a Seeker of Wisdom
After the death of Ptolemy I, the king was succeeded by his son Ptolemy II. In his time, the wars between Alexander's successors had ended, and the government of Egypt and the land of Israel was firmly in his hands. In his time, Eastern peoples showed increased interest in the books of different nations, and in many places, large libraries were founded.
This Ptolemy was a wise, intelligent king and bibliophile, and he established a large library. He liked to collect all the books of different religions to see what wisdom they had to offer and to explore their different concepts of justice and integrity. He hoped that after studying the world’s wisdom, he would be able to compose his own book of rules that would provide for the world’s complete needs based on morality and justice.
He sent two of his wise men from country to country to look for and collect books of wisdom. After they had encompassed the world, they returned to the King carrying nine hundred and ninety-five books. The king was very happy, and he laughed and said: Let us add another five, so we will have a thousand books.
There were a few scholars who had heard about the Jewish Torah. They said to him: “Our master the king, why did you bother to collect so many books for the study of truth and justice? Our advice to you is to send messengers to the Jews in Jerusalem, and let them bring you the Torah scrolls which were dictated by G-d to their prophets. From these books, you will become wise and will be able to judge any case according to genuine standards of justice and honesty.”
The king listened to their advice, and sent emissaries to Jerusalem and asked the Jews to give him the Torah translated into Greek. But the sages of Jerusalem did not want to give their book of the law into the hands of a foreigner, so they came up with a ruse and instead translated The Book of the Upright” [Sefer Hayashar] which contain the Sages’ midrashim [stories] on the Torah.
The king took the book into his hands, and began to study it. He greatly enjoyed the wisdom and justice in it, until he ignored all the other books that he had gathered and studied only this book. He was very pleased with the good advice that his wise men had given him.
Later, his wise men learned about the fraud. They realized that the Jews had given Ptolemy another book instead of the Torah, and they hurried to the king and said to him: “Our master and king, the Jews fooled you, and did not send you the Torah we told you about, but another book in their possession. Our advice to you, is to send envoys again to demand that they send the Torah’s true teachings, because that is what will satisfy you far more than the book they sent you.”
The King was furious. He immediately decided to send emissaries to Jerusalem a second time to bring back the true Torah. But this time he was very suspicious, and he cunningly put in place a scheme to be sure that he will get the real Torah and not another book. (This account is found in the Introduction to Sefer Hayashar.)
Translation of the Torah into Greek
What did Ptolemy do? He sent books and meal-offerings to the High Priest and asked him to send 72 sages from the Land of Israel, but did not reveal the reason for the invitation.
When the 72 elderly and wise kohanim (priests) led by Eleazar the kohen came to King Ptolemy in Egypt, they were received with great honor. King Ptolemy gave them seventy-two houses and asked each one to separately translate the Torah into Greek. In this way, he wanted to be sure that they were translating the Torah for him, and not another book.
Divine inspiration rested on all the sages, and G-d put wisdom in their hearts to translate the Torah while including a few necessary changes. They all made the exact same changes. For example: They translated “G-d created at the beginning” [instead of “In the beginning G-d created” so that the gentiles would not say, that “In the beginning” is the name of an idol who created heaven, G-d forbid].
Another change they made: They translated the Hebrew to “I will make man” [instead of “We will made man”, so the gentiles would not err and say that the Almighty had partners in Creation].
When the work was completed, the books were brought to the king, and he found that all the translations correlated, and were honest and true, and he was tremendously pleased. He studied the holy books, and plumbed them for deeper meanings, and tremendously enjoyed the great wisdom embedded in them. The king commanded that the elderly priests be sent back to Jerusalem with great honor, and he awarded them gold and silver treasures.
The Egyptian Jews were very happy that the Torah had been translated into Greek, because they knew that as a result, their honor would increase in the eyes of the gentiles. Now the gentiles would be able to read in the Torah about the Jewish people and great miracles that G-d did for them. They celebrated the day that the translation of the Torah into Greek had been completed every year.
But the sages of Israel saw the grave danger that this translation posed to the Jews of Egypt. They knew that over time, the Egyptian Jews will get used to reading the Torah in Greek and would forget the holy language, and slowly forsake the path of Judaism. This concern indeed was proven true over the years. This is why our sages say: “The day that the Torah was translated into Greek was as grievous as the day that the Golden Calf was made.”
During the rule of the Ptolemies, Hellenistic culture spread all over the world. Greek cities were built in Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and even in the Land of Israel, and they contained all the institutions that disseminated Hellenistic culture. These cities had large libraries containing the works of Greek authors and philosophers, temples of idols, places of entertainment, sports and more.
The Greek cities in the Land of Israel and Egypt constituted a serious stumbling-block to our people. Many visited them for business reasons, and the more frivolous Jews were influenced by the external splendor of Hellenistic culture and became contaminated by its hedonism. They went to sports arenas, to temples of the gods and to places of amusement to participate in the wild orgies held there. They tossed aside the yoke of Torah and its commandments. These Jews called themselves “Hellenists.”
Those who feared G-d did not come close to those places. They were disgusted with all manifestations of the corrupt Hellenistic culture. But they were unable to prevent the spread of the scourge among our people.
First, the Hellenists only adopted the outer customs of the Gentiles: they spoke in their language, and participated in their celebrations, but they still kept Torah and its commandments. But over time, they severed themselves completely from the path of Torah, worshiped the Greek gods, and defiled themselves with unkosher meat.
The Exploits of Joseph the Tax Officer
At the beginning of the rule of the Ptolemies, life in Jerusalem and in all the cities of the Jews was conducted according to Torah. Everywhere there were synagogues, study halls, Talmud Torahs, etc., and the Torah sages led the nation. Therefore, the early Hellenists were reluctant to publicly distance themselves from the path of Torah and the tradition of their fathers, and only promoted their agenda in secret.
However, during the reign of Ptolemy III, the Hellenists began to publicly assume power. Joseph, the son of Tuvia, a corrupt, incorrigible Jewish man, cunningly managed to usurp the jurisdiction for collecting taxes from the Jews for King Ptolemy away from the High Priest. The King gave him Egyptian soldiers to help him collect the tax. Joseph, who was now called “Joseph the tax officer”, wanted to use his position for self-enrichment, and he demanded exaggerated sums of money from the Jews.
Ashkelon was the first city where Joseph the tax officer and his men arrived. When the townspeople refused to pay the high taxes demanded of them, he killed twenty leaders of the people and took all their possessions. Since then, the entire Jewish population lived in dread of Joseph the tax collector and his gang, and no one dared to oppose him.
Many Hellenists joined Joseph the tax collector, and like him, they too grew rich from the taxes extorted from the people. When they felt confident that the power was in their hands, they were not afraid to behave openly like the Greeks. The ones who started the trend were the sons of Joseph the tax collector, joined by many of their peers. A few frivolous priests were also induced to go in their ways.