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A Lost Midrash, Antiochus IV, and the Historical Context of Chanukah

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times

Posted on 12/14/17 | From YWN

It is a sad fact that over 90% of our Midrashim have been lost. This is due primarily to the seizure of manuscripts and seforim by the Catholic Church in Europe. How do we know that this is the percentage that was lost? The answer is that it can be culled from a statistical analysis of the sheer numbers of Midrashim quoted in the Drashos of the Rishonim that are simply not there. Nine out of ten times that a Rishon cites a Midrash – it is not to be found.



Below we find a Midrash cited by the Bach that can only be found in in Eisenstadt’s Otzar HaMidrashim (p. 93). Boruch Hashem, this one was not lost entirely, but others, unfortunately were.
The Bach writes (Orech Chaim 670:4):


“That evil one [Antiochus] decreed to abolish the Korban Tamid and he further said to them: They have one particular practice in their hands – if you abolish it from their hands, then they will already be lost. Which practice is it? The lighting of the Menorah – as it states, “l’haalos bah ner tamid – to light in it a constant lamp – there is a drasha the entire time that they will light it, they shall be constant – they shall always endure.


They then went and made impure all of the oils. When Klal Yisroel returned and did Teshuvah risking their lives for the Avodah – then Hashem saved them. This happened through the Kohanim – those that served Hashem. And then a miracle happened also with the lamps.”


This author would like to suggest that the Midrash fits quite nicely into some of the historical background of Chanukah. Antiochus’s brother was the Seleucid Greek ruler who had reigned before him. His name was Seleucus the IV Philopater. It seems that Seleucus the IV, actually had much respect for the Beis HaMikdash. He gave gifts to the Beis HaMikdash and initially allowed an exemption of his tax revenue – any Korban brought to the Beis HaMikdash. The sources indicate that it was not just him who esteemed and gave gifts to the Beis HaMikdash – his predecessors did as well.


Eventually, Seleucus IV fell under extraordinary pressure. He had lost a war with Rome and had to pay them war debt. He sent his minister Heliodorus to the Beis HaMikdash to collect money out of its treasury. In the years before the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes IV – the villain of Chanukah, Heliodorus succeeded in getting that money out of the Beis HaMikdash treasury. When he returned from Yerushalayim back to Seleucus IV – Heliodorus assassinated him!


Heliodorus then took the throne for himself. Seleucus’ son should have been the true heir, but he was being held back as a hostage in Rome. Eventually, Seleucus’s brother, Antiochus Epiphanes, pushed out Heliodorus and took over the Seleucid Greek Empire himself. He implemented the Hellenization process ever further.


By the way, Antiochus’ original name was Mithridites. He ruled from 175 BCE to 164 BCE – a total of eleven years.


The point is that, initially, his family had some respect for the traditions of the Jewish people – to the point where they themselves gifted items to the Beis HaMikdash and exempted the Korbanos from taxes. The Midrash that tells us how Antiochus was aware of the efficacy of the Korban Tamid as well as the lighting of the Menorah – now further sheds light on the historical context behind the pre-history of Chanukah. We can also see why he may have been especially concerned with Rosh Chodesh, Bris Milah and Shabbos.


The war itself encompassed many miracles of the nature of gibborim b’yad chalashim. When we recite the Al HaNissim let us keep this in mind. Imagine, for example, a group of Green Berets (or perhaps evenbetter, the New England Patriots) playing tackle football with a group of Kollel yungeleit who are masmidim – and that the Kollel yungeleit wipe the floor with them. This is the level of the miracle.


The Chashmonayim first embarked upon a series of guerilla warfare attacks on the Greeks. They then embarked upon a series of seven battles. These battles were: the Battle of Wadi Haramia (167 BC), the Battle of Beth Horon (166 BCE), the Battle of Emmaus (166 BCE), the Battle of Beth Zur (164 BCE), the Battle of Beth Zechariah (162 BCE), the Battle of Adasa (161 BCE), and the Battle of Elasa (160 BCE).


In the Battle of Adasa, General Nicanor was defeated and killed. This day, the 13th of Adar, was declared a special day by Yehudah Maccabee (See Megilas Taanis). Later it was rescinded after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.


The Nesivos Shalom explains that the Gemorah (Shabbos 21b) cites the passage in Megilas Taanis that the Greeks entered the Haichal and made all the oil impure. When the Chashmonayim became strong and defeated the Greeks, they searched and could only find one flask of oil with the seal of the Kohain Gadol. The next year they established it as days of Hallel and thanks.


THREE QUESTIONS


1. This Gemorah requires explanation, because it indicates that the essence of the holiday was on account of the miracle of the flask of oil – and not on the miracle of the military victory – where the mighty were delivered to the hands of the weak. Why is this so?
2. The Maharal’s question in his Sefer entitled “Ner Mitzvah” also needs to be addressed. Just because a Mitzvah was miraculously not neglected – we make an entire holiday of Chanukah with Hallel and thanksgiving for it? Hallel and thanks are only said for a miracle where we were saved – not over a fulfillment of a Mitzvah!
3. We must also understand why the Mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is specifically when the sun sets, as opposed to other Mitzvos where the Mitzvah is primarily in the day.


THE ANSWER


One can answer all this with the following idea: The main war of the Greeks in their attempt to destroy us through the fact that they darkened the eyes of Israel. They knew that it was not through military victories that they can succeed in ruling over the nation of Israel. Rather, it was through their darkening of our eyes.


AS IF THEY ARE DEAD


Just as a blind person is considered as if he is dead in matters of gashmius – physicality – even if he has all of his limbs intact, so too in matters of the spiritual. Even though he is involved in Torah and in Avodah, if he is considered among those who are “a nation walking in darkness – not seeing light” (See Yishayahu 9:1) – he is considered as if he is dead.


THE LIGHT


The purpose of creation is so that people will see the Divine Light of Hashem that shines as a bright light throughout the creation. As we find in the very beginning of creation itself, “And the world was null and void and darkness was upon the void. And Hashem said, “Let there be light.. And Hashem saw the light – that it was good.” This light was not a physical light, rather it was a Divine Light. With this light, man can see from one end of the universe to the other.


The response to Tohu vavohu is this – “Let there be light” – that a person can see with this light that the entire world is Hashem’s G-dliness – Ain Od Milvado – there is nothing else beside Him. The entire Creation is solely of His Power -as it says (Nechemia 9:6), “V’Atta mechayeh es kulam – And You give life to them all.


A UNIFIED WORLD


From this perspective, where he sees the power of the Creator throughout the entire world – he does not see a separate and divided world where all things are separate. Rather, everything is one – held together by a supernal power that sustains everyone and everything. There is, thus, no place for Tohu vavohu and darkness.


This was the essential battle of the Greeks – they darkened the eyes of Israel. They knew that the nation of Israel has no continuity through this Divine light and perspective. If this light is not present – any nation or people could have dominion over them. Their tactic was thus to darken the eyes of Israel.


This is what the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 2:4) has to say on the pasuk “V’ha’aretz haisa Tohu vavohu –
• Haisa Tohu – this refers to the Babylonian Empire
• Va’Vohu – this refers to the Persian Empire
• v’Choshech – this refers to the Greek Empire which darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees.
• Al P’nai Tehom – this refers to the Evil Empire (Rome) whose depth of evil cannot be fathomed just like Tehom – the abyss
• V’ruach elokim merachefes al pnai hamayim – this is the spirit of Moshiach.


It further states in the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 44:17) regarding when Hashem revealed himself to Avram in Parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 15:12), “And it was when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a dread, a great darkness, fell upon him.” This great darkness was Yavan – the Greeks who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees.


From these statements of Chazal, we see that this was the essential nature of Yavan – to darken the eyes of Israel, that they should know that through that darkening of their eyes they will be able to defeat them.


The light of the Menorah is a Divine light that shines forth from the Menorah to light up the hearts of Bnei Yisroel when they see it. The Greeks, therefore, abolished the light of the Menorah of the Beis HaMikdash and they specifically made all of the oils impure– in order to destroy them. It is as the Bach writes (Orech Chaim 670:4) citing the Braisah [See Otzer HaMidrashim Eisenstadt p. 93]:


“That evil one [Antiochus] decreed to abolish the Korban Tamid and he further said to them: They have one particular Mitzvah in their hands – if you abolish it from their hands, then they will already be lost. Which one is it? The lighting of the Menorah – as it states, “l’haalos bah ner tamid – to light in it a constant lamp – there is a drasha the entire time that they will light it, they shall be constant – they shall always endure.


They then went and made impure all of the oils. When Klal Yisroel returned and did Teshuvah risking their lives for the Divine Service – then Hashem saved them. This happened through the Kohanim – those that served Hashem. And then a miracle happened also with the lamps.”


Thus, the matter of the Menorah was not simply the observance of a Mitzvah – rather it is the very life force of the nation of Israel!


This answers the question of the Maharal as to why Chazal established a day of thanks and Hallel on the miracle of the performance of a Mitzvah and not on the actual miracle of the salvation. It is because the miracle pertained to the very essence of the continuity of the nation of Israel – [the light]. For they have no merit of continuity without that light – the entire time that they kindle the Menorah – they will continue to exist and endure.


A happy Chanukah!


The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com