Joseph and the Greeks

Timing is everything. It’s not just what you say and how you say it, but it’s also when it is said. It is not a coincidence that every year the Joseph narrative falls during Chanukah. There must be a great connection between the two, right?

Throughout the centuries, many thoughts have been expressed on the topic. I will share a few of them:


  1. Joseph was incredibly handsome and attractive, so much so that the Torah states that Egyptian women used to climb the walls of the city to see him walk by. The Midrash states that when Joseph passed by the kitchen, the Egyptian female chefs would cut into their hands by accident because they were so taken by his appearance. So too,  Ancient Greece was preoccupied with beauty. Greek art, architecture, philosophy, literature, the Gymnasiums and Olympics…. were all manifestations of Greek beauty. The holiday of Chanukah falling out with the Torah readings of Joseph represents the struggle Jews have had when living in foreign lands throughout the millennia. Namely, should we aspire towards the spoken beauty of our host nation and culture, or remain solely connected to our historic ideas of beauty and culture?


  1. The struggle for survival – When Joseph was sold into slavery it was not known where he was going, to whom he would be sold, and if he would survive at all? So too at the time of Chanukah, when the mighty Greeks warred against the tiny army of Maccabees, it was unknown if or how the Jews could survive the war. Both Joseph and the Maccabees not only survive,d but rose to the top miraculously. That Joseph just happens to interpret the dream of the butler who happens to tell Pharoah who happened to have a disturbing dream to summon Joseph from jail to interpret Pharaohs dreams is miraculous enough. However, that Joseph, the Jew should be appointed viceroy over all of Egypt is beyond. So too that the Jews miraculously won the war would have been enough to say Dayenu, but that a pure untainted cruise of oil enough for one day would miraculously last for eight, providing enough time to prepare new oil is beyond. Chanukah is a time of miracles.


  1. Finally, the challenge of disunity and infighting. In the times of Chanukah there was not merely a fight between the Jews and the Greeks, there was also a kulturkampf between the Jews and Hellenists (fellow assimilated Jews). The Hellenists were all for assimilation and aligned well with Greeks, while the Maccabees and their group, the Pharisees aligned with historic traditional Judaism. This struggle has continued since then until today in a myriad of forms. So too Joseph and his brothers were at odds with one another about who would carry the proverbial torch forward from their father Jacob. Who would lead the next generation of Jews?


We can see that there is a strong connection between the Joseph story and Chanukah. What’s uncanny is that as we say in our blessing – Bayomim Haheim Bazman Hazeh – just as in those days, so too in ours, is playing out in front of our eyes in our homeland Israel 

While we are all consumed and rightfully concerned about the war in Gaza, we cannot forget that just as in the Joseph narrative and the time of the Maccabees there was Jewish disunity, before October 7th there was unrest throughout Israel through protests, in government, and throughout Israeli society. It was only Hamas Yemach Shemam that jolted Israel back into the unified nation we are intended to be. 

The unity throughout Israel and with fellow Jews around the world has been palpable and invigorating. There has also been a surge in Jewish awareness, observance, and interest by Quiet American Jews throughout the land  - see this article: 

The Torah teaches us that when in fact we are unified, there is no enemy that can undo us. As we celebrate the great holiday of Chanukah let’s join together in prayer, good deeds, and gratitude to G-d and one another. In the merit of our efforts may we once again see our enemies defeated and the goodness and truth reign supreme in a rebuilt Jerusalem.


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence