Peta Jones Pellach
Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Heroines of Chanukah

Chanukah and Purim, the two rabbinically ordained festivals, celebrate the strength of women and their importance in the survival of the Jewish people.

The case of Purim is obvious – the story centers around the heroism of Queen Esther – but the importance of women in the Chanukah story may not be so familiar and is sometimes lost when describing the military victory of the Maccabees and the miracle of the vial of oil.

Two heroines need to be remembered.

Yehudit, or Judith, is better known in some Christian circles than in Jewish ones.

The Book of Judith is included in the Septuagint and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew Bible.

Although never a candidate for inclusion in the Tanakh, by Medieval times, the textual reliability of the Book of Judith was taken for granted, to the extent that Biblical commentator Nachmanides (Ramban) quoted several passages from a  Syriac version of Judith in support of his commentary on a passage in Deuteronomy.

Although the text itself does not mention Chanukah, it became customary for a variant of the Judith story to be read on the Shabbat of Chanukah. Medieval Jewry appears to have viewed Judith as the Hasmonean counterpart to Queen Esther.

The story tells of a widow, Judith, who uses her beauty and charm to destroy an Assyrian general and save Israel from oppression. Judith, who lived in the town of Bethulia, became impatient with the inactivity of Judean leadership and their submissiveness to defeat. She risked her life when she entered the enemy camp of the invading Assyrians with a plan to save her town and prevent the impending siege of Jerusalem. She charmed the general Holofernes, who made a large and impressive feast in her honor. When Holofernes was full and very drunk, Judith cut off his head. This emboldened the Judean leadership and spurred them into action. They eventually repelled the enemy.

The Maccabean story occurred several hundred years later but it was held that the Maccabees took their inspiration from Yehudit, who was reportedly an ancestor – someone who would not submit to a foreign invader, even if the odds were against success.

One further word: In the Midrash, the heroine is portrayed as gorging the enemy on cheese and wine before cutting off his head. This is the basis of a tradition to eat dairy products during Hanukkah.

The second woman celebrated during Chanukah is Hannah.

The story of Hannah and her seven sons is told in II Maccabees, Chapter 7. Seven brothers were seized along with their mother by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, presumably shortly after the beginning of the religious persecutions, and commanded to prove their obedience to the king by partaking of swine’s flesh. The brothers defiantly refused to do so. Encouraged in their resolve by their mother, they were executed after being put to frightful tortures. When Hannah was appealed to by the king to spare the youngest child’s life by convincing him to comply, she urged the child instead to follow in the path of his brothers, and she herself died shortly thereafter.

According to one source, she threw herself into the fire.  Midrash states that she lost her reason and threw herself to her death from a roof, while according to the 10th Century “Josippon” she fell dead on the corpses of her children. The story, along with that of the martyrdom of the aged priest Eleazar (II Macc. 6:18–31), became the subject of the book known as the Fourth Book of Maccabees, a homily to piety.

Although in II Maccabees and in the Talmudic tractate Gittin the name of the mother is not given, in other rabbinic accounts she is called Miriam bat Tanhum, while in Syriac Christian accounts she is called Shamone or sometimes Maryam. However, she is known to us as Hannah and is linked back thematically to the mother of the priest, Samuel, who was also willing to give up her child to a higher cause (although not to see him killed).

Hannah’s sons were venerated in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints  as the “Seven Maccabee Brothers,” and their mother is also mentioned with them. Their martyrdom is considered a prefiguration of later Christian martyrdoms. According to Antiochene Christian tradition, the relics of the mother and sons were interred on the site of a synagogue (later converted into a church) in Antioch. It has been suggested that the scene of the martyrdom was Antioch rather than Jerusalem but that does not detract for us from the power of the story and its connection to Chanukah.

Hannah’s story has inspired many legends, as well as works of art, poetry, and drama, down to modern times, particularly during the Crusades and the Shoah.

Both Judith and Hannah are women who displayed extraordinary courage during times of crisis. Like Queen Esther, they put the survival of the community ahead of their personal interests. This might be the reason that while women continue to be disadvantaged in some aspects of Jewish life, when it comes to Purim and Chanukah, halakhic distinctions between the genders are minimal. Few authorities today deny women the right to read the Megillah of Esther; it is rare to find those opposing women lighting their own chanukiot.

In fact, if the woman is at home and the man away, it is the halakhic norm that she should light the chanukiah for their household.

But outside these holidays, the status of women in Judaism – particularly but not only in Orthodox Judaism – is a key issue. It has political ramifications in Israel. The battle over the character of the kotel and its centrality and accessibility for all Jews centers around women’s prayer. The domination of family and personal law by religious authorities disadvantages women in matters of marriage and divorce. The erasing of women’s faces from billboards and the illegal barring of women from participation in certain political parties are major sources of tension in Israel.

Chanukah has the potential to provide responses.

Women have proven themselves to be heroic in the face of a threat. They are the key to Jewish survival in the most profound way, even when an outside threat is not discernible. The survival of Judaism depends on the will to maintain a Jewish identity and traditions, regardless of the surrounding culture. Chanukah is primarily about our determination to be different, when there is a cost and even when there is not.

Women set the tone in the home and motivate children to preserve their identity.

The Judith and the Hannah – and the Sarah, Miriam, Naomi or Galit – who matter most are not the ones who use swords or martyrdom. They are the ones who educate. They are the ones who give their children Jewish names. They are the ones who buy the candles or oil, who cook or order the latkes, who insist that the TV is off while the candles are lit, who choose the Jewish education their children receive, who wear a magen David to work (outside Israel) and answer the questions, who insist that there is a mezuza on the door, and who affiliate with the community.

Chanukah is about Jewish survival against the odds. In today’s world, it depends on women and men making choices. We don’t need to destroy or humiliate the enemy in order to survive; we don’t need martyrs. It is good to know that women will step into those roles when they are required but the heroes we need today are those who choose life – a Jewish life – and this relies on women.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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