According to Jewish Law, women are exempt from observing many time bound mitzvot. In reference to the holidays, there are three positive mitzvoth which the Rabbis specifically require women to observe: lighting the Chanukah candles, reading Megilat Ester on Purim and drinking four cups of wine at the Passover seder.
In the Talmud, Shabbat 23a, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi teaches that the reason women must observe these mitzvoth is because they too were involved in the miracle.
A woman’s involvement in the Purim story is clear. Esther was instrumental in saving the Jewish people.
Women helped bring about the redemption in the Passover story as well. Yocheved placed Moshe in the basket, Miriam watched him float on the Nile and Pharoah’s daughter Batya saved him. Women continued having children despite Pharoah’s decrees and women took instruments with them out of Egypt in order to celebrate the redemption.
Women’s involvement in the Chanukah story is not as obvious. When we think of Chanukah, we usually think of men, the Macabees. However, the Rabbis teach us that women are obligated in the lighting of the Chanukah candles because of a woman named Judith.
Who Was Judith? What Did She Do?
The book of Judith as well as the book of the Macabees can be found in the Apocrypha (a group of books that were not included in the TaNaCh, the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.)
During the early second temple period, Holofornes, commander in chief of the Assyrian army wanted to conquer all of Judea. He cut off the water supply to the Jews that lived in Bethulia, a town near Jerusalem. He wanted the Jews to surrender. After 34 days, when there was no water left the Jews were ready to surrender. Judith, a young, religious and beautiful widow told the elders not to surrender. She told them that she had devised a plan and with the help of God, she was confident that it will be successful.
Judith took kosher food in a bag and went to the enemy camp. She told Holofornes that she was now on his side and that she would advise him how to defeat the Jews. Holofornes invited Judith to a private feast, at the end of which he was hoping to seduce her. He drank a lot of wine, became drunk and fell asleep. Judith prayed to God, then took his sword and cut off his head. She brought the head back home to prove that she killed him. When the Assyrians found Holofornes dead, they became frightened and they fled.
The Jewish people, including the High Priest, expressed their respect for Judith. The women danced and the men sang.
We can now see why women are obligated to light the Chanukah candles. There are even some Chanukiyot available which depict Judith holding Holofornes’ severed head.
Thanks to Judith, women also have the custom to refrain from working while the candles are burning.
Rabbanit Sharona Margolin Halickman was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non-profit organization based in Jerusalem that provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds. Rabbanit Halickman is a member of Beit Hillel.
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