The Purim story has a happy ending. But Jewish history has other stories that do not end quite as happily. We would be wise to learn the Purim story well to understand what caused the turnabout that saved the Jews. It just may help us deal with the storm clouds gathering on our horizon.
Posts Tagged ‘Holy Temple’
The Chanukah story as we know it describes a wicked tyrant, Jewish resistance, and the miracle of oil that burned for eight days instead of one.
Behind the tale, in the pages of history, lies a parallel story that amplifies what we know of ancient times and also raises a couple of interesting questions.
When Antiochus IV issued a series of decrees outlawing the Jewish religion, it was the first recorded instance of massive religious persecution. Historians, notably Victor Tcherikover (Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews), have noted that it was also an anomaly in the ancient world where polytheistic tolerance was the norm.
Why did Antiochus forbid circumcision, kashrut and specific mitzvot such as the consecration of the new moon? Why, when he needed allies instead of enemies in Judea as he consolidated his power in the region, did he incite the people to rebellion?
The usual answer is that Antiochus, continuing the process begun by Alexander the Great, wanted to unite his empire under Hellenic culture and religion, and the Jews were the last stubborn holdouts, the only people who rejected the new gods and new customs.
Or one could say that the deep-seated anti-Semitism of a Haman, a Hitler or an Antiochus needs no rationale. Documents show that the ancient Greeks – the Yevanim in Jewish literature – were in fact contemptuous of the Jews and their religion in a way that foreshadowed later European anti-Semitism.
But the record also reveals that a growing rift in Jewish society, plus total corruption within the religious hierarchy of the Holy Temple, had already made Jerusalem all but unrecognizable as the Jewish capital.
By the time Antiochus issued his anti-Jewish decrees in 167 B.C.E., the following had already taken place: * An irreligious Jew, probably not even a kohen, held the office of high priest.
* The Temple had been desecrated and sacrifices offered to a Greek god.
* The name of the capital had been changed from Jerusalem to Antioch.
* All official power was in the hands of the Jewish Hellenist sympathizers – more accurately described as collaborators in the destruction of Jewish religious and political autonomy. The story that culminates in the discovery of a jar of pure oil and the rededication of the Holy Temple really begins in the previous century with the first Hellenistic inroads, and continues with the activities of several shady individuals who gained power.
According to Their Ancestral Ways
Alexander of Macedonia entered Jerusalem in the summer of 332 B.C.E. His scheme for world domination included acculturation as much as conquest. He grafted new settlements and military colonies onto ancient towns throughout the Middle East and gave them new names. He gave them a new style of government, the polis, which brought economic and political privileges. As part of his master plan, he encouraged his soldiers to intermarry among the local population.
Alexander was the first of a series of kings to give the Jews in Judea permission to “live according to their ancestral laws” and other rights, such as exemption from taxes during the shmittah year.
In Jerusalem the Holy Temple, rebuilt after the return from Babylonian exile, was the center of both national and religious life, with little or no distinction between the two. The hereditary kohen gadol was head of state as well as spiritual leader of the nation.
The majority of the populace consisted of farmers and small craftsmen. All evidence indicates that for the average Jew, life continued to reflect the powerful influence of Ezra the Scribe, who had rebuilt the Temple and restored Torah observance among a people weakened by defeat and exile.
The sages of the Sanhedrin ruled on all matters of civil, criminal and religious law. The complex laws of agriculture applicable to the land of Israel described in the Mishnah were carefully observed, and the religious institutions we know today such as the synagogue, the division of Torah readings into a yearly cycle and the form of the prayers were already a part of Jewish life.
What happened to undermine this way of life?
Under Greek rule, Judea was a transit station for all goods moving from the East to the Mediterranean and between Egypt and its colonies. Trade with the Greek cities presented the Jews with new possibilities. Improvements in agriculture and impressive works of architecture were obvious manifestations of the material superiority of Greek culture.
Various priestly families, meanwhile, were beginning to attain wealth and influence, a situation that can be traced back to the their status during and even before the exile. Many of these families lived as landed gentry on country estates, returning to Jerusalem for their turn of service at the Temple.
A new class rose on the crest of commercial development under the Greeks as the gentry found common ground with local Greek settlers.
The Greeks brought philosophy, technology, drama and art to Judea. As they didn’t seem to take their gods too seriously, the Jews didn’t let the Greek paganism keep them from following some of their ways. First steps away from tradition included adopting Greek names and manners. For example, a letter written by a man named Toviah opens with the standard pagan expression, “many thanks to the gods.”
Toviah had been one of the chief opponents of Ezra’s religious reforms; his descendant would later be a key player in the unraveling of Jewish institutions.
The Greeks’ Jewish Problem
The Yevanim despised the traditional Jews for their intolerance, which they considered barbaric. These Jews refused to dine socially on non-kosher food, to intermarry, to give lip service to the ceremonial gods – and in short, to behave like any “civilized” people.
Moreover, the Jews actually believed in their ancient religion of Torah and mitzvot, and in a system of morality and law they considered to be divine.
The Yevanim didn’t understand it and they came to loathe it. After all, like the Greeks themselves, the Jews had a reputation for being “philosophers,” the highest Greek accolade. Yet they combined with their philosophy “a number of observances which could only seem the grossest superstition to the Greek world. This disapproval was natural, for whereas the Greek intellectual stood in sharp opposition to the simple-minded Greek who worshipped the gods, the Jewish ‘philosophers,’ in other words the teachers in the Jewish synagogues, believed intensely in the Jewish religion” (James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Anti-Semitism).
Just believing in a supreme being wasn’t the problem. Aristotle had set forth the idea of a first cause, or creator, but one who set the world in motion like a clock and had no further dealing with mortal affairs. In the Greek view the Jewish God should likewise have stayed in the heavens where He belonged instead of dictating behavior and morality on earth.
Even stranger and more provocative to the Yevanim, the Jews believed their mitzvot should be followed in obedience to God’s command – “Your Torah” – and not because they were logical or even within the realm of human logic. It was unforgivable that the Jews ascribed limits to reason and logic even as they used and excelled in them.
The Jews also claimed to affect the natural condition of the world by bringing something they called kedusha, holiness, into the physical universe. The Greeks’ strictly materialist philosophy, codified by Euclid in space and Aristotle in time, saw an already perfect world in which physical nature ruled absolutely according to a fixed system of cause and effect. This view negated any possibility of a spiritual dimension within the real world.
Along with all this came an amoral and hedonistic lifestyle that held the promise of pleasure without consequences.
Tax Collectors and Games
The Jews who bought into the Greek philosophy likewise developed a strong a distaste for the particulars of the Jewish religion.
A scion of the House of Toviah named Yosef was one of these. Yosef ben Toviah was worldly, ambitious and international in his outlook, feeling little Jewish or Judean identity. When the high priest, Onias, failed to send the high tax revenues demanded by Antiochus III, Yosef obtained the position of tax collector for himself, on the pretext of smoothing things over with the king. For the first time, this function was removed from the office of the kohen gadol.
The tax collector had a free hand to gather the funds demanded by the king, and could keep any excess for himself. It was an opportunity for ruthless and unscrupulous persons to make a fortune at the people’s expense, and Yosef and his circle did just that – even to the point of executing 20 leading citizens of Ashkelon who resisted paying the harsh taxes. The elders and the “simple people” may have been outraged – but it was now possible to ignore them.
With the ascent of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (also called Epimanes, the “madman”) to the Greek-Syrian (Seleucid) throne, Jews opposed to the old order decided to get rid of the ineffective Onias, and replace him with a high priest more to their liking. Onias’s brother, Jason (originally Yehoshua), bribed Antiochus with 300 talents of silver and thus became the new kohen gadol.
He then did something that altered the character of Jerusalem and deepened the growing schism within the Jewish people: He attained permission from Antiochus to build a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount and to replace the existing government of Jerusalem with a Greek polis to be named Antioch.
With one stroke, he wiped out the longstanding constitution of the Jews that provided for a government based upon their ancestral laws. Performance of the commandments, while not forbidden, was no longer protected by law, which was now in the hands of the newly constituted government of Antioch at Jerusalem.
The gymnasium further undermined Jewish life in Jerusalem, as the institution par excellence of the Greek way of life: Here young men received the education fitting for a Greek citizen. Philosophy and the arts were combined with the ideal of physical perfection. In the arena, naked contestants competed in athletic contests and games; sacrifices were offered to Heracles and Hermes.
The author of the First Book of Maccabees tells us that the young kohanim began running to witness the competitions instead of attending to their priestly duties in the Temple. Before long, Jewish youth began to compete in the games as well.
After three years, an even more ardent Hellenizer, Menelaus, became high priest. According to the Second Book of Maccabees, Menelaus, who was not even a kohen, possessed “nothing that qualified him for the high priesthood, but with the passions of a savage tyrant and the rage of a wild beast.” His oppressive actions, including robbing the Temple treasures, led to riots in the streets of Jerusalem.
In 169 B.C.E. Antiochus invaded Egypt, but his victory was erased through the intervention of the newly emerging Roman Republic. Rumors then arose that Antiochus had been killed, and Jason saw his chance to recapture Jerusalem by attacking the city.
Antiochus, receiving word of a rebellion in Jerusalem, and confirming his reputation as a madman, unleashed a reign of terror in the city in which 40,000 men, women and children were massacred and an equal number taken captive. A fortified military complex was established adjacent to the Temple mount, where Syrian soldiers were joined by a number of Jewish sympathizers. The soldiers plundered, raped and destroyed at will.
Large numbers of people fled to the hills and caves outside Jerusalem. In Kislev of 168 B.C.E. a pagan idol was set up on the altar of the Holy Temple, and on the 25th of the month, hogs were offered up to Zeus Olympus. Every type of desecration was perpetrated upon the Temple including lewd acts common to the cultic prostitution of the time.
The Jews saw their way of life being swept away. But it was only after Jerusalem had been sacked and the Temple desecrated that Antiochus outlawed Torah and mitzvot on pain of death.
At this point, with all power in the hands of the Yevanim and their allies, and with the Temple service completely compromised, it seemed as if the Jewish day in history was over. But the spiritual battle had yet to play out. Antiochus (presumably with information given to them from within the camp of Hellenizing Jews) aimed his poison arrow directly at the Jewish concept of holiness and the physical mitzvot that, to the Romans, represented the Jews’ alien and barbaric way of thinking.
But something happened that neither Antiochus nor the Jews themselves could have foreseen.
Pure Oil of the Soul
Led and inspired by the Maccabees, almost everyone except for Menelaus and his circle of extreme Hellenizers now switched sides and participated in the revolt against Antiochus and his decrees, helping the Jews to fight and ultimately win the war. Even those who had abandoned Jewish tradition began to observe the commandments.
Pushed to the brink and faced with the annihilation of Judaism, they left all reason and logic behind and joined the losing side, even risking their lives to die as Jews rather than continue to live as Yevanim.
Their turnaround is explained by Kabbalah and chassidut as an arousal of the innermost core of the Jewish soul called yechidah, also symbolized by the pure uncontaminated oil found in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple.
This aspect of the soul transcends intellectual understanding and cannot be contaminated because it is never severed from its divine source.
Although Greek philosophy had permeated Jewish thinking, this supra-rational level of the soul burst forth even before the miracle of the oil and gave the Jews strength to withstand the decrees and win the war.
So the decrees of Antiochus precipitated the rallying of the Jews and their victory, resulting through Divine Providence not in the demise of the Jewish religion but in the survival of Judaism as we know it. The Jews were strengthened spiritually to withstand the persecution and exile that still lay ahead, and the ranks of the sages expanded beyond the priestly class as a new age of Torah scholarship was ushered in.
The memory of those who gave their lives with mesirat nefesh, total self-sacrifice, rather than transgress the commandments echoes through history as the battle against the Yevanim is waged over and over again – ” in those days, at this time ” – only to be finally won, the prophecies tell us, with the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate victory of light over darkness.
Tzivia Emmer is a freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.
To my eldest daughter, Esther, upon her recent marriage.
It happens at every chuppah. After the bride’s encircling of the groom seven times, after the recital of the special blessings, after the ring has been placed on her finger, there are a few seconds of collective silence in anticipation. Then there is the definite loud crunching of glass as shards are being broken under foot, followed by the uproarious “mazal tov” issued in unison from everyone present.
The broken glass under the chuppah is meant to remind us of the destruction of the Holy Temple. Even in a moment of such blissful happiness at the uniting of two souls in marriage, we remember that we are still in bitter exile.
Interestingly, though, the breaking of the glass has become the signal for everyone to call out the congratulatory, “mazal tov!” It’s almost as if it is the breaking glass that confirms the marriage, validates the joy, and endorses the momentousness of this wonderful new beginning.
Why has a moment that is meant to signify the sadness of the Temple’s destruction developed into such a congratulatory event, the signature moment, almost, of the marriage ceremony?
I was thinking about this, upon the recent marriage of my eldest daughter. And I thought that perhaps the deeper, more conceptual message of the breaking of the glass is the reminder that being in exile means that our lives are not perfect. That we are not complete, but rather broken.
There is no person who is flawless. True, every kallah (bride) standing beneath the chuppah believes (and should believe so) that her groom is so perfect, so wonderful, so talented and so capable, so sensitive and caring. And he, too, surely feels the same about her – that he is marrying the ideal woman, faultless to the core, and that there is no one in the world as special, intelligent and caring as she.
The two of them together have also dreamed the perfect dream of how complete and perfect their life together will be. How much they will both accomplish, how they will each work side by side harmoniously, how meaningful and fulfilling it will all be.
But perhaps the breaking of the glass under the chuppah is there to remind both of them (and all of us) that every vision is a little bit flawed, that every dream has a hole in it, that every life has some cracks. That every person has imperfections, deficiencies, and areas of incompleteness.
Perhaps it is only when we are each prepared to acknowledge that we don’t need to be flawless for there to be a strong love for one another, that our life doesn’t have to be perfectly whole for it to be rich and meaningful – only then can each of us move forward, and only then can a bride and groom truly begin their new unified life together.
So under the chuppah, the bride and groom (and each of us present) will make that small symbolic “shattering” of perception of each other’s perfection, and accept one another wholly as s/he is, cracks, fissures and all. That moment of absolute acceptance will forge the everlasting bond between the new couple.
And, as for those of us present, only once we are each able to break the vision of our own lives and dreams, as being so whole and perfect, are we ready to begin to repair our world, to pick up the broken pieces of our exile and to truly begin building a redeemed existence.
May it be with good mazal!
Chanukah has come and gone, and so have the donuts, the latkes and the celebration of the two amazing miracles that took place at that time. The first, of course, was the successful revolt of a ragtag group of religious Jews against the physical and spiritual presence of the Hellenist Greeks in the land of Israel. The second was the lasting of one day’s supply of oil in the Temple for eight days.
At the end of the day, since all is in Hashem’s wise hands, the true measure of your success will not be in the attaining, but in the trying.
After all – the best defense is to be offensive.
In honor of Chanukah, a time of joy, I have been delving into the realm of Jewish music. Of the three types of Jewish music, klezmer (instrumental), chazzanut (cantorial) and the niggun (wordless tunes), it is the niggun that has evolved and is the most popular today. There is no way to trace the exact origins of the niggun, a wordless tune that has become an integral part of Jewish culture. In my research I have read that one plausible origin is that at first musical instruments were not used in Jewish music, as an expression of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was also deemed not proper to use words from the Torah or from the prayers when one was not either learning praying, so the wordless tune was created. In more modern times the niggun was adopted by the chasidic movement as a way to achieve dveikut, the goal of every chasid of being in the presence of Hashem and serving Him with complete and utter joy. The pure niggun was used whenever musical instruments were not available such as on Shabbat and Chagim. The Rebbe’s tish, where the Chasidic leaders would entertain their followers on Friday nights was a prime example of when niggunim were sung. The niggun was also used at the slightest provocation and can still be heard whenever the spirit overtakes a person. It is not unusual in a beit medrash to hear someone break out in song out of pure pleasure of being in the service of Hashem. The chazzanim of pre-war Europe and even those dating back to the mid-18th century, when Chasidism first began to spread, performed in the great synagogues, often receiving large amounts of money for their services. The chasidim rarely used chazzanim from outside their group, and often the Rebbe would be the one leading the prayers. Chazzanim were also notorious for stretching the prayers and even repeating words to showcase their own talents. The chasidim were more concerned with the participation of every Jew in the prayers, and believe that there should be no repetition of words. Instead of the formal tunes of the chazzan, prayers were often sung to niggunim unique to either the Chasidic group, and sometimes to a region. In chasidic thought, music brings a soul closer to Hashem. They believe that words constrain the melody, whereas the wordless tune repeated over and over can produce a sort of hypnotic state bringing the singer to ever-higher levels of oneness with the creator. Many chasidic groups were famous for their singing ability. The Modzitzer chasidim who settled in Demblin, Poland, were renowned for their compositions, many of which are still sung today. In recent years there is hardly a chasidic group that does not have a record of their songs, and every record includes a few niggunim. The chasidim incorporated niggunim into the prayers. These wordless tunes were then brought home and taught to family members at the Shabbat table and used during the singing of zmirot, the songs sung during the Shabbat meals. Today the niggun has evolved words often are added and when permissible there – is instrumental accompaniment. The boundaries between the three types of Jewish music have blurred. Chasidic music is often today defined as any song whose words originate from a religious source, either the Torah, prayers or rabbinic writings. Most of today’s popular Jewish music is a combination of the three but can be traced to the niggun more readily than to klezmer or chazzanut.
There is no way to trace the exact origins of the niggun, a wordless tune that has become an integral part of Jewish culture. In my research I have read that one plausible origin is that at first musical instruments were not used in Jewish music, as an expression of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was also deemed not proper to use words from the Torah or from the prayers when one was not either learning praying, so the wordless tune was created.
In more modern times the niggun was adopted by the chasidic movement as a way to achieve dveikut, the goal of every chasid of being in the presence of Hashem and serving Him with complete and utter joy.
The pure niggun was used whenever musical instruments were not available such as on Shabbat and Chagim. The Rebbe’s tish, where the Chasidic leaders would entertain their followers on Friday nights was a prime example of when niggunim were sung. The niggun was also used at the slightest provocation and can still be heard whenever the spirit overtakes a person. It is not unusual in a beit medrash to hear someone break out in song out of pure pleasure of being in the service of Hashem.
The chazzanim of pre-war Europe and even those dating back to the mid-18th century, when Chasidism first began to spread, performed in the great synagogues, often receiving large amounts of money for their services. The chasidim rarely used chazzanim from outside their group, and often the Rebbe would be the one leading the prayers. Chazzanim were also notorious for stretching the prayers and even repeating words to showcase their own talents. The chasidim were more concerned with the participation of every Jew in the prayers, and believe that there should be no repetition of words. Instead of the formal tunes of the chazzan, prayers were often sung to niggunim unique to either the Chasidic group, and sometimes to a region.
In chasidic thought, music brings a soul closer to Hashem. They believe that words constrain the melody, whereas the wordless tune repeated over and over can produce a sort of hypnotic state bringing the singer to ever-higher levels of oneness with the creator.
Many chasidic groups were famous for their singing ability. The Modzitzer chasidim who settled in Demblin, Poland, were renowned for their compositions, many of which are still sung today. In recent years there is hardly a chasidic group that does not have a record of their songs, and every record includes a few niggunim.
The chasidim incorporated niggunim into the prayers. These wordless tunes were then brought home and taught to family members at the Shabbat table and used during the singing of zmirot, the songs sung during the Shabbat meals.
Today the niggun has evolved words often are added and when permissible there – is instrumental accompaniment. The boundaries between the three types of Jewish music have blurred. Chasidic music is often today defined as any song whose words originate from a religious source, either the Torah, prayers or rabbinic writings. Most of today’s popular Jewish music is a combination of the three but can be traced to the niggun more readily than to klezmer or chazzanut.
Two events that seemed to fit the days before Tisha B’Av happened recently. A few days ago, representatives of many communities met in Hashmonaim with Pinchas Wallerstein, the chairman of the Binyamin Region, and with an army spokesman. The army spokesman made a presentation using colored maps of the security fence’s new planned route.
The Israel Supreme Court decision in favor of the Leftists and the Arabs forced the army to redesign the fence route and to bring it much closer to Jewish communities. The court and the U.S. pressure forced the army to ignore land purchased by Jews and Jewish public land. All the army did was design a plan to satisfy the Leftists and the Arabs. The spokesman could not explain, for example, why the planned fence route took a strange detour to within 100 yards of my home nor why it almost touched the houses of part of the City of Modiin in the Macabbim suburb.
The sighs that emanated from Pinchas Wallerstein, who sat next to me every time the army spokesman showed how the fence route cut up a planned Jewish neighborhood or decimated a Jewish industrial area, sounded like the sighs of those mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple. The conceit and hatred of one Jew for another caused the destruction of the Holy Temple, and the non-religious Leftist hatred of Right wing religious Jews will, G-d forbid, cause the loss of huge sections of Israel for no good reason. We all left the meeting sad and depressed and with little hope that the government would change the route of the fence.
The second event also took place before Tisha B’Av. Over 200,000 Jews of all backgrounds formed a human chain from Gush Katif in the south to the Kotel in Jerusalem in protest against the government’s plan to force every Jew out of the Gaza Strip. As we waited for everyone to arrive, some people read Tehillim while others learned or commiserated with their friends. At 7:00 p.m., we joined hands to form a solid chain, sang Hatikvah and then sang Ani Maamin. We fervently hoped for a change in government policy, but the media reports all spoke with confidence that Sharon and his new coalition will ignore the amazing sight of men, women, children and babies in carriages who all left their homes and traveled to their appointed areas.
We stood in the sun and waited peacefully for the time when we were told to join hands. What an uplifting feeling it was to be part of this human chain. Sadly, the Israeli government can ignore this human outpouring of solidarity and emotion.
I guess we are prepared to begin our fasting and lamenting. (Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)