Look Past the Greek Glitter

Biy’mei Mattisyahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol Chashmona’i u’vanav k’she’amdah Malchus Yavan ha’resha’ah al am’cha Yisrael l’hashkicham Torasecha ul’ha’aviram me’chukei retzonecha (Al Hanissim)

On Chanukah we add a paragraph known as “Al Hanissim” to the Shemoneh Esrei prayers and to Birkas Hamazon, in which we thank Hashem for the miracles He performed at this time. In this prayer, we describe the threat posed to us by the Greeks in the times of the Chanukah miracle as an attempt to cause us to forget the Torah and to deny us the ability to perform mitzvos. Although it is physically possible to prevent another person from doing mitzvos or engaging in additional Torah study, how is it possible to cause somebody to forget the Torah that he has already learned?

Harav Meir Wahrsager of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim posits that in their war against Hashem and His Torah, the Greeks understood that it was impossible for them to delete knowledge from somebody’s mind. So, in their wickedness, they instead developed and promoted a new culture and value system in which Torah has no significance, and by making it irrelevant, it would naturally be forgotten. The Ramban (Vayikra 16:8) describes Aristotle, one of the foremost Greek philosophers, as denying anything that couldn’t be physically sensed and experienced. The Greeks’ new value system was one in which only chitzoniyus (externality) was important. They constructed magnificent edifices, created beautiful art and glorified the human body, but the underlying common denominator of all their advances and developments was the pursuit of superficial accomplishments.

The Greek approach was precisely the opposite of Chazal’s advice in Pirkei Avos (4:20) not to look at the vessel but at what it contains inside. As the Jewish people became surrounded by this culture and the Greek philosophy began to permeate their thinking, they slowly began to forget about Torah and mitzvos, which revolve around a focus on penimiyus (internals). We can’t observe or measure any physical impact on the world when we put on tefillin, shake a lulav or recite the daily prayers, because Torah and mitzvos occupy the world of the internal, beyond the façade and the glitter.

The Gemara in Shabbos (130a) teaches that the Jewish people are compared to a yonah, a dove. There are no coincidences in the Hebrew language, and the word yonah is comprised of the word Yavan — Greece — with an additional letter hei at the end. In Hebrew, adding a hei to the end of a word transforms it into the feminine grammatical construct. While Yavan epitomizes the male emphasis on the external, the Jewish people possess the uniquely feminine ability to recognize and appreciate the internal.

Sadly, although our ancestors were victorious over the false worldview of Esav and the Greeks, the battle is not over and these struggles continue in our generation, as Western culture once again attempts to entice us to abandon the internal world of spirituality for the pursuit of the temporal pleasures of this world. Chanukah gives us an opportunity to reflect and reorient our priorities and values. As we light the menorah each day, we should remind ourselves of the flame’s message. The glitter and sparkle of Western culture is designed to seem tantalizing and appealing, but ultimately, it’s empty, as there’s nothing inside. Torah and mitzvos are our special inheritance, and by recommitting ourselves to penimiyus, to the spiritual world that they represent, we should merit sending forth the spark that will consume Esav and his superficiality once and for all.

Q: Rashi writes (Bereishis 40:23) that the additional two years of jail time Yosef served (41:1) was his punishment for the sin of asking the cupbearer twice (40:14) to intercede with Pharaoh and secure his release instead of placing his trust in Hashem. Had Yosef asked him only one time, what would have been his punishment?

Q: The Gemara in Shabbos (21b) teaches that the primary obligation on Chanukah is to light one flame on each night, but the mehadrin min hamehadrin — the most preferred — level is to light an additional flame on each successive night for each member of the household. If a person lit one flame and realized that he forgot to say the blessings, may he still say the blessings before lighting the additional flames, or is it too late to do so because he has already fulfilled his basic obligation?

A: Harav Chaim Soloveitchik asked this question to Harav Shimon Shkop. Rav Shimon responded that if Yosef was punished with two years of additional incarceration for two requests that the cupbearer remember him, it seems logical that if he had asked only once, his punishment would have been one extra year in jail. Rav Chaim disagreed and explained that we are expected to live within the natural world and make reasonable efforts to achieve our objectives. Therefore, if Yosef had asked only once, it would have been considered appropriate and he would not have been punished at all. However, because only one request was necessary for this purpose, when Yosef asked the second time, he revealed that even his initial request was not properly motivated, and he was punished for both of them.

A: Harav Akiva Eiger writes that in this case, one can certainly recite the blessing She’asah Nissim, which may be recited by anybody who sees a menorah. Reciting the blessing of L’hadlik Ner shel Chanukah would seem to be dependent on a dispute between the Pri Chadash, who maintains that one may not say a blessing over a hiddur mitzvah — enhancement of a mitzvah — while the Eliyah Rabbah maintains that one can. However, he concludes that one may also say this blessing based on the additional consideration that the Rosh maintains that the mitzvah of lighting the menorah is a continual mitzvah for the minimum 30-minute period that the candles must burn, and its performance is not yet completed. This is also the ruling of the Mishnah Berurah (676:4), although he adds that the Pri Megadim is uncertain about this ruling.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.