Light and Darkness: Jews and Greeks

Note the inference of the name יון: three letters which follow the same general form, each one plunging lower than the previous one, leading to ever-deeper depths.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The Midrash records that Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) homiletically explained the first few moments of Creation to be a microcosm of all subsequent history:

“In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth; and the earth was chaos and void, with darkness over the abyss. And the Spirit of G-d was hovering over the waters, and G-d said: Let there be light! – And there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3).

Reish Lakish expounds: “‘The earth was chaos’ alludes to the Babylonian exile...; ‘and void’ alludes to the Median [Persian] exile...; ‘darkness’ alludes to the exile of Greece, which darkened the Jews’ eyes with their decrees, when they said to them: Write on the horns of the ox that you have no share in the G-d of Israel; ‘over the abyss’ alludes to the exile of the evil kingdom [Rome], whose extent cannot be fathomed, just like the abyss; ‘and the Spirit of G-d was hovering’ alludes to the spirit of King Mashiach” (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4).

Though Greece was – and still is! – considered the epitome of enlightenment in the ancient world; and though Greek philosophy and science provided the basis for philosophy and science even until today; and though Greece was far-and-away the most cultured and educated nation in the world at the time, and though ancient Greece produced some of the most beautiful statues and architecture and works of art in history –

– nevertheless, from the Jewish perspective, it represented darkness. Greek Hellenistic philosophy rejected G-d and spirituality, therefore all of its (admittedly impressive and physically beautiful) achievements were dead.

Maybe the epitome of Hellenism was the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) – the philosopher who taught complete sensuality. This life is all that there is, there is no afterlife, no reward or punishment – therefore the sole purpose of life is sensual enjoyment. Pleasure and pain, he taught, define good and evil: this is to say that anything which brings pleasure is good, anything which brings pain is evil.

As a philosophy for life, it inevitably militates against spiritualism, against any concept of good and evil as defined by G-d.

And it is no idle happenstance that the Hebrew adaptation of his name, epikorus, means heretic. The Hebrew אַפִּיקוֹרוֹס combines the name Epicurus with the Hebrew root פקר, denoting “free of restraint”, as in the word הֶפְקֵר (ownerless). And since the root-letters in Hebrew can sometimes change order without changing the meaning of the word, the word אַפִּיקוֹרוֹס can also be seen as a cognate of the root פרק, denoting “cast off” (as in casting off a yoke).

For all its physical beauty, Hellenism is the epitome of rejecting the constraints which G-d has ordained.

Greece’s earliest history begins immediately after the Flood, with the origin of mankind’s 70 nations:

“The sons of Yefet (Japheth): Yavan (Javan)... and the sons of Yavan: Elisha and Tarshish, Kittim and Dodanim” (Genesis 10:2-4).

יָוָן (Yavan) is the Hebrew name for Greece. And his first son, אֱלִישָׁה (Elisha), is a clear reference to Ellas or Hellas, part of ancient Greece (Hellas of course being the origin of the name Hellenism). And it is intriguing that the Targum Yonatan renders אֱלִישָׁה into Aramaic with two names: אֱלִישָׁה אַלַס, Elisha Allas, strengthening the connexion between Greece and Hellas.

And the Targum Yonatan renders דֹדָנִים (Dodanim) into Aramaic as דּוֹרְדַנְיָא (Dordaniya) – maybe suggesting the Dardanelles, in Greek called Dardanellia, known in antiquity as the Hellespont, from the Greek Hellespontos, “Sea of Helle”.

And the Hebrew name for Greece, יָוָן, is clearly a cognate of Ionia, part of ancient Greece.

Yavan’s father was Yefet, יֶפֶת, whose name denotes beauty. And among Noah’s first recorded utterances was his blessing: “Blessed be Hashem, the G-d of Shem... May G-d beautify Yefet, and may he dwell in Shem’s tents” (Genesis 9:26-27).

Yefet’s beauty – Yavan’s (Greece’s) beauty – would, in an ideal world, be housed in the tents of Shem, meaning in Synagogues and Study Halls (Batei Midrash). In an ideal world, Yavan’s undisputed physical beauty would be harnessed to Israel’s spirituality and would be dedicated to the service of G-d.

When Yavan is left to go his own way, his beauty inevitably degenerates into Epicurean sensuousness – epikorsut, heresy.

And so we note the inference of the name יון: three letters which follow the same general form, each one plunging lower than the previous one, leading to ever-deeper depths.

And we also note that יָוָן is צִיּוֹן (Zion) without the צ (tzaddik). צִיּוֹן, denoting “distinguished by beauty”, but devoid of the צ, denoting righteousness. When צִיּוֹן is devoid of its צ, its righteousness, then what remains is יָוָן, Yavan (Greece).

The original Divine plan was for Shem and Yavan – the Jews and the Greeks – to collaborate in building a world of spiritual and physical beauty.

And I would suggest that there is an exquisitely subtle hint to our intended joint mission in the world in an exquisitely subtle and abstruse point of Hebrew grammar – actually an exception to an exception to a seemingly insignificant point of grammar.

Hebrew has no word for the definite article “the”. Instead, “the” is the prefix הַ-. And the general rule is that the letter immediately following the הַ- prefix has a dagesh (a dot in the letter which doubles and emphasises the letter): הַסֵּפֶר (the book), הַלַּיְלָה (the night), הַיָּרֵחַ (the moon), and so forth.

But every rule has its exceptions, and this rule has two exceptions:
(1)    The five guttural letters א,ה , ח, ע, and ר can never have a dagesh;
(2)    When the letter following the הַ- is a י vowellised with a sh’va (יְ), then the יְ does not have a dagesh: הַיְלָדִים (the children), הַיְאֹר (the river, specifically the Nile), הַיְשִׁימוֹן (the desert), הַיְרֻשָּׁה (the inheritance), and so forth.

And there are two exceptions to this second exception: הַיְּהוּדִים (the Jews) [1], and הַיְּוָנִים (the Greeks) [2]. Hebrew grammar gives an unwarranted dagesh to the יְּ of both nations, the Jews and the Greeks. The יְּ which is the first letter of G-d’s holy Name; the יְּ which represents G-d Himself.

This tiny, minuscule point of Hebrew grammar, so esoteric that few people ever notice it or are even aware of it, nevertheless reaches us a central lesson. Both הַיְּהוּדִים (the Jews) and הַיְּוָנִים (the Greeks) add the dagesh in the י, the yud, the first letter of their names, against the rules of normative grammar. Both הַיְּהוּדִים (the Jews) and הַיְּוָנִים (the Greeks)  are supposed to emphasise G-d in this world.

In an ideal world, both would.

In an ideal world, both one day will.

This is the ultimate promise of Hanukkah.

[1] See, for example, 2 Kings 16:6, Jeremiah 38:19, and dozens of times in the Book of Esther.
[2] See Joel 4:6.