The miracle of Chanukah has true heroes, and though we usually think of the Maccabees and the priests who kindled the miraculous lamps in the Temple, Chanukah’s true heroes are the women and children.
The Talmud tells us that although positive commandments bound by particular times, are usually non-binding on Jewish women, the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles is one of the exceptions. Why? Because women also took part in the miracle. In what way did women take part in the miracle?
The medieval Talmudic commentator, Rashi, offered two explanations. The first explanation was that Jewish women suffered more heinously than the men because Greek law obliged the local army commander to defile all Jewish brides on the night before their wedding. You can only imagine the grief these women experienced on that night and the dread they felt on their wedding night.
In fact, one of the causal factors that provoked the Maccabee brothers to declare war against the Greeks was the upcoming marriage of their sister. Under no conditions, would they allow a coarse Greek commander to defile their priestly sister. They denied the murderous Greek his night with their sister, and when he rallied his troops, they declared war.
The second explanation offered by Rashi is that the miraculous victory came about in large part through the efforts of a Jewish woman. Yehudit, aunt of the Maccabee brothers, befriended the mighty and cruel Greek general Holofernes, and when he summoned her to his tent, she went willingly. She plied him with salty cheese and strong wine. When he fell asleep, she killed him. She then signaled the Jews to attack the Greek army, who dispersed when they discovered their general was dead.
It turns out that the Talmud understated its case. Jewish women did not “also take part” in the miracle. They were its true heroes. They played a pivotal role on both sides of the Chanukah story. A, they suffered more than the men. B, they provoked the rebellion and ensured its success.
There is another group that belongs to the ‘true heroes’ category: the children. Once we recognize the children, we will appreciate a deeper layer of their mothers’ heroism.
During Chanukah we distribute “Gelt,” gifts of money, to our children. It is our way of acknowledging, rewarding, and celebrating the efforts that children invest and the lengths to which they go in their study of Torah. But why do we do this on Chanukah?
Because a big part of the Chanukah story was that children hid in the Judean mountains to study Torah. Studying Torah was forbidden under Greek law, and children were forced to hide in caves high in the hills and far from home. It was not a pleasant vacation nor an enjoyable adventure. They were in genuine danger because Greek troops patrolled these mountains.
In fact, the children had to engage in a bit of subterfuge to survive. Every time, a Greek patrol discovered one of their caves, the children would swiftly conceal their Torah scrolls and pull out their dreidels, acting as if they were there just for play.
Today dreidel is an enjoyable family pastime, but put yourself in the shoes of those little children and imagine how frightened they were. They were in actual danger of imprisonment, lashes, and perhaps worse. At the very least, they would be separated from their parents.
Who inspired these children to such commitment and determination? Children are not naturally inclined to heroism. They are not naturally predisposed to valuing Torah above freedom, family, comfort, and safety. Who put these ideas into their heads? It was not their fathers. The men were off fighting a war. It was their mothers. Yes, the Jewish mothers, true heroes, alone and under occupation, encouraged their children to stand stiff-necked and courageous in the face of brutal occupiers.
We Should Have Taken the Men
Not long ago, Jewish children were forced into cellars to study Torah. My parents grew up in this environment–in the former Soviet Union. The Communists frowned upon raising children with religion, and insisted that all children enroll in the atheist school system. Jewish children who wanted to study Torah, hid with their teachers in dank cellars and posted sentries to watch for the NKVD secret police.
The NKVD routinely closed the underground schools that they found and sent the male teachers off to the gulags in Siberia. But new schools constantly sprang up, and the children continued to study.
Years later, after Glasnost, when freedom of religion was restored in Russia, a rabbi met with one of the former NKVD case officers, who had led the campaign against Jewish education in Russia. The NKVD had lost their war against religion; the children that they had prosecuted had eventually left the USSR and established thriving Jewish families. When the rabbi asked the former officer, whether he could identify a flaw in the NKVD strategy, he answered simply, “we should have taken the mothers.”
They thought that if they exiled the fathers to Siberia, the defenseless mothers would capitulate and send their children to the atheist schools. But that never happened. The mothers were the true heroes. They continued to encourage and strengthen their children. The miracle of Chanukah repeated itself a century ago in Russia, and once again, the Jewish mothers and children were the true heroes.
My mother was 4 years old, her father was lost at war, and her mother raised her on her own. She was in a Russian Kindergarten, when she returned home one day to tell my grandmother that G-d does not exist. The teacher had told the children to ask G-d for lunch, and when they did, lunch did not arrive. She then instructed them to ask Joseph Stalin for lunch and sure enough the doors opened, and lunch was served. Thus, concluded my 4-year-old mother, that G-d did not exist.
What could my grandmother say? Had she replied that the teacher was wrong, her kindergarten age daughter might have shared that information with her teacher the next day, and that would be enough for the police to take her daughter away. With tears, my grandmother replied, “When you are older, we will discuss this again.”
Her wisdom, saved my mother. Because of that, my siblings and I, are practicing Jews. Our children and grandchildren, the next generations, are also vibrant and practicing Jews. All because of one single woman, who raised her child alone, and refused to capitulate.
My grandmother and her compatriots: the true heroes of the modern Chanukah.
 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23a, Rashi ibid, and the 17 Elul entry in Megilas Taanis.
 In the beginning, the fathers were at home and very involved with the children. But later, when the fathers were off at war, the mothers continued to raise the children toward full Torah commitment.