Yavan

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 9, 2009
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Chanucah celebrates the Jewish victory over the Yevanim, the Greeks. The name Yavan goes back to Genesis 10:2, which lists Yavan as one of Yefet’s sons, from whom, the Torah tell us, the “maritime nations branched out”. In Greek mythology, the father of the Ionians, an ancient group of Greeks, was called Ion — a name not too removed from Yavan. Sanskrit refers to Greece as Yavana.

At the time of the Hasmonean revolt, the Jews who welcomed the Greek circuses were called mityavnim. The reflexive suffix mit turns yavan into a verb of becoming. Lehityaven is to become Greek.

But there is also a positive side to our relationship with Yavan. Noah blesses Yefet, “May God enlarge Yefet and let him dwell in the tents of Shem.” In the Talmud, Rabban Gamliel reads this verse as the basis for permission to translate the Torah into Greek. Rashi explains that the Yevanit language is the most beautiful of all the nations of Yefet and it therefore has a right to dwell in the house of Shem. Chanucah is not about rejecting all Greek culture — just the vulgar. Jews have always appreciated the role of Yevan in the tent of Shem.

    Last updated: 3:44pm, December 9 2009