Yet Another Miracle

The role of women in Hanukkah.


Reprinted with permission from the author.

"You did Your first acts and those that came after, and have thought about that which is and that which has come to be and understand that which is to come."
– The Book of Judith

The Talmud uses an expression to explain why women are legally obligated to light Hanukkah candles when they are often exempt in Jewish law from other time-bound commandments: "They [women] were also in the miracle." Many Talmudic commentators explain that since women were saved by the military defeat of the Syrio-Greeks, they have to ritualize that salvation throughout history by lighting candles every night of Hanukkah. Other commentaries take it a step further. Women also brought about the miracles of Hanukkah by contributing directly to the military victory. What does this mean?

Legend has it that Judith, a young widow who lived at the time of the Maccabees in a town called Bethulia, entered an enemy camp to save her town and prevent the impending siege of Jerusalem. She charmed an army general name Holfernes, who made a large and impressive feast in her honor. When Holfernes was full and very drunk, Judith cut off his head. Hardly the holiday images of dreidels and latkes, Judith’s daring act created a legal reality. Women who light Hanukkah candles do so to re-live her courage.

Strength and Courage

This famous and gruesome scene has been painted again and again throughout history to depict female strength and revenge. But Judith lives not only on canvas; she has her own book in the Apocrypha, texts as old as the Bible that were never included in the Hebrew Bible as we know it today. The above quote is from the book of Judith.

Just as Judith’s act reminds us of Yael’s killing of enemy general Sisera in the book of Judges (that’s the gentle story where Yael put a tent peg through his head), her celebration of victory reminds us of Miriam’s timbrels after crossing the Reed Sea. We read all about the relief of victory in her book:

Then Judith took olive branches and distributed them among the women who were with her, and they made wreaths for their heads…and she led the women in dancing, and all the men of Israel, with their swords at their sides and adorned with wreaths, followed them in festive procession with songs and praises."

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Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.

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