Tag Archives: Yefet

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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Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel: Not What You Think

This week’s Torah reading is Noach, which begins with the well-known narrative of the Great Flood. We are first introduced to the righteous Noah, and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Yefet (known in English as “Japheth”), who were living in a world that had become completely corrupted. God commands Noah to construct a sanctuary that could house his own family, along with a sample from the rest of nature. How Noah constructed the Ark, what it was like, and which materials it was made from are, for the most part, a mystery.

'Noah's Ark' by Edward Hicks (1846). According to Jewish tradition, Noah's Ark was nothing at all like this.

‘Noah’s Ark’ by Edward Hicks (1846). According to ancient Jewish texts, Noah’s Ark was nothing at all like this.

In the past, we’ve written of mystical teachings suggesting that Noah constructed the Ark using divine powers of speech. The Torah states that the Ark was made of atzei gofer, translated as “gopher-wood” – an unknown species which, even more perplexingly, is a term that appears nowhere else in any book of the Tanakh. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) presents one opinion stating that it was more like golamish, a hard stone (see also Psalms 114:8).

The Torah also mentions that the Ark had a tzohar, again a totally unique word that appears nowhere else in Scripture. Various ancient Jewish texts describe the tzohar as a divine tool with all sorts of supernatural powers. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:11) describes it as a lamp that illuminated the Ark. The fascinating description here presents the possibility that the Ark was far more than just a boat that fills the imaginations of most people. The Ark was an entire ecosystem, a biodome of sorts, with the tzohar serving as an artificial sky, appearing as the sun during the day, and as the moon during the night. Noah and all those aboard the Ark were in a world of their own. Moreover, the tzohar was an accurate astronomical map that could be used for navigating the skies, and indeed, was later used by Abraham for astrological purposes (Bava Batra 16b).

Further still, the word used by the Torah to describe the flood waters that descended from above is geshem. For the modern Hebrew speaker, there is nothing at all puzzling about this. After all, the common term for rain in Modern Hebrew is geshem. However, this is not so in the Torah. The word “geshem” appears just twice in the Five Books of Moses, both with regards to the flood. Nowhere else is rain called “geshem”, rather it is far more commonly known as mattar (which is the root for the Modern Hebrew word for ‘umbrella’, mitriyah). So what exactly was “geshem”? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) says that the “waters” of the flood were actually some sort of thick, hot substance!

This same Talmudic passage also gives us some insight into the pre-Flood world. It is commonly assumed that since this took place thousands of years ago, the people were primitive and ignorant. The truth is quite different. The Talmud states that when Noah warned the people about their impending doom (in fact, he was given 120 years to do so), the people mocked him, not because they didn’t believe that something was coming, but because they thought they could overcome anything sent their way:

‘A flood of what?’ They jeered. ‘If a flood of fire, we have a substance called alitha. If a flood of water: if the water comes from the ground, we can prevent it from rising with iron plates, and if from above, we have a substance called akov (or akosh).’

The pre-Flood generations had knowledge that we can’t even imagine today. Despite the historical time period being before the official “Iron Age”, the people of the flood boasted of their superb iron technology. They had substances to prevent fires and floods. Much of this wisdom came their way through various angelic beings. Mystical literature speaks of an angel called Raziel, which taught Adam and Eve a collection of Heavenly secrets. These mysteries were passed down from generation to generation. Enoch received this wisdom, and it played a role in his bodily ascent to Heaven (Genesis 5:24). Meanwhile, the fallen angels Shamhazai and Azazel taught man both many evils and many otherworldly powers.

In fact, one of the reasons that God sent the flood is because of the misuse of Heavenly powers and the manipulation of angels by humans. After the deluge, the bulk of these mysteries were hidden. However, people eventually rediscovered them, and soon began to use these powers for the wrong purposes once more. This is described in the second major narrative of this week’s Torah reading, that of the Tower of Babel.

Here, the Torah begins by saying that all the people spoke a common language (Hebrew), and had a common purpose. They were united in their goal: to ascend to Heaven and take complete control of the universe (Sanhedrin 109a). Again, this narrative has been commonly taught as a story of ignorant people that foolishly built a very tall tower to the clouds, thinking that the clouds are the homes of angels. But they weren’t going to the clouds.

'Confusion of Tongues' by Gustav Dore

‘Confusion of Tongues’ by Gustav Doré

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106) speaks of a migdal haporeach b’avir, “a tower flying through the air”. When they were ascending to the Heavens, they meant it. Commenting on the perplexing words of the Torah that states the people of the Tower wanted to nisrefa lisrefa, “burn in order to burn” (Genesis 11:3), Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) suggests that the Tower had a flame coming out of one end!

These people were not foolish, and their threat was taken seriously. Thus, angels descended from Heaven to destroy their Tower, confound their language, and disperse the people across the world (Genesis 11:7). Why was this specifically the punishment for their crime? The Arizal (in Sefer HaLikutim) teaches that the Tower generation used the secrets of the Hebrew language to access spiritual powers and to manipulate angels. And so, knowledge of Hebrew was taken away from them; their languages were confused and they were scattered around the globe. No longer able to communicate with one another, and spread far apart, they would be unable to unite against the Heavens ever again. The secret supernatural powers of the past were concealed once and for all; the real history of the ancient world was forgotten. In one instant, a single people with a single past was turned into countless nations, each with their own language, culture, mythological origins, and historical narratives.

The beauty of it all, of course, is this: to suggest that the past was ever any different than what we think and know from history books is immediately ridiculed. No one could ever believe such a thing!

And that’s exactly how God and His angels wanted it.