Chanukah, the festival of lights, has special resonance for women. Some legends say that the women did the work of rededicating the Temple with unusual zeal. Other stories say that women have a connection to Chanukah because of Judith, the heroine of the Book of Judith. As an apocryphal book of the Bible, the Book of Judith has exactly the same status as the Books of the Maccabbees, which tell the story of Chanukah. Judith is a Jewish woman who single-handedly saves her people by killing an enemy general. Jewish tradition (without much historical basis but rather because of similarities in the two stories) associates this victory with the Maccabbean revolt. Judith, frequently depicted on medieval menorahs, is one of Chanukah's most proactive female heroes. More than that, Judith represents the heroism of women throughout Jewish history. By celebrating her, we remedy the neglect of Jewish heroines.
In North African countries, the seventh night of Chanukah, Judith's night of triumph, was set aside as Chag haBanot, the Festival of the Daughters. Chag haBanot falls on the new moon of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which is the sixth or seventh night of Chanukah. (Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that straddles two months. Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the new month, is classically a women's festival.) In countries such as Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, a variety of customs surrounded Chag haBanot. One tradition was that women would come to the synagogue, touch the Torah, and pray for the health of their daughters. Mothers would give their daughters gifts, and bridegrooms would give gifts to their brides. Girls who were fighting were expected to reconcile on Chag haBanot. Old women and young women would come together to dance. There might be a feast in honor of Judith, where participants would eat cheese to remember Judith's subterfuge (in the story, Judith feeds the enemy general salty cheese to encourage his drinking of wine so that she can kill him once he has passed out), or women might take food from a ritual meal of Talmud scholars and give it to their daughters as protection from harm. There was also a custom of passing down inheritances on Chag haBanot.
Though today we know very little about this holiday, it nevertheless seems important to reclaim this authentic women's tradition for our own time. There are a number of ways that Jewish women and their families can reclaim Chag haBanot, "The Festival of the Daughters." Here are three home rituals Ma'yan suggests for celebrating women during Chanukah.
On the seventh night of Chanukah, hold a special candle-lighting ceremony in honor of the Festival of the Daughters. Use your hanukiah, your Chanukah menorah, or use a special second menorah for the festival, and ask all of your family members to take a role in lighting the candles.
- Light the first candle in honor of Judith and all Jewish women heroes throughout history.
- Light the second candle in honor of women heroes that you admire (name names).
- Light the third candle in honor of women teachers and spiritual leaders whom you know (again, name names, including relatives and friends).
- Light the fourth candle in honor of Jewish mothers and grandmothers, including your own.
- Light the fifth candle in honor of all Jewish girls.
- Light the sixth candle in honor of your family. (This candle can be special for daughters, or you can have the candle represent the whole family, men and women, boys and girls.)
- Light the seventh candle in honor of the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God that is in every person (in Jewish mystical tradition, the Shekhinah is depicted as female).
Here are the traditional Chanukah blessings in masculine as well as feminine God language. To honor Chag Habanot, you could use the feminine blessings on the seventh night of Chanukah.
(G-d as masculine) Barukh Atah Adonay Eloheynu Melekh Ha'olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel hanukah.
(G-d as feminine) Berukha Aht Yah Mekor Hahayim asher kidshatnu bemitzvoteyha vetzivatnu lehadlik ner shel Hanukah.
Praised are You God, Source of Life, who makes us holy through your commandments and commands us to light the Hanukah candles.
(G-d as masculine) Barukh Atah Adonay Eloheynu Melekh Ha'olam she'asah nisim l'imoteynu vela'avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.
(G-d as feminine) Berukha Aht Yah Mekor Hahayim she'astah nisim le'imoteynu vela'avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.
Praised are You God, Source of Life, who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this season.
Recited the first night only:
(G-d as masculine) Barukh Atah Adonay Eloheynu Melekh Ha'olam shehekheyanu ve'kiyemanu ve'higianu lazman hazeh.
(G-d as feminine) Berukha Aht Yah Mekor Hahayim shehekheyatnu vekiyematnu vehigi'atnu lazman hazeh.
Praised are You God, Source of Life, who keeps us alive, sustains us, and brings us to this moment.
Alternatively, involve the family in choosing seven heroic women from history (this would be a good discussion at the dinner table) and light the seven candles in honor of them. Or have people call out the name of a woman or girl they want to honor as you light each candle. (If there are men in your family, you might want to consider doing this ritual for men and boys on a different night).
After the candle lighting, proceed to suggestion #2, or make a special Chanukah food (choose a dairy food if you want to recall the story of Judith), and serve it in honor of the Festival of the Daughters (see recipe for Sabeye b'Lebeh, a Syrian Chanukah dish).
II. Chag haBanot Gift Giving
The Festival of the Daughters was traditionally a time to give gifts to brides and daughters and to pass down inheritances. While Chanukah can be a time to give gifts simply for pleasure, you might consider using Chag haBanot as a time to give gifts of special significance to a partner, a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend, or someone else you want to honor. Choose an heirloom you've been meaning to pass down, a gift with family or personal significance, a photograph of a female ancestor, or a spiritual gift such as a blessing or poem. You could also write a letter in which you talk about familial qualities or values you hope to pass on. Give the gift after candle lighting on the seventh night of Chanukah with a spoken or written explanation of its significance. Proceed to a festive snack or meal, or to suggestion #3.
III. Prayers for Health and Well-being
Use Chag haBanot as a time to pray for the health of women in your family: aunts, grandmothers, daughters, and mothers. After candle lighting and gift-giving, share any personal thoughts about what difficulties and struggles the women in your family face in the coming year and how you can help them. Then use the following healing prayer or one of your own:
May the One who blessed Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, bless and heal (insert names) and grant them vitality and courage. May they be strengthened as the heroes of Chanukah were strengthened. May they be granted the boldness of Judah, the fierce love of Hannah, and the wisdom and bravery of Judith. Send blessing on all the works of their hands, and show them kindness, peace, justice, and compassion. Amen.
You could also sing Debbie Friedman's Misheberach. If you want, have a meal on the seventh night during which you study a few verses of the story of Judith or of a biblical story of a woman who persevered, recalling the custom that food at meals where words of Torah are spoken is especially blessed.
Please let Ritualwell know of other customs you create! Happy Chanukah and a joyous Chag haBanot!