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    Women & Chanukah – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Do women have any special part in the observance of Chanukah?

    Judith and Holofernes, by Gustave Doré, 1866

    A. No-one can argue that this is merely a men’s festival. The Talmud insists that women are duty-bound to kindle the Chanukah lamp, “for they were part of the miracle” (Shab. 23a).

    Summarising halachic tradition, the Mishnah B’rurah (675:9) rules that since a woman has an equal obligation to a man, she may kindle the lights not only for herself but on behalf of her husband, provided (though other authorities are more lenient) he is present and hears the blessings.

    In which way were women “part of the miracle”? The story of Hannah and her seven sons, told in II Maccabees, ch. 7, is well known. Antiochus tempted each of Hannah’s sons to pay homage to an idol in order to save his life. One after another, the first six defiantly refused. The ruler tried to persuade Hannah to urge the seventh son to comply so that one son would be left to her. Hannah would have nothing of this. She told her remaining son not to be afraid but to prove worthy of his brothers and accept death. He was put to death with his mother.

    Another incident involving a woman was that of Judith, who succeeded in getting a heathen general, Holofernes, drunk and cut off his head before he could kill all the Jews of Jerusalem. Despite the fact that this occurred before the time of the Maccabees, the story is linked with the festival, and though work is permitted on Chanukah it is customary for women to refrain from work whilst the lights are burning, in tribute to Judith.

    The Book of Judith, possibly written in Hasmonean times in order to inspire courage, is part of the Apocrypha, the works excluded from the Bible (though regarded as Biblical by the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox). The story of Judith is a popular theme in non-Jewish art, music and drama. In some Jewish communities a religious poem (piyyut) about Judith is sung on Shabbat Chanukah.

    Some Sephardim dedicate the seventh Chanukah light to women, with Ladino songs in praise of Hannah and Judith.

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