Between Jerusalem and Athens

The Greeks

Zionism has had a long love story with Hannukah. It gladly adopted the holiday’s narrative. Up until the first waves of Aliyah to Israel begun (towards the end of the 19th century), Jews celebrated mostly the religious aspect of this feast, as the focus was the miracle of the cruse of oil that held for 8 days. The modern Zionist movements were those who inserted the aspects of heroism, victory of the few against the many, and that of the sons of light over the spawns of darkness. These all fit like an elegant glove to the Zionist hand. In many ways, modern Israel was perceived as a modern version of the Maccabees.

Back then, for 400 years the kingdom of Judah was enslaved by the Greeks, until the Hasmonean revolt broke in 167 BC, in reaction to the bitter decrees handed down by the Greek ruler Antioch Epiphanes. He massacred Jews, forbade them from keeping the Shabbat, executed women who circumcised their sons (a fascinating study in and of itself – the fact that the women were those who circumcised the newborn males at the time, not the men), and desecrated the Temple by erecting a statue of a Greek deity inside it. At some point, a Hasmonean priest, named Matthathias, proclaimed: “Let everyone who has zeal for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!” and with that had lit the match that started the great revolt.

But Then, Things Took On a Wrong Turn

Matthathias reacted to the ongoing process of Hellenization and assimilation that the nation was going through, not only to the abominable statue that was placed in the Temple. However, what began as a fight for religious freedom led to a religious enslavement by choice. Matthathias’ descendants, the Maccabees, gradually took over the priesthood by means of corruption. The Bible makes it clear that the high priest must come only from the house of Zadok, a descendant of Aaron. The Maccabees bought their way into that unique position through bribing the Greek rulers. Gradually, they accepted the Hellenistic culture as well, with its idolatry and polytheism that their forefather fought against.

Wanted: A Heroic Story

The Talmud says very little about Hannukah. Many historians believe that was done on purpose, since for centuries the story of the Maccabees was considered to be as soured wine. But then the Zionists thinkers brought Judah the Maccabee into the forefront of the collective Jewish recognition. From the feast of Latkes and the miracle of the cruse of oil, Hannukah turned into a celebration of heroism. The Jewish papers from that time report of Hannukah banquets, celebrating the spirit of heroism, calling for a modern version of a renewed independence in the land.

The artist Boris Schatz established in 1906 the Bezalel academy of arts in Jerusalem. Several years earlier he created his most famous sculpture – “Mattathias the Hasmonean”.

Boris Schatz (sitting, bottom left, 1867-1932)
and his most famous work – Mattathias the Hasmonean

The head of the statue, a draft made of plaster

Sadly, this is the only part that survived,
stands today at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (picture taken by Yair Talmor)

For Schatz, Mattathias symbolized the warrior Zionist. In 1907 Schatz held a Hannukkah party at the academy, and set this sculpture in the court yard. No one could have predicted the debate that erupted the following day in the local newspapers. Schatz’s supporters claimed that the Zionists are the Hasmonean’s modern heirs. After all, they too were the cream of the crop of the nation! Well, at least before they became corrupt.

Schatz opponents, however, claimed that the sculpture is an abomination, for Mattathias’ revolt started because of a statue that was placed in the Temple. And here, he himself was turned into a statue? Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was scheduled to give a speech at the party, was unable to do so. The following day he described it well in his newspaper: “I refrained from speaking facing the statue…. for the eyes [of Mattathias] bore at me with rage, for he fought with conviction against those who erected abominable images, and here you erect a likeness of him?”

The Sons of Zion Against the Sons of Greece

Hannukah represents the friction between Athens and Jerusalem, between the worldly wisdom of Greece and the Biblical perspective of God. The pagan chooses the idols he wishes to serve and makes them in his own image. The God of the Bible, however, created man in His own image and likeness, and it is He who chooses those who worship Him (see Is. 43:10), not the other way around. The Jewish Sages taught at first that Greece was the Evil Kingdom, and so forbade from assimilating into their Hellenistic lifestyle. But somehow, in a gradual process that goes against all reason, they adopted many aspects of that philosophy.

Today, the Rabbinical perspective is in many ways much like that of the mindset of Greece. Gematria, for example, that is so closely associated with Judaism – has its roots in the Greek culture. The images and idols the Torah forbids making, adorn almost every orthodox Jewish home (especially pictures of various rabbis). And the study of Torah, that was originally given to the people in order to draw them closer to God and teach us His ways, has become the highest value, more important than anything else (the study and debate of each word, structure and commentary, not even of what God is actually saying). Even the Rabbinic Yeshiva is in many ways built upon Hellenistic infrastructure. How has Athens managed to infiltrate into the foundations of Jerusalem?

A Menorah and Olive Branches

Three weeks following the establishment of modern Israel in May 1948, the citizens were invited to send their ideas for a national emblem. Approximately 450 suggestions were sent in. Here are some of these interesting suggestions:

Two designers, the Shamir brothers, sent their suggestion as well. As they methodically studied the various symbols of other nations, they discovered that none uses a Menorah in their emblem (yep, it turns out there are others who use the Star of David – such as Burundi; Nigeria’s flag while it was a British colony until 1957; and the flag of the Morrocan Caliphate prior to 1945).

The Shamir Brothers, Circa 1970

A few changes were inserted, and their suggestion was accepted:

A final draft of the National Emblem
approved and signed by David Ben Gurion, 1949

The critics of the emblem stated that this Menorah is seen on Titus gate; that it does not stand in one accord with the one described in the OT. But that was precisely the reason that Menorah was chosen: it brings together the motifs of destruction and restoration. It states: “we were exiled with much shame, but we are being restored to our original identity and are fulfilling ancient prophecies”.

Seven or Nine?

The Menorah in the emblem contains 7 arms, yet at Hannukah we light the one with 9 arms. For those who are not familiar with the Hannukah story, the Greeks plundered the Temple Menorah, the one with 7 arms. How did the Menorah become a Hannukiah then? It has to do with the shift of the national authority from the house of Zadok as the high priest to the house of Hashmonai, and later into the hands of the the Pharisees and rabbis.

If you have been following my blog for a while, then you are familiar with my theme of the Hiddennes of God. This Athens versus Jerusalem, that is the core story of Hannukah, is one more expression of that. Even in this feast of light, God’s true values, Faces and symbols are hidden from our nation.

After the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt (135 AD), the rabbis were determined to restore the nation as far as possible from Jerusalem. The city was anyway destroyed and ruined, and the rabbis wanted to gain back the favor of the Roman regime. The alternate location chosen was Jamnia. The system they came up with had purposefully detached itself from Temple rituals, from the written Word of God, even from God Himself. The changing of the Menorah is a part of this process. The rabbis forbade the creation of any vessel that looks like those that were used in the Temple (Avoda Zara 43a), so the solution was a Menorah with more arms than the original one had.

Growing up in the Israeli education system, I was always told that the Hanukiyah has 8 arms because of that miracle of the little cruse of oil. It should have sufficed for one day, yet lasted 8. However, there is no mention of that in the books of Maccabees. This is apparently a tradition that developed later on, as it is mentioned only in later writings. The book of Maccabees tells that the celebrations lasted 8 days since during the war, the nation could not celebrate properly the feast of Tabernacles. After they won the war, they could do it, and did it for 8 days.

I am personally delighted to see the emblem of modern Israel. It is based on motifs found in the Bible – a Menorah and Olive Branches – not on myths or a distorted version of God’s Word. In my opinion, there’s no small victory here for “Jerusalem”.

So What Have We Got Here?

A Menorah flanked with olive branches, and a nation miraculously renewed in its homeland, yet still so desires to be like other nations, to assimilate in their wisdom and cultures. We forget, we don’t even realize, that we were chosen to be “Sons of Zion”, not of “Greece”. These two kingdoms have very little in common, and can hardly exist side by side, if at all. So far, sad to say, Greece has held the upper hand for a “mere moment” (Isa. 54:7). But the story does not end here. The prophet Zechariah saw the day in which God will stir the Sons of Zion against the Sons of Greece. He then will be revealed, accompanied with lightning, thunder and the blowing of the shofar (9:13-17).

The widow Israel, which is turning into a mother, and a bride, is seeking along the way its identity. It was lost for that mere moment, but it is being restored with great mercies, to the point that soon, we will not even remember the reproach of our widowhood anymore (Isa. 54:4). In part our identity is based on Scripture, but too often it is laced with Hellenistic motifs, that nullify God.


Yesterday we had lit the last candle on the last day of the feast. On my balcony, in the heart of Jerusalem, I had put up this year a huge Menorah for Hannukah. When the weather allowed, I lit it, and found myself answering the questions of passers by, who wondered where are the missing two arms. This iron Menorah is a draft someone made for the Tabernacle model I use in my seminars, but there is also a statement here – let’s go back to the original Word, with all its meanings and symbolism. Let’s not hide God’s truth. Let it shine!