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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem

Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum



The world was chaos and void, with darkness over the face of the deep; and the spirit of Hashem (God) hovered over the water.
(Bereishit 1:2)

The world was chaos—this is an allusion to the Babylonian exile...
And void—this refers to the Medean exile...
With darkness—this is an allusion to the exile imposed by the Greeks, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees. They would tell the Jews, "Write on the horns of an ox that you have no more to do with the God of Israel!" (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4)

Why is specifically the Greek exile represented by the word "darkness?" Didn't other nations also persecute the Jewish People through their anti-religious decrees? What, then, is unique about the Greek exile that it is likened to darkness? Rav David Cohen (Congregation G'vul Yaavetz, Flatbush, N.Y.) suggests a novel explanation for this Midrash based on the following selection from Massechet Sofrim:

Five elders translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy (a successor to Alexander the Great). The day this was accomplished was as unfortunate for Israel as the day that the Golden Calf was worshipped, because it is impossible to present a truly adequate translation of the Torah in any foreign language. On another occasion, Ptolemy gathered together seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two separate rooms, not informing any of them why he was summoned. He approached each of them and said, "Write down the Torah of your teacher Moses for me." Hashem arranged that the same thoughts occurred to all of them and they made the same thirteen modifications in their translations. [This translation is commonly known as Targum Shiv'im, or the Septuagint.]
(Sofrim 1:7-8; Megillah 9a)

The Tur (Orach Chayim 580; see also Shulchan Aruch, ad loc.), quoting the opinion of the Halachot Gedolot, tells us that one should observe a fast day on the eighth day of Tevet because it is the anniversary of the day that Ptolemy commissioned his translation of the Torah. On the day the translation commenced, adds the Tur, "A three day period of darkness descended upon the world." This, Rav Cohen suggests, is the "darkness" of the Greek exile.


It remains to be explained why the translation of the Torah should cause global darkness. What was the great tragedy of translating the Torah into another language, and why should it cause the world to become dark? The tragedy, Rav Cohen explains, is implicit in the words of Massechet Sofrim—"because the Torah could not be translated adequately." Although the written text of the Torah can be translated with reasonable accuracy into another language, all the nuances—the double-entendres and the various implicit insinuations in the words of the Torah—are lost in the process. Gematria (numerology), acrostics and other word-based analyses are impossible to carry over from one language to another. The entire body of the Oral Torah which lies beneath the surface of the written text was thus severed—and deleted—from the Torah. It is interesting to note that, as Rav Cohen points out, the Sadducees (a sect that believed in the literal interpretation of the written Torah and denied the existence of an oral tradition) were a powerful force in Israel only until the Hasmonean uprising which culminated in the Chanukah miracle (Megillat Ta'anit, Ch. 5). Once the Hasmoneans succeeded in uprooting Greek culture from the hearts of the Jewish people, the Sadducees also submitted to the halachic renderings of the Torah-true elders of the generation. The Greek influence on Torah analysis that caused the Sadducees to give credibility to the written word alone was done away with along with the Greek culture. The Oral Torah is compared in the Midrash to a light that illuminates the darkness:

The Oral Torah is difficult to learn and its mastery involves great hardship. It is therefore compared to darkness in the verse "the people who walked in darkness saw a great light," (Isaiah 9:1). The "great light" is a reference to the great light that is seen by the Talmudic sages [i.e., they understand matters with great clarity], for Hashem enlightens their eyes in matters of ritual law and laws of purity. In the future it will be said of them, "those who love Him will shine as bright as the sun when it rises with its full intensity" (Judges 5:31).... Reward for the study of the Oral Torah is to be received in the Next World, as it says, "The people who walk in darkness saw a great light." "Great light" is a allusion to the primeval light which was hidden away by Hashem during Creation as a reward for those who toil over the Oral Torah day and night.
(Midrash Tanchuma, Noach 3)

Those who "shed a great light" on the Oral Torah are allowed, in return, to benefit from the "great light" of Creation. It is now clear why translating the Torah into Greek caused a darkness to descend upon the world. The darkness was caused by the obstruction of the "great light" of the Oral Torah that resulted from the translation of the Torah into a foreign language. It is this "great light" that shines true once again in our Chanukah candles, in which we celebrate the Hasmonean victory over Greek culture and its destructive effects!
(Rav David Cohen, in Bircat Yaavetz, p. 147)


This may be the symbolic significance of a historical fact that is recorded in the Mishnah:

The 13 breaches (made by the Greeks) in the enclosing wall ("Soreg") which surrounded the Temple Mount were repaired by the Hasmonean kings. These kings decreed that one must bow down when passing by each of these repaired breaches; a total of 13 bowings.
Middot 2:3

The 13 exegetical principles enumerated in the introduction to Torat Cohanim form the foundation of the Oral Law. Through these principles the Oral Law may be derived from the written text of the Torah. (See also the introductory paragraph to Midrash HaZohar on Bereishit, in which "a rose with 13 petals" serves as a metaphor for the Oral Torah.) The Elders made 13 modifications in the text of the Torah when they translated it into Greek. This number represents the fact that inherent in the translation is the loss of the Oral Torah, which is derived through the 13 exegetical principles. The 13 breaches made by the Greeks and repaired by the Hasmoneans represent the entire focus of the Greek war against the Jews. The Greeks sought to eliminate the 13 principles through their literal translation of the Torah into Greek, with the resultant loss of the Oral component of the Torah. The Hasmoneans succeeded in restoring these indispensable tools of Torah interpretation. In order to commemorate and give thanks for this victory of authentic Torah ideology over the shallow, incomplete Sadducee misrepresentation of Torah, 13 bowings were instituted at the sites of the repaired breaches. It may be further noted that according to Rashi (Deuteronomy 33:11), 13 Hasmoneans commanded the Jewish army that overthrew the Greeks. These 13 courageous men enabled the Jewish People to preserve the Oral Tradition and its 13 principles!


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