By: Dovid Samuels
What did the Jewish people do after the victory over the Greek army and the entire empire’s downfall? Firstly, celebrate, surely. We know they went into the Beis Hamikdash (the Temple) and found the jar of oil and miraculously used it to light the menorah for eight days. We also know that they proclaimed those days a festival for all generations, on which we are to sing hallel (special praises to Hashem) and thank Hashem for our survival. But there was something else that the rabbis of that time did, perhaps slightly less known, which sheds a lot of light on what we are really celebrating, and what the Greeks were really fighting against.
We are taught in a Mishnah that within the wall of the Temple Mount there was a latticework partition which was just under a metre tall. The Greeks, in their conquest of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, made 13 breaches in this fence. After regaining power, the Jews repaired the breaches and instituted that one must bow down upon reaching each breach, 13 times in total, as a symbol of the destruction of the Greek Empire.
Firstly, we need to understand why the Greeks decided to make breaches in this seemingly harmless fence. The answer commonly given is that the partition in question marked the farthest point a non-Jew could go within the walls of the Temple Mount. For that reason, the Greeks saw it as their duty to break that fence, as if to “destroy” the separation and differentiation between Jew and gentile. In response: we fixed the breaches, repaired our separation, and prostrated ourselves in thanks and acknowledgement of being able to preserve our uniqueness with the annihilation of the Greek Empire.
But the question still remains: why did they make specifically that number of breaches? Not 12, not 14, but 13. Why?
The number 13 happens to be the numerical value of the word echad – one. This obviously hints to the One and Only, Hashem. The Greeks, by attacking the Jewish people, were attacking Hashem. Thirteen is also the number of the attributes of mercy with which Hashem interacts with the Jewish people. This too was something that the Greeks sought to eradicate. The Rambam lists 13 fundamental principles of Jewish belief, without which one is failing in basic Jewish ideology. Certainly, the Greeks were set to obliterate each one of those beliefs, hence the 13 breaches in the fence. But, we were victorious, so we bow down 13 times, having kept hold of our 13 fundamental beliefs, having maintained a relationship with Hashem based on the attributes of mercy, and having kept the awareness and service of G-d, the One, alive in this world.
But there is one more 13 that many of us are familiar with. Every morning, just before we start Psukei d’zimra, the chapters of Psalms preluding Shema and Shmoneh Esrei, we recite a rather strange piece from a Midrash. It is called the braisa of Rabbi Yishmael, and it delineates the 13 ways in which Hashem told us to derive laws from the Written Torah. Hermeneutical exegesis, to be precise, without which we would not know how to accurately read, understand, and formulate laws from the Torah. It is a divine biblical decoder, given to Moshe at Har Sinai, and handed down in an unbroken chain as an oral tradition throughout history until it was written down in the Talmud.
The Vilna Gaon explains that these 13 principles are the connector between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. (As above, the numerical value of ‘one’ is 13, meaning that these principles make the two facets of Torah – the Written and the Oral – one). What these 13 principles of derivation do is show how laws and practices taught to us by our rabbis are not only from, but intrinsic to the correct and true reading of the Five Books of Moses.
A hint to this, given by the Vilna Gaon himself, is when we say Shema, we say six words: Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad, and immediately afterwards we say (quietly) another six words: Boruch Shem Kavod Malchuso L’olam Va’ed. The first five words represent the Five Books of Moses – the Written Torah, and the six final words represent the six orders of the Mishnah – the Oral Torah. But the one word which finds itself between these two sets is the word Echad – one; hinting, again, to the 13 principles of Torah derivation as the glue connecting the two facets of Torah, making them one. We are taught that true love of Hashem is both achieved and expressed in the authentic study of His Torah. This can only be done with a correct procedure of textual analysis and derivation; specifically, Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles. It is no coincidence, then, that ahavah – love – has the numerical value of 13.
One more proof to this is that our Sages teach us that Hashem protected us in the times of the Greeks by placing Shimon Hatzaddik, the Chashmonaim, and Mattisyahu the Kohen Gadol there to help us. We know already that the Chashmonaim and Mattisyahu were instrumental in the war against the Greeks, but how does Shimon Hatzaddik fit in? Not only that, but he lived roughly 200 years before the war with the Greeks. How was it helpful to us that Hashem placed him in a generation other than the one in which the war took place? To answer this, we need to know a little bit about who this man was.
We are taught at the beginning of Pirkei Avos that Shimon Hatzaddik was one of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. These men were the keepers of the tradition of Torah law, originating with Moshe at Har Sinai. They had insight and understanding into the inner workings of the Written Torah and knew how to explain the real meaning of the text. The remnant of that group of Torah giants was the one tasked with the responsibility to hand over the traditions to the next generation. Shimon Hatzaddik found himself in that position at a time when Greek philosophy started spreading, with men like Aristotle creating man-made wisdom influencing human life, behaviour, and direction. In contrast to this tidal wave of logical and rational analysis, the Jews had their own logical process of finding the correct path of life. Both were generated by the thought process of man; both were the product of rigorous intellectual effort; but there was one critical difference: one was divine, and the other was not.
Shimon Hatzaddik was the transmitter of the correct approach to divine wisdom at a time when the Greek thinkers were out to eliminate the divinity of thought. They saw intellect as human, earthly, and natural, whereas we were holding on to our belief that our ability to decode the Torah, to formulate healthy life paths, and to engage in the intellectual process was anything but natural. It was G-dly, and therefore bound by G-dly rules; namely, the 13 principles of derivation. The Greeks denied that our process could be superior to theirs, and they would surely go to war to eradicate such a belief. So, although he was not alive in the times of the war with the Greeks, Hashem placed Shimon Hatzaddik in the exact generation necessary to lay down and solidify the foundations of our religion that would be demonised, attacked, but eventually be victorious over the philosophy of Ancient Greece. He handed over the glue that connects the Oral Torah to the Written Torah, setting the ground rules for the intellectual process, and in so doing preserved the divinity of our thoughts, behaviours, and our society.
So, when the Greeks came to this seemingly insignificant fence, they saw a fortress to be conquered. A fence, separating between the Jews and the non-Jews? A fence, differentiating between divine thought and Greek philosophy? This they had to defeat. And in leaving their mark they left 13 breaches, no less and no more; a subtle but aggressive message against the Jewish claim to G-dly wisdom, against the idea of an Oral Torah, against the 13 principles of Torah exegesis, and against the life-blood of the Jewish people itself.
There is one final concept that exposes the true intentions of the Greek Empire in their war against the Jews. The number 13 has a strong connotation to the concept of exposing something that is hidden. The Talmud teaches us that there are 13 covenants made with the Jewish people in the mitzvah of bris milah. A bris milah is, in effect, the exposing of something which was previously hidden. A Mishnah tells us that there are 13 gates in the courtyard of the Temple. A gate is also an access point to an area otherwise hidden. A Midrash tells us that when Avraham Avinu was born, the leaders and the magicians wanted to kill him, and he was hidden under ground for 13 years, after which he came out of the ground, fluent in Lashon HaKodesh, despising idolatry, and full of belief in Hashem. Similarly, the famous story that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Elazar, hid away in a cave for 13 years. Both of these events saw 13 years result in the appearance of people previously hidden.
With this we can understand a little deeper what the Oral Torah and its divine process represent, and what the Greeks were so violently opposed to. The 13 principles represent the sublime method of exposing hidden knowledge. That what you see is most certainly not all that you get, especially when dealing with Hashem’s eternal and limitless Torah. The Greeks, as advanced in thought and wisdom as they might have been, were firm believers in a natural world. G-dliness had no place, and anything that could not be logically or scientifically analysed was untenable. The Bible, as a book, as a history, as a teacher of fables and stories, had a place in the Greek libraries. But a framework which allowed access to Hashem’s thoughts, to hidden secrets, to higher concepts and upper worlds was antithetical to everything that was the rational Greek Empire.
So, the Greeks made 13 breaches, but we repaired them. They raised up against us, but we bowed down 13 times every time we passed a sign of our victory over them. They tried to place man’s intellect over G-d’s, but every day we recall the 13 principles of divine intellectual methodology. They tried to snuff out our flame, but we lit more, and to this day we continue to shine that holy light.