Rosh Hodesh Tevet Torah Essay
The month of Tevet is a complex month, beginning as it does with the final days of Chanukah, and continuing with the fast of the 10th of Tevet, in which we commemorate several tragic events that occurred during this month. These include the day that a siege was placed around Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, ultimately leading to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the death of Ezra Hasofer, and the translation of the Torah into Greek.
The Gemara in Masechet Megillah describes the events surrounding the translation of the Torah. King Ptolemy assembled 72 chachamim, separated them into 72 different rooms so they would not have contact with one another, and ordered each of them to translate the Torah into Greek. G-d performed a miracle, and each of the 72 chachamim translated the Torah in the exact same way, to preserve the integrity of the Torah, so that it would remain one truth.
Despite the fact that this miracle occurred, we still mourn the translation of the Torah with a fast, and it is still considered a tragedy, with the Rabbanim referring to this day as one of the darkest days in Jewish history, likening it to the day of the golden calf.
This begs the question- what is so tragic about the translation of the Torah?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner addresses this question in the Pachad Yitzchak. He quotes the Maharal, who explains that a defining aspect of the Greeks was the value that they placed on wisdom and knowledge, and the disdain that they placed on spirituality and the connection of the Jewish people to their one G-d. The Greek’s abhorrence of the Jews was primarily because of the Jewish notion that the Torah is unique and exclusive which directly conflicted with the Greek value of universal knowledge and Hellenistic culture. The goal of the Greeks in translating the Torah was to transform a Jewish book attributed as divine, into a work of secular literature, devoid of religious significance, merely an academic pursuit for those who sought out knowledge. This would result in the ultimate goal of the Greeks, which was to separate the Jews from their spirituality and religious connection, stripping them of their uniqueness so they would acculturate and assimilate.
This method of secularization was also expressed in the way the Greeks treated the sanctified oil in the Beit Hamikdash. Instead of simply discarding the oil that they found, they defiled it, rendering it unusable, but still existent. That is precisely what their goal was on a national and cultural level – to transform the Jews into a secular shell devoid of religious identity and difference. Rav Hutner explains that the concept of “Hellenists”, those that completely adopted the Greek culture, is unique to the Galut of Yavan, in which the Greeks sought not to kill, but to dilute and ultimately remove Jewish identity.
Rav Hutner writes that the Greeks attempted to fulfill this goal in two ways. Firstly, they attacked the essence of the Torah itself, and secondly, they attacked the Jewish practice of mitzvot. These two means are parallel with the two brachot recited when one is called up to the Torah- asher bachar banu mikol haamim, and asher natan lanu et haTorah. The assertion of the Greeks that Torah is no different than any other wisdom is an attack on asher bacher banu. As the chosen people, we believe that the Torah is unique and that we were chosen by G-d as a nation to receive it. The specific acts that the Greeks chose to outlaw including the banning of Jewish practices such as Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and brit milah, are an attack on asher natan lanu, because those specific mitzvot emphasize the Jewish nation’s unique relationship with the natural world.
As the Pachad Yitzchak explains, it was precisely through the translation of the Torah that the Greeks attempted to undermine its unique status, and through that, the status of Am Yisrael as Hashem’s chosen nation. In fact, the Gemara says that the translation of the Torah was so tragic because it would allow the nations of the world to proclaim that they too are Israel, effectively blurring the lines between the Jewish nation and other nations, and removing the Jews from the special status that they hold as G-d’s nation.
When we understand the true intentions of the Seleucid Greeks when they defiled the oil instead of destroying it, we can appreciate the miracle of the oil for what it truly was. When the oil miraculously burned for all eight days of Chanukah, it directly undermined the Greek notion that wisdom and logic could explain everything. The miracle expressed the Divine intervention in military victory for Jews, manifesting the unique relationship between G-d and the people of Israel. It was in essence a proof of the uniqueness of both the Jewish people and the Jewish Torah! The Torah is not just a book in the library, and Am Yisrael is not just one of many nations; rather they are uniquely connected to the source of meaning in the world. Through this Chanukah miracle the internal power of the Torah and the Jewish nation was illuminated.
As we enter the month of Tevet, we should remember that the Torah is not just a book and we are not just a nation. May the Chanukah candles that we light at the beginning of the month of Tevet reignite our passion and our appreciation for our Torah, our mitzvot, and our G-d, and recognize the unique status we hold as the chosen nation.
Pachad Yitzchak, 6th Ma’amar on Chanukah
Dr. William Kolbrener, “Thinking Like a Jew,” Jewish Action magazine