Quite a lot actually, but maybe not in the ways you have heard.
Women are obligated to light the Chanuka candles and have a tradition not to work while they are lit because, according to the Talmud, “they too were involved in the miracle” (Shabbat 23a).
Tosafot says that Yehudit is credited with being central to the miracle (Pesahim 108b), while Rashi alludes to Channah, daughter of Mattityahu: “‘They too were involved in the miracle’ refers to a time when the Greeks had decreed that a bride should be given over to the magistrate on her wedding night and a miracle was enacted at the hands of a woman.” (Rashi on Shabbat 23a)
To what are they referring?
The Greek occupation and oppression of Israel was harsh. Jews were forbidden to learn Torah, keep Shabbat, celebrate the new moon (by which all holiday dates were figured), or circumcise their baby boys. In a very symbolic parallel to these decrees, every Chanukka has a Shabbat, a new month, and lasts 8 days, the same timing as a brit milah (circumcision).
Most of us have heard the stories of mothers circumcising their babies and then jumping from the walls to their death to evade the capture and torture of the Greeks. You have probably also heard of Channah who is taken with her seven sons to bow before the king. All of the boys refuse to renounce God and are killed before her eyes. She then dies a short time later.
Two lesser-known and lesser-told stories involve women, but this time, they are not dying or watching their children die. Rather, they stand up and take action.
In order to break the Jews, the Greeks practiced what was known as jus primae noctis. Every woman on her wedding night was brought to the local ruler to be raped before being returned to her husband. At her wedding feast, the daughter of Matityahu stood up and tore her dress, exposing herself to her family and their guests. Her brothers, outraged at her behavior, rose up against her, but she yelled, “I stand before you righteous and yet you are angry with me? Where is your anger at the Greeks to whom you will deliver me tonight? Learn from Shimon and Levi who were outraged for their sister. They were two and you are five!”
That night her five brothers, the Maccabees, dressed her up in finery and brought her to the magistrate’s bed chamber. There they slew him and his henchman and the battle began.
The story of Judith, takes place a bit later when Holofernes, the Assyrian-Greek general had besieged the town of Bethuliah in the Judean hills. The town fought off the army, but was weak from hunger and thirst. Angry that her townsmen were considering surrender and lacked faith in God, a widow named Judith convinced a begrudging Uzziah, the town magistrate, to allow her to go to the enemy camp to speak to Holofernes.
Dressed in her best attire, Judith made her way into the camp. Seeing her as a non threat, and very beautiful, Holofernes met with her. She begged him for mercy for her people and in exchange said she would help him know when to attack the town. For days she went back and forth from the enemy tents to town. One night, she told Holofernes that he could attack the next day. He declared a celebration and the two of them drank and ate alone in his tent.
Judith made sure that Holofernes drank large quantities of wine and when he finally passed out, she took his sword, cut off his head and delivered it to her people.
The bewildered enemy fled.
Few people learn these stories… We hear of brave Maccabees, of men and boys learning Torah and playing dreidel in caves, of fierce battles and long-lasting oil. We learn about Judah and Matityahu the faithful fighters of Hashem, which kid doesn’t come home screaming ‘מי לה׳ אלי Mi L’Hashem Alai – Who is for God, join me!’ but how many know this happened only after their sister and daughter spurred them into action?
I guess it might be awkward to have kids ripping off their shirts and lopping off heads, but surely we can find a way to commemorate and learn from the women whose faith and righteous anger inspired and won battles for the Jewish people?
There is a North African Jewish tradition of Chag Habanot, or Eid al-Banat, celebrated on the seventh night of Chanuka to commemorate women’s roles in the Chanuka story. Traditional practices of Chag Habanot include consuming dairy and wine in homage to Yehudit, as well as various women’s celebrations.
Today, the Jewish people face many threats, both from without and from within. Women are literally on the battlefield with our external enemies. But we also need knowledgeable, brave women in our political and religious battlefields. We need courageous women to fight for those women being held against their will, not by foreign generals, but by their husbands and Batei Din who do not uphold the Torah as they should.
We need women to join the political and religious conversations on education, health, security, community leadership, economy and all areas of society.
When we all work together for the good of the nation, and acknowledge the place of women in leadership roles, we will merit to see the victories that we did bayamim hahem, bazman hazeh– in those days, at this time.