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Judith the Obscure

(Preparing Ourselves to Meet Another Matriarch)

As Jews, looking out at the world can be at times alienating. But thankfully the latest tchatchke on the market is here to the rescue. Buy now before the December rush, when the decor at your local shopping center tends to get a smidgen more distancing. Now on sale at your local Judaica store are “Holoday Specs: They make the whole world Jewish!” Here’s how they work: put on the hologram- creating cardboard spectacles with their plastic lenses and—voila!—Christmas lights now appear in the shape of Jewish stars!! A neat trick. But instead of trying to see something Jewish in something that is clearly not, why not try to see more about what is truly Jewish?

Often what has become invisible through the ages is the female experience. To see a significant and meaningful place for women in the Hanukkah celebration, one needs to perhaps don another pair of glasses. Let’s call them halakhic glasses. These spectacles allow us to gaze at the vast body of rich Jewish legal literature. They sometimes reveal that which you least expect.

Let us begin by opening the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century. In section 970 we find the first law concerning Hanukkah. He starts with the simple; Hanukkah is for eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev. These are days when eulogies and fasting are prohibited, but work is permitted, except for women, who are to abstain from doing any form of labor while the candles are burning. Further on, he writes that women are obligated in lighting Hanukkah candles and may light on behalf of the entire household.

Two interesting points jump out. First, though the laws of Hanukkah go on for pages, it is women’s custom that immediately takes center stage. The only labor prohibited on the festival is by women—during the burning of the Hanukkah candles. The second significant halakhic twist is that, in spite of the principle that women are exempt from positive time bound commandments, when it comes to the lighting of the Hanukkah candles women are just as much obligated as men.

Questions: Why do women refrain from work while the Hanukkah candles burn? Why do they seem to have a higher level of commitment, or perhaps reverence for the Hanukkah lights? And finally, why are they obligated to light Hanukkah candles at all?

Keep your halakhic glasses on as we zoom back in time to search the pages of the Talmud for Rabbi Karo’s source. Opening to page 23a of Tractate Shabbat we find that “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Hanukkah lights, for they too were involved in the miracle.” They too were involved in the miracle? Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, tenth century scholar, suggests two possible interpretations to the puzzling phrase. First, they too were involved in the miracle; they too were subjugated to the Greeks at the time of the Maccabees, but in a terribly tragic way particular to women only. Each Jewish virgin was forced to be with a Greek officer before marrying. Second possibility; it was through a woman that the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days occurred. This provocative comment is enlarged upon by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, he adds, that the Hanukkah miracle was done through the hands of Yehudit, Judith.

Ah, Judith the Obscure! To uncover her mystery, we must do some pasting together of Apocrypha, midrash and poetry. The reconstruction of this episode may never be completely satisfying, but what does emerge is a tale of heroism and sacrifice. It is unclear whether it is Judith the widow who goes forth willingly or Judith the bride who is taken by force, but, once alone with the Greek general she feeds him wine and cheese. She waits for the soporific meal to take its effect, cuts off his head, places it in her basket and ever so nonchalantly she returns to the Judean camp. Officers, troops and soldiers of the Greek camp are left in leaderless disarray and with a breach enabling the smaller Judean army to triumph.

And thus the miracle was truly executed by a woman. Now what do we see? Is this our usable past? I think so. This legend about Judith, together with the halakhic practice concerning the candles, has bequeathed to women a powerful symbol. Yes, we were victims; but we were also heroes. We are part of the miracle. We were oppressed, but we joined together with our brothers to fight back. Yehudit, Judith, is enshrined forever in sculpture, art work, librettos, and novels. Her memory is recalled on the shabbat of Hanukkah when traditionally we recite a lengthy twelfth-century piyyut, a poem, describing the pathos of her wedding and youthful fears of what awaited her Let each and every woman light a Hanukkah menorah, refrain from work, watch the flames and remember. Let us see in those flames both the pain of our ancestors and the courage of their actions—and for this I do not think that we will need any kind of glasses.

Rivy Poupko Kletenik is Judaic Principal of the Seattle Hebrew Academy.