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Understanding the 5 Afflictions of Yom Kippur

Tonight we begin to observe Yom Kippur and take upon ourselves five afflictions, as taught in the Mishnah: abstaining from eating and drinking, bathing, anointing with oils, wearing shoes, and sexual intimacy (Yoma 8:1). Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (c. 1445-1515) comments, as the Sages explain, that these prohibitions are derived from the five times that the Torah speaks of afflicting one’s soul on Yom Kippur. The number five is most significant when it comes to Yom Kippur. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on Leviticus 16:14 that the five services performed in the Temple on Yom Kippur parallel the five prayer services that we recite on Yom Kippur (Arvit, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah, Neilah), as well as the five times that the Kohen Gadol would immerse in the mikveh, and the five souls of a person which are purified on this day. (For an explanation of these five souls, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.)

Another important set of five refers to the levels of sin. Jewish texts describe transgressions in five levels of severity. The lowest are those of a tinok sh’nishnah, literally a “captured baby”, meaning a person who was raised completely secular and is unaware of what is sinful. Though such a person’s sins still affect their soul, they are not held liable since they are ignorant and don’t know any better. It is a question whether anyone is still a genuine tinok sh’nishbah in our day and age, when a person is only a click away from so much Torah and learning, and can instantaneously answer just about any question whenever they so wish. Today, being ignorant is a choice.

Above that, the lowest level of true sin is called chet (חטא), which is defined as an unintentional sin. It is a total accident that a person had no desire to commit. Above that are two related terms ‘avon (עון) and ‘averah (עברה), which are often used interchangeably, but are indeed different. ‘Averah literally means “pass by”, and refers to a passing urge of sinfulness, as the Talmud states that a person doesn’t sin unless a spirit of foolishness overcomes him (Sotah 3a). These are sins that are usually done behind closed doors, those that a person commits out of an emotional weakness or lust. Meanwhile, ‘avon is a more general term, not necessarily for an emotional reason, and could be a very calculated sin, bringing a person some kind of personal benefit. (An example might be a carefully-planned theft.) Finally, the highest and most damaging sin is pesha (פשע), also referred to as mardut, “rebellion”, an intentional sin that brings the person no real benefit whatsoever, and is done only out of spite or rebelliousness.

The five afflictions and the five prayers of Yom Kippur serve to purify our souls from these five levels of sin, which we are all guilty of. In some cases, we are like a tinok sh’nishbah, as we were completely unaware that what we did was a sin. In other cases, we sin by accident, while elsewhere we are unable to keep our lusts in check. Occasionally, we might even act spitefully. And even if on an individual level we are not guilty, one of our fellows might be, and on Yom Kippur we atone collectively, for “all of Israel are guarantors for each other” (Shevuot 39a).

Why are those the five afflictions in particular, and how do they bring about our atonement?

Separation & Self-Sacrifice

The first question to ask is why are the afflictions of Yom Kippur passive and not active; in other words, why do we simply abstain from things instead of punishing ourselves? For example, in Christianity and Islam there is (or used to be) an established practice of painful self-flagellation and other “mortifications of the flesh”. This is most horribly visible in the Ashura procession, where some Shiite Muslims smash their backs and bodies with swords or sharp chains and bleed profusely. How do we know (other than our basic human consciousness) that God does not want us to do this?

The Talmud (Yoma 74b) brings proof from the Torah itself. Leviticus 16:29 says: “…in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work…” The Sages point out that while God commanded us to afflict our souls, He also said right after not to actively do anything (וכל מלאכה לא תעשו), meaning that we shouldn’t afflict ourselves by physical harmful actions. We only need to abstain from certain pleasures and comforts.

The first and simplest to understand is fasting. As we say in our prayers, by fasting we are “thinning” our blood and “burning” our fat, which is symbolic of the blood and fat offered up with the sacrifices in the Temple. Therefore, we should envision ourselves as the sacrifices on the altar, brought about to bring atonement. This affliction corresponds to the lowest level of soul, nefesh, as stated explicitly by the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) in his comments on Yoma 8:1. The nefesh is the most animalistic soul (and animals have nefesh, too), and is dependant upon eating and drinking. Abstaining from food and drink thus afflicts the nefesh, and serves to purify it.

Next is abstaining from washing or bathing, which corresponds to ruach, one’s animating spirit, and the home of their inner drives and inclinations. The reason for this is deeply mystical. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts, explains that God formed water out of ruach, which literally means “wind” or “air”. (Perhaps we see an allusion to this in the chemical structure of water, H2O, made up of two gasses, one of which is the vital component in air and essential for our breath.) To purify our ruach, therefore, we stay away from immersing it in water. In the same way that we “disconnect” the nefesh by starving it of its fuel, we “disconnect” ruach from its own source. The same reasoning applies to the next level of soul:

The neshamah is, in many ways, the most important of the five levels of soul. Certainly for the average person, the neshamah plays the biggest role, as we’ve explained in the past. When God creates Adam, the Torah specifically states that it was a neshamah, “nishmat chayim”, that God infused into the first man. And this man, as our Sages teach, was originally both male and female, before God split him into two halves, and commanded the halves to reunite. The Zohar (I, 85b) similarly says that before each soul enters this world, God splits it in half and puts one in a male body and one in a female body. These soulmates must reunite as one. The primary mechanism for this reconnection is sexual intimacy, which quite literally binds the two halves into “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And so, as with the nefesh and ruach, we isolate and purify the neshamah on Yom Kippur by abstaining from sexual intimacy.

The chaya is the fourth level of soul and is associated with one’s aura, or outer glow. The chaya plays an important role in the subtle interaction of different souls. The vast majority of people are completely unaware of it. Fittingly, it corresponds to the prohibition of anointing with various oils, creams, and perfumes. Such cosmetic items are meant to enhance our outer appearance and make our interactions with others more pleasant. Like with all previous souls, we “separate” chaya by abstaining from anointing ourselves in this manner.

It might be surprising that the last and most significant of the afflictions of Yom Kippur is neilat hasandal, wearing leather shoes. This corresponds to the highest level of soul, the yechidah. What exactly is so important about this seemingly simple, and probably easiest, affliction?

Ascending to Higher Worlds

The prohibition of wearing shoes originally meant not wearing shoes at all. One was meant to go entirely barefoot, as the Sages derive from II Samuel 15:30, where we read:

David went up by the ascent of the mount of Olives, and wept as he went up; and he had his head covered, and went barefoot; and all the people that were with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.

The Talmud (Yoma 77a-78b) goes on to discuss if wearing shabby or torn shoes is permitted. Some of the Sages hold that uncomfortable shoes are permitted. Other discussions relate around the type of shoe, and whether it “locks” around the foot or not (since neilah in “neilat hasandal” literally means “to lock”). We want to avoid “locking” our shoes, in the same way that we do not want God to “lock” the Gates of Heaven to our prayers. Indeed, the final prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neilah (and corresponds to the prohibition of neilat hasandal), at the end of which the Heavenly Gates are sealed.

Ultimately, Jewish tradition settled on avoiding wearing leather shoes specifically, since leather in those days offered the most comfort and protection to the foot, while being the most expensive and luxurious material. There are also mystical reasons for avoiding leather, one of these being that leather comes from animals, and we do not want to be walking on slaughtered animals when we, ourselves, are requesting mercy and forgiveness.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) went into great length about the mystery of feet and shoes (see, for example, Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tetze). He explained that in the same way shoes facilitate our movement in this world, they mystically symbolize our movement through the spiritual worlds. It is the right “shoe” that can allow us to ascend to the upper realms of Creation, through the worlds of Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut, which we’ve discussed in the past. This therefore relates to the highest level of our soul, the yechidah, able to penetrate the highest Heavens. It is quite ironic that we learn about the “highest” soul in the “lowest” part of the body! This is mirrored within the Sefirot, where the lowest Malkhut, “Kingdom” (corresponding to the feet, which fittingly have 26 bones) mirrors the highest Keter, “Crown”. In short—and without getting too mystical—abstaining from leather footwear is once again meant to “separate” the yechidah and allow for its purification.

It is worth mentioning that when we speak of these parts of the soul as being “isolated” or “separated” or “disconnected” what we mean is that they have to be set apart for their purification to be complete. It is like washing one’s garments: one cannot wash them while they remain attached to the body! And if a garment is especially soiled, one cannot throw it in the machine with all the others; it must be set aside and hand-washed on its own. In the same way, each soul must first be “isolated” before it can be properly and thoroughly “washed”.

A final thought: the Arizal explained that the five afflictions of Yom Kippur correspond to a mystical concept known as the five Gevurot, “strengths” or “stringencies”. Without going into what these five actually are, they are derived from the five special letters of the Hebrew alphabet which have a different form if appearing at the end of the word: מנצפ״ך. The Arizal showed how the gematria of these five letters is 280, which is equal to the angel Sandalfon (סנדלפון). Our Sages stated that Sandalfon is the angel responsible for bringing our prayers up to Heaven (see, for example, Chagigah 13b). It is he who “weaves” our prayers together and (metaphorically, of course) lays these “wreaths” upon God. If we want our Yom Kippur prayers to be successful, we have to look at the meaning of Sandalfon’s name:

First, we must keep in mind that Sandalfon is not the real name of the angel. Our Sages hid the real names of angels behind various Aramaic and Greek words. Besides for the obvious connection between Sandalfon and “sandal”, Sandalfon actually comes from the Greek syn-delphi, literally “brothers coming together”. (In modern Greek, the word for a colleague or co-worker is essentially the same.) What our Sages meant to teach us is that if we want our prayers to be heard in Heaven, we must all unite as the singular family that we are, rectify our relationships, forgive each other, love one another freely, and sing to Hashem together in unison.

Gmar chatima tova!

Who is Metatron?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, we read about a large set of laws that Moses received on Mt. Sinai following the Ten Commandments. While there, God tells Moses (Exodus 23:20-21):

Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Beware of him and obey him; do not defy him, for he will not forgive your transgression, for My Name is within him.

God sends an angel to guide the Israelites through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. This is a very special angel, for God says that He has placed His Name within the angel. The Torah does not identify the name of this angel, but the Talmud does (Sanhedrin 38b):

A certain heretic said to Rav Idit: “It is written: ‘And to Moses He said: Come up to God.’ [Exodus 24:1] The heretic raised a question: It should have stated: ‘Come up to Me.’” Rav Idit said to him: “This is Metatron, whose name is like that of his Master [God], as it is written: ‘…for My Name is within him.’”

‘Angel Appearing to Joshua’ by Gustave Doré. According to the Book of Zerubavel, this was Metatron, the same angel that led the Israelites through the Wilderness.

A heretic challenges Rav Idit by saying that God should have spoken to Moses in the first person, saying “come up to Me”, not “come up to God”. Rav Idit replied that the speaker was the angel Metatron, who was sent by God to be His representative, and has God’s Name within him, as the Torah clearly states.

How do we find God’s Name within the name “Metatron”? The Kabbalists pointed out that the gematria of Metatron (מטטרון) is 314, equal to the Name of God Shaddai (שדי). However, this is only on the surface level. In reality, God’s absolute Name is the Tetragrammaton, and we do not find these four letters (Yud, Hei, Vav, Hei) in Metatron.

Of course, we must remember that the names of angels were generally adapted from non-Jewish sources, as the Talmud affirms (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 56d). How could this be? The true names of the angels had to be concealed so that people would be unable to summon them. Metatron, therefore, is not the angel’s real name. This is pretty evident in itself because anyone who first hears the term “Metatron” would never guess it is a Hebrew word. It sounds foreign, perhaps Aramaic, or more likely Greek. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that “Metatron” comes from the Greek meta and thronos, meaning “near” or “after the throne”, ie. that Metatron is the angel that sits nearest to the Throne of God, or the one that has authority right after the Throne of God. This brings us to the second place in the Talmud where Metatron is mentioned, in one of the most perplexing and intriguing Talmudic passages.

Sitting in Heaven

The Talmud relates the famous story of the “Four Who Entered Pardes” (Chagigah 14b-15a):

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher cut the saplings. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.

…“Acher cut the saplings” [meaning, he became a heretic]. With regard to him, the verse states: “Do not let your mouth bring your flesh into guilt” [Ecclesiastes 5:5]. What was it [that led him to heresy?] He saw the angel Metatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel [some versions add: for one hour a day]. He said: “It is taught that in the world above there is no sitting, no competition, no turning one’s back to Him, no lethargy. Heaven forbid—there are two authorities!”

They removed Metatron from his place in Heaven and smote him with sixty lashes of fire, so that others would not make the mistake that Acher did…

In this esoteric narrative, four great mystics of the highest order are able to ascend to the Heavens. Ben Azzai died immediately, Ben Zoma lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic, for which he was referred to as Acher, “the other”. Only Rabbi Akiva exited in peace. (For a deeper analysis of this enigmatic passage, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud relates what it was that turned Elisha ben Avuya into a heretic. He saw Metatron sitting in the Heavens, when it was taught to him that none but God sits in Heaven. He concluded that perhaps there is more than one god, and this led him to abandon the Torah. (We must remember that this was nearly two millennia ago, in a time when most of the world was still polytheistic.) Back in Heaven, Metatron was severely punished for not standing up when the Sages entered, causing Acher’s apostasy.

This narrative seems to support the Greek origins of the name Metatron. He was the angel that was permitted to sit in Heaven—like none other but God Himself—as if on a lesser throne, a throne next to God’s, meta-tron. So, what was his real name?

Becoming an Angel

The renowned scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, researched the origins of the angel and presented his findings in an essay, “Metatron”. He found that in the most ancient texts which mention the figure (such as the Apocalypse of Abraham) he is called Yeho-El (יהואל). This is precisely what we’d expect, for angel names generally have the suffix El, and Metatron is the one who carries God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton. His real name, then, is simply the Name of God with the angelic El appended to it. In some texts, he is even referred to as the “Lesser God” (יהוה קטן). Not surprisingly, these texts didn’t make it (for the most part) to the official corpus of Rabbinic literature. They did find their way into Gnostic and Mandean texts. (On that note, it should be mentioned that Christians revere Metatron, too, as do Muslims, who refer to him as Mitatrush.)

Scholem also presents alternative possibilities to the name Metatron. It may be rooted in matara, “keeper of the watch”, or metator, “a guide” (after all, Exodus says God designated him to guide the Israelites in the Wilderness). In some ancient texts, Metatron is an angel that preceded Creation and assisted God in bringing about the physical universe. Again, this is a dangerous idea that may lead to a belief in dualism or heresy, and is a problem for a monotheistic Judaism. Instead, Jewish texts generally present the origins of Metatron in a different way.

Cover for the popular 2011 video game ‘El Shaddai – Ascension of the Metatron’, released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Gamers play as Enoch in defending the world, and are supported by angels like Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. The game developers clearly did their research!

The Zohar draws from the apocryphal Book of Enoch in teaching that “Enoch is Metatron” (see, for example, Zohar III, 189a). Recall that Enoch was a descendant of Adam (seven generations down) of whom the Torah states “And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24) Thus, Enoch never died, but was taken up to Heaven by God, where he was transformed into the angel Metatron. He is the angel that “walks with God”. The one that God sent to Earth to lead the Israelites. This is a fitting role for Metatron, for he was once a man of the Earth, too.

In Jewish tradition, there are two men who became angels, and two angels who descended into this world and became like men. The latter are Shemhazai and Azazel, while the former are Enoch and Elijah. Perhaps we can say that Enoch and Elijah filled the missing spaces of Shemhazai and Azazel. Enoch became the angel referred to as Metatron, while Elijah became the angel referred to as Sandalfon. Interestingly, if Metatron’s real name is Yeho-El, then we find that the names of the two angel-men share the same letters: יהואל and אליהו. In fact, the names are just reversed, and mean the same thing!

It should be mentioned that there were those in the past who rejected the notion that Enoch became an angel. For example, Onkelos translates Genesis 5:24 to say that Enoch was “no more” because God killed Enoch! This would fit with the alternate view that Metatron has nothing to do with Enoch and was already an angel before Creation. In more recent centuries, some Kabbalists even believed there must be two Metatrons, each with a slight variation of the name (מטטרון and מיטטרון). It is also possible that the two became one: an angel called Metatron existed before Creation, and when Enoch went up to God his soul was fused with that angel.

The notion of a fusion of different souls is supported by the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). In one place, he describes how Enoch took the highest and purest soul of Adam, called zihara ila’ah, and fused together with it in becoming Metatron (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Elsewhere, the Arizal writes that any person who refines themselves to the highest degree, and fulfils all of their rectifications, is called a malakh, “angel” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). The Arizal says this was the case with Elijah, as well as Yehudah, Hezekiah, and Metatron, too.

Scribing and Teaching

What is the angelic role of Metatron? We saw above from the Talmud that Metatron is the Heavenly Scribe, writing down the merits of Israel. Gershom Scholem argues that he is one and the same as the Sar HaOlam, the “prince of the world” mentioned in Rabbinic literature, appointed to watch over our Earth. The Talmud (Yevamot 16b) says that he is the subject of the verse: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalms 37:25) This makes sense, for Metatron began his life as the earthly Enoch; born a baby, grew to adulthood, and was then transformed into an angel with everlasting life.

The Arizal agrees, teaching that Metatron is the “prince of the seventy nations”, the angel above all the lesser angels appointed to watch over each of the seventy root nations on Earth (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 31). In the same place, the Arizal confirms that Metatron is Enoch, who never died. He also reveals that he was the angel that came to Joseph and taught him all seventy languages in one night so that Joseph could present himself before Pharaoh.

In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) says that Metatron was the angel that taught Moses. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) states that Metatron teaches Torah to little schoolchildren. Not much else is known of him.

In the past, various critics of Judaism have used the notion of Metatron to suggest that Jews have strayed from monotheism. This is a false claim. From its first pages, the Torah speaks of angels that serve as God’s emissaries and assistants. Metatron is just another angel, albeit one imbued with more powers than others.

This brings us back to the first Talmudic passage cited above (Sanhedrin 38b), which continues with the heretic questioning Rav Idit: “If so, we should worship [Metatron] as we worship God!” Rav Idit replied: “It is written: ‘Do not defy [tammer] him,’ meaning ‘Do not replace Me [temireni] with him.’” In a classic play on words, Rav Idit explains that when God said not to rebel against His appointed angel, He also meant not to start worshipping him in place of God.

We mustn’t forget that there is only one God whom we pray to and turn to. The Jewish people have no intercessors or intermediaries. We are Israel (ישראל), or yashar-El (ישר-אל), “direct to God”. And Rav Idit concludes in the Talmudic passage that the ancient Israelites ultimately rejected Metatron as their guide, and requested that God Himself lead them, as it is written (Exodus 33:15): “If Your Presence go not with me, raise us not up from here.”

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!