Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Horns and Hedonism
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 2:4) says that one of the methods the
Greeks used to discourage Jews from their beliefs was "to have them
write upon the horns of an ox that they have no portion in the G-d of
Israel." While there is no problem understanding their motivation in
having us renounce our G-d and our religion, having us write it upon the
horns of an ox seems, if nothing else, quaint. Wouldn't it have been
more effective to have us tattoo some atheistic message onto our arms
or chests; or perhaps have the words embroidered upon our garments?
Hitler, yimach sh-emo (may his name be blotted out), whose intention
was in fact the opposite of the Greeks (to constantly remind us we're
Jews), certainly knew that tattoos and decals were most potent
reminders of a message one doesn't want forgotten. So what is the
symbolism of inscribing words upon the horns of an ox?
R' Yaakov Yisrael of Tsherkas zt"l (quoted by his son, R' Mordechai of
Hornesteipel zt"l in Pele Yo'etz) explains that the ox symbolizes desire and
physical hedonism (think roast beef; steak; filet mignon...). Greek society
was one that worshipped the human body. They knew well that the key
to a man's heart, so to speak, was through his stomach. To attack the
religion and beliefs of the Jewish nation head-on was a losing proposition;
their faith was too deep and their beliefs too ingrained for the Greeks
to hope that with a few feeble arguments they might stand a chance of
swaying a nation from a theology and a G-d they had served and died-for
for centuries. Instead, he explains, they took the indirect path. By
attempting to include (and in many cases succeeding!) our nation in their
hedonistic culture, complete abandonment of religion, or at least its
marginalization, was just around the corner. One who worships his body,
his theatre, his high-society culture, or his country-club membership,
would ultimately retain little interest in worshipping his G-d as well.
there might still be the perfunctory visit to the synagogue now and then,
but when man worships himself, G-d, for the most part, takes a back
One of the great ba'lei mussar (a movement which concentrated upon
the teaching of ethics and morals) once explained that he never
understood the above Midrash until once, while on vacation, he visited
a museum. In the museum, he explained, there was an exhibit on the
development of infant-feeding. Throughout the ages different methods
were used to get newborn children to eat and drink when they weren't
nursing, and these were all displayed, right up to what we recognize as
the present-day bottle, complete with disposable plastic baggies. What
fascinated him, however, was that before the development of synthetics,
the horn of an animal such as an ox or ram was often used to feed
infantile children; the narrow end was placed in their mouths, while
through the wider end, liquids or soft foods such as mushed vegetables
were gently poured.
"It was then," he said, "that the meaning of the Midrash came to me. The
Greeks realized that to dissuade the Jews of their religion was an
impossibility. If nothing else, we are a stubborn and stiff-necked nation,
and are not easily swayed from what we believe. Thus the Greeks
concentrated their efforts on the small children, who were the future of
Israel. Write upon the horns of the ox, from which the infants receive
their first nourishment, that they have no portion in the G-d of Israel."
Of course tiny infants don't usually read the inscriptions on the
containers they're fed with (don't tell that to cereal-box manufacturers),
but symbolically, what the Midrash is trying to tell us is that the Greeks
understood that their only chance of uprooting a stubborn nation from
its beliefs was to work their magic on the small, impressionable youth.
Thus, they forbade the teaching of Torah, and did not allow bris milah
to be performed. A nation whose youth is divorced from the ways and
teachings of its elders and ancestors, they knew, could not withstand the
test of time.
It seems to me that, perhaps unknowingly, Western culture has
succeeded in cultivating and combining the best of both methods into
one deadly brew. The key to the our destruction (G-d forbid), the
Greeks knew, is to attack our youth. They also knew that the most
effective assault on religion is not the outright challenge, but rather the
subtle wooing of the Jewish soul from its roots by giving it something
more immediately satisfying and pleasurable; worship of the self.
R' Moshe Feinstein zt"l writes (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah-3 71), "Behold,
in our country (U.S.A), due to the abundance of (material) blessings and
wealth that Hashem has given us, there is a tremendous desire and need
to constantly satisfy oneself with all sort of physical, this-worldly
pleasures - that which people call 'having a good time' (he actually writes
those exact words, transliterated into Hebrew) - which ultimately destroy
one's character and accustom man to constantly seek pleasure from
unnecessary and superfluous distractions." We see, he writes, from the
halacha of Ben Sorer U-Moreh - the Wayward Son - that a child is punished
simply for overindulging himself in meat and drink. While the Wayward
Son, at the point the Torah picks up the narrative (see
Devarim/Deuteronomy ch. 21), has in fact done little in the way of
serious immorality, the Torah "delves to the depths of his nature (Rashi
ibid.; Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a)," and realizes that ultimately, the son who
in his youth gorges himself on meat and drink, will one day abandon the
In many discussions I've had recently with Yeshiva Rebeim, one topic
keeps coming up again and again: Today's youth, they say, just don't have
the patience and zitzfleish that previous generations had for studying
Mishna and Gemara. They barely have the patience to just sit and listen.
While many might attribute this sudden drop in attention-span to a
general yeridas ha-doros - the process of each generation being somewhat
less diligent than its predecessors - I believe there is more to it than
Think about it: What captures a child's imagination quicker - a Game-Boy,
or a Gemara? A movie, or a Mishna? A trip, or a tefilah? By obsessing
over constantly giving children a "good time," and addicting them to the
high-speed pleasures and entertainment in which North American culture
prides itself, today's parents are actually making it harder and harder for
our youth to absorb the deep, soul-touching messages Judaism has to
Stop for a moment to think about the differences between our youth
and the culture in which today's children are raised. Were the things that
gave you pleasure simpler and more mundane? How often did you eat
candies, drink soda, or get potato-chips for snacks? I know that what was
for me a "treat" when I was a child is for today's children ho-hum at
best. Manufacturers of nosh have upped the ante from what passed for
a treat when we were kids. Look at the names of some of the latest ice-
cream bars: Do you think a "Knackadik" gets your kid's taste-buds
watering? Would a graphically-enhanced, computer CD-rom game
capture their attention more than a Rashi or a pasuk Chumash?
People wonder why it is today's Yeshivos and schools have to run so
many incentive programs - with such elaborate prizes - just to get kids to
do the things they should be doing; learning and reviewing. It's not
rocket science; economists call it (I think) maximum efficiency. A person
will ultimately be drawn to what he perceives as giving him the "biggest
bang for the buck" - so if you want me to learn, you'd better make it
worth my while; otherwise, there are more enjoyable (and brainless)
ways for me to spend my time.
While learning a blatt Gemara can be a most enjoyable experience, it is
an "acquired taste," one that comes with age and experience. One fears,
however, that by the time some of today's youth reach the age that they
should be acquiring that taste, their impressionable young taste-buds
have already been dulled and stupefied by the pseudo-sensuous Western
culture of computer-games, nosh, and media-bombardment.
It comes as no surprise that the Torah often refers to the Messianic age
as a time when "our horns will be uplifted (see, for instance,
Tehilim/Psalms 89:18)." While we can not realistically hope to stem the
tide of high-octane materialism that pervades Western society, perhaps
an awareness of how it affects us, and most importantly our youth, can
help us to acquire a sensitivity to the issues of cultivating Torah in a
generation whose imagination is threatening to be captured by more
seductive, if ultimately hollow, pleasures.
Have a good Shabbos and a freilichen Chanukah.
This week's publication has been sponsored by Mr. Yitzchak
Meisles, in honour of the upcoming wedding of his grandson,
Nachman Chaim Tauber.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.