The Story of Hanukkah: The Kingdom of Greece: Darkness Incarnate

At the beginning of Genesis, it says, “And the earth was chaos and void, and there was darkness upon the face of the deep.” The sages explain on this verse[1]: chaos — this is the Babylonian empire; and void — this is the Medean empire; and darkness — this is the Greek empire;  the face of the deep — this is the wicked Roman empire.

The Greek empire was famous mainly due to its contribution in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, theater plays, sport games, and arts. But this empire that is viewed as the fount of progress in the ancient world, was completely immersed in sins which Judaism views as the worst:

1. Idolatry: Greek culture was full of so many idols, that you could apply to it the verse in Jeremiah (2:28) “your gods were like the number of your cities.” Many studies have been conducted up to the present to map all the various kinds of idols which the Greeks believed in: the sun god (Apollo), the earth goddess (Demeter), the sea god (Poseidon), and the goddess of the moon and the hunter (Artemis), the god of the underworld and the dead (Hades), and the goddess of wisdom and war (Athena), and much more.

2. Murder. Ancient Greece instilled a fiercely patriotic, militaristic worldview. A prime example was expressed in Sparta, where the children were separated from their parents at a young age, and underwent strict military indoctrination. Researchers described the military system that existed in Sparta[2]: “They were required to be in constant military readiness to suppress the enslaved population, who outnumbered them several times over. Sparta was a huge army camp, in which the citizen’s supreme virtue was to be a brave and disciplined patriotic soldier … their private lives were controlled by the state. More than the children were their parents’ possession, they were the asset of the entire nation, and the main concern was to make them good citizens and to teach them to bear pain and win the battle. The children were educated together in a boys’ battalion, in ascetic, extremely difficult living conditions while subjected to tough discipline. They received primarily physical and military training… and even the girls received rigorous physical education, to prepare them to be mothers of healthy and brave soldiers.”

3. Indecency and adultery: Ancient Greece is also famous for instituting prostitution as an acceptable and law-abiding profession. In almost every city, brothels could be found, and many Greek citizens visited them regularly. Already in a very early period, Solon (638-558 BC, one of the main organizers of the Athenian laws) institutionalized prostitution and supervised it so that the industry would be conducted in a professional manner, in terms of the payment rates and quality of the service provided.

Under the leadership of Alexander the Great, Greece conquered the Land of Israel, and its culture began to spread among the inhabitants. Not long after, the Greek authorities in the region, with Hellenized Jewish collaborators, actively trampled the Jewish religion, while imposing prohibitions and restrictions on Jews who practiced their religion. They attempted to force upon them a pagan worldview.

The famous historian Josephus wrote[3]: “They also compelled them to forsake the worship of their own G-d, and to adore those whom they took to be gods; they made them build temples, and raise idol altars in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day. They also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed this injunction. They also appointed overseers, who should compel them to do what they commanded. And indeed there were many Jews who complied with the king's commands, either voluntarily, or out of fear of the penalty. But the best men, and those of the noblest souls, did not regard him, but paid a greater respect to the customs of their fathers than concern themselves with the vengeance which he threatened to the disobedient; on which account they every day underwent great miseries and bitter torments until their soul expired… And if any sacred book or Torah scroll was found, it was destroyed, and the unfortunate ones with whom they were found, also perished miserably.”

The Greeks issued many decrees against the Jews. The Midrash details decrees that were calculated to ruin the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d, as well as ruin the sacred Jewish family unit:

“During the reign of the wicked Greek kingdom, they decreed that any Jew who had a doorpost in his house had to engrave on it that the Jews have no part or inheritance in the G-d of Israel. In response to this decree, the Jews immediately went and uprooted the doorposts from their homes. Another decree was that anyone with a bull had to write on its horn that  the Jews had no part in the G-d of Israel; in response, the Jews went and sold their oxen. Another decree was that husbands had to live with their wives in contravention of the laws of family purity; in response, the Jews separated from their wives. They also decreed that after a man marries a woman, she had to spend the first night with a Greek official and only then would be returned to her husband.”[4]

Other Greek decrees included annulling the Sabbath, and undermining the Jewish calendar by not permitting the sanctification of the New Moon[5]. These decrees were so devastating, that the sages declared that “the Greek kingdom blackened the eyes of Israel with their decrees.”[6] So that this realization would be clearly engraved in our hearts, the sages ordained that during the prayers on Chanukah, the following lines would be included: “the wicked Greek kingdom rose against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah, and transgress the statutes that You desire.”

The Greek culture's influence on the Jewish people was enormous. It divided the people into two camps with the Hellenists on one side, and traditional Jews on the other side. The Hellenists struggled with every means at their disposal to introduce foreign influences to the Jewish inhabitants of the land, and reject Jewish traditions. This dispute swept the sides  into a civil war, in which one person killed his brother, and the damage to the Jewish people was huge.[7] They tried to force Greek culture on the Jews, including idolatry, bloodshed and immorality. Indeed, for good reason the sages said: “‘Darkness’ – this is the Greek kingdom.”

[1]. Breishit Rabbah 2:4

[2]. Hebrew Encyclopedia, Vol. 17, pg. 629, article on “Chinuch.”

[3]. Josephus, Antiquities XII:5.

[4]. Otzar Midrashim, Rabbi Yehuda David Eisenstein Edition, Part A, “Chanukah”, page 192.

[5]. For a fascinating explanation of why the Greeks felt it was vital to annul the sanctification of the New Month, see: Rabbi Mordechai Neugroshel, Binat HaLev — Articles on Chanukah, Judaism from a Different Angle Publishing House, pp. 32-34.

[6]. Genesis Rabbah 2:4.

[7]. For further discussion, see: Rabbi Abraham Korman, Denominations and Sects in Judaism: in the Perspective of Generations, Tel Aviv, 5727, pp. 198-203.



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