Monday, December 10, 2018

Beauty and the Greeks

What does Noah’s son Yaphet have to do with the story of Chanukah and the mitzvah of circumcision?

When the Syrian-Greeks sought to force the Hellenization on the Judeans, one of the first mitzvot that they outlawed was brit milah, circumcision. In fact, performing a brit milah on one’s child became a capital crime. The Syrian-Greeks found circumcision particularly offensive because of their own culture’s devotion to the beauty and perfection of the human body. The ancient Greeks are renowned for their sculptures and naked athletics. From the perspective of the Hellenistic culture, the male body represented perfection. It was therefore unconscionable that the Jews should alter it, or maim it, especially by Divine decree.

The Greeks are known in the Bible as “Y’vanim,” the people of Yavan. They are, according to the sages, the direct descendants of Yavan, the son of Yaphet, the son of Noah.

Noah had three sons: Yaphet, Ham and Shem. Very little is written about Yaphet other than the fact that, following Shem’s lead, Yaphet covered his father’s nakedness, which had been exposed by Ham. For this noble act, Yaphet is praised. (See Genesis 5).

There is, however, much one can learn about a Biblical personality through his/her name. The name Yaphet derives from the Hebrew root (y-ph-h), which is the base of the word Yafeh, beautiful. Thus, beauty, and the admiration of beauty, are part of Yaphet’s nature. Consequently, Noah blessed him: “May God grant beauty to Yaphet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).

Yaphet is associated with beauty and adoration of the human body, the two cultural traits that came to define Yavan-Greece. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that they abhorred the dedication of the Jews to the mitzvah of brit milah.


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