Chanukah and Women’s Work
Chanukah is a unique chag. Like Sukkot, it lasts 8 days, but it does not have the status of “yom tov” on any of the days. In other ways it resembles Rosh Chodesh, in that we say Hallel and read from the Torah. Halakhically, it is permitted to do melacha (work) on Chanukah, but a minhag developed for women to refrain from certain “work” (for about half an hour) after candle lighting each night. What is the source of this minhag?
The Shulchan Aruch states that on Chanukah it is prohibited to eulogize or fast, but work is permitted. Yet the Shulchan Aruch continues, “The women have made it a custom not to do work while the candles are burning. And there is [an opinion] that says that we may not be lenient for them.” The Mishna Berurah cites a much less common minhag for men to not do work as well. Why was this minhag almost exclusively practiced by women?
The Magen Avraham and others explain that the reason that women specifically don’t do work after candle lighting is because of the Talmudic statement:
“אף הן היו באותו הנס”
“They too were part of the miracle”
There is a debate between Rashbam and Tosfot regarding what this phrase actually means. Tosfot hold that it means that women were miraculously saved from danger as well as the men. Rashbam explains there was a female heroine who had an active role in saving the Jewish people, like Esther on Purim or in this case, Yehudit on Chanukah. The minhag of women refraining from work after lighting Chanukah candles seems to follow the Rashbam’s interpretation. If the women were passively saved, like the men, then everyone would refrain from work after candle lighting. The fact that it is almost exclusively a woman’s minhag reinforces the position that women played a unique role, therefore only they refrain from work.
There are also many sources which discuss the minhag of women not doing work on Rosh Chodesh. There too, this minhag developed as an acknowledgement that women played a unique role and did not take part in the sin of the golden calf. Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah both have festive elements but lack most of the characteristics of yom tov. The development of the minhag for women not to do work reflects the unique role women played in Jewish history and their consistent emunah in the face of physical and spiritual threats to the Jewish people.
1.The “work” referred to includes laundry and possibly cooking.
2.Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim, 670:1.
3.Tosfot, Pesachim 108b, “hayu be’oto ha-nes.”
4. Yehudit gave the enemy milk to drink and when he fell asleep she chopped off his head.