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Mesechet Menachot: Pigs and Greek Wisdom

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on May 27, 2011)
Topics: Talmud, Kodshim, Menachot

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The sixth chapter of Menachot is devoted to the topic of the bringing of the omer.   In the middle of all the halakhic discussions of this chapter, a fascinating story is told about how, one time, they needed to bring the omer from wheat that grew far away from Jerusalem:

Our Rabbis taught: When the Kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus was outside and Aristobulus within [the city wall]. Each day [those that were within] used to let down [to the other party] dinars in a basket, and haul up [in return] animals for the daily offerings. An old man there [on the inside], who was learned in Greek wisdom, spoke with them [on the outside] in Greek wisdom, saying. ‘As long as they carry on the Temple service they will never be delivered into your hands’.
On the morrow they let down dinars in a basket and hauled up a pig. When it reached halfway up the wall, it stuck its claws into the wall, and the land of Israel was shaken over a distance of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs. At that time they declared, ‘Cursed be the man who rears pigs and cursed be the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom!’
It was concerning this time [of siege] that we learned: “It once happened that the omer was brought from Gagot Zerifin…”  For when the time for the omer arrived they did not know from where to take it [since the local wheat had been destroyed in the siege].  They made a proclamation [for anyone with knowledge to come forward], whereupon a deaf-mute came forward and pointed with one hand to the roof and with the other to a cone-shaped hut. Then Mordecai said, ‘Is there anywhere a place by name Gagot [roof] Zerifin [hut] or Zerifin Gagot?’ Thereupon they searched and found the place…
Menachot 64b
This story, as seen from its ending, is used to illustrate the episode mentioned in the Mishna  that once the barley for the omer had to be brought from a distant place.  However, it is a story worth analyzing on its own terms.
We may first note the parallel between the person inside Jerusalem who uses secret signs (“Greek Wisdom”) to communicate with those outside the city, with the result that rather than getting the necessary sacrifice from outside, the most invalid animal – a pig – is delivered into the city. The story ends with the mirror image of this.  A person inside the city uses gestures to communicate with those inside how and where they can go outside Jerusalem to bring the necessary sacrifice into the Temple.   While “Greek Wisdom” – apparently some form of secret communication – was forbidden as a result of this story, we see that it is not the use of signals and secret communication per se which is the problem.  The question is how it is used – to get a sacrifice or to send in a pig.  Perhaps the problem with ‘Greek Wisdom,’ is that it was understood to be a language suffused with Hellenistic culture and values.  We would be foolish to believe that our thoughts and ideas are not shaped by the language we use (for anyone who does not believe this, please read George Orwell’s 1984).  The use of the secret ‘Greek Wisdom,’ and by those who were steeped in it, led to the substituting of the pig for the sheep.
This then turns us to the other fascinating part of this story, and that is the pig.  It is by far the most graphic and memorable element of the story.  Now, this story is also related in Josephus, but there the pig is completely absent:
And when after that victory many went over to Hyrcanus as deserters, Aristobulus was left desolate, and fled to Jerusalem…
While the priests and Aristobulus were besieged, it happened that the feast called the Passover was come, at which it is our custom to offer a great number of sacrifices to God; but those that were with Aristobulus wanted sacrifices, and desired that their countrymen without would furnish them with such sacrifices, and assured them they should have as much money for them as they should desire; and when they required them to pay a thousand drachmas for each head of cattle, Aristobulus and the priests willingly undertook to pay for them accordingly, and those within let down the money over the walls, and gave it them. But when the others had received it, they did not deliver the sacrifices, but arrived at that height of wickedness as to break the assurances they had given, and to be guilty of impiety towards God, by not furnishing those that wanted them with sacrifices.
And when the priests found they had been cheated, and that the agreements they had made were violated, they prayed to God that he would avenge them on their countrymen. Nor did he delay that their punishment, but sent a strong and vehement storm of wind, that destroyed the fruits of the whole country, till a modius of wheat was then bought for eleven drachmas.
Antiquities XIV:2
Here we see that the event took place just before the omer, on erev Pesach, and we see how the grain was destroyed in the aftermath.  This explains why they needed, in the Gemara’s version, to bring the omer from far away from Jerusalem.
What is most striking, however, is that the pig is completely absent in this version of the story.  If we assume that the account in Josephus, coming closer to the actual events, is the more accurate one, how are we to understand how the pig got into the story?
It seems, first of all, that the pig symbolizes Hellenism.  We have already noted above how the pig being sent into Jerusalem was the result of the use of “Greek Wisdom.”  This connection of the pig to Greek culture can be found in the Book of Maccabees, where Antiochus demands that the Jews sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods:
And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.
I Maccabees 1:44-48  (See also Josephus, Antiquities, 12:5)
The pig, then, is not just a symbol of Hellenism, but – in the context of it as a possible sacrifice in the Temple – is symbolic of Antiochus’ desecration of the Temple, and his attempt to replace Judaism with Hellenism.  It is now obvious why the pig appears in the story in the Talmud.  Greek Wisdom, with its rootedness in Hellenistic culture, is being used to bring a pig into the Temple – to repeat the desecration of Antiochus.
But there is an even deeper point being made.  For who is using this Greek Wisdom?   Who is laying siege to Jerusalem and  trying to bring down the walls of Jerusalem?  Not the Greeks, not the Babylonians, not the Romans, but Jews.  Jews led by one Hasmonean brother are laying siege to Jerusalem to attack another Hasmonean brother.  The same family which led the revolt against Antiochus just two generations ago, has now, in its quest for power, become like the enemy they conquered.  Jews are now laying siege to Jerusalem.  Is it any wonder, then, that these Jews are using Greek Wisdom?  That these Jews are now trying to bring a pig into the Temple?  Are now reenacting the greatest sacrilege of their defeated enemy.  Is it any wonder that “the Land of Israel was shaken over a distance of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs“?
Perhaps the symbolism goes even further.  The pig is the only non-kosher animal that has split hooves.  This made it, in the eyes of the Rabbis, a symbol of someone who acts kosher/righteous on the outside, but is really treif /corrupt on the inside.  And in particular, they used the symbol of the pig to refer to Esav and Rome:
Why is Esav compared to a pig?  For what is the case with a pig – when it lies down it stretches out its hooves, as if to say, “Look!  I am pure!”.  So it is the case with this evil kingdom (Rome).  It robs and it steals and it makes it look like it is erecting the platform [establishing a system of justice].
Breishit Rabbah 65:1 (quoted by Rashi, Breishit 26:34).
It is these hooves – the appearance of being kosher – that the pig strikes into the wall.  The pig is saying, “I am kosher!  Let me come in!”  Who is this pig, if not the Hasmonean brother, who, in his desire for power, is attacking his fellow Jew and laying siege to Jerusalem?  He is saying – “I am kosher!  I am the righteous Jewish king!  Let me in!”  But of course, he is nothing more than the pig, and with him will come all of the Greek and Hellenistic culture and worship that is so abhorrent, that is as treif as the pig.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the problem lay only with Hyrcanus.  We are dealing at a time in Jewish history where all the Hasmonean kings had been influenced by Hellenistic values, and it was hard to find a righteous one among them.  Beyond the values and culture, this infighting ultimately led to the loss of political autonomy and the control of Israel by Rome.  The war between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus ended not with Hyrcanus seizing the Temple, but with the brothers turning to Rome, and with Pompey capturing Jerusalem, slaughtering the defenders of the Temple, and entering into the Holy of Holies.  The pig – Rome – had succeeded in breaching the walls and entering the Temple. And it was clear who has to blame.  As Josephus relates, in his closing this period in the Hasmonean story:
Now the occasions of this misery which came upon Jerusalem were Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, by raising a sedition one against the other; for now we lost our liberty, and became subject to the Romans, and were deprived of that country which we had gained by our arms from the Syrians, and were compelled to restore it to the Syrians. Moreover, the Romans exacted of us, in a little time, above ten thousand talents; and the royal authority, which was a dignity formerly bestowed on those that were high priests, by the right of their family, became the property of private men.
Antiquities XIV, chapter 4, section 5
Once the pig had stuck its hooves into the walls of Jerusalem, it was only time before it would enter, and the walls would fall.