He (Jason, brother of the high priest) also did away with our Jewish customs and introduced new customs that were contrary to our Law. With great enthusiasm he built a stadium near the Temple hill and led our finest young men to adopt the Greek custom of participating in athletic events […] The craze for the Greek way of life and for foreign customs reached such a point that even the priests lost all interest in their sacred duties. They lost interest in the Temple services and neglected the sacrifices […] They did not care about anything their ancestors had valued; they prized only Greek honors.
Maccabees II, chapter 4:11–15
Bible Gateway, Good News Translation
Rabbi Huna stated in the name of Bar Kafra – Israel were redeemed from Egypt on account of four things: because they did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not go tale-bearing, and none of them was found to have been immoral. ‘They did not change their name’, having gone down as Reuven and Shimon, they came up [out of Egypt] as Reuven and Shimon. They did not call Reuven ‘Rufus’ or Yehuda ‘Leon’ or Yosef ‘Lestes’ or Benyamin ‘Alexander’.
Vayikra (Leviticus) Rabbah, chapter 32:5
Translation adapted from sefaria.com
Three things were permitted for the family of Yehuda HaNasi: They were permitted to look in a mirror, to get a particular Roman-style haircut and to teach their sons Greek, as they were dependent on the rulers.
Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah chapter 2: 2
Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: A person is allowed to teach his daughter Greek as it is an adornment for her.
Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbat chapter 6: 1
Foundations for Planning
- In what ways am I connected to the Jewish People?
- How is my Judaism expressed in my life?
- How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
- What factors shape our values and beliefs? How are my values and beliefs impacted by those around me?
- How do we form identities that remain authentic and true to ourselves?
- What happens when belief systems of societies and individuals come into conflict?
- How can exploring the past impact our present?
- Is it important to preserve cultural identity? Why?
- Is there a problem with adopting behaviors (ex. holidays, customs) of other nations?
- What makes me, as a Jew, different from my friends and neighbors who are not Jewish?
In ancient times, a rich culture developed in Greece, including magnificent architecture, spectacular sculptures, sports centers, theater and philosophy. Following the Macedonian empire’s conquering of Greece, this culture spread beyond the borders of Greece to all of the lands conquered by Alexander the Great....
In ancient times, a rich culture developed in Greece, including magnificent architecture, spectacular sculptures, sports centers, theater and philosophy. Following the Macedonian empire’s conquering of Greece, this culture spread beyond the borders of Greece to all of the lands conquered by Alexander the Great. In this way, Hellenist culture developed as a combination of Greek culture and the local, Eastern cultures. Hellenism had a strong influence on Europe, even after the continent became Christian, and on the development of Western culture.
In the year 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Land of Israel, bringing Hellenist culture with him. Hellenist culture began to influence the Jewish population, particularly the wealthy Jews who lived in cities. The Jews living in the Land of Israel had different responses to this phenomenon. There were those who continued to cling to Jewish culture exclusively and avoided adopting any Hellenist practices. There were also those who were influenced by Hellenist culture and adopted Hellenist customs and worldviews, while maintaining Jewish religious observance or instead of that traditional observance. These Jews were called mityavnim (מתיוונים, Hellenists) and were viewed negatively by the religious leadership of that time.
One of the main reasons that the religious leadership wanted to distance itself from Hellenism was the fact that its basic principles conflicted with Jewish values, for example, theaters that were dedicated to pagan gods and naked activities which took place in the theaters and in gymnasiums.
The religious leadership’s opposition to the adoption of the foreign culture continued for many centuries and may have been the basis for the establishment of the holiday of Chanukah as a commemoration of the victory of the Jewish religion over Hellenist culture and a symbol of standing strong in the face of foreign influences and preserving cultural uniqueness.
The examples from the Jerusalem Talmud (from the 3rd century) and the midrash from the Land of Israel (Vayikra Rabbah, 5th or 6th century) demonstrate the opposition to foreign influences that continued for centuries. The passages from the Jerusalem Talmud describe customs that were permitted on an individual basis during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods. For political reasons, members of the family of Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince – a great religious leader) were allowed to look at themselves in the mirror (something that was not usually considered appropriate for men to do). They were also permitted to get Roman-style haircuts and to learn the language of the authorities. The great sage of the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan, permitted women to study the Greek language because it would make them more attractive to future husbands. The passage from Vayikra Rabbah associates anti-Hellenist ideas with the period of Egyptian slavery, which occurred more than 1500 years earlier.
The Second Book of Maccabees is an apocryphal work that summarizes events that took place in the years 161–175 BCE. This book presents the series of events that led to the establishment of the holiday of Chanukah. Chapter 4 (in the text brought here) tells about Jason, the brother of the High Priest Chonev, who approached the king and offered to make him the high priest in exchange for Jerusalem becoming a Greek city. The king agreed and Jason succeeded in his efforts to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city. Even the priests serving in the Temple adopted Hellenist culture.
- Ask the students to share about holidays and festivals that they celebrate with their families. Which of those holidays are Jewish holidays? Which are tied to the local culture and traditions? What does this teach us about the place of Jewish culture and the place of local culture in their lives? Ask them why we’re raising this question now and hint that Chanukah is coming up.
Tell about how the theme of the influence of general culture on Jewish culture and Jews is an important one in the Chanukah story. During that period, Hellenist culture influenced the Jewish people and many Jews adopted Greek customs and practices. For example, there were those who changed their names to Greek names. At the same time, other Jews opposed those practices.
- If it’s appropriate for the class (if many students have Jewish names), you can expand on the idea of names. If some of the students have Jewish names (first, middle or last), discuss what their names can teach us about the influence of general culture on Jewish identity. How do they feel about their Jewish/ non-Jewish names? Do they use their Jewish name and, if so, when?
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
- What are the Greek customs mentioned in the text? How do they differ from the customs of our ancestors – traditional Jewish customs?
- The Hellenists chose Greek culture over Jewish culture. What might be the reasons for that choice? What do you think about that choice?
- Why do you think that the religious leadership opposed the adoption of Hellenist practices? How do Hellenism and the adoption of a foreign culture harm or threaten the Jewish religion?
- The text that describes the period of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (when the Romans ruled the Land of Israel, 300 years after the Greek rule of the Land of Israel) bears witness to opposition to Hellenist culture. Why were these particular things permitted and what does that teach us about cultural and religious flexibility?
- Hellenism is a name for the culture that the Greeks brought with them when they conquered the Land of Israel. During that period, this was the prevailing popular culture in the West. What can we call the most popular culture in our day? How much does it influence your lives?
- Do you mix Jewish customs with those of other cultures? Give an example and explain whether you think the different customs go well together and why. Can the adoption of customs from non-Jewish cultures affect the continued existence of Jewish customs? Explain.
- Do you think that adopting customs from a foreign culture affects the sense of belonging to the Jewish people? Can it actually make that connection stronger? Is there a way for someone who lives in a foreign culture to preserve both of his or her identities: as a Jew and as a local?
- Are there places in which you feel the tension between Jewish identity and cultural and social influences? How do you act in those situations? What is the price of each of those choices?
- Chanukah often takes place near Christmas. Is that significant for you? Does it present a difficulty or challenge? If so, what is that difficulty or challenge and what do you think is the best way of dealing with it?
- Stage a debate, with half of the class supporting the Hellenists and the other half supporting their opponents. You can also discuss particular events, like the priest arriving at the Temple in Greek clothing, etc. Have the students present arguments for and against Hellenization.
- Have the students make a collage out of cuttings from magazines and their own drawings that represent the different parts of their cultural identities (for example – languages, clothing, foods, customs, holidays, etc.). Then, discuss their collages and examine the relative weights of the Jewish and the non-Jewish components in each collage. What happens when we put elements from different cultures next to one another in a collage? How do they connect with one another?
- Use this presentation to teach the students about globalization. The presentation includes photos taken around the world. Have the students guess where each photo was taken (continent or country). After they guess, click the eye icon to see where the photo was actually taken. Did they guess correctly? Globalization is the reason that it is so difficult to guess correctly.
Ask the students to identify examples of globalization in their lives (ex. clothing, language, objects, apps, etc.). Discuss how globalization also affects worldviews and beliefs and how the adoption of physical things, like objects or foods, can also influence our worldviews. Ask the students to share how they feel about the effects of global culture around the world and on them personally.
Ask: Does social media play a role in globalization? Ask the students to include examples in their answers.
- Study the passage from Pirkei Avot (chapter 5:17) about disputes for the sake of heaven (machloket l’shem shamayim). You can refer to the resource on Beit Hillel, Beit Shamai and the Chanukah Candles. Discuss whether the dispute between the Hellenists and their opponents was a “dispute for the sake of heaven”.
- To broaden this discussion, you can use the unit Remaining Faithful to Our Principles and study Antiochus’s decrees and the efforts to convert the Jews to the Greek religion.