First time in English: Hellenism and translating the Torah into Greek

Third of the late Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira's essays on Hanukkah: "It was inevitable that the translation of the Torah into Greek diminished the uniqueness of the Jewish people.

Harav Avraham Shapira zts"l, | updated: 13:59

הרב אברהם שפירא זצ"ל
הרב אברהם שפירא זצ"ל
צילום: ישיבת מרכז הרב

For the previous Hanukkah essays, click here.  For a film about Rabbi Shapira zts"l, click here.

The Greeks’ main battle was in the spiritual realm: “To cause the Jewish people to forget Hashem’s Torah and to transgress its laws.”  The decrees began slowly, with typical Greek cunning and craftiness, by having the Torah translated into Greek. This translation was a seemingly positive act, for it would make the Torah accessible to more people, and it even says that Moshe Rabbeinu interpreted the Torah into 70 languages. Megillat Taanit, however, writes that, “On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was translated into Greek, in the days of King Talmai, and a darkness covered the world for three days.” Therefore, it is brought down in halakha, that this day would be henceforth be commemorated as a fast day.

The Gemara brings a similar episode regarding the translation of Yonatan ben Uziel, which “caused the Land of Israel to tremble 400 parsah by 400 parsah.”

The translation of the Torah negatively affects the uniqueness of the Jewish people in several ways. First, because the Jewish people were unified in Lashon Hakodesh – the holy language of the Torah - and the severing of the holy language from the holy Torah and the holy nation is in itself a cause of darkness. Second, the translation enables the passing of the Oral Torah to the non-Jews. The translation is, in fact, an interpretation of the Oral Torah, which explains the meaning of the Torah, and its transmission to the non-Jews takes away from the distinctiveness of the Jewish people.

The Jewish people were unified through the Oral Torah, as it says in the Gemara, “Hashem made a covenant with the Jewish people solely for the Oral Torah, as it says ‘for it is based on these words that I have made a covenant with you and with the Jewish people.’”  Previously, there had been testimony, but now, a covenant was made regarding the Oral Torah specifically with the Jewish people, not with the other nations.

Regarding the non-Jews, the Gemara says, “Even a non-Jew who learns Torah, is similar to the Kohen Gadol.” This seems like a great compliment, and yet, in truth, it hints to a lacking on the part of the non-Jew, that he is like the Kohen Gadol, who spends a short amount of time in the Kodesh Kodashim – inner sanctuary, and then leaves. On the other hand, regarding the Jewish people, the Gemara says, “‘More precious than pearls’ – they are more precious than the Kohen Gadol who enters the Kodesh Kodashim.” The non-Jew is compared to the Kohen Gadol who enters the Beit Hamikdash for a short amount of time, and then leaves, while for the Jewish people, the Torah is more precious than the Kohen Gadol, for they have a constant connection with it. This is included in the covenant made specifically with the Jewish people, and not with the non-Jews.

In translating the Torah into Greek, the aim was to mar the uniqueness of the Oral Torah, which belongs only to the Jewish people. This is the meaning of the phrase, “to cause them to forget Your Torah.” The language of forgetting applies specifically to the Oral Torah, as it says in the Gemara, “In order for Torah learning to become a part of you, Divine assistance is necessary,” and Rashi explains, “so that you should not forget it.” Indeed, in the time of the Chashmonaim, there was special Divine assistance which brought about the revelation of many Chiddushim from the Oral Torah.

The Tosfot bring the Midrash on the passuk in Sefer Hoshea “I write for them the great things of My Law; like a strange thing they are considered.” The Midrash says that the Oral Torah was not written down, in order that it would not be copied by the non-Jews. Another great chiddush similar to this is brought by the Shu”t Sha’ar Ephraim, that the Selichot said in the month of Elul and times of Rachamim were also written in a very complicated language, for the same reason that the Oral Torah was not written down – in order that they would not be copied by the non-Jews. The uniqueness of the Jewish people vs. the nations of the world is exemplified in Torah and Tefillah, as it says in Sefer Devarim, Ki mi goy gadol asher lo Elokim k’rovim eilav… u’mi goy gadol asher chukim u’mishpatim tzaddikim k’chol haTorah hazos – “For what great nation is there that has G-d so near to it… and which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this entire Torah?”

It is therefore inevitable that the translation of the Torah into Greek diminishes the uniqueness of the Jewish people.

Spiritual Distraction

The Tosfot Harid brings the chiddush that the harm in the translation is that it causes the Jewish people to forget the Torah. He writes, “Because the Torah was translated, there was no longer mesirus nefesh – self-sacrifice to study it in its original format [before the translation].” The translation diminishes the involvement and toil in learning Torah, which causes it to become forgotten. This was the intention of the Greeks’ decree. Indeed, we find that in this time period, the Torah’s completeness declined. The Gemara says that, “All the ‘Eshkolost – people of Torah, yirat shamayim, and acts of kindness – who arose in Israel from the days of Moshe Rabbeinu until the death of Yosef ben Yoezer of Zereda were free from all flaw. From that time onward, some amount of flaw was found in them.” The Gemara continues, “Rav Yosef said: [The word dofi here means] dispute, [e.g., the dispute] relating to ‘laying on of hands.’” Then the Gemara asks, “But does not Yosef ben Yoezer himself differ with reference to the law of laying on of hands?” The Gemara answers, “When he differed it was in his last years, when his mental powers declined.”

There were always machlokot – disputes in halakha – as is the way of Torah. But when the side of the majority was revealed, everyone, even the disagreeing minority, would see that their way was true, and come to agree with them. From the time that Rabbi Yosef ben Yoezer passed away, however, even when the majority opinion would be accepted, the minority would still cling to their original opinion. This is the meaning of the Gemara’s saying, liba d’im’it – that our understanding of Torah was diminished.

The Gr”a explains that from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until Yosef ben Yoezer, if the majority had a certain opinion, the minority would come to agree with them. The intellectual involvement in Torah was so clear, that after the accounting of all opinions, the minority would see that the majority was correct. The Gemara describes the Torah learning in the previous time period as, “they learned Torah like Moshe Rabbeinu.” The explanation of this seems to be according to what is written elsewhere in the Gemara, “Moshe would say Yikov hadin et hahar – ‘Let the [acuity of] halalha cut through the mountain,’ but Aharon loved peace, chased after peace, and brought peace amongst man and his fellow.” Moshe’s Torah was so powerful and clear, that after hearing his halakhic verdict, both the prosecutor and defendant would immediately see it as unequivocal truth, to such an extent that Moshe would not have a need for Aharon’s method, for making peace between sides. Aharon, on the other hand, had not reached Moshe’s level. The scholars would learn like Moshe Rabbeinu, and when the verdict was decided, everyone recognized it as the truth.

In the time period of Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer, when the Greeks’ decrees began, the power of Torah decreased. Their decrees caused the heart to become diminished, and people became less great. As a result, the Torah also became diminished, which in turn brought about spiritual distraction. The spiritual deterioration of liba d’im’it was a result of the opposition to the Greeks and to the misyavnim – the [Hellenist] Jews who had fully adopted the Greek culture, who tried with all their might to obliterate the Oral Torah. The ability to cause damage to the heart, the inner strength, was due to the fact that in this exile, as opposed to other exiles, the enemy came from within – the misyavnim from among the nation, causing the deepest injury.

This damage is referred to among the curses in Sefer Vayikra, “Your enemies will rule over you.” Chazal expound upon this, saying, “I will place a ruler upon you from among you.” This damages the heart of the Jewish people, and so the Gemara says, liba d’im’it, the heart of the Jewish people became diminished, which is the essence of exile: To cause us to forget the Torah, to diminish the Torah and to diminish the heart.

The Midrash writes, “‘Yaakov sat’… We learn that he gathered himself and he gathered his sons, and this saved him from the hand of Eisav.” It is understandable that gathering his sons would lead to Yaakov’s salvation, and yet, the phrase “he gathered himself,” seems unclear. Furthermore, how would such a thing contribute to his salvation? The answer is, in order for a person to succeed, he must “gather in” all of his strengths, to consolidate and focus them to his advantage. Just as there is a state of “ingathering of the exiles” of the Jewish people from around the world, there is also a need for every person to gather together and focus his strengths, so as to prevent himself from entering a state of spiritual or emotional distraction.

The Greeks fought against this exact concept. They did not exile the Jewish people from their land; they aimed to create a state of exile within the land itself. A person can remain in his own home, and still be in a state of exile: the state of spiritual distraction, which occurs when the Torah is forgotten. Forgetting the Torah causes considerable spiritual distraction, as well as considerable arguments, which cause controversy. This is the exile the Greeks wanted to invoke. They wanted to sever the Jewish people from their Torah, “to cause them to forget Your Torah and to transgress Your laws.”   

Shabbos, Brit Milah, and Sanctifying the New Month

L’ha’aviram mechukei retzonecha – “To cause them to transgress Your laws.” The Greeks struggled to remove the status of the mitzvos as absolute laws, as Hashem’s absolute will. The passuk in Sefer Vayikra says, “I will not despise [the Jewish people] nor will I reject them,” and Chazal expound, “‘I will not despise them’ – in the time of the Greeks.” The Greeks’ decrees were meant to cause the Jewish people to despise the mitzvos as absolute laws, as it says elsewhere in Sefer Vayikra, “and if you despise my statutes.” As such, Chazal tell us that we received special Divine assistance in order to prevent us from reaching this degree of being despised.

In order to contend with the mitzvos, the Greeks forbade the performance of three mitzvos: Brit Milah, sanctifying the new month, and Shabbos, the three mitzvos that are the root of the entire Torah. The Maharal explains in numerous places that the first time a concept appears, we can learn its essence and purpose. So it is regarding the Torah as well. The Torah first appeared with these three mitzvos, which were given over even before Matan Torah on Mount Sinai. The mitzvah of Brit Milah was given to Avraham Avinu; the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month was given to the Jewish people in Egypt, as it says in Sefer Shmot, “This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year,” and the mitzvah of Shabbos was given in the desert, in a place called Marah, right after the splitting of the sea. These three mitzvos embody the essence of the Torah and its entire purpose. The Greeks wished to prevent the Jewish people from keeping these mitzvos, and as such, to sever their connection to the Torah, for without proper introduction and preparation for Torah, there is no way to access it.

These three mitzvos contain the essence and purpose of all other mitzvos: through the mitzvah of Bris Milah, the individual forms a covenant with Hashem; sanctifying the new month enables the Jewish people to determine the dates of the Jewish festivals, which testify to the fact that Hashem chose the Jewish people as His special nation; and Shabbos is testimony to the creation and renewal of the world.


The Greeks were cunning: they did not destroy the Heichal, they brought in a statue; they did not throw away the oil, they made it impure. Their intention was not to cause the Jewish people to forget the Torah, but “to make them forget Your Torah”-that this is Hashem's Will.
The Greeks did not want to murder and obliterate the entire Jewish people. They wished to destroy the uniqueness of the Jewish people. As such, they did not destroy the Heichal of the Beit Hamikdash; they only broke into it and left it desecrated. Despite this, however, the Midrash explains the passuk, ‘and the darkness’ as:

"The Greek exile, in which the eyes of the Jewish people became darkened from their decrees. The Greeks would order the Jewish people to ‘inscribe on the horn of an ox that you have no share in the G-d of Israel.’"

Regarding the passuk in Sefer Breishit, “and behold, a fright, a great darkness was falling upon him,” the Midrash reiterates that the Greeks fought against the Torah, and wanted to sever the connection between the Torah and the Jewish people, by nullifying the three mitzvos that had been commanded even before the Torah was given, as preparation for keeping the Torah. These mitzvos indeed testify to the singularity of the Jewish people, as a nation holy to Hashem that He crowned with mitzvos.

The Greeks were cunning: they did not destroy the Heichal, they brought in a statue; they did not throw away the oil, they made it impure. Their intention was not to cause the Jewish people to forget the Torah, but “to make them forget Your Torah” – they wanted to sever the connection between the Jewish people and Hashem. The Greeks were fine with the existence of the Heichal, but only if it would serve for Avodah Zara, not holiness. They allowed the oil, but not pure oil acceptable for the holy service. With regard to the Torah, as well, they tolerated Torah, but not Hashem’s Torah. Their objective was, “to cause them to transgress Your laws,” not to transgress the actual mitzvah, but to disregard the fact that it is Hashem’s will. There are mitzvos which the Greeks did not care if they were performed or not. They only wanted to damage and sever our faith that the mitzvos are Hashem’s will.

We learn in the Gemara, “Rabi Tanchum teaches, and according to others, Rabi Asi: This shows that the Megillah must be written on ruled lines, like the true essence of the Torah.” What does the phrase, “the true essence of Torah” mean? It sounds like there is Torah and then there is the “true essence” of Torah. The answer is that all of Torah is true, but there is the essence of the truth. Rabbeinu Tam says that the “true essence of Torah” refers to the Mezuza, in which the most fundamental points comprising the “true essence of Torah” are written. It contains the concepts of accepting upon ourselves the yoke of Torah, such as the underlying principles of the Torah and its magnitude; faith in Hashem and in His oneness; as well as accepting upon ourselves the yoke of the mitzvos, and that they are Divinely ordained. The Greeks fought to uproot this very concept – the centrality of faith in Hashem and in accepting the yoke of His mitzvos.

“May Hashem Bless His Army and Favorably Accept the Work of His Hands”

The Maccabees’ victory was, in a sense, the victory of Torah, and as such, the holiday of Hanukkah was established. The holiday of Hanukkah is a holiday for those who study Torah, a concept referred to in two different places. First, it is hinted to in Moshe Rabbeinu’s bracha to the tribe of Levi, “May Hashem bless his army and favorably accept the work of his hands; strike the loins of those who rise up against him and his enemies, so that they will not recover.”

Rashi explains this passuk, saying,

"From here you can see that in the future, the Hashmonaim will battle against the Greeks, and here, Moshe Rabbeinu prayed for them, for there were few Hashmonaim – twelve sons of the Hashmonai and Elazar, against tens of thousands of Greeks, and so the passuk says ‘may Hashem bless his army and favorably accept the work of his hands.’

Moshe Rabbeinu’s blessing to the tribe of Levi is conferred not only upon the tribe of Levi, but upon all those who study Torah as their livelihood. The Rambam writes in a similar vein,

Why didn’t the tribe of Levi merit a portion of the Land of Israel and of its assets, along with the other tribes? For the tribe of Levi is set apart to serve Hashem and teach His just ways and moral laws to the nation…  They are the soldiers of Hashem, as it says ‘May Hashem bless his army’… This does not include only the tribe of Levi, but also any individual whose heart urges him to volunteer to differentiate himself and stand before Hashem in His holy service.

 At first glance, it seems that the Rambam and Rashi disagree: Rashi learns from this passuk about the future war of the Maccabees –the Kohanim from the tribe of Levi, while the Rambam learns that the tribe of Levi does not go out to war. Yet, in essence, there is no contradiction.  For anytime the struggle is one of Torah values and chinuch, who will lead the way if not for the tribe of Levi? This is part of their nature, as it says in Moshe’s blessing to them, “They shall teach Your laws to Yaakov, and your Torah to Israel.” In all spiritual matters, they are assigned to the forefront, and the war against the Greeks was a battle against the Torah, as we say in Al Hanissim regarding the victory, that it brought Zeidim b’yad oskei Torasecha – the intentional sinners into the hands of those who learn Torah.

Moshe’s bracha continues, as he says that Hashem should “favorably accept the work of his hands,” that the war against the Greeks should be accepted for generations. The Gemara adds, “in a different year, they established these days [of Hanukkah] as a holiday of praise and thanks.” The question arises, why did they wait for a different year in order to establish the holiday, instead of doing so right away? The answer is, that they were in doubt as to whether the miracle was relevant to that specific time period only, or if it had significance for generations. Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu prayed that Hashem should “favorably accept the work of his hands,” that the miracle of the war’s victory would be accepted and established for generations.

Yet, the question still remains, why was there a need to wait an entire year in order to decide if the victory was worthy of being established as a miracle for generations, and to establish it as a holiday? Indeed, the war was a spiritual one, with the purpose of eradicating all traces of Greek culture, and it is known that for a full twelve months thereafter, those who had been drawn to Avodah Zarah were no longer involved in it. The Gemara describes a similar situation, in which:

A person who takes a slave from among idol worshippers, even if the slave undergoes both Brit Milah and the ritual immersion, [if he touches wine] he will still render it Yein Nesech, until the Avodah Zara vanishes from his mouth. How long is this? Twelve months.

Therefore, only the next year, twelve months later, after it became clear that the misyavnim had fully disengaged from Avodah Zara, were they able to establish the holiday. This was what Moshe had prayed for – that their actions would be accepted and that they would succeed in the spiritual battle.

An Extremely Beloved Mitzvah

Hanukkah is the holiday celebrating the Oral Torah, which is hinted at in the Gemara, “A person who lights candles regularly will merit having righteous children.” Rashi explains, “As it says ‘a candle is a mitzvah and the Torah is light.’ The light of Torah comes through the performance of the mitzvos of Shabbos and Hanukkah.”

This Gemara is the basis for the Rambam’s statement, “The mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is an extremely beloved mitzvah, and a person must be very careful [to fulfill it properly].” It is unclear why the Rambam specifically emphasizes the mitzvah of Hanukkah, for it doesn’t seem to be different than any other mitzvah. The Maggid Mishnah explains that the basis for the Rambam’s statement is in this Gemara, and each mitzvah contains the source and preparation for absorbing the light of Torah. The Rambam writes,

Please save us from groping in the darkness, kindle for us a candle to straighten the stumbling blocks, and light a light to guide us in the path of righteousness, as it says, “Your words are a candle to my step, and light for my path.”

What makes the Shabbos and Hanukkah candles special is that through their light, the unique quality of these days becomes apparent, i.e. the ability to truly attain Torah. It was on Hanukkah that the decrees of the Greeks were nullified, as they tried to prevent the Jewish people from learning Torah and from performing the three essential mitzvos, of Shabbos, Bris Milah, and sanctifying the new month. Therefore, the most praiseworthy way to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is to be fully aware of and connected to the holiness of Torah, which brings a person to treasure everything connected to learning Torah.

Cherishing the mitzvos of Shabbos and Hanukkah candles contains the virtue of loving Torah, and as such, the reward for these mitzvos is to have children who are Talmidei Chachamim. As it says in the Gemara, “Rava said, that a person who loves Talmidei Chachamim, will have children who are Talmidei Chachamim as well.” From this we can understand the words of the Maggid Mishnah brought earlier, that a person who values the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles will certainly cherish all of the Torah, and so the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles encompasses a degree of extra special
The mitzvah of Hanukkah candles encompasses a degree of extra special appreciation for Torah learning above all other mitzvos. Therefore, it is indeed “an extremely beloved mitzvah.”
appreciation for Torah learning above all other mitzvos. Therefore, it is indeed “an extremely beloved mitzvah.”

Here, the Gemara teaches that the reward for the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles is given right away, as opposed to other mitzvos, whose rewards are given in the World to Come. If a person is careful in keeping the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles, and his children study Torah, they will become Talmidei Chachamim. The Gemara continues, and tells us that:

A person who is careful in performing the mitzvah of Mezuza, will merit to have a nice house; a person who is careful in performing the mitzvah of Tzitzis will merit to have a nice Tallis; a person who is careful in performing the mitzvah of Kiddush will merit to fill wine casks.

The question arises regarding Hanukkah candles, why does a person careful in this mitzvah not merit something connected to Hanukkah candles, such as a nice Menorah, just as “a person who is careful in performing the mitzvah of Tzitzis will merit to have a nice Tallis” because Tzitzis is connected to clothing, and “a person who is careful in performing the mitzvah of Mezuza, will merit to have a nice house” because the Mezuza is connected to the house?

Why does a person careful in the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles merit Torah as a reward? It seems as if this reward is not connected to the mitzvah. Yet, we can understand this according to the Gemara which teaches that when lighting the Hanukkah candles, we say in the bracha, V’tzivanu – “That you have commanded us.” The Gemara asks, what exactly is the source of this commandment? For the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles is not from the Written Torah. Rav Avia says that this commandment is based on the passuk, Lo sassur – “You shall not turn away [from the word they tell you, either right or left].” Rav Nechemia says that we are commanded this from the passuk, She’al avicha v’yagedcha, z’keinecha v’yomru lach  – “Ask your father and he will tell you, [ask] the Chachamim and they will inform you…”

Because the entire mitzvah of Hanukkah candles comes from the Oral Torah, a person who is careful in lighting Hanukkah candles merits Torah as a reward.

Indeed it seems as if the Gemara asks, “from where are we commanded” regarding the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles specifically, as opposed to other Rabbinically-ordained mitzvos, because here, the entire purpose is to emphasize the power of the Chachamim and the power of the Oral Torah, the root of our war against the Greeks.

Another mitzvah in which candles are central is bedikat chametz, which the Gemara teaches must be done by the light of a candle. We learn this from the connection to the word “candle” in the passuk, Ner Hashem nishmat adam, chofes kol chadrei baten – “Man’s soul is Hashem’s candle, which searches out all the innermost parts.” From here we see that “candle” indicates searching and revealing. This concept applies to the Shabbos and Hanukkah candles as well, whose purpose is to reveal and kindle the light of Torah. So it is that “a person who is careful to light Hanukkah candles will merit having righteous children.”

The Ramban writes further that the Gemara above specifically discusses the mitzvos of Tzitzit, Mezuza, and Kiddush, for these are mitzvos that a person can technically become exempt from performing. If he does not wear a garment with four corners, for example, he is exempt from Tzitzit; if he does not live in a house, he is exempt from Mezuza, and he can make Kiddush on bread instead of on wine. Therefore, if he does perform these mitzvos properly, he deserves reward, for he could have chosen to exempt himself from them.

Hanukkah candles, however, have an additional value above these mitzvos, related to the love of Torah. We have mentioned previously that that Greeks wished to cause the Jewish people to B’chukosai tim’asu – “despise My statutes” in place of, B’chukosai telechu – “follow My statutes.” “‘Follow My statutes’ – you should toil in Torah learning.” Toiling in Torah learning stems from a love of Torah, and this is the way to overcome the Greeks who wanted L’hashkicham Torasecha – to cause the Jewish people to forget Hashem’s Torah.

May it be the will of Hashem that in the merit of the love of Torah and toiling in Torah, we will merit to truly acquire the Torah in its entirety.

Translated by Chaya Ben Menachem.  Note: Footnotes have been omitted due to programming restraints.



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