The Women of Chanukah

Pnina Omer

Pnina Omer

Lighting Chanukah candles is an obligation as well as a privilege for women. This is clearly illustrated and accepted within Jewish law “… for they, too, were present at that miracle”, according to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). This precept also appears in the Gemarah (Talmud), but doesn’t specify what this miracle is, or who the woman who may have prompted this miracle was. Rashi, alone, refers to this in his commentary, writing “for the Greeks had decreed that all married virgins must cohabit first with the (Greek) general, and a miracle occurred because of a woman”.

During the period of the Rishonim, the miracle was associated with Judith, the high priest Yochanan’s daughter, and the author of the Mishnah Berurah, the commentary known as Ramah on the Shulchan Aruch, and others share this idea.

There is a Midrash found in ancient manuscripts on Chanukah. In it, Yochanan’s daughter is described as someone who resolutely defied the Greek’s decree to give herself over to the hegemon, the Greek governor. This caused her brothers to mount an active opposition that would result in the beheading of the hegemon, and a reprisal by the monarchy in the form of a siege on Jerusalem. The end of the Midrash appears in the Book of Judith, and relates to how another woman, a widow named Judith (who was like any modern female superhero – beautiful, rich, and completely righteous) beheaded the general who command the siege of Jerusalem, just moments before the city capitulated, ultimately saving the nation.

In the original source, which appears in the Book of Judith, the widow beheaded Holophernes, a warlord in the service of the king of Assyria, unconnected to the Greek rulers. However, in the Midrash that we read, these two stories were inter-twined and merged, so over the years, the daughter of Yochanan, the high priest, merited to have her name tied to the other Judith, and would receive credit for the warlord’s beheading as if she had done it herself. This tradition was also adopted by the commentators.

Nevertheless, it turns out that both Judith, the daughter of Yochanan the high priest, as well as the other Judith, proved themselves exemplary figures worthy of being etched into our collective memory. Both women were observant, righteous, trailblazing, and virtuous.

The daughter of Yochanan the high priest, who demanded justice for the offence committed against her sisters, was prepared to pay a high social price to preserve their dignity. While the rest of the nation looked on and kept silent, Judith sparked a remarkable social revolution.

Judith, who is described as a woman who poured her heart out before Hashem: in prayer, tears, and fasting, knew how to make the transition between speaking (with Hashem) and taking action. She took the initiative, wisely and courageously, and succeeded in penetrating deep into the enemy camp, outdoing all of the generals who had previously failed in this endeavor. 

These two are national heroines living within us, and it befits us to bring them back to life. We should renew the tradition, which was abandoned for various reasons, and insist that every mother and daughter light Chanukah candles, “because they, too, were present when the miracle occurred”. They, too, prompted the miracle, and we must bear in mind that miracles always begin within us.

Pnina Omer is the director of OTS’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot 


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