Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

The Origins of Ashkenazi Jews

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about how the seventy primary descendants of Noah settled the Earth after the Great Flood. Noah had three sons, and it is often said that they divided the three continents of the Old World amongst them: Yefet (Japheth) got Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham got Africa. This is not exactly accurate.

For one, Canaan is a son of Ham, but did not inhabit Africa, while Nimrod is said to be a son of Cush—also of Ham—yet we know Nimrod ruled Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:10). Another son of Ham is Mitzrayim, which is Egypt, yet Mitzrayim’s own children include Pathrusim and Caphtorim, names generally associated with Greek lands. (There is historical evidence to suggest that the early pre-Greek peoples did come from Egypt.) Yavan, the classic term for Greece, is a son of Yefet. As discussed in the past, Yavan is the same as Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey, then inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples. (The famous city of Troy was in Ionia, in modern-day Turkey.)

In fact, essentially all of the seventy places inhabited by Noah’s descendants are places in modern Turkey or the Middle East. This makes sense, since the Torah was originally speaking to an audience that was unaware of most of Europe, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, and needless to say, the New World. The Torah mentions the origins of those territories that were familiar to the ancient Israelites, and that would have been their immediate neighbours. It also makes sense practically, since Noah got off the Ark in Ararat—somewhere in modern Turkey—and his children and grand-children would have settled lands that weren’t too far away from there.

Mt. Ararat, as seen from Yerevan, Armenia. It isn’t certain whether this Ararat is the Biblical Ararat.

One of Noah’s descendants is named Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3). He is a grandson of Yefet, whose children all seem to have inhabited territories in Asia Minor and Armenia. Ashkenaz, too, is in that vicinity. Even in the time of the prophet Jeremiah centuries later, Ashkenaz was a kingdom in Turkey: “Raise a banner in the land, blow the shofar among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz…” (Jeremiah 51:27) The prophet goes on to call on these and other powers in the area to come upon Babylon. Ashkenaz is one of the Turkish kingdoms bordering Babylon to the north, along with Ararat.

Modern-day villages in Northeastern Turkey. (Credit: theconversation.com)

Amazingly, to this day ethnic Armenians in the region name Ashkenaz as one of their ancestors! This claim is not recent; the fifth-century Armenian scholar Koryun described the Armenians as an Askanazian people. Not surprisingly then, multiple places in Northeastern Turkey today still bear similar-sounding names, including the villages of Iskenaz, Eskenez, and Ashanas.

If Ashkenaz is a place in Turkey, how did it become associated with European Jews? Did Ashkenazi Jews come from Turkey?

Debunking Khazaria

One popular explanation for the Turkey-Ashkenaz connection points to the Kingdom of Khazaria. This was a wealthy and powerful kingdom that ruled the Caucasus, southern Russia, and parts of Turkey and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Historians credit the Khazars with checking the rapid Arab conquest, and preventing a Muslim takeover of Europe from the East. It is said that around 740 CE, King Bulan grew tired of his people’s backwards pagan beliefs and converted to Judaism. According to legend, he had invited representatives of the major faiths to argue their case, and concluded that Judaism was the true faith. (This is the basis of Rabbi Yehuda haLevi’s [c. 1075-1141] famous text, the Kuzari.)

Although Bulan did not impose his new religion on anyone, it is thought that much of his kingdom had become Jewish anyway within about a century. Remarkably, a large reserve of antique Khazar coins was found in Sweden in 1999, bearing the inscription “Moses is the Prophet of God”. (Modeled on, and sometimes just refashioned from, Arab coins saying that “Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”!) Archaeologists have found similar Khazar coins all over the Old World, from England to China, showing the tremendous extent of Khazaria’s wealth and influence.

Khazar coin from c. 837 CE, with the inscription “Moses is the prophet of God”.

Like all kingdoms, Khazaria had an expiration date. It was eventually overrun by the Rus, Mongols, and others. Some say that many Jewish Khazar refugees migrated westward to Europe, and settled in the sparsely populated and resource-rich lands of Germany. Since they had come from a place traditionally known as Ashkenaz, they were labelled “Ashkenazi Jews”. This is a great story, but one that has far too many holes.

From a historical perspective, most scholars reject the Khazar hypothesis simply because there is little evidence that Khazaria experienced a mass conversion to Judaism. It is generally agreed that only a small portion of the Khazar nobility had converted, at best. Khazaria simply attracted many Jews to settle there since it was a rich kingdom with freedom of religion. In that case, any Jewish refugees that might later flee Khazaria to Europe would not be ethnic Khazars anyway.

The Schechter Letter

Then came a huge discovery from the Cairo Geniza. Now known as the Schechter Letter (as it was discovered by Solomon Schechter, 1847-1915), the text is a correspondence between a Khazari Jew and a Sephardi Jew, most likely Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915-970 CE). The letter includes a brief history of Khazaria, and states that Khazaria’s Jews originally came from Persia and Armenia, from which they had fled persecution. One of their descendants, named Sabriel, eventually rose to Khazarian nobility, and finally became king. His wife, Serach, convinced him to go public with their Jewish heritage, and they did, inspiring others in the kingdom to convert to their new king’s religion.

The Schechter Letter confirms that the majority of the Jews in Khazaria were not actually Turkic converts but migrants from Persia and Armenia. Shortly after the letter was written, the Khazari Kingdom fell apart in 969 CE. (We know the letter must have been written after 941 CE, since it refers to a battle in that year for which we have other historical records.) The supposed Jewish exodus from Khazaria would have happened in the ensuing decades.

Yet, we read in the commentaries of French-born Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1135) how he learned certain things from his visits to Jewish communities in neighbouring Ashkenaz (see, for example, Ketubot 77a), and that Ashkenaz is undoubtedly German (with Rashi occasionally using German/“Ashkenazi” words, as in Sukkah 17a, for instance). This implies that by Rashi’s time—less than a century after the fall of Khazaria—a geographical region in Western Europe referred to as “Ashkenaz” was already well-known, with Jews there freely conversing in German. It is unlikely that this would happen so soon after the fall of Khazaria; Ashkenaz must have existed long before.

Besides, we know that Jews already lived in Europe at the time of Charlemagne (742-814 CE), who had a good relationship with his Jewish subjects. Charlemagne was born right around the time King Bulan is supposed to have converted to Judaism, and before the rise of Sabriel (whom some identify with Bulan). This alone proves that Jews were already living in Europe long before any Khazari Jews appeared on the scene.

Among the Ashkenazi Jews of the Middle Ages themselves, the tradition was that they had been there since the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) wrote in one of his response (20, 20) that when he moved to Toledo, Spain:

I would not eat according to [Sefardi] practice, adhering as I do to our own custom and to the tradition of our blessed forefathers, the sages of Ashkenaz, who received the Torah as an inheritance from their ancestors from the days of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise the tradition of our predecessors and teachers in France is superior…

A portrait identified with Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the “Rosh”

The Rosh speaks of three distinct European Jewish communities: Sefarad, Ashkenaz, and Tzarfat (France). This makes one wonder whether Rashi would have considered himself Ashkenazi (as people typically see him today) or Tzarfati? Rashi was born and died in Troyes, France, though he spent time in Worms and Mainz in Germany, hence the reference above to his having learned things while visiting “Ashkenaz”. This implies that Rashi may not have considered himself Ashkenazi at all. (His father was called Rabbi Itzchak haTzarfati, and though he lived for a time in Worms, probably hailed from Lunel in Southern France.) Whatever the case, we see that the Sefardi, Ashkenazi, and Tzarfati Jewish communities were already firmly entrenched at the time of Khazaria’s fall.

Delving into Ashkenazi Genes

Science can shed further light on Ashkenazi origins. One study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, which is passed strictly from mother to child) found that some 40% of Ashkenazi Jews come from a group of mothers in Europe, possibly converts, approximately 2000 years ago (another related study here). This would have been around the destruction of the Second Temple. We know that many Jews fled Judea (or were expelled) at the time, and settled across the Roman Empire and beyond. Similarly, a study of Y chromosomes (passed strictly from father to son) shows that most Ashkenazi Levites have a common ancestor who lived at least 1500 years ago, most likely in the Middle East or already having migrated to Europe. These scientists conclude that the Khazar hypothesis is “highly unlikely”.

Other genetic studies do appear to show high degrees of relatedness between Turkic and Iranian peoples with Ashkenazi Jews, especially males. Of course, Jews have lived and migrated just about everywhere, and undoubtedly mixed with local populations, while drawing numerous converts. One interesting study found that about 5% of Ashkenazi males are part of the Q3 haplogroup, part of the wider Q group which represents Native Americans and Asians. The researchers concluded that Q3 entered the Jewish gene pool sometime in the 1st millennium. Some say this is due to the Ashina Turks (among the Khazar elite) who converted to Judaism and took Jewish wives. Either way, it is only a tiny minority of Ashkenazis that carry such genes.*

What we see from genetic studies is that most Ashkenazi Jews today descend from ancestors that were already in Europe long before the rise of the Khazars. Historical evidence confirms the existence of widespread Jewish communities in Europe before the time of Khazaria, too. In reality, the Khazar hypothesis keeps being resurrected because it is a convenient tool for anti-Semites to attack modern Jews as “imposters” (meanwhile completely forgetting the other half of the world’s Jews which are not Ashkenazi at all!) or for anti-Zionists to deny a Jewish connection to the land of Israel.

Having said all that, we must still answer the key question: where did the “Ashkenazi” label come from?

Adapting Names

When we look at the seventy “original” nations—descendants of Noah—we find that they represent a very small geographical area. Of the seventy, fourteen come from Yefet and represent Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Aegean islands (Genesis 10:5), nine are Cushites (presumably dark-skinned people), eight of Mitzrayim, twelve are Canaanites, and twenty-six are Middle Eastern, or possibly even just Mesopotamian. As already mentioned, the Torah’s narratives are confined to a narrow geographical space that was relevant to the ancient Israelites.

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

When Jews started migrating out of Israel and beyond the Middle East, they needed to come up with names for these new territories they inhabited. So, they adapted the Biblical place-names of locations that no longer existed or whose identity was no longer known. For example, Sefarad became Spain and Tzarfat became France. When scripture speaks of Sefarad or Tzarfat (as in Ovadiah 1:20), it is certainly not speaking of Spain or France! For instance, the prophet Elijah went to Tzarfat, which is described as being next to Sidon (I Kings 17:9). Sidon is, of course, a well-known ancient city, in what is now Lebanon.

For the first Jews who settled in Spain and France, they had migrated the farthest West they could possibly go at the time. For them, these new lands were the most distant from Jerusalem, so they fittingly adapted terms for places described as being exceedingly far from the Holy Land (as in Ovadiah 1:20). They couldn’t use the names of places that were still extant, but only those ancient names that were no longer relevant. In the same fashion they described Germany as “Ashkenaz”, while Bohemia was surprisingly called “Canaan”. Therefore, to say that Ashkenazi Jews are Turkish because Ashkenaz was originally a place in Turkey is like saying French Tzarfati Jews are Lebanese because Tzarfat was originally a place in Lebanon!

It is worth pointing out here that scholars have also recently pinpointed the Biblical Sefarad. There is now strong historical evidence to identify Sefarad with the ancient town of Sardis, also in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), of course. Sardis was known to the Lydians who inhabited it as Sfard, and to the Persians as Saparda. It goes without saying that Sephardic Jewish origins have nothing to do with Turks, as don’t the origins of Lydians (probably the “Ludim” of Genesis 10:13, or the Lud of Genesis 10:22), nor the Yavanim, the Greek Ionians, all of whom inhabited that same area of Asia Minor.

The Tower of Babel

‘Turris Babel’ by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

After telling us the divisions of the nations in Genesis 10, the Torah goes on to relate the narrative of Migdal Bavel. We are told that the people were all still unified at this point, speaking one tongue. They gathered in Babylon to build a tower to the Heavens, with nefarious intentions. Their plans were thwarted by God, who then scattered the people all over the world and confounded their tongues.

From a mystical perspective, at this point those seventy root nations—which originally inhabited Asia Minor and the Middle East—were spread all around the globe into a multitude of various peoples with new cultures and languages. Thus, all of the world’s thousands of nations and ethnicities, wherever they may be, are spiritually rooted in one of Noah’s seventy descendants.

Consequently, there were those who believed that Ashkenaz was dispersed to Central Europe. What’s amazing is that this was not only a Jewish belief, but a Christian one, too. The evangelical Christian pastor Ray Stedman (1917-1992) wrote:

The oldest son of Gomer was Ashkenaz. He and his descendants first settled around the Black Sea and then moved north into a land which is called Ascenia, and which later became known as the Islands of Scandia, which we now know as Scandinavia. You can trace a direct link between Ashkenaz and Scandinavia.

Basing himself on earlier sources, he lists Ashkenaz as referring to all Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germanic tribes. This argument was made at least as far back as the 4th century (long before the Khazars appeared on the scene), in Eusebius’ Historia Eccliesiastica, where Ashkenaz is Scanzia, another name for Scandinavia and/or Saxony.

Around that same time, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Gomer (the father of Ashkenaz) with Germamia. While this Germamia is possibly referring to Cimmeria, or Germanikia in Syria—which would have been more familiar to the Babylonian Sages living in the Persian Empire—it is very likely that Jews who settled in Germany would see Germamia as referring to their new land. Combined with the alliteration between “Ashkenaz” and “Saxony”/“Scanzia”, we can understand why the Jews that settled in Germany adapted the name Ashkenaz.

As an intriguing aside, the Talmud cited above holds that Yefet is a forefather of the Persians, too. The Talmud reads: “How do we know that the Persians are derived from Yefet? Because it is written: ‘The sons of Yefet: Gomer, and Magog…’” The Sages seem to connect Magog with the Persians. That might make alarm bells go off in the heads of modern readers who see Iran as playing a central role in an End of Days Gog u’Magog scenario.

To conclude, the hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews originate among Turkish converts is completely false. While some Turkish converts certainly joined the Jewish nation in the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Judaism predates this phenomenon by centuries. Both historical evidence and genetic analyses confirm a European Jewish presence as far back as 2000 years ago.


*Shortly after publishing this article, Kevin Brook pointed out the following to me, from his book The Jews of Khazaria (pg. 204):

Some researchers thought it was possible that these could have been inherited from the Khazars, but this idea is no longer viable. Ashkenazim belong to the Q haplogroups that were later precisely identified as Q-Y2200 (Q1b1a1a1a) and Q-YP1035 (Q1b1a1a1a2a2). On the Y chromosome tree, Q-Y2200’s parent haplogroup Q-Y2225 (Q1b1a1a1) was found in an Italian sample from Sicily, and geneticists determined that QY2225’s distant ancestors had apparently lived in the Middle East. The Ashkenazic branches of Q are very different from Q1a1b-M25 and Q1a2-M346, which are common among Turkic-speaking peoples, and the common ancestor between them all lived many thousands of years ago, far in advance of Khazaria’s existence.

Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign

This week’s parasha is Vayechi, where Jacob blesses his children before his passing. He begins by telling his sons that he wishes to reveal to them what will happen b’acharit hayamim, “in the End of Days”. Yet, the text we read does not appear to say anything about the End of Days! The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) states that the Shekhinah withdrew from Jacob at that moment so he was unable to reveal those secrets. If that’s the case, how was he able to properly bless his children?

The Talmud states that when the Shekhinah left him, Jacob worried one of his children was unworthy to hear those secrets. His sons then recited the Shema in unison and said, “just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” Jacob was comforted to know they are all indeed righteous, and it seems the Shekhinah returned to him at this point, allowing him to bless his children in holiness. Nonetheless, Jacob reasoned that to reveal the secret of the End in explicit fashion would be unwise, so he encoded these mysteries within the blessings he recited. In fact, Jacob not only encrypted what will happen in the End, but summarized the breadth of Jewish history (see ‘How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History’ in Garments of Light).

One place where Jacob appears to make an explicit reference to the End is in blessing Dan, when he says, “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18). Jacob says Dan will be the one to judge his people—alluding to the great Judgement Day—and wage the final battles like a “snake upon the road… who bites the horse’s heel so that its rider falls backwards”. Jacob is speaking of Mashiach. Although Mashiach is a descendent of David and from the tribe of Judah, the Midrash states that this is only through his father, while through his mother’s lineage Mashiach hails from the tribe of Dan.

Why does Jacob compare Mashiach to a snake?

Snakes of Divination

Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

In cultures around the world, there is a peculiar connection between snakes and prophecy. In ancient Greece, for example, the Oracle went into a prophetic trance when supposedly breathing in the fumes (or spirit) of the dead python upon which the Temple in Delphi was built. According to myth, this great python (a word which has a Hebrew equivalent in the Tanakh, פתן) was slain by Apollo. The Temple was built upon its carcass. For this reason, the Greek prophetess was known as Pythia.

Similarly, the Romans had their sacred hill on the Vatican (later adopted as the centre of Christianity). The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius explained that the root of the word Vatican is vates, Latin for “prophet”. Others elaborate that vatican refers more specifically to a “divining serpent”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans had Kukulkan, the “feathered serpent” god of wisdom and learning. And such mystical dragons appear just about everywhere else, from Scandinavia to China.

Incredibly, the Torah makes the same connection, where Joseph is described as a diviner who uses a special goblet to nachesh inachesh (Genesis 44:5). This term for divination is identical to nachash, “snake”. In Modern Hebrew, too, the term for guessing or predicting is lenachesh.

Why is the snake associated with otherworldly wisdom and prophecy?

Primordial Serpent

Back in the Garden of Eden, it was the Nachash that encouraged Eve to consume of the Forbidden Fruit. This was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent is the one who unlocked the minds of Adam and Eve to higher wisdom so that they could “be like God”. Jewish tradition maintains that Adam and Eve were eventually supposed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (for otherwise why would God put it there to begin with?) but they simply rushed to do so when they were not yet ready. They transgressed God’s command, and knew not what to do with all of this tremendous information, resulting in the shameful descent of man into sin. The one who instigated it all was the Nachash.

It appears that ever since then, the snake has been a symbol of forbidden wisdom. Such divination and mysticism can be quite dangerous, and most are unable to either grasp or properly use this knowledge. The Talmud cautions as such in its famous story of the four sages who entered “Pardes” (Chagigah 14b). Pardes is an acronym for the depths of Jewish wisdom, from the simple (peshat) and sub-textual (remez) to the metaphorical (drash) and esoteric (sod). The result of entering the mystical dimensions was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma detached from this world, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to “enter in peace and depart in peace.” It is important to remember that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the originator of the Zohar. (Still, the Zohar, like most mystical texts, does not speak explicitly of esoteric matters, but cloaks them in layers of garments and complex language which only the most astute can ever unravel.)

Long before, Joseph was a master of this wisdom, surprising even the Pharaoh and his best mystics, who proclaimed: “Can there be such a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” (Genesis 41:38). Joseph, of course, is a prototype of Mashiach. The sages state that Mashiach is a great prophet and sage in his own right, but can he really surpass the unparalleled prophecy of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon? The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) solved the issue thus:

After the resurrection all will rise… the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses and Aaron, all the righteous ones and the prophets, tens of thousands beyond number. Is it possible that Mashiach will teach them the same Torah that is revealed to us today? …Will all who knew the whole Torah be required to learn new laws from Mashiach? We must therefore say that Mashiach will instruct them in the “good of discernment and knowledge of the secrets of the esoteric teachings of Torah” that the “eyes will not have seen”—Moses and the Patriarchs not having been privileged to that knowledge, for only to Mashiach will it be revealed as it is written of him [Isaiah 52:13] “and he shall be very high.” (Likkutei Torah, Tzav)

Mashiach is the greatest of mystics, the holder of forbidden knowledge which will soon no longer be forbidden. The time will come when, as God originally intended, man will eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be “like God”. That first requires a return of mankind to the Garden of Eden, which is the very task of Mashiach. Beautifully, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח)—the one who brings us back into Eden—is 358, the same as Nachash (נחש)—the one who forced us out to begin with. And so, as Jacob envisions, the snake symbolizes Mashiach himself.

While Mashiach is likened to a serpent, he must also defeat the Primordial Serpent which embodies all evil. Indeed, the Sages speak of two serpents (based on Isaiah 27:1): the “straight” serpent (nachash bariach) and the “twisted” serpent (nachash ‘akalaton). Mashiach is the straight serpent that devours the twisted one. This was all alluded to in Moses’ staff-turned-serpent consuming the Pharaoh’s staff-turned-serpent. In fact, another serpent staff, the nachash nechoshet, is later used by Moses to heal the nation. This healing staff found its way into Greek myth as well, where it was wielded by the healer god Asclepius, and eventually into the modern internationally-recognized medical symbol.

And that brings us back to the End of Days.

The 13th Zodiac

In recent years, there have been whispers of a necessity to change the current 12-sign horoscope to include a 13th zodiac sign. This was featured in the media on a number of occasions, with flashy headlines suggesting that some people’s astrological sign may now have changed. This is based on the fact that there is a “precession of the equinoxes”: the earth’s axis changes very slowly over time, meaning that the constellations which are visible in the night sky change, too.

The astrological signs are based on the 12 major constellations (out of 88 constellations total) that align with the sun and “rule” for about a month’s time every year (each making up 30º of the total 360º). The argument is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, a 13th sign has crept in which we can no longer ignore. The majority of astrologers have rejected this argument, mainly because astrology isn’t really based on the stars but fixed to the vernal equinox. While some in the East (namely Hindus) use “sidereal astrology”, which is based on shifting star positions, the system used in the West (“tropical astrology”) has 12 signs roughly corresponding to the 12 months.*

Either way, whether the horoscope requires modification or not is irrelevant to Judaism, which denies any astrological effect on Israel (a topic we’ve explored in the past). Besides, unlike astrologers, astronomers both ancient and modern have always been aware of this thirteenth constellation. To the ancient Babylonians it was the snake-like Nirah, while to the ancient Greeks it was known as Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer”. This constellation is in the shape of a man firmly grasping a twisted snake (the interlinked constellation Serpens). This is, of course, the very symbol of Mashiach, that serpentine saviour who defeats the primordial snake and all of its evil. After being an astrological footnote for a very long time, Ophiuchus has entered the spotlight, as if the cosmos itself is reminding us of Mashiach’s impending arrival.

Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) grasping Serpens, with Libra and Scorpio on the bottom right, and the bow-wielding Sagittarius on the bottom left.

* The same is true in traditional Jewish thought, where each sign corresponds to a month on the Hebrew calendar, as well as to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Having said that, including a 13th month for the Jewish system is not a problem at all. In fact, it is actually a solution, since the Jewish calendar has a 13th month in a leap year! Similarly, although we always speak of twelve tribes of Israel, there are really thirteen since, as we read in this week’s parasha, Jacob made Joseph count as two separate tribes: Ephraim and Menashe.

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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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.