Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vayechi - The Merit of Zevulun

In Parshas Vayechi we read of Jacob’s blessings to his sons before his passing. After blessing the four eldest sons of Leah, Jacob then blessed Leah’s two youngest sons, Yissachar and Zevulun. However, in this case, Jacob blessed Zevulun before his elder brother, Yissachar, saying (Genesis 49:13):
זבולן לחוף ימים ישכן והוא לחוף אנית וירכתו על צידן
Zevulun shall dwell by the seashores; he shall be a port for ships, and his border shall reach until Sidon.
Many commentaries note this change in order. The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayechi 11) explains:
קדם זבולן ליששכר, ולמה? שזבולן עוסק בפרקמטיא, ויששכר עוסק בתורה. עשו שותפות ביניהם שיהא פרקמטיא של זבולן ליששכר, שכן משה ברכן, "שמח זבולן בצאתך ויששכר באהליך", שמח זבולן בצאתך לפרקמטיא משום דיששכר באהליך עוסק בתורה. למה? "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה." לפיכך הקדים זבולן ליששכר, שאלמלא זבולן לא עסק יששכר בתורה. ומתוך שנתיחד יששכר בתורה ולא עסק בפרקמטיא ולא היה לו עמל בדבר אחר לפיכך כתוב בו, "מבני יששכר יודעי בינה לעתים."
Why did he put Zevulun before Yissachar? For Zevulun was occupied in trade and Yissachar was occupied in Torah study. They made a partnership with each other, so that Yissachar would be supported by Zevulun’s trade. For thus were they they blessed by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:18), “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents.” [Meaning,] “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out” for trade, because “Yissachar is in your tents” studying Torah. Why [should he rejoice]? “For it (i.e. the Torah) is a tree of life to those who support it.” (Proverbs 3:18). For this reason he gave priority to Zevulun over Yissachar, for if it were not for Zevulun, Yissachar would not be occupied with Torah. And from the fact that Yissachar was devoted exclusively to Torah, and was not involved with trade and did not have to labor in any other area, therefore it was said of him (1 Chronicles 12:33), “And from the children of Yissachar came men that had understanding of the times.”
The medrash tells us that Zevulun was given priority over Yissachar because he supported Yissachar in his Torah studies. The medrash adds that thanks to Zevulun’s support, Yissachar was able to devote himself purely to Torah study and thereby produced many important Torah scholars who served as leaders of the Jewish people.

The Seforno (R’ Ovadia Seforno, d.1550) expands on this teaching in his commentary:
והקדים זבולון העוסק בפרקמטיא ליששכר העוסק בתורה, וכן משה רבינו בברכתו, באמרו, "שמח זבולון בצאתך, ויששכר באהליך", כי אמנם אי אפשר לעסוק בתורה מבלי שישיג האדם קודם די מחסורו, כאמרם, "אם אין קמח, אין תורה." וכשיסייע האחד את חבירו להמציאו די מחסורו כדי שיעסוק בתורה, כמו שאמרו בזבולון, הנה עבודת הא-ל ית' בהשתדלות העוסק בתורה תהיה מיוחדת לשניהם.
וזאת היתה כונת התורה במתנות כהונה ולויה, שיסייע כל העם לתופשי התורה, שהם הכהנים והלויים, כאמרו "יורו משפטיך ליעקב," ויזכו כולם לחיי עולם, כאמרם, "כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא."
He placed Zevulun, who is involved in trade, before Yissachar, who is involved in Torah study (as did our teacher, Moses, when he said (Deuteronomy 33:18), “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents”) because it is not possible for a person to devote himself to Torah study unless he first is able to supply his basic needs, as the Sages taught (Avos 3:17), “If there is no flour, there is no Torah.” So, when a person helps provide his fellow with his basic needs so that he can devote himself to Torah study, as we are taught about Zevulun, the service of God that is achieved through the efforts of the one who is devoted to Torah study is attributed to both of them.

This is also the intent of the Torah with regard to the various gifts given to the Kohanim and Leviim, so that the entire nation should thereby provide support for the Torah scholars, who are the Kohanim and Leviim (as it says (Deuteronomy 33:10), “They shall teach Your law to Jacob”), and through this they will all merit eternal life, as the Sages say (Sanhedrin 90a), “Every Jew has a share in the world to come.”
The Seforno tells us that the underlying principle of the Yissachar and Zevulun arrangement, i.e. that by enabling others to study Torah we share in the merit earned through that Torah, is the basis for the relationship between the priestly tribe of Levi and the rest of the Jewish people. Moreover, the Seforno indicates that it is precisely this principle that makes it possible for the entire Jewish people to merit a share in the world-to-come.

So we find that Zevulun was blessed before Yissachar in order to teach us that Zevulun’s merit is equal to that of Yissachar (contrary to what we would otherwise have assumed), and they are equal partners in the merit of Yissachar’s Torah study.

However, this leaves us with a difficulty because, when all is said and done, Yissachar seems to be getting the far better end of the deal. Granted that, in the end, both Yissachar and Zevulun will share the merit equally, but in the meantime, while Zevulun is stuck working as a merchant, Yissachar actually gets to study Torah! (Of course, even with his support of Yissachar, Zevulun is still subject to the obligation to study Torah, just like any other Jew. However, the nature of the arrangement is such that Yissachar is able to devote himself to Torah to a far greater degree than Zevulun.)

We are all familiar with many famous verses and sayings that stress the great benefit and pleasure of Torah study in of itself, which stands entirely independent from the reward that it earns. As we say to God every evening in our prayers:
אהבת עולם בית ישראל עמך אהבת, תורה ומצות, חוקים ומשפטים, אותנו למדת. על כן ה' אלקינו, בשכבינו ובקומינו נשיח בחקיך, ונשמח בדברי תורתך ובמצותיך לעולם ועד, כי הם חיינו וארך ימינו ובהם נהגה יומם ולילה.
You have loved Your people, the House of Israel, with an eternal love, and You have taught us Torah and commandments, decrees and laws. Therefore, Hashem, our God, when we lay down and when we arise, we shall speak of Your decrees, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and in Your commandments for all eternity, for they are our life and the length of our days, and in them we shall meditate day and night!
The partnership between Yissachar and Zevulun would therefore seem to be grossly imbalanced in favor of Yissachar. Why would Zevulun be satisfied with such an arrangement, in which Yissachar gets both the pleasure and the merit of studying Torah, while Zevulun only gets to share in the merit? What is Zevulun’s compensation for accepting this role in the first place?

To add a slightly more esoteric element to our question, the Zohar HaKadosh (1:242a) also discusses the blessing of Zevulun:
אמאי אקדים בברכאן זבולון ליששכר תדיר? והא יששכר אשתדלותיה באורייתא, ואורייתא אקדים בכל אתר. אמאי אקדים ליה זבולון בברכאן? אבוי אקדים ליה, משה אקדים ליה. אלא זבולן זכה על דאפיק פתא מפומיה ויהב לפומיה דיששכר. בגיני כך אקדים ליה בברכאן. מהכא אוליפנא מאן דסעיד למריה דאורייתא נטיל ברכאן מעילא ותתא. ולא עוד אלא דזכי לתרי פתורי, מה דלא זכי בר נש אחרא. זכי לעותרא דיתברך בהאי עלמא וזכי למהוי ליה חולקא בעלמא דאתי.
Why is Zevulun always placed before [his elder brother] Yissachar in the blessings? [Especially,] being that Yissachar was devoted to Torah study, and the Torah is always given priority, why is Zevulun first in the blessings? [For we find that both] their father put him first and Moses put him first?
Zevulun merited because he took bread from his own mouth and gave it into the mouth of Yissachar. This is why he is before [Yissachar] in the blessings.
From here we learn that one who supports a Torah scholar receives blessing from above and below. And not only that, but he merits to two tables, that which no other person merits. He merits blessed wealth in this world, and he merits a share in the world-to-come.
From the Zohar we see that in addition to receiving reward both in this world and the next, Zevulun also receives “blessing from above and below.” What does that mean?

The Arugas HaBosem (commentary on the Torah by R’ Moshe Greenwald of Chust, d.1910) discusses the question of the apparent unfairness of the tribal blessings in relegating Zevulun to the mundane role of a merchant, in order to enable Yissachar to exclusively study Torah.

He compares this apparent injustice to a medrash (cited in Rashi on Leviticus 2:13) that says that on the second day of Creation, when God created the firmament to separate the “upper” and “lower” waters (Genesis 1:6-7), the lower waters complained of being separated from God. God appeased the lower waters by promising that they would be used in the Temple service, in the form of the salt added to every offering, and the nisuch hamayim – the water libation – of Sukkos.

Similarly, it would seem that the tribe of Zevulun would have been justified in complaining of their being “separated” from God, and being given the mundane task of earning money, while Yissachar is able to engage exclusively in Torah study. However, this is not so, for in reality Zevulun has been given a spiritual task that, in certain respects, is superior to that of Yissachar.

At the end of the book of Proverbs we read the famous poem, Eishes Chayil – “A Woman of Valor”. The commentaries tell us that, in addition to its simple meaning, this poem is also an allegory for the Torah. In the poem we read (Proverbs 31:14):
היתה כאניות סוחר ממרחק תביא לחמה:
She is like a trader’s ships, bringing her bread from afar.
A sea-merchant’s trade is based on the idea of buying merchandise in a location where it is plentiful and cheap, and then transporting the merchandise for sale in a location where it is rare and valuable. Generally speaking, the further the merchandise travels, the more valuable it becomes because of its rarity in its new location.

The Arugas HaBosem explains that just as a sea-trader’s merchandise is of great value because it comes from far away, in a similar sense, the Torah enables us to transport into this world a holiness that comes from highest spiritual realms, and also gives us the ability to lift our physical actions up to those same spiritual heights. Just as merchandise from far distant lands is precious, so too are our physical acts of avodas Hashem (service of God) of immense value in the Heavenly realms.

From this we can understand why the service of Zevulun, who works to earn money in order to support Torah study, is in certain respects even more precious than the service of Yissachar, who devotes himself purely to Torah study. For Zevulun takes the most mundane of activities and lifts it up to the highest spiritual heights by using his earnings to support Yissachar’s Torah study.

Zevulun, therefore, truly has no grounds for complaint, for his spiritual task is indeed equal, if not superior, to that of Yissachar. The Arugas HaBosem sees this idea as hinted to in the blessing, in the words, “זבולן לחוף ימים” – literally, “Zevulun dwells by the shores of the seas.” The verse ought to have said, “לחוף ים” – “by the shores of the sea” – in the singular. The use of the plural, “seas”, is an allusion to the “upper” and “lower” waters, and is telling us that we should not think that Zevulun's apparently mundane role has relegated him to the lower realm, but that, in reality, Zevulun dwells on the “shores of the seas” of both the lower and higher realms.

With this understanding, we can perhaps also explain the statement of the Zohar that Zevulun receives blessing “from above and below”. By supporting Yissachar, not only does Zevulun receive reward in this world and the next, but he also experiences the immediate blessing of spiritually unifying the highest and lowest realms.

Zevulun’s role as a supporter of Torah study is clearly far more significant that it might appear at first glance. While Yissachar represents the deveikus – spiritual connection with God – that is achieved through Torah study, Zevulun represents the deveikus that is achieved by fulfilling the concept taught by the Sages (Talmud, Brachos 63a):
איזוהי פרשה קטנה שכל גופי תורה תלוין בה? "בכל דרכיך דעהו"
What is a small verse upon which all the basics of Torah depend? “In all your ways know Him.” (Proverbs 3:6)
In his Asara Maamaros, the Shelah HaKadosh (R’ Isaiah Horowitz, d.1630) devotes the entire eighth maamar to this concept, which he describes as "דביקות הלב בכל הדרכים לעבודת ה' יתברך" – “Connecting the heart in every way to the service of God.” Towards the end of the maamar, the Shelah HaKadosh uses this idea to explain an otherwise difficult medrash on the verse in Psalms (119:59):
חשבתי דרכי ואשיבה רגלי אל עדתיך:
I considered my ways, and I turned my feet to your testimonies.
The medrash (Vayikra Raba 35:1) states:
אמ' דוד לפני הקב"ה, רבון העולמים בכל יום ויום הייתי מחשב ואומר למקום פלוני אני הולך , לבית דירה פלונית אני הולך, והיו רגליי מביאות אותי לבתי כניסיות ולבתי מדרשות, הה"ד ואשיבה רגלי אל עדותיך.
David said to the Holy One, blessed is He, “Master of the Worlds! Every day I plan and say, ‘I will go to such-and-such location,’ ‘I will go to the home of so-and-so,’ and my legs bring me to the synagogues and the batei medrash (houses of study).”
At first glance, this medrash seems to be saying that every day King David would plan out his day, yet despite his plans otherwise, he would always end up at the shuls and batei medrash! However, the Shelah HaKadosh rejects this understanding for several reasons, including the fact that this would imply that in some sense, King David’s free will had been compromised, which would make his good deeds meaningless.

Instead, the Shelah haKadosh explains that in reality, King David indeed made plans every day to take care of his many responsibilities as a king, and he did exactly what he planned to do. He went here, he visited there, and he met with whomever. However, King David is saying in this medrash that everything he did, throughout the day, as mundane and workaday as it seemed, was all for the purpose of maintaining the synagogues and study halls of the Jewish people. Thus, even though he was going here and there, from a spiritual perspective it was as if he was going to the synagogues and study halls himself!

While their techniques are different, both Yissachar and Zevulun are fulfilling the purpose of this world by spiritually lifting this physical world up to the highest spiritual realms. Each one makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution. This is the reason God made the world in such a manner, in which different people find themselves serving Hashem in different ways.

The Chofetz Chaim taught (ח"ח עה"ת) that God has never expected the entire Jewish people to be exclusively involved in Torah study. From the beginning of the establishment of the Jewish people, God gave different roles to different tribes, and He distinguished Yissachar as a tribe that was uniquely suited for exclusive Torah study and Zevulun as a tribe that was uniquely suited to the role of supporting Torah study. Together, the two tribes are the “pillars of the world”, for their combined efforts uphold God’s creation, which only exists through the merit of Torah study.

Today we no longer have the clear-cut roles that once existed for the tribes. Nevertheless, every one of us can still choose to be a pillar of the world if we truly devote ourselves to the study of Torah, whether through study or by supporting those who study, or, ideally, both!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vayigash - The Joy of Jacob

In Parshas Vayigash we read of the meeting, after a separation of many years, between Joseph and his father Jacob. The Torah states (Genesis 46:29):
ויאסר יוסף מרכבתו ויעל לקראת ישראל אביו גשנה וירא אליו ויפל על צואריו ויבך על צואריו עוד
Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to greet his father, Israel, in Goshen, and he appeared before him and fell on his neck and cried for a long while.
It is hard for us to imagine the incredible sense of joy that Jacob must have experienced at this time, finally seeing his beloved son, whom he had thought dead for many years, and finding him to be not only alive and well, but a father and the ruler of the land of Egypt! Yet, in the description of the meeting, we find that it was Joseph who fell upon Jacob and cried, but Jacob is not described as doing anything at all!

Rashi explains:
יעקב לא נפל על צוארי יוסף ולא נשקו, ואמרו רבותינו, שהיה קורא את שמע:
Jacob did not fall upon the neck of Joseph, and did not kiss him. Our Sages say that he was reciting the Shema.
R' Yehoshua Leib Diskin
Why was Jacob reciting the Shema at such a time? R' Yehoshua Leib Diskin (d.1898) explains (חידושי מהרי"ל דיסקין עה"ת) that when Jacob experienced the extraordinary feeling of love and joy upon seeing his son, he immediately sanctified that love by using it for the love of God, as expressed in the Shema when we say (Deuteronomy 6:5), "ואהבת את ה' אלקיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך" - "And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might."

R' Yehoshua Leib Diskin's son, R' Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin (d.1925), expanded on this idea by pointing out that the basic theme of the Shema is the absolute unity of God. This means that God is the only power in the universe, and nothing happens - good or bad - outside of His control. This idea is in fundamental conflict with those worldviews that believe that good and bad come from separate powers, an idea that was basic to ancient paganism (and which still exists, in various forms, in modern times).

Thus, when Jacob finally met his son, and was able to see how all the suffering that he had experienced until now from the loss of his son had ultimately been for the benefit of his family, he attained a new level of recognition of God's dominion, and how there is no true distinction between what we perceive as good and what we perceive as bad. Thus, at that point he was inspired to recite the Shema and declare:
שמע ישראל ה' אלקינו ה' אחד
Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!

Moshiach ben Yosef

The concept of Moshiach ben Yosef (literally, "the anointed son of Joseph"), while not a major concept, is well-established in Judaism, being mentioned in many sources, including the Talmud. At the same time, like many of the more esoteric ideas surrounding the coming of the messiah, it is a very obscure concept and open to a wide range of interpretations. Unlike the belief in Moshiach ben David, which is a core principle of Judaism and has a clear legal definition, the concept of Moshiach ben Yosef is agadic, i.e. non-legal, and it can be understood to be entirely allegorical or as only one of several possible courses of events in the coming of the messiah.

Virtually all sources see Moshiach ben Yosef as a (possible) precursor to Moshiach ben David. Thus, for example, Rav Saadia Gaon (Emunos v'Deos 8) presents Moshiach ben Yosef as a necessary precursor to Moshiach ben David only if the Jewish people have not yet repented.

Many sources appear to view Moshiach ben Yosef as referring primarily to an early stage of the redemption in which events will take place in a non-miraculous manner, to be replaced ultimately by the coming of Moshiach ben David, when the redemption will be completed through miraculous events. (This appears to be the view of the Vilna Gaon presented in the work, Kol HaTor.) Many of the sources that discuss Moshiach ben Yosef in detail (like Kol HaTor) are heavily kabbalistic, so interpretation by a layman like myself is difficult. One of the areas that is often unclear in many of these sources is whether the concept of Moshiach ben Yosef needs to be associated with an identifiable human being, or if it can be understood simply as a symbolic term for the earlier stages in the redemption, or possibly some middle ground, such as the righteous in each generation who teach and guide the people, preparing them for the ultimate redemption.
Rav Kook

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (d.1935) famously (and controversially) identified the secular Zionist movement with Moshiach ben Yosef, who is to lay the groundwork for the true redemption and then die and be replaced by Moshiach ben David. It is difficult to say how Rav Kook would have viewed the secular State of Israel , but he might well have extended this identification to the State as well.

In short, there is no single, straightforward interpretation of the Moshiach ben Yosef concept; rather there is a range of ideas, all of which are tentative. This is true of many of the details of the process of the coming of the redemption, we will not know what these prophecies and teachings really mean until after the event.

Originally written in response to a question on an on-line forum.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mikeitz - The Error of Desperation

At the end of last week's parsha, after Joseph intepreted the dream of Pharaoh's wine steward and told him that he would be freed from prison, he asked the wine steward to intercede on his behalf with Pharaoh. Yet, upon being freed, the wine steward immediately forgot Joseph and did nothing for him.

Parshas Mikeitz begins exactly two years later, when Pharaoh is himself experiencing a dreams that no one is able to explain. Suddenly the wine bearer remembers Joseph, the man who had interpreted his own dreams while he had been in prison.

The Midrash Raba (פט:ג) states that there was a reason for this two year delay:
ע"י שאמר לשר המשקים זכרתני והזכרתני ניתוסף לו שתי שנים
Because he said to the wine steward “remember me… and mention me” two years were added [to his time in prison].”
The Midrash seems to indicate that by asking the steward for help, Joseph demonstrated insufficient bitachon – trust in God. This is extremely puzzling, as we know that it is permitted, even required, to make normal efforts to solve our problems. We are not supposed to simply sit back and wait for God to miraculously help us. So what was wrong with what Joseph did?

The Chazon Ish
The Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (d.1953), in his work אמונה ובטחון, explains that the true essence of bitachon is an absolute certainty that God is always in control of events. A person who genuinely believes this will therefore never give up hope or act out of desperation, because he knows that even if he is not able to do anything himself, God is still in control.

When a person who feels a sense of desperation, i.e. that he has a problem for which he can find no reasonable solution, he will often attempt to solve his problem through methods that are extremely unlikely to succeed. He will do strange and unusual things because he believes that he has run out of alternatives. However, a person with genuine bitachon will never do this, because he always has God to fall back on.

In other words, while we are required to take normal, rational steps to care for ourselves, and we are not permitted to simply rely on God to miraculously provide us with all our needs and solve all our problems, this does not mean that bitachon has no practical expression. Bitachon means that once one has exhausted all reasonable means to deal with a problem, then the problem is no longer your responsibility. A person with genuine bitachon never feels that he has to "do something", no matter how crazy, because "doing something is better than doing nothing." From a Torah perspective, if the "something" is nothing more than a shot-in-the-dark act of desperation, then doing nothing actually is better than doing "something", for doing "something" demonstrates that one doesn't really believe that God is in control.

Based on this concept, the Chazon Ish explains that the nature of Egyptian society was such that it was extremely unlikely that the wine steward - a high ranking nobleman - would repay Joseph - a foreign slave - by mentioning him to the king. Thus, when Joseph asked the steward to remember him and mention him to Pharaoh, he knew that this was really just a wild "shot-in-the-dark", and that it was extremely unlikely to succeed. Such an act of desperation expressed a lack of bitachon that was inappropriate for a person on Joseph’s high spiritual level.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On Ambiguities in Jewish History - A Correspondence with a Concerned Reader

I recently received an e-mail from a reader, Chanie, who was legitimately concerned about an aspect of an earlier post of mine. With her permission, I am sharing our brief correspondence (slightly edited), as I believe it touches upon an important issue with regard to our understanding of history in general, and Jewish history in particular:

First of all, great blog - I always look forward to your posts and the insights they bring to light.

With regard to your post on how the Chanukah revolt began - you quote a Midrash that states: "When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed, they turned their faces to the ground, tore their clothes, and they got up to kill her."

What a horrific story - it sounds exactly like the honor killings we condemn the Muslims for carrying out. How could the Maccabees, whom we hold up as heroes, have been so ready to kill their sister?
I responded:
Dear Chanie,

Thank you very much for contacting me. I am always grateful to hear from appreciative readers (or any readers at all, actually).

The question you asked about the passage I quoted is certainly a good one. The truth is that the same thing has always bothered me, and when I originally posted it I was tempted to edit that little bit out. I don't have a ready explanation for how they could have thought that it would be proper to kill their sister under such circumstances.

Of course, one of the main problems is that we are dealing here with a minor midrash, or, perhaps more accurately, a midrashic fragment (the entire midrash is at most a couple pages long), of unknown provenance. Asides from the fact that such midrashim have no commentaries whatsoever (which is a big problem), they are often simply unreliable. Even if the basic narrative is true, we have no way of knowing to what degree the story has been modified or embellished by unknown hands over the centuries.

In this case, I suspect the idea that the brothers got up to - literally - kill her (assuming the midrash is, in fact, intended to be taken literally on that point, and it isn't simply an exaggeration)  was an embellishment from a later author intended to bring out the ironic point made by the female character: "You are so filled with zealous rage for my minor infraction, yet you will give me over to that uncircumcised Gentile to be raped?!"

I suspect that in the original version of the story, the brothers probably didn't do much at all, beyond yelling at her to put her clothes back on. Perhaps they got up to take her away where no one could see her. (I mean, what do you do when your sister strips naked at her wedding??)

In fact, after receiving your e-mail I looked into it a bit more, and there actually is an alternate version of the story where the bride doesn't strip naked, but simply dresses herself in rags, with the intent of provoking the governor to kill her (because she is supposed to show up in her wedding finery), and the bride's family expresses embarrassment that she is dressed in such a manner at her wedding, to which she responds with the same basic speech, which, in turn, inspires the revolution. This version makes the same basic point as the one I posted, but it lacks much of the drama that makes the story so memorable. Of course, it is possible that this version is also modified, perhaps in order to be more palatable to our sensibilities. It is impossible to know.

So, I guess my answer is that when dealing with sources of this sort, you just have to know how to take the good and discard the bad. As someone who has a long-standing interest in material of this sort, I pretty much do this automatically, but I need to bear in mind that most people don't.

I really appreciate your taking the trouble to contact me about this.

A freilichen Chanukah,
Lazer Abrahamson
 Chanie replied:
Thanks so much for your quick and thorough response - I really appreciate your taking the time! And thanks for your candor - it's a bit frustrating not knowing what really happened, but your explanation is one I can live with.

Just to clarify another point - so the story of Yehudis probably didn't happen? Is there any basis for combining the stories as this site suggests ?

I replied:
One of the most basic lessons that I have learned in my studies of, primarily Jewish, history, is that the real world is messy. It is human nature to look for patterns in history - and current events - that have structure, with a clear cast of characters, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. Basically, the kind of structure that we look for in fiction. But reality isn't really like that, at least not on a level that we are able to perceive with our very limited knowledge of events.

This truth is often missed by people, especially intelligent people, who instinctively try to "make sense" out of events, both current and historical. (At its most extreme, this kind of thinking can lead to conspiracy theories, a large part of whose appeal is their apparent "explanatory" power, or to radical "revisionism", where basic historical realities are denied (as in Holocaust denial).) Even professional historians, who ought to know better, often fall prey to this kind of thinking, especially when it fits in with preexisting biases.

This is true even for modern history, despite the fact that we have often have direct access to eyewitnesses and modern records.When it comes to ancient history the situation is far worse. There is so much information that has been lost over time, and so much information that has been distorted and changed, that it is usually simply impossible to reliably reconstruct the exact details of events.

The story of Judith - and the other stories of female heroes associated with Chanuka - are almost certainly built upon actual historical events. In fact, it is quite possible, arguably even likely, that there were several separate stories, involving different women, that over the ages evolved into the two or three basic narratives that we have today. However, untangling the exact details is probably impossible.

Strictly speaking, I have no problem with telling over these stories as part of our tradition, being that they are certainly based on reality. (As opposed to the silliness about the ancient Jewish children playing dreidle in the woods, which is up there with Haman's triangular hat as pure fiction), but I think it is important for adults to at least be aware that the exact details of such stories are far from clear.

I hope this is helpful.

All the best,
Lazer Abrahamson
Chanie replied:
Re: stories in Jewish history and looking for completion - I never thought about it that way. I hear you, I guess we do like things nice and tidy, but I agree that intellectual honesty is preferable to fairy tales, so thanks for being straightforward.

Looking forward to future posts!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Vayeishev - The Scandal of Judah and Tamar

In Parshas Vayeishev we encounter the difficult story of Judah and Tamar. The verses (Genesis 38:15-16) state:
ויראה יהודה ויחשבה לזונה וכו'  ויט אליה וכו'
“And Judah saw her and thought she was a harlot… and he veered to her…”
The Midrash states:
אמר ר' יוחנן, בקש לעבור וזימן לו הקב"ה מלאך שהוא ממונה על התאוה. אמר לו, יהודה היכן אתה הולך? מהיכן מלכים עומדים? מהיכן גדולים עומדים? מהיכן גואלים עומדים? "ויט אליה אל הדרך" - בע"כ שלא בטובתו. (בראשית רבה פח:ח)
Rabbi Yochanan said, “Judah wanted to pass by, but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, “Judah! Where are you going? From where will kings come? From where will great men come? From where will redeemers come?” – “And he veered towards her on the road” – Forced against his goodwill.
The Rosh
Traditional Depiction
The union of Judah and Tamar created the ancestor of King david and, ultimately, of the messiah. We find shockingly embarrassing incidents repeatedly in the ancestry of the Jewish monarchy  – stories like that of Judah and Tamar, Lot and his daughters, Ruth and Boaz, and David and Bathsheba. Many commentators (שפתי כהן, דעת תורה, ועוד) note that, for very deep reasons, it is important that the messiah come from a family that is subject to scandals. Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh, d.1327) (ספר הדר זקנים) explains this based upon a Talmudic teaching (Yoma 22b):
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יהוצדק: אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו, שאם תזוח דעתו עליו ־ אומרין לו: חזור לאחוריך.
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzedek, “We do not set up an authority over the community unless he has a heap of sheratzim (crawling creatures) hanging from behind him [Rashi explains, “family disgrace”], so that if his pride begins to rise over him, we say to him, ‘Look behind you!’”
It is important that a leader not think himself to be of a superior class over his people. Thus, it is best if a leader has embarrassing events in his family background, so that he does not become too arrogant. The same is doubly true of the kings of the Jewish nation. In fact, the Talmud also comments:
אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: מפני מה לא נמשכה מלכות בית שאול ־ מפני שלא היה בו שום דופי.
Rav Yehuda said, “Shmuel said, ‘Why did the kingdom of Saul not persist? Because it had no [family] disgrace.’”
This teaches us the extreme importance of humility in a true leader.

Shimon HaTzadik's Three Pillars and the Greek Shmad

There is a famous midrashic passage that discusses the second verse of the Torah:
והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על פני תהום ורוח אלקים מרחפת על פני המים
And the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
The midrash (Bereishis Raba 2:4) interprets the terms “unformed”, “void”, “darkness”, and “the deep”, as referring to the four exiles that the Jewish people would undergo. The third exile, “darkness”, refers to when the Jewish people would be under the rule of the Greeks. The midrash states:
"וחשך" – זה גלות יון, שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזירותיהן שהיתה אומרת להם, כתבו על קרן השור שאין לכם חלק באלקי ישראל.
“And darkness” – This is the exile of Greece. For the Greeks darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees, for they said to them, “Inscribe on the horn of your ox that you have no share in the God of Israel.”
The Greeks—together with their Jewish allies—pioneered the concept of shmad, the systematic eradication of Judaism. For the first time in history, a government attempted to destroy the Jewish religion in a purely ideological campaign. It may be to emphasize this point that the midrash focuses on the relatively minor decree requiring the Jews to make an inscription on the horns of their oxen. The other decrees, many of which were far more severe (such as the decrees against circumcision or the Sabbath), could be understood as serving the general goal of subduing a rebellious nation, but this decree clearly has no significance except as an ideological campaign to undermine the religious beliefs of the Jewish people.

In the various accounts of the Greek oppression of Judaism, we find that they engaged in a wide range of different decrees intended to undermine the Jewish religion. Thus, the Greeks outlawed the study of Torah and the performance of many of the commandments, as well as requiring the Jews to participate in idolatrous rituals. As wicked as these decrees were, we can easily understand how these decrees advanced the goal of eradicating the Jewish religion.

However, there is one aspect of the Greek decrees, which is stressed in many sources, that does not seem, at first glance, to really fit this pattern. This was the desecration of Jewish women. Indeed, according to many sources, it was precisely these extraordinarily harsh decrees – which were far from the norm of the period – that ultimately led to the Jewish uprising. Why did the Greeks engage such atypical behavior towards the Jews? What ideological function did these decrees serve?

To address this question we need to step a bit further back in history. The Jewish encounter with Greece began with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire. The Talmud (Yoma 69a) tells us of the famous incident where Alexander the Great first encountered the Jewish people, and met the great sage, Shimon HaTzadik (Simeon the Just):
בחמשה ועשרים בטבת יום הר גריזים הוא דלא למספד ביה יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלקינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתן להם רשות באו והודיעו לשמעון הצדיק מה עשה שמעון הצדיק לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ירושלים עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהם והיו מהלכין כל הלילה כולה הללו מהלכין מצד זה והללו מהלכין מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הם הללו אמרו לו הללו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפרס זרחה חמה פגעו זה בזה כיון שראה את שמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לו. אמרו לו מלך שכמותך משתחוה ליהודי הזה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה היא מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי. אמר להם למה באתם אמרו לו בית שאנו מתפללין עליך ועל מלכותך שלא תחרב יתעוך כותיים הללו להחריבו ותתן להם רשות. אמר להם מי הם הללו. אמרו לו הללו כותים שעומדים לפניך. אמר להם הרי הם מסורין בידכם מיד נקבום בעקביהם ותלאום בזנבי סוסיהם והיו מגררים אותם על הקוצים ועל הברקנים עד שהגיעו להר גריזים כיון שהגיעו להר גריזים חרשוהו וזרעוהו כרשינין כדרך שבקשו לעשות את בית אלקינו ואותו היום עשאוהו יו"ט.
The twenty-fifth day of Teves [1] is Yom Har Grizim[2] on which you may not eulogize, [for it was] the day that the Samaritans sought from Alexander the Macedonian [for permission] to destroy the Temple of God and he gave them permission.[3] They came and made this known to Shimon HaTzadik.[4] What did Shimon HaTzadik do? He donned the priestly garments and wrapped himself in the priestly garments and went with the nobility of Jerusalem with lit torches in their hands and they walked the entire night, some walking on one side and some walking on the other side, until morning. When morning rose, [Alexander] said to [the Samaritans], “Who are these?” They said to him, “These are the Jews who rebelled against you.” When they reached Antipatris the sun shone forth and the groups met. When [Alexander] saw Shimon HaTzadik he got down from his chariot and bowed before him. [The Samaritans] said to him, “A king like you bows before this Jew?!” He said to them, “The image of this man is victorious for me in battle.”[5] [Alexander] said to [the Jews], “Why have you come?” They said to him, “The Temple where we pray for you and your kingdom that it should not be destroyed, these Samaritans have deceived you to destroy it and you have given them permission.” He said to them, “Who are these?”[6] They said to him, “These Samaritans standing before you.” He said to them, “Behold, they are given into your hands.” Immediately they punctured their ankles and hung them from the tails of their horses and they dragged them upon thorns and thistles until they reached Har Grizim. When they came to Har Grizim, they plowed it under and they planted karshinim[7], as [the Samaritans] wanted to do to the Temple of God, and that day they made into a holiday.[8]
Shimon HaTzadik, who was a young man at the time, went on to serve as the high priest for forty years. He was the primary spiritual leader of the Jewish people at this critical – and often violent – period when the Jewish people were first being brought in contact with Greek thought and culture.

Shimon HaTzadik is best known for his statement, quoted in the second mishna of Pirkei Avos, “The world stands on three things, on Torah [study], on the service [of HaShem], and on bestowing kindnesses.” As the Bartenura there tells us, this was something he always repeated and stressed; it was his primary teaching to his generation. What was the significance of this particular lesson? Rav Shlomo Brevda שליט"א explains:[9]
והנה מתחילת שלטונם בארצנו הקדושה, השתדלו היוונים להשפיע עלינו מחכמתם, חכמת הטבע (ובסוף שלטונם גזרו גזירות להשכיח מאתנו את התורה הקדושה ולהעבירנו מחוקי רצונו ית"ש). שמעון הצדיק שהיה גדול הדור וגם כהן גדול בתחילת מלכות יון, השתדל בכל כחו לחזק את העם שישארו שלמים ונאמנים אך ורק לתורתנו הקדושה, ושלא ישימו לב כלל וכלל לחכמי יון ודבריהם. על כן באו תמיד דבריו הקדושים לעם סגולה שהעולם עומד על ג' דברים, עסק התורה, עבודת הקודש, וגמילות חסדים. ודבריו הקדושים סותרים לגמרי את שיטת חכמי הטבע. כי תורה ועבודה וגמילות חסדים לא יעניקו לאדם, על פי טבע, אפילו פת לחם, ואיך יתקיים האדם. אבל אנחנו מקבלי התורה, מאמינים בני מאמינים, יודעים שמצבינו למעלה מהטבע, והקב"ה זן ומפרנס ומכלכל העוסקים בתורה ובעבודה וגמ"ח. והצליח שמעון הצדיק בזמנו להחזיק את העם בשלימות האמונה וקיום המצוות. ולכן זכו בדורו לסייעתא למעלה מדרך הטבע. וראו חבתם לפניו ית"ש כי כל מצבם בבית המקדש, יום יום ובש"ק ובימים טובים, הכל היה למעלה מהטבע.
From the beginning of their rule in our holy land, the Greeks sought to influence us with their wisdom, the natural sciences (and towards the end of their rule they made decrees to make us forget our holy Torah and to remove us from the decrees of His Will). Shimon HaTzadik, who was the leader of the generation as well as the high priest at the beginning of the Greek rule [over the land of Israel], sought with all his strength to strengthen the people so that they should remain completely loyal only and exclusively to our holy Torah, and that they should not pay heed to the teachings of the wise men of Greece. For this reason, he would continually repeat his teaching that the world stands on three things, Torah study, the holy service, and bestowing kindnesses. This teaching completely contradicted the philosophy of the [Greek] scholars of natural science. For, according to nature, Torah, service, and kindness do not provide a person with anything, not even bread, so how will a person survive [on these alone]? But we who received the Torah, the faithful and the children of the faithful, know that our circumstances are above nature, and that the God feeds, supports, and provides for those who involve themselves in Torah, service, and kindness. Shimon HaTzadik was successful in his time in strengthening the people in perfection of faith and in fulfillment of the commandments. Therefore, in his generation they merited to receive supernatural help, and they saw how beloved they were before Him, for their entire situation in the Holy Temple, on ordinary days and on the Sabbath and festivals, was supernatural.[10]
Thus, the teaching of Shimon HaTzadik that the world stands on three things, Torah study, the service of God, and the performance of acts of kindness, was specifically formulated to counter the influence of Greek thought on the Jewish people. It is therefore not be surprising that, many years later, when the Greek shmad began, the Greeks (with the advice of the Hellenistic Jews) focused specifically on attacking these three pillars.

Attacking the pillars of Torah and avodah (service) was fairly straightforward. They simply outlawed the study of Torah and the performance of the commandments, as well as contaminating the Temple and forcing the Jews to engage in idolatry.

But how, exactly, does one attack the pillar of gemilus chasadim – doing acts of kindness? What do you prohibit? Being nice? Lending money? Helping old ladies across the street?

The Greeks solved this problem with an insight that was as wicked as it was profound. The ultimate source of chesed – kindness – and love for one’s fellow is the home. The Sages describe a married couple as “רעים האהובים” – “loving companions” – the same language used in the verse (Leviticus 19:18), “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” – “And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself.” Charity – and all forms of kindness – truly does begin at home, for it is in the home that we first see in our parents what it means for people to truly give of themselves for another. It is with that model in our mind that we then go on to develop the underlying attitudes that are necessary for true chesed to exist in a society. Based on this recognition, the Greeks attacked the Jewish home, through decrees that were intended to undermine the relationship between husband and wife.

On Chanukah we celebrate the miraculous victory that ended the Greek shmad and freed us to once again fully observe the laws of the Torah. It is a time for us to reinforce our commitment to the three pillars of Shimon HaTzadik. It is a time for us to recommit ourselves to the study of Torah, the service of God, and to doing acts of kindness. And, just as our enemies recognized in ancient times, we too must bear in mind that chesed – kindness – begins at home, especially in the relationship between husband and wife.

[1] Megillas Taanis places this event on the twenty-first of Kislev.

[2] Har Grizim was the location of the main Samaritan city and later became the location of their temple.

[3] Josephus tells us that when Alexander was besieging Tyre, a city to the north of the land of Israel, the Samaritans, who were—like the Jews—subjects of the Persian Empire, approached Alexander and offered to betray the Persians and join forces with him. The Jews, however, remained loyal to the Persian emperor. This combination of events caused Alexander to initially favor the Samaritans and to believe their false accusations against the Jews.

[4] In Yossipon the kohein that meets Alexander is named Chananya. However, some versions of Yossipon omit this and the name is probably erroneous. Similarly, Josephus (Antiquities XI:8:4-5) writes that the kohein was named – in Greek – “Iaddou”, which most translations understand as Yadua, the name of Shimon HaTzadik’s grandfather. There are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy (asides from simple scribal error). Some authorities, most notably the Sefer HaKabala, claim that Shimon was also known by the name Iddo (עדו), which may be a different reading of the Greek name used by Josephus. (The Abarbanel, in Nachalas Avos 1:2, points out that the use of multiple names was common throughout the Second Temple period.) The Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, pp. 196-7), argues that Yadua was still the high priest at this time but he was too elderly to go out to meet Alexander, so he sent his grandson Shimon in his place. Thus, Josephus may have erroneously concluded that the entire story happened with Yadua. R’ Miller, however, believes that Josephus changed the story deliberately (Torah Nation 206).

[5] Megillas Taanis states slightly differently, דיוקנו של זה אני רואה כשאני יורד במלחמה ונוצח – “The image of this person I see when I go down to war and am victorious.”

[6] The implication here is that Alexander was not aware of the actual plans of the Samaritans. In fact, in the version told in Megillas Taanis, the Samaritans did not actually tell Alexander what they were planning on doing, they simply “purchased” the location of the Temple from Alexander. Alternatively, the Ben Ish Chai explains that Alexander certainly knew that the Samaritans were guilty, but he wanted to know if any of his own officers were also included in the plot. To this the Jews responded that only the Samaritans were guilty.

[7] A kind of inferior grain used primarily as animal feed.

[8] This story is also told in Josephus and Yossipon. However these accounts differ in several significant ways from the Talmudic account and some of these differences are historically problematic. According to both of these alternate accounts, after his conquest of Gaza, which is south of Jerusalem, Alexander marched on Jerusalem with intent to destroy it and he met the Jews just outside the gates of Jerusalem. This is in apparent conflict with the standard accounts of Alexander’s conquests, which report that Alexander traveled from Gaza to Egypt in just one week, which would make a visit to Jerusalem (which is in the opposite direction) impossible. However, according to the Talmudic account there is no reason to believe that Alexander ever planned on traveling to Jerusalem himself. The Talmud does not specify at what point in his conquests he met the Jews, however, given the information provided, the most likely point was after the conquest of Tyre, and before the conquest of Gaza. According to the Talmud, the location of the meeting was Antipatris, a town not far from the ocean shore along which Alexander traveled. The relatively brief meeting described in the Talmud took place early in the morning and would not have significantly affected the traveling time of Alexander’s army, which may explain why it is unmentioned in non-Jewish accounts. As for the accounts of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem and the Temple, if these events actually happened at all, they may have taken place later, when Alexander was returning from his conquest of Egypt, and traveling back towards Babylon. Josephus and Yossipon may have erroneously combined two separate events.

[9] In his Kuntres L’Hodos U’l’Hallel b’inyanei Chanuka, p. 16.

[10] Rav Brevda is referring here to the several supernatural blessings that took place in the Temple while Shimon HaTzadik was alive, as described in the Talmud (Yoma 39a).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Vayishlach - The Task of the Yetzer Hara

In Parshas Vayishlach we read of Jacob's nighttime struggle with a mysterious antagonist who attacked him and struggled with him until just before daybreak. When the "man" saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he dislocated Jacob’s hip joint. He then said to Jacob (Genesis 32:27), “Let me go for the dawn is rising.” Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man then told him that he would no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for he had become great before God and man. Jacob then asked for the man’s name but he refused to reveal it.

The Sages tell us that the mysterious antagonist was an angel, specifically שרו של עשו – the ministering angel of Eisav - who is also identified as the שטן (Satan) and the יצר הרע (yetzer hara - "evil inclination"). This struggle therefore symbolized the basic struggle between good and evil that takes place on many different levels.

Rashi (R' Shlomo Yitzchaki d.1105) explains that when the “man” asked Jacob to release him "for the dawn is risen," his intent was that he had to go at dawn to sing before God, "צריך אני לומר שירה ביום" – "I must recite song by day." The Talmud (:חולין צא) explains:
אמר לו: מלאך אני, ומיום שנבראתי לא הגיע זמני לומר שירה עד עכשיו
[The angel] said to him, “I am an angel, and from the day that I was created, my time has not come to recite song until now.”
This raises the obvious question as to why it happened that the very same day that the angel struggled with Jacob was also the very first time that the angel ever sang before God?

The Koznitzer Maggid (R' Yisrael of Koznitz, d.1814) explains (בשם חכם אחד), that an angel only gets to sing before God when it has fulfilled its purpose of existence. As we mentioned above, the angel that fought with Jacob was the yetzer hara - the so-called "evil inclination" - that tempts man to sin. The struggle between Jacob and the angel was therefore not a simple, physical wrestling match, but an attempt of the yetzer hara to seduce Jacob to sin in some manner. However, the ultimate purpose of the yetzer hara is not actually to cause us to sin, but to tempt us to sin and be defeated! Thus, when Jacob succeeded in completely defeating the yetzer hara  he enabled it to finally fulfill its true purpose, and the angel got to sing before God for the very first time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Vayeitzei - The Proper Attitude Towards Mitzvos

Towards the end of Parshas Vayeitzei, we are told that Jacob noticed that his father-in-law Laban had developed a negative attitude towards him and that there was resentment towards him among Laban's family. God then told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. Jacob then informed Rachel and Leah of the situation and of God's command. Rachel and Leah responded (Genesis 31:14-16):
And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Do we still have a share and an inheritance in the house of our father? Does he not consider us strangers? For he has sold us and even consumed our money! For only that wealth that God has rescued from our father is ours and our children's. And now, whatever God said to you, do!"
This dialogue is very strange. Jacob told his wives that God had instructed him to leave Laban’s land and return home. They responded first by saying that Laban was unkind to them, and then that Jacob should do whatever God had instructed him to do. Why did Rachel and Leah respond in this way? Once they knew that God had instructed Jacob to leave, what difference did it make if Laban was good to them or not? Either way, they still had to listen to the commandment of God! Once God told them to leave, their personal problems with Laban shouldn't matter anymore.

R' Moshe Feinstein
Rav Moshe Feinstein (d.1986), in his Sefer Derash Moshe, answers that we learn from here that we should never feel that doing a mitzvah is difficult, even when we are going to do it anyways! Rather, we should always find ways to explain to ourselves that it’s easy to do the mitzvah. This is why Rachel and Leah first said that Laban was unkind to them. By saying this, they made it easier for them to follow God's command.

It is not proper for a Jew to feel that obeying the commandments is a great sacrifice, even if he is ready and willing to make that sacrifice! On the contrary, we have to recognize that there is no real benefit from disobeying God's commandments and there is no loss from obeying them. For example, if one does not work on the Sabbath, this does not mean he will earn less money, for God controls how much money we will earn anyways.

Every mitzvah is a pure benefit and blessing, with no loss at all. Not only is this true, but, Rav Moshe says, having a positive attitude about the mitzvos makes it easier to continue doing mitzvos both for yourself and for your children.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Toldos - The Voice of Jacob and the Hands of Esau

In Parshas Toldos we read of the incident when Jacob, in obedience to the prophetic directive of his mother, was required to approach his blind father disguised as Esau, his brother, in order to receive his blessing. Jacob raised the concern that Isaac would know he was not Esau by feeling him, so Rebecca clothed him in Esau's clothing and covered his arms and neck with kid skin (to make him feel hairy like Esau). Thus, when Jacob approached his father, Isaac heard his voice and felt his hands, and remarked (Genesis 27:22):
הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו
“The voice is the voice of Yakov, and the hands are the hands of Eisav.”

The Midrash Raba (65:20) writes on this verse:
אין יעקב שולט אלא בקולו – הקול קול יעקב, והידים ידי עשו – אין עשו שולט אלא בידים... בשעה שיעקב מרכין בקולו ידי עשו שולטות... ובשעה שהוא מצפצף בקולו... אין ידי עשו שולטות... בזמן שקולו של יעקב מצוי בבתי כנסיות אין הידים ידי עשו, ואם לאו הידים ידי עשו
Jacob dominates only through his voice (i.e. Torah and prayer) – “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau” – Esau dominates only through the hands (physical force).... When Jacob lowers his voice, the hands of Esau dominate... and when he calls out with his voice... the hands of Esau do not dominate. ... When the voice of Jacob is found in the synagogues, the hands are not the hands of Esau, and if not, then the hands are the hands of Esau .”
This medrash teaches us that with our voices – in Torah study and prayer – the Jewish people determine whether violence will be the dominant force in the world. The commentaries add that when the Jewish people use their voices properly, then they merit that the hands of Esau will not only not be harmful, but will even be beneficial, serving the greater good and enabling the Jewish people to serve God fully. (דגל מחנה אפרים)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Greeks and Greek Philosophy in Traditional Jewish Thought

The Greeks first entered Jewish history via the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, towards the end of their “Classical Period”. Historians refer to the period beginning with the death of Alexander the Great as the “Hellenistic Period”.

Origins of the Greeks

In Genesis 5:32 we are told that Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In Genesis 10 we read how these three men were the ancestors of all the “seventy nations” of humanity. Japheth had seven sons, one of whom was named Javan (יון – pronounced “Yavan”). According to Jewish tradition, Javan was the ancestor of the Greeks. Traditionally, the Jews have always referred to the Greeks as Yavanim rather than Hellenes, the name that the Greeks used for themselves.[1]

Although the Greeks viewed themselves as one group, bound together by bonds of blood, culture, and religion, they were far from being a unified people. On the contrary, all of Greek history is made up of constant wars between the different Greek states. It was only when confronted by the clear threat of the Persian Empire that the Greek nations were able to unite in mutual defense. Even this was only achieved with great difficulty and lasted for a very short time. Not long after the Persian conquest was defeated, the Peloponnesian war broke out between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies.

Eventually, the Greek states were united through the conquest of Philip of Macedonia. Macedonia was a semi-Greek state to the north of Greece. When Philip was assassinated, his son Alexander, whom we know as Alexander the Great, succeeded him. Alexander’s rise to power marks the beginning of a new era in world history.

Greek Wisdom

The Greeks were unique among the nations in their pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. The Maharal (R’ Yehuda Loew, d.1609) writes (ספר נר מצוה):
... מלכות זה [יון] כנגד ... השכל, שהמלכות הזה היה בו החכמה והתבונה ... כי כל ענין המלכות זה שהיו מבקשים החכמה...
This kingdom [Greece] represents the… intellect, for this kingdom had wisdom and understanding… for the entire theme of this kingdom was that they sought wisdom.
The Sages recognized Greek culture as being uniquely superior to other non-Jewish cultures. Thus, for example, the one language in which it was permitted to write a Torah scroll, other than Hebrew, was ancient Greek. The Mishna (Megilla 1:8) states:
...בספרים לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית
For [Torah] scrolls they only permitted Greek.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:9) explains:
בדקו ומצאו שאין התורה יכולה להיתרגם כל צורכה אלא יוונית
The [Sages] searched and found that the Torah cannot be properly translated in any language except Greek.[2]
The Talmud explains that this was a fulfillment of the blessing given to Japheth, the ancestor of the Greeks, by Noah (Genesis 9:27):
יפת אלקים ליפת וישכון באהלי שם...
May God expand Japheth, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem…
The Greeks were the creators of philosophy. Indeed, the term “philosophy” is a Greek word that means, “love of knowledge”. In ancient times, the term “philosophy” was applied to all forms of wisdom, including the sciences. However, and perhaps more importantly, Greek philosophy emphasized the study of the nature of the world, the definition of good and evil, and other basic questions about existence and humanity. It is in this regard that we use the term “philosophy” today.

Although the Jewish people did not engage in formal philosophical study in ancient times, the Greeks still recognized the Jews as being uniquely knowledgeable in these fields. As historian John G. Gager has written, "In the Greco-Roman world, the earliest and most abiding view of the Jews was as a nation of philosophers."[3]

The influence of Greek philosophy – especially the works of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – on human thought has been absolutely immense, extending even into modern times. Thus, it is not surprising that many later Jewish sources discuss the teachings of these philosophers at great length. While the Jewish perspective on Greek thought is often highly critical, even the most critical sources will generally acknowledge the intellectual achievements of these men. For example, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, a strong critic of both the philosophers and of philosophy in general, makes the following statement defending them in his Kuzari:[4]
הפילוסופים אין להאשים אותם, מפני שהם עם שלא נחלו חכמה ולא תורה....
ולפיכך, בדין הוא שלא נאמין לאריסטו בחכמתו, מפני שהטריח את שכלו ומחשבתו בעבור שלא היתה בידו קבלה ממי שיאמין בהגדתו... ואלו היה הפילוסוף באמה שינחל בה מקבלות ומפרסמות שאינו יכול לדחות אותם היה מתעסק בהקשותיו ומופתיו להחזיק החידוש – עם קשיו – כאשר החזיק הקדמות, אשר היא יותר קשה לקבל.
The philosophers should not be blamed [for their errors], for they are a nation that did not inherit wisdom and Torah…[5]
Therefore, we cannot have confidence in the philosophy of Aristotle. For he labored with his intellect and thought because he did not have a reliable tradition …. If the philosopher had lived in a nation [like the Jews] with reliable and well-known traditions that could not be falsified, he would have labored with his logical arguments and proofs to strengthen the concept of creation – with its difficulties – as he [instead] did with the concept of eternity, which is even more difficult to accept.[6]
Thus, R’ Yehuda HaLevi argues that the failure of the Greek philosophers to recognize the truth of creation and of God’s relationship with this world stemmed primarily from their exclusive reliance on their own intellect because they came from a nation with no reliable tradition of revelation. Indeed, the Kuzari (4:13, 5:14) later quotes Socrates making this very point:[7]
אמר סקראט אל העם, חכמתכם זאת האלקית אינני מכחישה, אך אני אומר שאינני יודעה, אמנם אני חכם בחכמה אנושית.
(ר"ל, מאחר שאין לי דת מקובלת, בדין הוא שאהיה נוטה אחר העיון האנושי – פי' אוצר נחמד.)
Socrates said to the nation [i.e. the leaders of Athens], “I do not deny your wisdom of god, but I simply do not know it, however, I am knowledgeable in human wisdom.”
(Meaning, “As I do not have a received religion [i.e. a religion based on a revelation and reliable tradition], it is only logical that I should turn towards human understanding.” – Otzar Nechmad)
Many traditional sources argue that the immense intellectual achievements of these Greek philosophers had to result from Jewish influence. Thus, for example, there are legends that Socrates received his wisdom from Ahitophel and Asaph haKarchi[8], and that Plato[9] received wisdom from the prophets, particularly Jeremiah.[10]


The philosopher Aristotle was one of the greatest intellects of all time. His numerous works were all recognized as the authoritative works in their fields, and they covered every single area of human knowledge of that time. He wrote on the physical and biological sciences, on logic and mathematics, political science and psychology, art and poetry, and many other fields. His work was so influential that later generations treated his writings almost like holy script.

Aristotle was hired by Philip of Macedonia to tutor his son Alexander. Later, when Alexander became the king of Greece, and eventually most of the civilized world, he supported his former tutor, enabling him to found his own philosophical school in Athens and to engage in extensive research.

Jewish tradition has very mixed feelings about Aristotle. On one hand, Maimonides clearly had a very high opinion of Aristotle, writing:[11]

דעת ארסטו היא תכלית דעת האדם מלבד מי שנשפע עליהם השפע האלקי עד שישיגו אל מעלת הנבואה אשר אין למעלה ממנה.
The intellect of Aristotle was the ultimate intellect possible for a human being except for someone upon whom flows the Divine “flow” to the point that he achieves prophecy, above which there is no higher level.
Nevertheless, Maimonides was far from a slavish follower of Aristotle, especially when Aristotle’s conclusions differed from the Torah. Similarly, the Kuzari quoted above, and other sources, appear to see him as a basically honest and brilliant man who struggled to find the truth but failed due to his background. There is even a legend (almost certainly apocryphal) that, towards the end of his life, he became acquainted with the teachings of the Torah and recognized its truth.[12]

On the other hand, other traditional sources speak very negatively of Aristotle. For example, the Vilna Gaon (R’ Elijah of Vilna, d.1797) is quoted as saying "שודאי הוא שהיה אריסטו כופר מתחילה ועד סוף" – “It is certain that Aristotle was a denier from beginning to end.”[13]

The Rema (R’ Moshe Isserles, d.1572), in his work, Toras HaOlah (1:11), recounts a story of Aristotle which reflects the belief, mentioned previously, that Greek wisdom originally came from contact with the Jews, and which also puts Aristotle in a very negative light:
כתב בשבילי אמונה כי כל עיקר חכמת ארסטוטליס גנובה מחכמת שלמה ע"ה, כי כאשר כבש אלכסנדרוס מוקדן ירושלים, השליט לאריסטוטלס רבו על אוצר ספרי שלמה, וכל דבר טוב שמצא בהן כתב שמו עליו, ועירב בהן מקצת דעות רעות כמו קדמות העולם וכפירת השגחה לחפות עליו שלא ידעו הבריות שבאו אחריו שגנב החכמה מיהודי, ואפשר שכל דבר שלא מצא עליו מופת חותך בדברי שלמה לא האמינו
It is written in Shvilei Emunah[14] that the entire essence of the wisdom of Aristotle was stolen from the wisdom of [King] Solomon. For when Alexander the Macedonian conquered Jerusalem, he appointed his teacher, Aristotle, over the library of the books of Solomon, and every good thing that [Aristotle] found there, he wrote his name on, and he blended in some bad opinions, such as the [belief in] the pre-existence of the world and the denial of [Divine] providence, to cover himself so that the people who came after him would not know that he stole the wisdom from a Jew. And, possibly, anything in the words of Solomon which he did not find a clear proof for he did not believe.[15]
Interestingly, a number of works attributed to Aristotle were translated into Hebrew and were treated as valid sources of wisdom. In particular, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – known in Hebrew as Sefer HaMiddos – is particularly significant and widely cited.

Hellenism and Judaism

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888) writes[16] that Hellenism serves a vital spiritual function in lifting man out of the pit of savage vulgarity and licentiousness that is symbolized by Ham, the raw, uncultured man. Only after man has developed the higher and nobler sensibility symbolized by Japheth is it then possible for him to turn to the even higher spiritual aspirations of Shem:
[T]he education of raw unrefined humanity ton the sense of beauty is not the highest. Wavering, unsettled is the culture which only gives Man the satisfying of his own higher standards as the criterion of the activities of his life, but gives him no ideal external to himself, glowing in its own lights, as a beacon, a goal and a criterion. Only that which can elevate the mind to a knowledge of, and the feelings to a recognition of what is good and true in itself, leads a man to the height of what he is meant to be. …
But… this goal will not be achieved at once. … Out of the raw, uncultured man, a cultured man has first to be made. The demand which the God of Shem makes is no small one, it demands the complete devotion and and submission of the whole person to God. A person must first acquire “the taste” of something higher than he is in his raw nature, even if this something higher is at first also something that appeals to his senses. … This culture of beauty and grace… is a precursor of the semitic mission, a preparatory school for teaching people to reach the loftier concept of life, the still greater beauty which lies in a harmonious joining all the aspects of life under the single idea of devotion to God.

[1] The Greeks were divided into three tribes, the Ionians, the Dorians, and the Aeolians. Of these three groups, the Ionians appear to have been dominant. In particular, Athens – the center of Greek culture and, for much of Greek history, the most powerful Greek state – was Ionian. Ionia is also the name given to a region of Asia Minor on the eastern shore of Aegean Sea that was settled predominantly by Ionian Greeks. The dominance of Ionians in Asia Minor would have brought them into more direct contact with the Persian Empire and the other Eastern centers of civilization. The Ionians were also the dominant group responsible for Greek philosophy and science. All of these factors may explain why the Greeks as a whole were known, by the Jews and others, as Yavanim. Interestingly, the Ionians claimed to be descended from a man name Ion. This individual may well be identical with Javan the son of Japheth.

[2] However, Maimonides (Hil. Tefilin 1:19) writes that the Greek language was corrupted in later years and can no longer be used for Torah scrolls.

[4] Quoting from the arrangement of the Kuzari made by Rav Yechezkel Sarna, based on Kuzari 1:63-65.

[5] One of Rav Yehuda HaLevi’s basic teachings is the superiority of knowledge revealed by God (Torah) and passed down through a reliable tradition (mesorah) over knowledge found purely through human intellectual effort.

[6] In this paragraph, R’ Yehuda HaLevi focuses on what is possibly the most significant area of disagreement between the Torah and the philosophy of Aristotle. One of the most basic teachings of the Torah is chiddush ha’olam – that the world is created from nothing. Aristotle, however, taught kadmus ha’olam – that the world has always existed. It should perhaps be noted that the Abarbanel, in his Mifalos Elokim (5:3) argues that Aristotle, in making this argument, did not intend to argue against the Torah teaching that the world was created by supernatural means, but against other Greek schools of philosophy which believed that the world had come into existence by natural means.

[7] I do not know what R’ Yehuda Halevi’s source was for this quote, however, while not made explicitly, the sentiment is echoed in a few passages in Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates defends himself against accusations of heresy and atheism.

[8] Seder HaDoros (ג"א שפ"ה)

[9] Plato’s philosophical system, in particular, has a strong resemblance to concepts in Torah, particularly Kabala. A note printed in the beginning of the Tikkunei Zohar im Biur HaGra states:
חכמת הקבלה היא חכמת רוחניות התורה ושרשיה, כפי שבאה בקבלה לראשי האומה, והאור האלוקי הזה הופיע גם באהלי יפת, וגדולי חכמי יון נאותו לאור יקרות זה, והתקרבו במקצת דעותיהם לדעות חכמי הקבלה, וביחוד הפילוסוף אפלטון היוני...
The wisdom of kabala is the spiritual wisdom of the Torah and its roots, as it was received by the heads of the nation. This godly light also shown in the tents of Japheth, and the great sages of Greece enjoyed this precious light and came close, in part, to the opinions of the sages of kabala, especially the philosopher Plato the Greek.
[10] The Shalsheles HaKabala (R’ Gedaliah ibn Yachya, d.1588) makes the following statement:
קבלתי ממורי הגאון זקני זצ"ל כי הוא ראה בפי' הכוזר שעשה ר' נתנאל ן' כספי האומר אמר אפלטון אני הייתי עם ירמיהו במצרים ובתחלה הייתי לועג עליו ועל דבריו ולבסוף כאשר הרגלתי לדבר עמו ולדקדק במעשיו וראיתי כי דבריו דברי אלקים חיים אז אמרתי בלבי וקיימתי שהוא חכם ונביא
I received from my teacher, the gaon, my grandfather זצ"ל, that he saw in the commentary on the Kuzari written by Rav Nasanel ibn Kaspi (early 15th century) a statement quoting Plato saying, “I was with Jeremiah in Egypt, and in the beginning I mocked him and his words, but in the end, when I spoke to him regularly and carefully observed his deeds, I saw that his words were the words of the living God. Then I said in my heart and I determined that he was a sage and a prophet.”
(Page 137 in 1889 Warsaw edition.) Also see Seder HaDoros ג"א ש' and Midrash Talpiyos ענף ירמיה.

[11] Near the end of a letter he wrote to Rav Shmuel ibn Tibbon on the translation of Moreh Nevuchim.

[12] The Shalsheles HaKabala writes that a book was found, supposedly written by Aristotle, in which Aristotle recanted from all of his philosophical teachings and acknowledged the truth of the Torah. The Shalsheles HaKabala then goes on to quote at length from a letter, appended to this work, which Aristotle supposedly wrote to his disciple, Alexander the Great, in which he writes that he met a Jewish sage who proved to him the truth of the Torah and that he now wishes he could destroy all of his earlier works. Seder HaDoros even quotes a source that claims that Aristotle converted to Judaism!

[13] הקדמת ר' מנחם מענדל משקלאב לפי' הגר"א על מס' אבות – This statement may have been specifically intended to contradict the legends of Aristotle’s later change of heart.

[14] By Rav Meir ibn Aldabi (14th century).

[15] This last sentence is not from the Shvilei Emunah, but from the Rema. It appears to be an attempt to partially justify Aristotle’s mixture of false teachings into the wisdom of Solomon, similar to the argument of Socrates quoted from the Kuzari previously.

[16] In his commentary on Genesis 9:27 and in an essay titled, “Hellenism and Judaism” in Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol.2.