Friday, December 7, 2012

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).

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