Tag Archives: Plato

What is Happiness?

The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot as being especially happy, and commands us to be akh sameach, “only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). When we look across Judaism, we find that there are actually three more holidays that are described similarly. Purim is the next one, of which the Talmud famously states that one must “increase in happiness” during the month in which Purim takes place (Ta’anit 29a). This is based on Scripture, where we read “And to the Jews was light, happiness, joy and prestige” (Esther 8:16). The last two specially-happy days are Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, of which the Talmud states “there were never in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 26b).

Why are these four holidays happier than the others? What is their connection to happiness? To answer that, we must first explore a bigger question: what exactly is happiness? Of course, we have all experienced happiness and innately know what it is. The real question is: what is the proper path to attaining true and lasting happiness? If we take a brief trip through centuries of philosophical thought, we will find that there are four major answers to this question. While every philosopher and school of philosophy had their own slight variation, we can group all of their answers into four categories:

Hedonism

The first and simplest answer is that the cause of all happiness is physical pleasure. Archaeologists and historians have found this sentiment in some of the earliest known human texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, where it says “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night… These things alone are the concern of men.” Among the ancient Greeks, it appears it was Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE) who first subscribed fully to this notion. Aristippus (c. 435-356 BCE), a student of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, made this the foundation of his worldview. It would come to be known as hedonism, the attainment of happiness through the pursuit of maximal pleasure.

Asceticism

The second answer is, perhaps ironically, the exact opposite of the first: true happiness can only come when a person detaches from all material things. Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), another student of Socrates and founder of the school of Cynicism, held that the key to ultimate happiness was to be unconcerned with wealth and material pleasures. These are all temporary and fleeting, bringing a person short-lived joy and leading to ever greater addictions that can never be satisfied. Lasting happiness can only come from a simple, ascetic lifestyle. This same view is mirrored by multiple Eastern religions.

A related view is the one first espoused by Pyrrho (c. 360-270 BCE), an intriguing figure who journeyed all the way to India with the armies of Alexander the Great. He taught that happiness can only come after ataraxia, “freedom from worry”. A person does not necessarily have to detach from all material and physical pleasures, but does need to detach from all kinds of fears and dogmas. Nothing can ever be proven to be completely true, so we should stop worrying and stop making all kinds of judgements. One needs to develop a state of being mentally unbothered and at peace.

A bust of Epicurus

Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE) took these ideas to the next level. He maintained that having no fears or worries means not having fear of God either, or any sort of divine punishment. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the Talmudic sages had a particular aversion to Epicureanism, so much so that apikores became the standard Jewish term for a heretic. However, Epicurus did not preach immorality. Contrary to popular belief, he held that one should lead an ascetic life, be of high moral character, and focus on developing healthy and positive relationships with all people.

Virtue

Possibly the most frequent answer to the happiness question lies in developing virtue. This means being of exceedingly good character, and being moral and just. Such was the view of Plato (c. 424-348 BCE), as well as Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who added that virtue meant having a properly-balanced life. Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Stoic school, also held that virtue was the key to happiness. One of the later Stoics, Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) said that one who has true virtue will be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

This sentiment is very much in line with the view of our ancient Sages, and the approach of the Torah as a whole. One need not be an ascetic, nor should one descend into hedonism; rather, the Torah way is to balance the physical and spiritual, and focus on fulfilling the law (Torah and mitzvot), while increasing acts of kindness. This was succinctly stated by the first rabbi in Pirkei Avot, Shimon haTzadik, who stated that life is built on “Torah, divine service, and acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2). King Solomon concluded the same thing at the end of his existential Kohelet, where he ponders the meaning of life: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” This brings us to the final key to happiness.

Purpose

Taking what was said above one step further, we find that when we fulfil God’s law, we thereby connect to Hashem. This is indeed the root of the word mitzvah, which literally means to “bind”. Since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, binding to God is the ultimate way to maximize happiness. This view was echoed by Boethius (477-524 CE), among others. Long before them, we find it in the Torah, which repeats multiple times that we will be joyous before God (v’samachta lifnei Hashem, as in Deuteronomy 12:18, 16:11, 27:7, for example), and that we will be joyous when we receive God’s endless goodness (as in Deuteronomy 26:11).

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is deeply connected to what psychologists today see as the root of happiness: living with a greater sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) detailed it fully in his Man’s Search For Meaning. It is more succinctly depicted in Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, where physical pleasures are at the very bottom of the pyramid, offering the lowest degree of happiness, while “self-actualization”—living with purpose each day—is at the very top of the pyramid. Living with purpose is the key, and it needs to be a good, meaningful purpose (ie. “making more money” doesn’t cut it).

For a Jew, that purpose comes from God. We have a clear set of missions to accomplish in life, from the most basic being the fulfilment of Torah mitzvot each day, to the more mystical ones like rectifying our souls, and elevating the sparks of holiness trapped in Creation in order to repair the cosmos. This outlook gives a tremendous amount of meaning to each day, and to every moment. Something as simple as eating an apple becomes a world-altering experience: that beracha recited before consuming the apple is as a spiritual rectification that brings the world one step closer to perfection. In this way, one has the potential to be filled with joy at every moment. A person who sees himself as God’s divine emissary will therefore be, to borrow from Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Is this not the reason that Judaism has survived millennia of death, destruction, exile, and disgrace?

David

The perfect model of self-actualization is a person who is intricately connected to the holiday of Sukkot: King David. His Psalms are an incredible lesson in a person who has found joy at each moment by cleaving to God. Take his most famous song as an example, Psalm 23:

A song of David: God is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in righteous paths for His Name’s sake. Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the House of God forever.

In this one Psalm we see the balance between asceticism and hedonism, we see true ataraxia—not from abandoning God, but form recognizing that faith in God means having no other fears at all—and we see the recognition that each and every day is full of goodness and kindness, even in death’s very shadow. In short, of the four answers to the question of happiness, the final is the best for it includes the other three within it. And this brings us back to the four happiest Jewish holidays.

Malkhut

It isn’t difficult to see how those four Jewish holidays described in especially-happy terms correspond to the four paths to happiness: Purim is known for its hedonistic elements, while Yom Kippur is pure asceticism. Tu b’Av is about virtue, as the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) tells us explicitly that on that day when the men went out to find their soulmates, they were reminded not to look at physical beauty, but for a woman of real virtue. And Sukkot is the last: a holiday where we sit in Hashem’s Sukkah, literally immersed in the mitzvah, and have a chance to feel God’s “embrace”. In the same way that the fourth answer to happiness includes the three previous ones within it, Sukkot has all the elements within it, too.

Sukkot is the culmination of the season of Malkhut, the time when we crown God as “King”. It begins on Rosh Hashanah, when we start reciting HaMelekh HaKadosh, “The Holy King” in our prayers (instead of HaEl HaKadosh, “the Holy God”), and concludes with the last day of Sukkot. On that last day, the Kabbalists tell us that one’s decree for the year is sealed up for the final time, and the angels are given their instructions to carry out.

The last day of Sukkot is specifically tied to King David, who is the final leader of the ushpizin, the spiritual “guests” in the Sukkah. David is God’s appointed king on Earth, reflecting God’s own Kingship above. In the mystical Tree of Life, this is reflected in the fact that the lowest Sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, parallels the highest Sefirah of Keter, God’s “Crown”. Malkhut represents the earthly kingdom, and is therefore associated with King David. And it is in the Sefirah of Malkhut that happiness lies.

What exactly is Malkhut? While the other Sefirot, like Chessed and Gevurah, are pretty straight-forward in their meaning (at least on the surface level), Malkhut is not quite clear. How do we interact with Malkhut? Which character traits does it correspond to, and what exactly are we supposed to learn from it?

In many places the Kabbalists speak of Malkhut as Shiflut, “lowliness”. This is associated with humility, though there is a difference. Shiflut contains within it an aspect of sadness and melancholy. It is related to the ancient concept of a bar nafle, literally a “fallen child” (or “miscarriage”) but more like a “fallen soul”. It is a soul that often feels a sense of inner emptiness, and experiences itself as constantly “falling”. While all humans, at times, experience some inner emptiness, it was King David who was the quintessential bar nafle (see Sanhedrin 96b). Yet, despite this challenging disposition, he found a way to live in joy constantly, as we have seen. How? The secret is in Malkhut.

The six Middot (in red), flow into Malkhut below.

The Kabbalists describe Malkhut as an empty vessel. It is the receptacle at the bottom of the Sefirot, and only receives from the Sefirot above, particularly the six Middot. So, to fill that vessel one needs to focus on those six qualities: to increase acts of kindness (Chessed), and develop self-restraint (Gevurah), to build virtue and lead a balanced life (Tiferet), to persevere (Netzach), to be grateful (Hod), and to have a pure, monogamous, and loving marriage (Yesod). These are the things that truly fulfill a person, and altogether lead to real happiness. This is why the Kabbalists say happiness is in Malkhut.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains that this is all encoded within the letter Shin or Sin (ש), which stands for sasson (ששון) and simcha (שמחה), “joy” and “happiness” (Ma’amar HaGeulah, Discourse 3, Ch. 11). The letter Shin has three prongs, and the Ramchal says that the first Shin in “sasson” represents the first three Middot; the second Shin represents the next three; and the letter Nun is Malkhut. (“Nun” actually shares a root with the Aramaic term for “kingdom”, and is the same root as Nineveh, the capital city we read about in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur.) This is precisely what was described above, as the Middot flow into Malkhut, and fill it with joy. (It’s worth mentioning that the Ramchal says within Yesod lies the greatest source of happiness, which is alluded to by the letter Vav in the word “sasson”)

A four-pronged Shin on the head tefillin.

The Shin itself alludes to the paths of happiness. Shin actually has two forms: the normal one with three prongs, and the mystical one with four prongs (as found on the side of all head tefillins). This represents the three classic paths to happiness, and the fourth mystical one that includes the other three within it. (Something to be mindful of as we place the tefillin on the head!) The three-four arrangement also alludes to the Tree of Life itself, which is described as having three columns, all leading to Malkhut at the bottom. The left column represents the path of asceticism, the right column of virtue, and the middle column that proper balance within the sphere of pleasure. All flow into Malkhut, the kingdom in which we must live with a divine sense of purpose, as commanded by our King above.

In short, the proper Torah way holds all paths to happiness. When we walk those paths, we bring God’s kingship into this world, and as ambassadors of the King, we are privileged to all the honours and benefits that come with the position. Then, like King David, we can happily rest in God’s House all the days of our lives.

Chag sameach!

Three Reasons to be Religious

An artist’s rendition of the Ark of the Covenant

In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.

1. Personal Development that Works

Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”

Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.

One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.

There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:

The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.

Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.

Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.

2. The Importance of Community

While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.

“Belongingness” fills the third rung of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Judaism neatly facilitates the fulfilment of all five rungs.

Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.

It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.

And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!

3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe

Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.

While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.

And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.

In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.

The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.

Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.

And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.

Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)

Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.

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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Seventy revealing essays that take you on a deeper journey through the Torah and Jewish holidays. Collected from some of the most popular essays posted on this site over the years, newly revised and edited, and conveniently organized by parasha and holiday. Makes for a perfect week-by-week reader, dvar Torah source, or Shabbat and holiday companion. Click here to get the book.