Introduction: "The Talmud (Shabbat 23a) states, 'Women are obligated in the lighting of Chanukah candles, since they were also involved in the miracle.' In honor of our redemption, we light the candles."
Put candles in the center of the circle, so they resemble the menorah we light on Chanukah, or use an actual menorah. As each woman lights a candle, she introduces herself and then names a woman who has done a miracle. Ask the women: "What kind of miracles have you mentioned? Were they done by women you know, or by historical or mythic characters? How do you define a miracle?"
Women and the Miracle
While today we continue working throughout Chanukah, as on any other day, during medieval times, in some communities, the custom existed for women to stop working while the candles burned. In some instances women even stopped working during the whole holiday.
The relationship of women to the story of Chanukah can be found in many different sources. They show women involved in active ways, resisting the Greeks, both physically and spiritually. For example, the stories of Judith and of Hannah and her seven sons are both said to have occurred in the times of the Greek oppression of the Jewish people at the time of the Chanukah story, and both of these women resist the Greek oppression in brave and varied ways. In the rest of the program we will focus on these two women and their stories.
Divide the group into two sections. Give both of the two groups section I of the source material (see end of document). Give one group section II as well, dealing with physical resistance, and give the other group section III, dealing with spiritual resistance. The women should discuss the sources and the accompanying questions. After thirty minutes, gather the group together and discuss what you have learned.
We will close this month's activities with a short fun game based on the stories we have learned about Chanukah. Collect several household objects in advance and bring them to the group. You will need one object for each pair of participants. You might use, for example, a clotheshanger, chair, fork, hairbrush, Tupperware, or any object you can think of. Give one object to each pair in the group and ask them to construct a story for that object, based around the story of Chanukah. What role did that object play in the times of the Chanukah story? Use your imaginations; you need not be limited by any sense of reality! Give each pair five minutes to construct its story and then tell it to the group. Close the activities by eating doughnuts and latkes.
The Talmud (Shabbat 23a) states that "Women are obligated in the lighting of Chanukah candles, since they were also involved in the miracle."
Rashi and Tosafot (two French medieval commentators) try to explain how it was that Jewish women were involved in the miracle of Chanukah. It is not clear which women they refer to.
Rashi, Shabbat 23a: The Greeks declared that all the engaged virgins were to be raped by a Greek officer before their marriage. And by the hand of a woman the miracle was done.
Tosafot, Shabbat 10a: The woman who did the miracle was the daughter of Yochanan. She brought cheese to the enemy general and cut off his head, causing the enemy to flee.
Tosafot, Pesachim 108a: The Jews were saved by the hand of Judith.
What is the specific miracle Rashi refers to?
What kind of resistance did Judith exhibit?
Section II: Spiritual Resistance: The Story of Hannah
II Maccabees 7:1-42
Again, seven brothers with their mother had been arrested, and were being tortured by the King with whips and thongs to force them to eat pork, when one of them, speaking for all, said, "What do you expect to learn by interrogating us? We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers." The King was enraged and ordered great pans and cauldrons to be heated up, and this was done at once. Then he gave orders that the spokesman's tongue should be cut out and that he should be scalped and mutilated before the eyes of his mother and six brothers. This wreck of a man the King ordered tom be taken, still breathing, to the fire and roasted in one of the pans. As the smoke of it streamed out far and wide, the mother and her sons encouraged one another to die nobly.
After the first brother had died in this way, the second was subjected to the same brutality. The skin and hair of his head was torn off, and he was asked, "Will you eat, before we tear you limb from limb?" He replied in his native language, "Never!" And so he underwent the torture.
After him the third was tortured. When he too was dead, they tortured the fourth in the same cruel way.... Then the fifth was dragged forward for torture.... Next the sixth was brought, and said with his dying breath, "Do not delude yourself, do not suppose that you will escape the consequences of trying to fight against God." The mother was the most remarkable of all, and deserves to be remembered with special honor. She watched her seven sons all die in the space of a single day, yet she bore it bravely because she put her trust in the Lord. She encouraged each in turn in her native language. Filled with noble resolution, her woman's thoughts fired by a manly spirit, she said to them: "You appeared in my womb, I know not how, it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames. It is the Creator of the universe who moulds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self.
Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt and suspected an insult in her words. The youngest brother was still left and the King, not content with appealing to him, even assured him on oath that the moment he abandoned his ancestral customs he would make him rich and prosperous. Since the young man paid no attention to him, the King summoned the mother and urged her to advise the lad to save his life. After much urging from the King, she agreed to persuade her son. She leaned toward him and, flouting the cruel tyrant, she said in their native language: "My son, take pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, suckled you three years, reared you, and brought you up to your present age. I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth, see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and than man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher, accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God's mercy I may receive you back again along with them.
The King, exasperated, was beside himself with rage. So he treated him worse than the others, and the young man died, putting his whole trust in the Lord.... Then finally, after her sons, the mother died.
What does it mean for this woman to urge her sons to remain faithful to the Torah? Why is she willing to sacrifice her sons? Does her sacrifice and commitment to Torah say anything to us about our Jewish identity? How do you feel about her sacrifice? How do you feel about the fact that this woman has several names?
Section III: Physical Resistance: The Story of Judith
Midrash and Talmudic commentators link the apocryphal story of Judith with Chanukah.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Assyria, sends Holofernes, the commander of his army, to conquer Judea. Holofernes lays siege to the town of Bethulia, depriving it of water. When the elders have decided to open the city gates and surrender, a young woman, Judith, comes forward and declares she will save the town. A widow, she takes off her clothes of mourning, puts on fine clothes and jewelry, and goes down to Holofernes' camp. Judith gains Holofernes' trust through her wisdom and her beauty (see Judith 11:20-21), and he invites her to a feast. After the feast, Judith and Holofernes return to his tent. Drunk, Holofernes falls asleep. Judith takes his dagger and cuts off his head, thereby saving the Jews. She returns to the city in triumph and leads the woman in danced as the men follow. She sings a song of thanks to God before all the Jews (Judith 15:12-16:3).
Excerpts from the Book of Judith
"Judith's words delighted Holofernes and all his attendants, and they were amazed at her wisdom. 'In the whole wide world,' they said, 'there is not a woman to compare with her for beauty of face or shrewdness of speech.' " (Judith 11:20-21) "All the Israelite women came running to see her; they sang her praises and some of them performed a dance in her honor. She took garlanded wands in her hands and gave some also to the women who accompanied her; and she and those who were with her crowned themselves with olive leaves. Then, at the head of all the people, she led the women in dance; and the men of Israel in full armor and with garlands on their heads followed them singing hymns." (Judith 15:12-13)
The Lord Almighty has thwarted them by a woman's hand. It was no young man that brought their champion low;
no Titan struck him down,
no tall giant set upon him;
but Judith daughter of Merari disarmed him by the beauty of her face.
She put off her widow's weeds
to raise up the afflicted in Israel;
she anointed her face with perfume
and bound her head with a headband,
and put on a linen gown to beguile him.
Her sandal entranced his eye,
her beauty took his heart captive,
and the sword cut through his neck.
What does it mean for Judith to be praised for her wisdom and her beauty, and to use both to gain Holofernes' trust? How do we want to be viewed in relationship to our minds and our bodies? How do we view Judith as a leader? As one who saved Judea, not by giving birth, but by killing? You may want to closely examine Judith's prayer.
From HEritage and HIStory: Visions for an Equal Future; A Sourcebook on Jewish Women's Issues (WUJS). Printed with permission.