Celebrating the Heroines of Hanukkah

From Religion News Service

As a young girl, Lucy Steinitz felt her Jewish sensibilities stirred each Hanukkah as she listened to the oft-repeated story of how, 2,100 years ago, Mattathias and his five sons--including the legendary Judah the Maccabee--routed their Syrian oppressors, recaptured the Jerusalem temple and saved Judaism.

But there’s another story connected to the eight-day Hanukkah holiday--which this year begins at sundown on Thursday--that Steinitz never heard as a girl. This one involves Mattathias’ daughter, who is named Hannah in some accounts. According to legend, she shamed her father and brothers into fighting in rather dramatic fashion.

By decree, the story goes, the local Syrian governor had the right to rape a Jewish bride on her wedding night. Rather than meekly submit, Hannah stripped naked in the midst of her wedding feast. When her angry brothers moved to kill her for her sexual brazenness, she is said to have demanded instead that they avenge her honor by rising in revolt against the Syrians.

“It’s quite a story,” said Steinitz, who directs Baltimore’s Jewish Family Services agency. “I love it! Hearing that as a girl I’m sure would have got my Jewish heart pumping.”

Although cited in traditional Jewish writings, the story of Hannah is considered apocryphal by scholars. Nonetheless, it is one of several Hanukkah-related stories that have been embraced by Jewish women seeking to recover the holiday’s female side.


“Women are anxious to have a larger role in the history of our people,” said writer Francine Klagsbrun. “The Hannah story is one that women told each other, but it was never picked up in a big way by mainstream Judaism because the focus of Hanukkah became the triumph achieved by men.


‘Every Jewish kid--boy or girl--has heard of Judah the Maccabee. How many have heard about Hannah?”

The telling of Hanukkah’s heroine stories is one more manifestation of the contemporary Jewish feminist movement, which for more than two decades has shaken up the traditionally male-dominated faith.

The movement has led to the proliferation of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist women rabbis. It also has given rise to a feminist-oriented theology and the revival of celebrations associated with women.

One such celebration is Rosh Chodesh, the Hebrew term for the new moon and the beginning of a new month according to Judaism’s lunar religious calendar. Rosh Chodesh has a long tradition of association with women, but that is now largely overlooked except by Jewish feminists.


The start of the Jewish month of Tevet falls in the midst of Hanukkah--this year it begins on the night of Dec. 10--and some women will incorporate the stories of Hanukkah’s heroines into their Rosh Chodesh Tevet celebrations.

“It’s a way of talking about incredibly strong women,” said Conservative Rabbi Naomi Levy of Los Angeles.

Levy, a teacher and writer, said she once included the heroine stories in a Hanukkah celebration for a group of battered women.

“It was empowering,” she recalled. “These were women who had been defiled so we talked about the [Jerusalem] temple that had been defiled [by the Syrians] and the women who stood up, resisted and overcame the defilement.”

Two other stories of women are closely connected to Hanukkah. Like the Hannah story, they also are nationalistic and contain violent images.

“These stories are violent because of the context they’re in,” said Conservative Rabbi Nina Cardin of New Milford, N.J. “The men’s stories about Hanukkah are also violent, but what else would you expect? Hanukkah’s historical meaning is about fighting and sacrificing for religious freedom and survival.”

One story is the apocryphal Book of Judith, an ancient Jewish text excluded from Judaism’s Bible but included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church versions of the Old Testament.

Klagsbrun, in her book “Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the Year,” called the story a “tale of a determined woman who has more courage than all the men in her town.”

Judith’s story, in which she charms the Babylonian general Holofernes only to chop off his head--thereby saving Judaism from yet another foreign foe--is set in a period that predates the historical events of Hanukkah.

Nevertheless, Judith’s tale is associated with Hanukkah because scholars believe it was probably written during the period in which Judah the Maccabee and other Jews were trying to defeat their Syrian overlords.

The third Hanukkah story about a woman is “probably the saddest of all Jewish stories,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin noted in his book “Jewish Literacy.”

This story, details of which vary in different Jewish texts, also has a heroine named Hannah, a woman who encourages her seven sons to die for their faith.

In the Second Book of Maccabees, another apocryphal Jewish text, this Hannah is forced to watch as each of her sons is tortured and then killed by the Syrians for refusing to eat pork, which is proscribed by the Jewish faith.

“When the youngest son’s turn came, [the Syrian King Antiochus] urged [Hannah] to persuade the boy to save himself by breaking Jewish law,” Klagsbrun wrote in “Jewish Days.”

“Instead, she pressed him to follow his brothers’ example and die a martyr like them. With all her sons gone, she, too, died.”

Because all three of the Hanukkah heroine stories contain horrifying images, not everyone is entirely comfortable with them.

Jodi Fishman, principal of Aleph-Bet Jewish Day School in Annapolis, Md., said the stories’ content “makes them inappropriate for young students, boys or girls.” But she noted that some of the more gruesome details of the battles fought by Judah the Maccabee also may be inappropriate for younger children.

Still, even “sanitized” versions of the heroine stories can enable girls to feel more connected to Hanukkah, Fishman said. “They show that it wasn’t only the men and boys who performed heroic deeds,” she said.

There is another Hanukkah tradition involving women that is free of violence and suffering.

In some traditional Jewish societies around the globe, women have been enjoined from performing any work while the Hanukkah candles burn. The no-work tradition is said to descend from the refusal of women to contribute their jewelry to the building of the golden calf worshiped by the ancient Israelites while Moses was on Mt. Sinai.

“The mitzvah [religious obligation] not to work was a reward to women for their righteous act,” said New Yorker Arlene Agus, a leading proponent of contemporary Rosh Chodesh celebrations.

Aside from its nationalistic overtones, Hanukkah is also about religious rededication. Cardin uses the “two or three hours” that follow the lighting of the Hanukkah candles to “rededicate” herself to her family.

“We light the candles together, play games associated with the holiday, exchange gifts,” said Cardin.

She also tells the stories of Hanukkah’s heroines to her five children.

“I want my children to know about the primary role that women have also played within Jewish tradition,” she said. “It’s time everyone knew that.”