:20-23) as well, and also in the writings of Josephus:

Areus, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. It is found in writing that the Spartans and Jews are kinsman, and that they are both of the stock of Abraham…

Incredibly, the Spartan king suggests that the Spartans are descendants of Abraham, too! Where does this bizarre belief come from?

Greek Sons of Abraham

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE lived a Greek historian and sage named Cleodemus, sometimes referred to as Cleodemus the Prophet. He also went by the name Malchus which, because of its Semitic origins, makes some scholars believe he could have been Jewish. Cleodemus wrote an entire history of the Jewish people in Greek. While this text appears to have been lost, it is cited by others, including Josephus (Antiquities, i. 15).

Cleodemus commented on Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (typically identified with Hagar), and their children. This is recorded in Genesis 25, which begins:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuach. And Yokshan begot Sheva and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Ashurim, and Letushim, and Leumim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah, and Epher, and Chanokh, and Avidah, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Keturah. And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, while to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac, while he was still alive, to the east country.

Abraham had six children with Keturah, from which came at least seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren which the Torah names explicitly. The Torah then makes it clear that Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac—including the Covenant with God and the land of Israel—while the others received gifts and were sent away from the Holy Land.

Cleodemus suggests that Epher (or another child named Yaphran), the great-grandson of Abraham, migrated to Africa—which is where the term “Africa” comes from! (This is particularly interesting because Epher was the son of Midian, and Tziporah the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and is described as a Cushite, or African/Ethiopian.) Cleodemus states that Epher, Yaphran, and Ashurim assisted the Greek hero Hercules in one of his battles. Following this, Hercules married one of their daughters—a great granddaughter of Abraham—and had a son with her. This son was Diodorus, one of the legendary founders of Sparta!

It appears that the Spartan king Areus was aware of this possible historical connection, and accepted it as fact. This connection may explain why the Spartans were so similar to ancient Israelites. (Others have suggested that because the Israelite tribe of Shimon—known for being fierce warriors—did not receive a set portion in the Holy Land, many of them moved elsewhere and ended up in Sparta, or ended up in Sparta after being expelled from Israel by the Assyrians alongside the other lost tribes.) In his book Sparta, renowned historian Hugo Jones writes that the Spartans held in the highest regard a certain ancient law-giver, much like Moses the law-giver of Israel. The Spartans celebrated new moons (Rosh Chodesh), and unlike their Greek counterparts, even a seventh day of rest! Of course, the Spartans themselves were very different from other Greeks, particularly those in Athens, whom Sparta often battled. The Spartan form of government was different, too, not an Athenian-style democracy but a monarchy that governed alongside a “council of elders”, much like Israel’s king and Sanhedrin.

Perhaps most similarly, the Spartans were known for their “stoic” way of life. The later Greek school of stoicism was modeled on the ancient way of the Spartans. This meant living simply and modestly, being happy with what one has, and most importantly, putting mind above body, and logic above emotion. This almost sounds like something out of Pirkei Avot, and is a teaching echoed across Jewish texts both ancient and modern. In fact, when Josephus tried to explain who the rabbis were to his Roman audience, he said that they were Jewish stoic philosophers!

Bust of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Athenian school of Stoicism. Zeno taught that God permeates the whole universe, and knowledge of God requires goodness, fortitude, logic, and living a life of Virtue.

Gideon and Leonidas

Undoubtedly, the most famous story of the Spartans is the Battle of Thermopylae. Around 480 BCE, the Persian emperor Xerxes invaded Greece with a massive force. Xerxes first sent messengers to the Greek city-states to offer peaceful surrender. According to the historian Herodotus, Sparta’s king Leonidas told the messenger: “A slave’s life is all you understand, you know nothing of freedom. For if you did, you would have encouraged us to fight on, not only with our spear, but with everything we have.” Spoken like a true Maccabee.

The messenger then told Leonidas and his men to bow down, to which Leonidas, like his historical contemporary Mordechai, said: “We bow down before no man.” Later, when the Persian boasted that his empire was the wealthiest in the world, with gold reserves the likes of which Leonidas could only dream of, Leonidas replied: “Ares is lord. Greece has no fear of gold.”

This statement almost makes Leonidas seem like a monotheist. Indeed, the Spartans worshiped Ares—the god of war—above all others. Interestingly, the Torah commonly describes Hashem in similar military terms, like a great warrior riding a merkavah or chariot, as a “God of Legions” (Hashem Tzva’ot), and even as a “Man of War” (Ish Milchamah, see Exodus 15:3). Of course, the Spartans had their abominable statues and idols, which is perhaps the greatest distinction (and a critical one) between them and ancient Israel.

‘Gideon choosing his men’ by Gustav Doré. God told Gideon to choose worthy soldiers based on the way they drank from a spring. Those that went on their knees and bent over to drink were disqualified. Those three hundred who modestly took cupfuls to their mouth were selected. (Judges 7:5-7)

King Leonidas went on to assemble just three hundred brave men to face off against the massive Persian invasion. Although they ultimately lost, the Spartans fought valiantly, inspired their fellow Greeks, and did enough damage to hamper Persian victory. This story of three hundred, too, has a Biblical parallel. The Book of Judges records a nearly-identical narrative, with the judge Gideon assembling three hundred brave men and miraculously defeating a massive foreign invasion.

Which came first? The earliest complete Greek mythological texts date back only to the 3rd century BCE. By then, the Tanakh had long been completed, and in that same century was first translated into the Greek Septuagint. It isn’t hard to imagine Greek scholars and historians of the 3rd century getting their hands on the first Greek copies of Tanakh and incorporating those narratives into their own. In fact, the Greek-Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Alexandria (181-124 BCE) admitted that all of Greek wisdom comes from earlier Jewish sources. The later Greek philosopher Numenius of Apamea said it best: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”

Yafet and Iapetus

The similarities between Greek myth and more ancient Jewish texts are uncanny. Hercules was a mighty warrior whose first task (of twelve) was to slay a lion, like the mighty Shimshon who first slays a lion in Judges. Deucalion survives a great flood that engulfs the whole world as punishment from an angry Zeus. Like Noah before him, Deucalion has a wife and three sons, and like Noah, Deucalion is associated with wine-making (the root of his name, deukos). Pandora’s curiosity brings about evil just like Eve’s, while Asclepius carries a healing serpent-staff like Moses. Aristophanes even taught that Zeus first made man as male and female in one body, and later split them in half, just as the Torah and Talmud do.

Roman mosaic of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, and a Roman fresco of Samson and the lion, from the same time period.

In Jewish tradition, the Greeks come from the Biblical Yavan, son of Yafet (or Yefet or Japheth), son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). Yavan is the same as the Greek Ion (or Iawones), one of the Greek gods, and Ionia, referring to one of its most important regions, and the dialect of the great Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as the scholars Herodotus and Hippocrates. Meanwhile, the Greeks worshipped Iapetus (same as Yafet) as a major god. Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, the god who supposedly fashioned man from the mud of the earth. So, not surprisingly, the Biblical Yavan and Yafet are firmly in the Greek tradition as well.

In the past, we wrote how Greece had a huge influence on Judaism. Now, we see how tremendous an influence Judaism had on Greece. The two civilizations go hand-in-hand, and between them gave rise to the world we live in. Indeed, this was prophesied by Noah, who blessed his sons: “May God make Yefet great, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). Shem is the earliest forefather of Israel, and Yefet of Greece. The two dwell in one tent. Winston Churchill said it best:

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…

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Jewish victory over the Seleucids. Not of the Greeks as a whole, but of a relatively small faction of Syrian Greeks, far from the Greek heartland which always enjoyed a good relationship with Israel, starting with Alexander the Great and through to the Spartans and Maccabees.

Chag sameach!


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Three Powerful Lessons from Abraham

'Abraham and the Three Angels' by James Tissot

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

This week’s Torah reading is Vayera, which famously begins with Abraham hosting three angels, who go on to prophesy the birth of Isaac, and then to destroy the sinful Sodom and Gomorrah. In this parasha we get a much deeper look into Abraham’s character traits and personality. Of course, there is a great deal to be learned from the first patriarch. His legendary hospitality and kindness (stemming from his root in the mystical sefirah of Chessed, of which we wrote about last year) is already well-known. His empathy and concern for others, too, is often highlighted from this week’s reading where he negotiates with God to spare the people of Sodom. Yet there are several more lessons (among many others) we can draw from the great Abraham.

Dust and Ashes

In the midst of his conversation with God to spare the people of Sodom, Abraham meekly states anokhi afar v’efer, “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). This alludes to the account of creation where God makes man afar min hadamah, from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), and after the Forbidden Fruit, curses man: “from the dust you came, and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

It also reminds of the words of the great sage Akavia ben Mehalalel in the Mishnah (Avot 3:1): “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came? From a putrid drop. Where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. And before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Rashi comments on Abraham’s words that were it not for God’s salvation, Abraham would have been turned to ashes by Nimrod’s flaming furnace, and to dust by the alliance of armies that warred against him (Genesis 14). Abraham thus addressed God in this humble manner, recognizing that he is in no position to argue against His creator, yet at the same time fulfilling his God-given mandate of being holy, and being like God, Who is ultimately compassionate and graceful. Of course, God comforts Abraham in telling him that had there been fifty righteous people in Sodom, He would not destroy it (or had there been forty-five people for that matter, or forty, or thirty, twenty, or even ten).

All of this is a great lesson in humility. As the Mishnah states, a person should never forget where they come from and where they are going; how short and futile life is; and where they really stand in the grand scheme of this vast universe. However, one should never be self-effacing, nor should a person forget that they are made in God’s image, with an infinite potential to grow, create, and improve their world.

One of the earliest Chassidic leaders, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), said it best: “A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ In the second pocket he should keep the Torah verse: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

Fulfilled Prayers

Later on in the parasha we read what seems like a déjà vu, where the beautiful Sarah is once again abducted by a king, this time Avimelech of Gerar. As a result, Avimelech’s household is plagued by some sort of infertility, or according to others, a curse where all of their orifices were sealed, preventing both excretion and childbirth. The story concludes with Abraham praying for Avimelech and his household, and they are healed. The Torah specifically states that the women were once more able to deliver their babies (Genesis 20:17-18).

The very next verse starts by saying that God “remembered what He had said… and Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham…” Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of verses: since Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s home to be fruitful, so too was his own home made fruitful. The lesson: one who prays for the needs of another, while having the same need, will also have his or her need fulfilled. The key to successful prayer is not constantly begging for one’s own needs, but instead, to focus (sincerely, of course) on the wellbeing of others.

Alacrity

In the final major passage of the parasha we read of the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac”. God commands Abraham to do something that seems both immoral and illogical. To be fair, despite the fact that most people assume God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, the exact Hebrew wording never mentions killing or death, but simply asks Abraham to “elevate” Isaac. Nonetheless, Abraham himself believed God asked him to have Isaac sacrificed, perhaps in the spirit of the day when human sacrifice was common. We cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for Abraham, especially since Isaac was his long-awaited son.

God tells Abraham: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…” (Genesis 22:2). Why the redundancy in wording? Couldn’t God just say “Please take your son” or “Please take Isaac”? Rashi answers by quoting a beautiful midrash: God initially said “Please take your son”. Abraham, knowing where this was probably going, said “I have two sons” (referring to Ishmael, his son from Hagar). God said “your only one”, since by this point Ishmael had been expelled, and it was already clear that Isaac would inherit the Covenant. Abraham replied that, nevertheless, they are both his “only sons” – Ishmael his only son through Hagar, and Isaac his only son through Sarah. So God said “whom you love”, and Abraham quickly replied that he loves both of them. Finally, God explicitly said “Isaac”. Rashi finishes by saying that God rewarded Abraham for each of these expressions, in lovingly trying to avoid the difficult test.

Despite this, the Torah says that Abraham “arose early in the morning” to fulfil God’s test. This is the third time where the exact phrasing is used, describing Abraham as arising early in the morning. It is from this that the tradition of Abraham instituting shacharit, the morning prayer, comes from. Abraham was an early bird, and a diligent man that got all of his work done promptly. This is another great lesson from the first of our forefathers.

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas tells us in the Mishnah (Avot 3:10) that sleeping in in the morning is one of four things that guarantee a person will fail in this world (the others being drinking alcohol in the day, being childish, and spending time in places where ignorant people gather). How can one sleep in when there is so much to be done? So many goals to accomplish, and so many mitzvot to fulfil; so many opportunities to take advantage of, and so much wisdom to study; so many things to explore, so many people to help, and so many lives to change. To end with the words of Rabbi Tarfon (Avot 2:15): “The day is short, and the work is abundant, but the workers are lazy, although there is much reward, and the Master is pressing…”

Does the Torah Allow Polygamy?

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, is full of intriguing Torah laws. One of these is with regards to inheritance in the case of a man having two wives, where one of them is beloved while the other is hated. This brings up a fairly big question: does the Torah permit polygamy, the practice of having multiple spouses? On the one hand, looking at passages such as the one mentioned here, it appears that the Torah does allow it. On the other hand, we see very few actual cases of polygamy in the Torah, and in those few cases, they are always painted in a negative light. So, what’s the final verdict?

Starting at the very beginning, God created Adam and Eve – one man and one woman – and commanded: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Clearly, it was God’s intent that a single man unite with a single woman to become completely unified as one. Monogamy is undoubtedly the ideal.

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) further comments: “Forty days before the conception of a child, a Heavenly Voice issues forth and declares: ‘the daughter of so-and-so is designated for so-and-so’…” Thus, long before a child is even born, their spouse is already designated for them in the Heavens. This may be among the most ancient sources for the concept of soulmates. Interestingly, the same passage in the Talmud concludes that this applies specifically to a first marriage, while to pair a second marriage would be “as difficult as the Splitting of the Sea”!

Not surprisingly, essentially every case of polygamy in the Torah comes with a negative twist. The first person to have multiple wives was Lemech, in the seventh generation from Adam (Genesis 4:19). Here, Rashi writes that it became common in the time of Lemech for men to take two wives: one for reproduction, and the other simply for pleasure. The latter would be given a certain medicine that made her infertile, and would be adorned and beautified. This was a great evil, and Rashi suggests that it was one of the major reasons for the Great Flood that wiped out the Earth’s population. Further solidifying the point, the Torah explicitly states that the righteous Noah and his three sons each had a single wife.

Ten generations later, Abraham was married solely to Sarah, until it became clear that she was barren. At this point, Sarah suggested the surrogate womb of Hagar. This brought a great deal of tension into the family, and Hagar had to be expelled from their home. Later, after Sarah’s passing, Abraham formally married Hagar, who was now known as Keturah. (Although 24:6 suggests that Abraham may have had other concubines, Rashi assures us that the verse refers only to Keturah.) Abraham’s son Isaac married only Rebecca, and this couple is held up as an ideal of love and marriage. (We have explored this in more depth in the past; see: ‘Isaac and Rebecca: the Secret to Perfect Marriage’ in Garments of Light.)

Jacob, too, only wished to marry Rachel. However, his father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying her sister Leah. Although he could have technically divorced her, Jacob took pity on Leah, as no one wanted to marry her. With Rachel’s consent, he kept Leah as a wife, but never loved her. This alludes directly to the passage in this week’s Torah portion that describes a man with two wives, one beloved, and one despised. Later, when Rachel and Leah were barren, they too gave their maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) to Jacob as surrogates in order to bear more children. Jacob may be the only righteous Torah figure that can be described as polygamous. Ultimately, the competition between his wives, and later between their respective children, only brought Jacob endless troubles, and he himself stated that his life was a miserable one (Genesis 46:9).

Having said that, the cases of Jacob and Abraham illustrate why the Torah seems to allow polygamy, and does not expressly forbid it. Throughout most of history, the average person could not survive on their own. There were no condos for rent, no fully-stocked supermarkets, and no police departments to call. People generally had to construct their own homes, grow the bulk of their own food, and defend their property by themselves. This required a lot of hands, and very large families. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always possible.

For instance, if a woman was unable to have children, it would make it very hard for the couple to make a living. Thus, instead of abandoning their wives, men would take on another. A good example is that of Elkanah, who married Peninah because his beloved Hannah was barren. Peninah gave him ten sons, yet he always loved Hannah more than anything (I Samuel 1:5-8).

Further exacerbating the problem was that oftentimes the population of women far outnumbered that of men, since entire male populations could be decimated in battle. In order to survive, several women would have to marry a single man. (This also helps to explain why it is polygyny, the practice of having multiple wives, that predominates, and not polyandry, the practice of having multiple husbands).

And yet, polygamy was still extremely rare in the Jewish world. Joseph and his brothers, Amram, Moses*, Aaron, Joshua, Caleb, and just about every other great Torah figure was monogamous. The kings of Israel were permitted to take on multiple wives, but mainly for the sake of political alliances. Most famously, King Solomon had one thousand wives and concubines, yet these were certainly not for his own pleasure. Rather, they were marriages for political purposes that allowed him to bring peace to the entire region (hence his fateful name, Shlomo, which means “peace”). This, too, ended in disaster though, and was never attempted again by any other Hebrew king.

Further on, the Sages of the Talmud were monogamous, and by the Middle Ages, Rabbeinu Gershom formally banned polygamy. Today, it is essentially unheard of in the Jewish world, as well as in the Western world at large. Once again, this could very well be a reflection of the world approaching a perfected state, and a return to the Garden of Eden, where a pair of soulmates – one male and one female – can unite as one, as God originally intended.

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

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*Numbers 12:1 may make it seem like Moses had a second wife, but the Midrash explains that after Moses fled Egypt in his youth, he lived in Cush (likely modern-day Ethiopia) and married there, though he never consummated that marriage. Because of this, he left Cush and made his way to Midian, where he married his one true wife, Tzipora.