There is little in the major themes of Hanukkah that would characterize it as a distinctively female holiday. Women do not figure prominently in either the military victories or in the miracle of the jar of oil. And yet Jewish tradition has emphasized that women have a special connection to the celebration, and in some communities they are accustomed to refraining from work while the candles are lit.
The basis for this tradition is in a saying in the Talmud by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi that "Women are obligated to light Hanukkah candles because they were included in the miracle." The commentators disagree over how precisely to understand this passage. Does it mean that women were merely counted as one segment of the whole Jewish people, all of whom were redeemed from Greek oppression? Or did they have some special role in the deliverance. The former possibility (which appears to be the view of the Jerusalem Talmud) finds support in the fact that a similar observation is made regarding Passover, in which story women did not have a conspicuous role. The latter possibility is suggested by the juxtaposition to Purim, where Queen Esther was a key player.
Most traditional commentators have preferred to explain that women did indeed play a central role in the Maccabean victories. However there is no consensus about what episode is being alluded to. A likely possibility would have been the heroic martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons, which was known to the author of the Book of Maccabees as well as to the Talmud. Yet few authors make reference to that episode, probably because it did not advance the miracle of the Jewish victory in any obvious way.
Rashi alludes cryptically to a different tradition, writing that "the Greeks had decreed that all brides would first be violated by the Greek officers, and the miracle was accomplished with the help of a woman."
The story to which Rashi is alluding is not attested in any of the standard talmudic or midrashic works. However medieval manuscripts have preserved a number of similar tales which claim to reconstruct the origins of the Maccabean revolt. These accounts concur with Rashi that the Greek generals had claimed the "right of the first night" with Jewish brides (a motif which appears in other talmudic stories, without connection to Hanukkah), and add that one of the Hasmonean women--her precise name and family relationship vary in the different traditions--stirred her hitherto passive family into action by publicly stripping herself naked on her wedding day, shocking the people into avenging the sacrilege and humiliation of the daughters of Israel, even as Simeon and Levi had requited Dinah's honour.
Several medieval commentators supplement Rashi's words with additional details. R. Nissim of Gerona, citing a "midrash," states that the daughter of Johanan the Hasmonean fed cheese to an enemy general in order to make him drowsy, whereupon she proceeded to cut off his head, thereby allowing her companions to flee to safety. He notes that this was the origin of the custom of eating cheese on Hanukkah. Rashi's grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) identifies the heroine of the story as Judith.
It is clear that these commentators were identifying Rashi's story with the ancient tale of Judith. According to the exciting story which has been preserved in the Greek Apocrypha, the lovely and virtuous widow Judith lived during the time of Nebuchadnezzar, and succeeded in saving Jerusalem from an invasion by the Assyrian general Holofernes by pretending to seduce him, getting him drunk, and then decapitating him. The historical context is of course inappropriate to Hanukkah, and the detail about the cheese (which appears to have been copied from the similar exploit of Jael and Sisera in the Book of Judges) is absent from most versions of the Judith story. Although there is an interesting analogy when Judith invokes the precedent of Simeon and Levi's reprisal against Shechem, it is clear that we are dealing with a different event.
This fact did not impede the Jewish storytellers from grafting together the stories about the Hasmonean bride and the heroic widow, and including the resulting tale among the episodes of the Maccabean revolt. A fortunate consequence of this was a rekindling of Jewish interest in the Book of Judith, a charming and inspiring gem of our literature which might otherwise have been consigned to neglect.
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First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Dec. 9 1993.