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Women and Chanukah: A shield and a torch

Kislev 5783 | December 2022

Aside from the explicit mitzvot of Chanukah – lighting the chanukiyah and reciting Hallel – there are several curious customs that have sparked debate for generations. There’s the well known custom to eat fried foods like sufganiyot, svinge, and latkes. But there are more obscure customs such as eating cheese, women refraining from doing work while the candles are lit, and a women’s holiday called Eid Al-Banat celebrated on Rosh Chodesh Tevet.

As we will see, although the origin of these customs is debated, they all seem to share one common denominator – women.

Af Hen – How involved were women in the miracle

The Talmud states that women are obligated to light Chanukah candles since “they too (af hen) were involved in the miracle.”[1] The same statement is also made regarding the four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder and Megillah reading on Purim.[2]

There are two general approaches to understand the statement of “af hen” – “they too,” and both can be found here in Rashi. He explains that they too were saved by the miracle – as there was a Greek decree that specifically targeted women, ordering all maidens to spend a night with the local Greek commander before getting married. He continues to explain that they too were instrumental in the realisation of the miracle – as the miracle was brought about by a woman’s actions.

The historical veracity of both of Rashi’s claims is debated. Yet even those who argue that there was no specific decree of prima noctae accept the idea that women were saved from the harsh decrees of the Seleucid Greeks.[3] The same cannot be said of the assertion that women had a hand in bringing about the miracle.[4]

Rashi and others that support the claim seem to be alluding to the story of Yehudit, related in the eponymous book. As explained by Kol Bo (44):

“… There are those who say that the great miracle occurred through a woman. Her name was Yehudit and according to the legend, she was the daughter of Yochanan the Kohen Gadol. She was very beautiful and the Greek king wanted her to sleep with him. She fed him a dish of cheese to make him thirsty so that he would drink a lot and become drunk and when he fell asleep she cut off his head with a sword.”

Yehudit – A timeless story

The Book of Yehudit is part of the Apocrypha (books that were not included in our Tanakh) just like the Books of the Maccabees. The oldest version of the Book of Yehudit is found in Greek in the Septuagint, and it is believed that the original Hebrew version from the 1st or 2nd century BCE was lost. In the Septuagint version, Yehudit gives the Assyrian general Holofornes wine so he passes out. She then beheads him. In a 14th century Hebrew version, Megillat Yehudit, she gives Holofornes levivot (latkes) made with cheese. Classic halakhic texts from that time are the first to relate this to a custom to eat cheese on Chanukah. Rema brings this custom in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 670:2, based on Kol Bo and Ran:[5]

“There are those who say that one should eat cheese on Chanukah since the miracle was brought about through milk which Yehudit fed the enemy.”

Rav Yaakov Emden objects to the idea that “af hen” refers to a woman bringing about the miracle. He points out that the story of Yehudit is from a different time period, and that the mix up can possibly be traced to the Yotzer Prayer for Shabbat Chanukah that references it:

“This is totally made up since women were not more involved than the men in the Chanukah miracle. ‘They too were involved in the miracle,’ is in reference to Rashi’s interpretation that all of the maidens had to be defiled by the bishop, not that they were the reason for the miracle. Also, the Ashkenazic paytan (bard) who wrote the Yotzer prayer for Shabbat Chanukah mixed the two miracles from very different time periods together. It seems that they wanted to memorialise the miracle of Yehudit, which took place at an earlier time period, during the exile from the First Temple. Since they couldn’t find a special place for it, they attached it to the Chanukah story.”[6]

Rav Yaakov Emden refers to a prayer written by Yoseph ben Solomon of Carcassonne, dated to the first half of the eleventh century. The Yotzer, which is in the form of a poem, tells the stories of the Maccabees as well as the story of Yehudit in gruesome detail.

Rav Yaakov Emden posits that the story of Yehudit is remembered in connection to Chanukah because they could not find a better time. Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 670:8) indicates a slightly deeper connection, that there may have been a story similar to that of Yehudit that took place around the time of Chanukah, which led to the custom of women refraining from work while the candles burned:

“Women have the custom not to do work while the candles are burning and we should not be lenient in this matter (Tur) since part of the Chanukah miracle was done by a woman. At the time that it was decreed that all brides be defiled by the ruler first as it says in Rashi’s interpretation of the Talmud, Shabbat 23. At a different time, a miracle was performed by Yehudit who gave the enemy milk and because of this, there are those who are careful to eat cheese on Chanukah even though this story did not take place during the time period of the Chanukah miracle.”

Part of a bigger story

There are those who are content to accept Rav Yaakov Emden’s assertion that any credit women are given for bringing about the Chanukah salvation is a misappropriation of the story of Yehudit. Yet the unique relationship between women and Chanukah is far greater than the custom to eat cheese, in a way that lends support to the Rema’s explanation.

For example, in Tunisian and other African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, the women celebrate Rosh Chodesh Tevet, which takes place on Chanukah, as Eid El-Banat, the Festival of the Daughters. They cook, sing and dance, eat cheese and drink wine. The origins of the festival are debated, as are the women that are celebrated, but it is another indication of a special connection between women and Chanukah.

There is another often unnamed woman celebrated on Chanukah, a mother of seven sons. According to the legend, all seven of this woman’s sons were killed because they refused to compromise their faith. An early account in Maccabees II:7 relates that Antiochus gave them a choice between eating pig or death. They refuse and are killed, one by one. Then she dies. In a retelling of the story in Yosipon the woman is called Chana.[7]

In Gittin 57b  the king is called Caesar, hinting that it was a Roman king, possibly Hadrian. This would put the story over 150 years after Chanukah. A similar story in Eicha Rabba (1:50) names the mother of the seven sons as Miriam bat Nachtum, a widow. In both her story ends when she “falls” from a roof.

They too, anonymous

So we have two paradigmatic stories – a mother who sacrifices her children and a maiden who sacrifices herself. Both are associated with different times of persecution. One with no name or many names, another with every name – Yehudit means “Jewess.” The debate surrounding their identities and time period is a reminder that, throughout our history, many women have have made such sacrifices “Al Kiddush HaShem,” to sanctify the Name (of God). The enormity of it all is underscored by the images of the untapped potential of an unmarried maiden and a woman who had it all and gave it up – a widow losing seven sons and then her own life.

Such sacrifice is impossible without these anonymous righteous women behind the scenes. The women who maintained the strength of conviction needed to rise up and fight the laws, soldiers, and ideas of oppressors like the Seleucid Greeks, and who instilled their faith in their children, are a direct continuation of a tradition going back to the enslavement in Egypt. Then it was the “merit of righteous women” who brought about redemption; their steadfast faith has sustained the Jewish People from generation to generation. The story is not just about one woman, it is about many women.

This idea is reflected in the very Yotzer Rav Yaakov Emden took issue with. The paytan tells the stories of several Jewish women who were persecuted for their faith and focuses on Yehudit as a shield for her people and a torch burning the Greeks.[8] Faith is a source of protection for those who wield it and a powerful weapon against the enemy.

Whether or not the stories of Yehudit and Miriam bat Nachtum took place at the same time as the Hasmoneans’ fight against the Seleucid Greeks is almost irrelevant. In every generation they stand upon us to destroy us, and in every generation faithful Jewish women stand strong, anonymous but indispensable. They may have been too late to be canonised in the books of Tanakh, but their contribution is acknowledged in rabbinic sources of dubious historical provenance and customs with unknown origins. In the darkest periods of our history these women are the torch keeping the flame of Judaism alive. During Chanukah, the darkest time of the year, we celebrate these heroines who Jewish tradition refused to forget, forever memorialising their faith and determination.

[1] TB Shabbat 23a in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

[2] TB Pesachim 108a and Megillah 4a

[3] The term prima noctae is an anachronism, and  the historical accuracy of many accounts that describe similar “policies” is disputed.

Kol Bo (44) interestingly agrees with Rashi that women were both included in the decree and instrumental in the miracle, but he does not mention prima noctae, only that they were part of the general decrees: “Women are obligated in lighting the Chanuka candles as they too were part of the miracle. This means that the enemies came to destroy everyone – men, women and children…”

[4] Tosafot on Pesachim 108b bring Rashbam’s explanation that women were instrumental in bringing about the redemption celebrated on all three occasions associated with “af hen” – Pesach through “the merit of righteous women,” Purim through Esther, and Chanukah through Yehudit.

But Tosafot disagree with Rashbam since “they too” (af hen) seems to imply that the women weren’t the main part of the miracle. This is supported by the version in the Talmud Yerushalmi  that focuses on women’s inclusion in the danger: “even they were in the same uncertainty.”

[5] See Kol Bo previous note and Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim Gerondi, c. 1310-1375) on Shabbat 10:

“They too were involved in the miracle- since the Greeks decreed that all of the maidens be defiled by the local Greek commander before getting married. And the miracle came about by a woman as it says in the Midrash: The daughter of Yochanan fed the head of the enemies cheese in order to get him drunk and cut off his head and all of the enemies ran away. Because of this, we have the custom to eat cheese on Chanukah.”

[6] Mor Uktzia on Orach Chayim 670

[7] Jossipon Chapter 19. 10th century. Why Chana? After her sons are killed, Yossipon includes a prayer that “Chana” said which is based on the prayer that Chana (Shmuel the prophet’s mother) recited: “My heart exults in HaShem…”


Sharona Margolin Halickman & Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman