The Septuagint

In 3515, Eretz Israel was under the sway of the Egyptian Ptolemaic kings. Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a great lover of books and wisdom, painstakingly acquired a vast library. Knowing of the great fame of the Torah, he ordered 72 sages to come to Alexandria. When they arrived, he isolated each one to prevent collaboration, and demanded that they translate the Torah into Greek. Divinely inspired, they all provided identical translations, especially for verses that if understood literally could easily be misconstrued. For example, the verse which literally reads "And they saw the G‑d of Israel" (Exodus 24:10) was translated "And they saw the glory of the G‑d of Israel," which is indeed figuratively accurate, for no human can see G‑d directly.

While the assimilated Jews of Alexandria rejoiced at the opportunity to display Jewish wisdom to the Greeks, the rabbis viewed this event as an unmitigated disaster for the Jewish people, for putting holy words in the hands of non-Jews who did not understand the Torah’s inner meanings turned the Jewish Bible into ordinary literature. Sadly, history has borne out the sages’ fears. Christians have distorted and falsified Scripture to comply with their own theology and justify their persecution of the Jewish people. Even now, missionaries seek to entrap Jews with spurious interpretations of the Bible.

The First Unresolved Halachic Dispute (Machlokes)

For more than 1,000 years, since the giving of Torah at Sinai, scholarship was on such a high level that no halachic question was left undecided. After an issue was debated, analyzed, and voted on, there was complete unanimity and clarity in the decision. However, in the days of Jose ben Joezer and Jose ben Jochanan, the initial Zugos, the first unresolved dispute arose. The case involved the permissibility of leaning one's hands (semicha) on a sacrificial animal on Yom Tov, a holiday.The question was whether the mitzvah of semicha should be performed despite the prohibition of exerting pressure on an animal on Yom Tov. Despite the fact that only one dispute arose among the countless facets of Jewish law, and even that one was a relatively minor rabbinic issue, the Talmud viewed this event as a disastrous drop in Torah scholarship.

The Spread of Greek Culture

The ancient Greeks were a brilliant people whose advances in mathematics, science, literature, philosophy, architecture, and government form the basis of much of Western civilization and thought today. The Olympic Games, for example, feature many of the sporting events of ancient Greece, while the Olympic Flame is lit at Mount Olympus, in Greece, signaling the beginning of competition. Alexander, a great proponent of Greek culture, spread it throughout his vast conquests, building Greek cities containing vast libraries, beautiful temples, and impressive gymnasiums.

By and large, the conquered nations welcomed the Greeks' superior and very attractive culture, and had no problem incorporating the Greek gods into their pantheons of idols. The Jews, however, viewed Greek influence as a major threat. Jewish youth flocked to the entertainments, at which athletes competed naked. Some Jews even attempted to undo their circumcisions surgically, which the Greeks encouraged because they considered circumcision a blemish on the supposedly perfect human body. Even worse, after sporting events participants offered sacrifices to the Greek gods. Following such practices, a number of Jews adopted Greek names and mores, studied Greek literature and philosophy, and cast off Torah observance. These Jews became known as Misyavnim, or Hellenists, and looked with disdain at their religious, less modern brethren. Jews also moved to Greek centers, such as Alexandria, a major Hellenist city where Jews attained great affluence and rapidly assimilated. Alexandria was also the location of Chonyo's temple, where Jews offered sacrifices to G‑d, violating the law of sacrificing outside the Bais Hamikdash. This temple lasted several hundred years.

Seleucid Rule

In 3562, after 114 years, Eretz Israel passed from Ptolemaic rule to the control of the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) kings. During this time, the Hellenists gained more power and influence. While relations between the Jews and the early Seleucid kings were generally amicable, there was one notable exception: Seleucus IV. Upon being told by Hellenists that the treasury of the Bais Hamikdash contained vast sums of money, he attempted to plunder the Holy Temple. One of his trusted officers, Heliodorus, entered the Bais Hamikdash, and despite the desperate entreaties of the Kohen Gadol, approached the treasury. Miraculously, a heavenly apparition of a rider appeared, striking Heliodorus to the ground. When Heliodorus recovered, he offered a sacrifice in reverence to G‑d, and upon returning to Seleucus convinced him to leave the Bais Hamikdash alone.