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The Passover Seder and the Order of Creation

This Friday night we will be gathering to celebrate the holiday of Pesach. It will also be Shabbat, which is highly appropriate because Pesach and Shabbat are deeply intertwined. While Shabbat is mentioned multiple times in the Torah, there are two places in particular where Shabbat is commanded and explained: the two times that the Torah records the Ten Commandments. These two passages are nearly identical except for, primarily, the description of Shabbat. In the first account, Exodus 20, we read:

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem, your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates; for in six days Hashem made Heaven and Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore Hashem blessed the Sabbath day, and sanctified it.

In the second account, Deuteronomy 5, we read:

Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem your God commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates; that your servant and your maid may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Hashem your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore Hashem your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

There is one striking difference between the two passages. In the first, the reason for keeping Shabbat is to remember Creation, since God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the second, the reason for keeping Shabbat is to remember the Exodus, and that we were once slaves that worked tirelessly seven days a week, and now that God has freed us from slavery we should make sure to take a day off. We must never be slaves again, nor are we allowed to enslave others, with God insisting that even our servants and maids “rest as well as you”.

From this alone, we see a strong link between Pesach and Shabbat. In fact, each Shabbat when we recite Kiddush we mention how it is both to commemorate maase Beresheet and yetziat Mitzrayim, both Creation and the Exodus. In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b), the Sages even debate when God had created the world: was it in Tishrei, or in Nissan, the month of the Exodus? And just as Shabbat is a “mini-Pesach”, Pesach is a “mini-Shabbat”. When the Torah commands counting the Omer, it says to being the count mimachorat haShabbat, “from the day after Shabbat”, which is actually referring to Pesach, when we begin the count (on the second night).

The Kabbalists explain that the events of Pesach and the Exodus rectified all of Creation. The Ten Plagues corresponded to the Ten Utterances of Creation, and each one was meant to repair a level of Creation that the Egyptians had tarnished. (See ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light.) On a mystical level, the Pesach seder reflects this, too.

The Hand of God

The seder has a total of fourteen distinct steps, easily remembered by the classic rhyme: Kadesh, Urchatz; Karpas, Yachatz; Maggid, Rochtza; Motzi Matzah; Maror, Korech; Shulchan Orekh; Tzafun, Barech; Hallel, Nirtzah. (Note that it is sometimes said that there are 15 steps to the seder, with Motzi and Matzah separated as two, even though they are one mitzvah of eating the matzah.) The fact that there are fourteen parts to the seder is not coincidental. The most common way, by far, that the Torah describes the Exodus is by saying God took us out of Egypt b’Yad chazakah, “with a strong Hand”. The term appears twelve times throughout the Tanakh. Additionally, we read of “God’s Hand” during the plague of pestilence (Exodus 9:3), and at the end of the account of the Splitting of the Sea:

And God saved Israel from the hand of Egypt [mi’yad Mitzrayim], and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore. And Israel saw the great Hand [haYad hagedolah] with which God acted in Egypt, and the people feared God; and they believed in God and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Altogether, we see the word yad used in metaphorical fashion fourteen times with regards to the Exodus, particularly in relation to God’s great “Hand”. And the gematria of yad (יד) itself is 14. I believe this is why the Sages specifically wanted to immortalize the seder with 14 steps.

Similarly, God created His universe with that same great “Hand”. When we look closer at the account of Creation, we find that there are a total of fourteen distinct actions associated with Creation itself:

First there’s “Beresheet”, which the Sages identify as the first Divine Utterance, the origin of time. Then God “hovered over the waters”, said to refer to the formation of the soul of Mashiach (see Ba’al HaTurim on Genesis 1:2, and Beresheet Rabbah 2:4). Then came (3) the creation of light, followed by (4) the division of the waters on the Second Day. On that same day, God created (5) various spiritual worlds, including the heavenly Gan Eden and Gehinnom, and populated them with all the Heavenly hosts and angels (See Yalkut Shimoni, chapter 1, passage 5, and Beresheet Rabbah 1:3). On the Third Day, God (6) gathered all the waters below, and (7) made the dry land appear, before (8) filling the earth with vegetation. Next came (9) the stars on Day Four, followed by (10) fish and birds on the Fifth Day. That day, there was an additional creation described in and of itself (11): “And God created the taninim hagedolim…” (Genesis 1:21). Then came the (12) land animals, (13) mankind, and lastly, (14) Shabbat.

All in all, we see fourteen clear steps in the account of Creation. It is worth mentioning here that in Hebrew the account of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4) was traditionally referred to as Seder Beresheet Bara. Creation is a “seder”, too. And we find very clear parallels between the fourteen parts of the Pesach seder and the fourteen steps of the Creation seder.

The Seder of the First Day

The first step of the seder is Kadesh, when we recite Kiddush and drink the first cup of wine. This officially ushers in the holiday and begins the seder process, just as the first act of Creation, Beresheet, officially started time and began the Creation process.

The next step is Urchatz, washing the hands with a cup of water. This first washing is done without saying the blessing al netilat yadayim. In Creation, the second verse tells us that God’s spirit “hovered over the waters.” The connection is self-explanatory.

Eating a vegetable (Karpas) is the third step and parallels the creation of light. As we’ve written in the past, the word “karpas” appears just once in the Tanakh, in describing the great banquet of King Achashverosh at the start of Megillat Esther. It refers to a certain fabric used in the drapery of the banquet. Mystically, it alludes to the fabric of Joseph’s special coat, which was dipped in blood and presented before Jacob to “confirm” the youth’s death. Jacob hence plunged into inconsolable grief and tears. We symbolically dip the karpas into salt water “tears”. That event—the sale of Joseph—led to the young man’s rise to power in Egypt, followed by his family’s settlement there, and then their enslavement, and finally the Exodus. So, that coat—karpas—set the events of the Exodus in motion. While the sale of Joseph was a sad and tragic event, Joseph himself insisted at the end that it was meant to be and all is well.

Joseph is credited for possessing a good eye, and for always being able to see the good within each situation, no matter how terrible (this is why the Sages state that, in turn, the evil eye did not affect Joseph at all). This is the secret of the Light of the First Day. It is called Or HaGanuz, the “hidden light”, and is the light through which Tzadikim see the world. On a deeper level, it represents that hidden divine light concealed within all things. A person like Joseph can see beyond the external into the Godly light inside. Ultimately, the light of the First Day of Creation was preserved for the righteous in the World to Come (Chagigah 12a), who will bask in this divine light in their own Heavenly “banquet”, draped with hur karpas u’techelet, “white, pure, and blue fabrics” (Esther 1:6).

Becoming Angels

Step four in the seder is Yachatz, when the middle matzah is divided in half. This clearly corresponds to the next act of Creation, the division of the waters on the Second Day. On this day, God made a permanent separation between the “upper waters” (Heaven, or Shamayim in Hebrew, literally “waters there”) and the “lower waters” that cover over 70% of the Earth. The larger waters, the Heavens, were concealed by God, just as the larger piece of matzah from the Yachatz is concealed for the afikoman.

Next comes Maggid, when we relate the Exodus story. This corresponds to the other major event of the Second Day. Though not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Sages state that God populated the Heavens with angels on this day. Appropriately, the term maggid is actually used to refer to angels that communicate with people. Throughout history, multiple rabbis described how they received mystical secrets from Heaven through a “speaking angel”, a Maggid. The most famous example of this is Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), the compiler of the Shulchan Arukh, who was visited by a Maggid and recorded some of these teachings in a book called Maggid Mesharim. An angel is first and foremost a messenger, and our job during the Maggid portion of the seder is to act as messengers in relaying the Exodus experience to our children.

Water, Land, and Passover Stars

After Maggid, we get up to wash netilat yadayim, this time with a blessing, because we then sit down to eat the matzah. We say the regular blessing of hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, as well as the extra blessing al achilat matzah. These two steps, Rochtza and Motzi Matzah, parallel the next two steps of Creation (Genesis 1:9-10):

And God said: “Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land “Earth” [eretz], and the gathering together of the waters He called “Seas” [yamim]; and God saw that it was good.

Washing the hands is an allusion to the gathering of the waters, and eating the “bread of the earth” (lechem min ha’aretz) alludes to the formation of the earth, eretz.

Right after this, still on the Third Day, God seeded the earth with various grasses, herbs, and vegetation. Needless to say, this corresponds to the next part of the seder, Maror, eating the bitter herbs.

Then comes the “sandwich”, Korech, a combination of matzah, maror, and charoset. As we read in the Haggadah, this step was instituted by Hillel, who would make a sandwich from the matzah, maror, and korban pesach, the Passover lamb, since the Torah explicitly states that the lamb should be eating al matzot u’merorim. Today, we don’t have the Passover lamb, but we do still make a korech. What does the Passover lamb have to do with the next act of Creation, the formation of stars?

Images of the constellation Ares, including a stylized version in the shape of a ram.

The Sages teach that God’s command to take sheep specifically was not without meaning. This is because the Egyptians were idol worshippers and astrologers, and the sheep was one of their main idols and astrological signs. In fact, this bit of astrology remains with us to this day, for the astrological sign of the month of Nissan (or April) is Ares, a constellation in the shape of a ram or sheep. God wanted us to barbeque sheep in particular to once again show the folly of the Egyptians’ idolatrous beliefs. God created the stars as chronological markers for “the holidays, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14), not for them to be worshipped.

Completing the Seder, Completing Creation

We now enter Shulchan Orekh, the great feast. We traditionally begin with eggs and fish. In fact, in olden days some had the custom to place an egg and fish on the seder plate itself (today we retain the egg, but not the fish). These represent what was created next, on the Fifth Day: fish and birds.

The Torah then states that God created taninim gedolim. There is much discussion about the identity of these mysterious creatures. Is the Torah speaking about whales (which, though in the seas, are not fish so they are listed as a separate creation)? Perhaps they are dinosaurs, since the most literal translation would be “large reptiles”? The Sages say that these actually refer to two great monsters or dragons (see Rashi on Genesis 1:21). God created a pair of them, male and female, but they were so terrible that He slayed one immediately afterwards so that the two wouldn’t reproduce. The remaining Leviathan is hidden away, perhaps prowling the deep seas.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The taninim correspond to Tzafun, the consumption of the afikoman. The hidden half of the matzah is finally revealed and eaten to end the meal. This alludes to the meal at the End of Days, the so-called “Feast of Leviathan”, where the righteous will join Mashiach in partaking of the Leviathan’s flesh. (For more on the connection between Mashiach and the afikoman, see here.)

With the meal officially over, we recite Birkat Hamazon, and drink the third cup of wine with it. Our rabbis state that on holiday feasts one should especially partake of meat, which is the centrepiece of the holiday meal. (There is even a halachic debate whether one fulfils the mitzvah of a holiday meal if they did not consume meat, and another discussion of whether poultry is okay.) In Temple times, the major part of the meal was the roasted lamb itself. Having consumed our fill of meat, we say Barech to thank Hashem for it. This corresponds to the creation of land animals on the Sixth Day, without which we wouldn’t have the meat to begin with.

We then recite Hallel, to literally “praise” God. This corresponds to the creation of man, who was made for this very purpose. Unlike all other creations, man alone is capable of contemplating Hashem, serving Him, and connecting to Him.

Finally, there’s Nirtzah, where we declare our hope for the Final Redemption, and that next year we will be able to celebrate our complete freedom in Jerusalem. This is a wish for the coming of the great age at the End of Days that will be kulo Shabbat, an everlasting “Sabbath”. Of course, it parallels the final act of Creation: Shabbat.

In these ways, the Passover seder neatly parallels the seder of Creation. To summarize:

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

Secrets of the Pesach Seder Plate

This Friday evening marks the start of Passover. At the Passover seder, it is customary to have a plate upon which all the symbolic Passover foods are placed. According to one arrangement, on the top right we place the zeroa bone; parallel to it on the left is an egg; then the maror (bitter herb) in the centre; the sweet charoset on the bottom right, opposite the karpas vegetable; and in the bottom centre the chazeret, horseradish or another serving of maror (which is used in the korech “sandwich”). In addition, we have three matzahs and the cup of wine, to be filled four times. What is the significance of these Pesach elements?

The zeroa represents the fact that God took us out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (b’zeroa netuya), as the Torah states. It also represents the korban pesach, the Pesach offering that would be brought and consumed in the days of the Temple. For this reason, it is best to have a zeroa from a lamb shank, since the Pesach offering was a lamb. The lamb itself was in commemoration of the fact that the Israelites smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their Exodus, to protect their homes from the tenth and final plague. It was a lamb in particular because the astrological sign for the month of Nisan is Aries, a ram or sheep. This is tied to Egyptian idolatry, where a number of Egyptian gods were depicted as ram-headed, or with the horns of a ram, including Khnum and Osiris. The slaughter of a lamb was thus symbolic of destroying the idols of Egypt, like the Ten Plagues themselves (see ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light).

The egg symbolizes another offering brought on Passover: the chagigah, or holiday offering. This was the standard offering brought on all festivals in the days of the Temple. The reason that it is specifically an egg is because a whole egg is one of the foods traditionally consumed by mourners. (The round egg represents the cycle of life.) In this case, the egg is a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Intriguingly, Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) wrote how it is customary to eat meat, fish, and egg at the Pesach seder to represent the foods that will be eaten in the End of Days at the Feast of Mashiach. According to the Midrash, in that time the righteous will eat the fishy flesh of Leviathan, that great sea-dragon that Mashiach will slay; as well as the meat of the beast called Behemoth; and the egg of the mythical bird Ziz. So, eating an egg at the Pesach meal is symbolic of that future messianic feast.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The maror famously represents the bitter oppression of the Jews, just as the Torah states that the Egyptians “embittered” (v’imareru) the lives of the Jews with mortar and brick, and hard labour (Exodus 1:14). The need to eat maror actually comes explicitly from the Torah, which commands that Jews should eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) lists five possible maror herbs, though their identity is not entirely clear. The only one that appears to be undisputed is lettuce, and hence it is lettuce that is used for maror in Sephardic communities. Another possibility is that maror is horseradish—not the mustard-like sauce but an actual horseradish root (since maror must be a raw vegetable, as the Shulchan Arukh states in Orach Chaim 473:5). There are other traditions for maror’s identity as well.

Interestingly, the Midrash states that the consumption of maror on Pesach is one of the few things King Solomon did not understand! In Proverbs 30:18, Solomon wrote that “Three things are wondrous to me and four I do not know.” Although the passage continues to state what it is that Solomon wondered about, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) has an alternate explanation: The three things wondrous to Solomon were the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries behind the four species of Sukkot!

The Mystery of Karpas and Charoset

The maror is dipped into the sweet charoset. This paste is meant to resemble the clay mortar that the Israelites used, or the mud that was baked into clay bricks. The word charoset comes from cheres, “clay”. There are vastly different traditions as to the ingredients of charoset. One tradition is to use the fruits mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, among them: apples (2:3), figs (2:13), nuts (6:11), dates (7:7), wine (1:2), and cinnamon (4:14). The romantic lyrics of the Song are interpreted as an allegorical “love story” between God and Israel, and the fruits are used throughout the text in metaphorical fashion to describe that passionate love. It is particularly appropriate to use the Song of Songs recipe since it is customary to read the Song of Songs on the holiday of Pesach. (There are five megillot, “scrolls”, in the Tanakh, and each is read on a particular holiday: Shir HaShirim on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Eichah on Tisha b’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.)

Some have pointed out that charoset may have a Greek origin, as it was common to eat fruit and nut mixtures in the Greek symposia, which the Pesach seder might be loosely modelled on. Similarly, karpas has a Greek etymology (as does afikoman) and means “vegetable”. This vegetable can be celery, parsley, water cress, green onion, or even boiled potato. It is commonly said that the karpas symbolizes, once again, the difficult labour of the Jews. In the word karpas (כרפס) appear the letters פ-ר-כ, as in the Torah’s statement that the Egyptians worked the Israelites בפרך, b’farekh (Exodus 1:13), exceedingly hard. It is customary to dip the karpas in salt water, which represents the tears of the Israelites.

Having said that, there may be a better explanation for the karpas, and its secret lies in an alternate custom to dip it not in salt water, but in wine vinegar. The Hebrew word karpas (כרפס) actually appears in one place in the Tanakh. This is in Esther 1:6, amidst a description of the feast of King Ahashverosh, where his palace was draped with chur karpas u’tekhelet (חור כרפס ותכלת), “white linen and blue thread”. So, while the Greek karpos means “vegetable”, the Hebrew karpas means “linen” or “fabric”. Dipping the karpas in wine vinegar is therefore like dipping clothing in blood, symbolizing the tunic of Joseph which his brothers dipped in blood and presented to their father Jacob. It was that act which sparked the sequence of events leading to the Israelites descent to Egypt, and their ultimate enslavement.

The sixth spot on the seder plate is sometimes missing altogether, and other times holds horseradish (sometimes the creamy kind), salt water (for dipping karpas), or another serving of maror which is used in the korech, the “sandwich” made up of matzah, charoset, and maror. As the Haggadah states, this was the custom of the great Hillel, who used to make such a sandwich to literally fulfil the word of the Torah to eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

In addition to the plate, we have three matzahs. These symbolize the three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as the three divisions of the Jewish nation—Kohen, Levi, and Israel. (We have explored in the past why it is the middle matzah, corresponding to Isaac, that is broken in half.) They can also be said to symbolize the three siblings who led the Exodus: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The Four Cups

The four cups of wine symbolize the four expressions of salvation that the Torah uses (Exodus 6:6-8) in describing the Exodus:

I am Hashem, and I will [1] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and [2] I will deliver you from their bondage, and [3] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and [4] I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am Hashem your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am Hashem.

We see a fifth expression here, too—“and I will bring you to the land…” This is why we do pour a fifth cup, but we do not drink it. It is left for the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu. In the Talmud, it is common for the rabbis to leave an unsettled debate “for Eliyahu”, who will come in the Messianic days and finally resolve all the Talmudic disputes. Since there is a debate whether to drink four or five cups of wine on Pesach (based on a variant text in Pesachim 118a), we drink four and leave a fifth “for Eliyahu”. The deeper meaning behind the debate here is whether our salvation is complete or not. Although we were taken out of Egypt, Jews have continued to experience oppression for centuries ever since. We will not be totally redeemed until the coming of Mashiach. Our presence in the Holy Land will not be secured until then either. This is why the fifth cup is for Eliyahu, who is the harbinger of Mashiach.

It has also been pointed out that in Genesis 40:11-13, Pharaoh’s cupbearer mentions a cup four times in his dream. Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in the positive, and prophesied that he shall return to his position, while the Pharaoh’s baker would be put to death. Joseph asked the cupbearer that he remember Joseph and help to get him out of his imprisonment. Although the cupbearer forget all about Joseph, he later remembered the young dream interpreter when the Pharaoh’s own dream was inexplicable. This led to Joseph’s release from prison, his ascent to Egyptian royalty, and the eventual settlement of his family in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. So, the dream of the “four cups” sets in motion the events that lead to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

Likewise, when Joseph tests his siblings and places his special goblet in the bag of Benjamin (Genesis 44), the word “goblet” is mentioned four times. Better yet, the numerical value of “goblet” (גביע) is equal to the value of “cup” (כוס) when including the kollel. And the value of “cup” (כוס) itself is 86, which is the number of years that Israel was enslaved. (Israel was in Egypt a total of 210 years, of which the first 94 were peaceful. Then came 30 years of persecution, followed by 86 years of hard slavery. For a detailed analysis see ‘How Long Were the Israelites Actually in Egypt?’)

Some say the four cups parallel the four types of kelipah, the impure “husks” in Creation. Kabbalistic texts often speak of Pharaoh as the ultimate force of kelipah. It just so happens that the Torah speaks of four pharaohs altogether: the first Pharaoh was the one Abraham encountered upon his descent to Egypt; the second was the one that took Joseph out of prison and appointed him viceroy; the third was the wicked one who enslaved Israel and later decreed the drowning of the Israelite babies; and the fourth is the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.

Yet another explanation is that the four cups correspond to the four exiles of Israel: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt, we were redeemed from the future exiles (awaiting the final redemption). Appropriately, the Arizal taught that Egypt was the root of all future exiles (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash state (based on Exodus 14:13-14) that the Jews split into four groups when trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the approaching Egyptians on the other. There were those that lost all hope and wanted to surrender, and those that wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender; those that wished to arm themselves and fight the Egyptians, and those that simply prayed to God for salvation. Regardless of their faith or faithlessness, God saved all four groups of Jews, and we drink four cups in commemoration.

Lastly, if the three matzahs parallel the three patriarchs of Israel, then the four cups can be said to parallel the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. After all, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) states that “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.”

Sefirot of the Seder Plate

Etz Chaim, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”

The Arizal arranged his seder plate according to the mystical Tree of Life that depicts the Ten Sefirot. The zeroa is in the top right because this is the position of Chessed, kindness, as it represents God’s compassion in taking us out of Egypt. The egg is in the position of Gevurah, or Din, strict judgement and restraint, since it represents mourning the Temple’s destruction. (Another symbolic explanation for the egg is that it represents the Jewish people: just as an egg gets harder the more it is boiled so, too, does the Jewish nation only grow stronger the more we are “boiled” and oppressed.) The all-important maror is in the central sefirah of Tiferet, balance and truth.

The sefirot of Netzach and Hod (paralleling the legs) are charoset and karpas, symbolizing our difficult labour. The salt water, chazeret, or additional maror below is for Yesod. Finally, the plate itself is Malkhut, since Malkhut is the receptacle for all the sefirot above, just as the plate holds all the foods. Alternatively, Malkhut may correspond to the cup of wine.

Finally, at the top are the three matzot, corresponding to the upper three mochin of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (or Keter). This reveals a deeper secret as to why we break the middle matzah into two halves. The middle matzah is the middle sefirah of Binah, which actually has two aspects: Binah and Tevunah. While “Binah” is simply understanding a matter, “Tevunah” is internalizing that information more deeply. Tevunah is engraving that understanding into one’s mind, and it leads to being able to apply that knowledge in real world situations. Thus, we end the seder with the consumption of the afikoman—the Tevunah half—as we wish to not only understand what was discussed at the seder, but to internalize it on the deepest of levels.

Chag Sameach!

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“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…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.


The article above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!