Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Women Light: A New Perspective on an Old Halachah

A New Perspective on an Old Halachah

Recently, my wife and I were discussing the different reactions of local residents during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense "altercation". She noted that Anglo Olim, wanting to do their part, collected cakes, donations, and other supplies that they brought to the soldiers massing on the Gaza border not far away from our home. While Israelis were also involved in chesed during the harrowing days of the non-war, instead of preparing packages for soldiers, they were making meals and arranging babysitters for the harried wives who found themselves without their husbands, who were called up for Miluim and were themselves stationed outside of Gaza. When Israel finds itself forced to confront an aggressor, we immediately think of the soldiers and the different ways we can help them, either by sending pizzas, or socks, or moral support. But we sometimes forget that especially in Israel, during wartime a large percentage of the army consists of "older" reservists, who left wives and children behind to go protect their country.

While Jewish law exempts women from the obligation to fulfill most time-bound commandments (like shaking a Lulav, sitting in a Sukkah or wearing Tefillin), the Sages did not extend this exemption to the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah.  In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 23a) is unusually emphatic about this point stating that, האשה ודאי מדליקה – "a woman must certainly light," explaining that the Sages obligated women to light candles of Chanukah, שאף הן היו באותו הנס – "for they too were involved in that miracle."

What miracle were the women specifically involved in that makes it clear that women should be obligated to light the Chanukah menorah? Clearly, the Gemara does not refer to the miracle of the Menorah, as women had no role in the lighting of the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash – or any other service in the Temple. So, the Gemara must refer to the role of women in the revolt that expelled the Greeks and returned the Jews to power. What role did they play, and why did that role make it obvious that women should also be obligated to light the Chanukah candles? Moreover, the obligation is especially ironic in light of the fact that most women never actually light despite their obligation to do so. Sephardic households uphold the custom that the head of the household – usually the male – lights the menorah for everyone. Even in Ashkenazic families, where each member of the family lights, in many if not most families, the wife/mother fulfills her obligation through the lighting of her husband. If we truly wished to highlight the role that women played in the Chanukah miracle, in addition to including them in the obligation to light, wouldn't the Sages have specified that they themselves actually, physically light the candles on Chanukah?

The Rishonim offer two general explanations for the role that women played in the Chanukah victory. But, during a shiur with my students in Orot on this subject, I discovered a third, compelling explanation for the Gemara that resonates with us, especially today.

Explanation 1: The Actions of Chanah the Daughter of Matityahu – The Actions of A Woman Prompted the Men to Rebel

Commenting on the Gemara in Shabbat, Rashi writes,
שגזרו יוונים על כל בתולות הנשואות להיבעל לטפסר תחילה, ועל יד אשה נעשה הנס
For the Greeks had decreed that every married virgin must first cohabitate with the [Greek] general. And, the miracle took place through the actions of a woman.
Rashi's comment alludes to a critical story that appears in full in the Otzar Hamidrashim (Chanukah pp. 189-190) The Midrash relates:
כיון שראו יונים שאין ישראל מרגישין בגזירותיהם, עמדו וגזרו עליהם גזירה מרה ועכורה, שלא תכנס כלה בלילה הראשון מחופתה אלא אצל ההגמון שבמקום ההוא. כיון ששמעו ישראל כך רפו ידיהם ותשש כחם ונמנעו מלארס, והיו בנות ישראל בוגרות ומזקינות כשהן בתולות...והיו יונים מתעללות בבתולות ישראל, ונהגו בדבר הזה שלש שנים ושמונה חדשים, עד שבא מעשה של בת מתתיהו כהן גדול שנשאת לבן חשמונאי ואלעזר היה שמו, כיון שהגיע יום שמחתה הושיבוה באפריון, וכשהגיע זמן הסעודה נתקבצו כל גדולי ישראל לכבוד מתתיהו ובן חשמונאי שלא היו באותו הדור גדולים מהם, וכשישבו לסעוד עמדה חנה בת מתתיהו מעל אפריון וספקה כפיה זו על זו וקרעה פורפירון שלה ועמדה לפני כל ישראל כשהיא מגולה ולפני אביה ואמה וחותנה. כיון שראו אחיה כך נתביישו ונתנו פניהם בקרקע וקרעו בגדיהם, ועמדו עליה להרגה, אמרה להם שמעוני אחיי ודודיי, ומה אם בשביל שעמדתי לפני צדיקים ערומה בלי שום עבירה הרי אתם מתקנאים בי, ואין אתם מתקנאים למסרני ביד ערל להתעולל בי! הלא יש לכם ללמוד משמעון ולוי אחי דינה שלא היו אלא שנים וקנאו לאחותם והרגו כרך כשכם ומסרו נפשם על ייחוד של מקום ועזרם ה' ולא הכלימם, ואתם חמשה אחים יהודה יוחנן יונתן שמעון ואלעזר, ופרחי כהונה יותר ממאתים בחור, שימו בטחונכם על המקום והוא יעזור אתכם שנאמר כי אין מעצור לה' להושיע וגו' (ש"א =שמואל א'= י"ד). ופתחה פיה בבכיה ואמרה רבש"ע אם לא תחוס עלינו חוס על קדושת שמך הגדול שנקרא עלינו ונקום היום נקמתנו. באותה שעה נתקנאו אחיה ואמרו בואו ונטול עצה מה נעשה...
When the Greeks realized that Israel was not affected by their decrees they rose and issued a bitter, ugly decree, that a bride on the first night [after her wedding] must leave her wedding canopy for [the bed of] the local hegemony. When Israel heard this their hands weakened and their strength abated, and they refrained from betrothing…and the Greeks would mistreat the daughters of Israel. They maintained this practice for three years and eight months, until the daughter of Matityahu the High Priest because engaged to a Hasmonean by the name of Elazar.
When the day of her joy[ous wedding] arrived, they seated her in a throne. At the time of the meal, all the elders of Israel gathered in honor of Matiyahu and this son of the Hasmoneans, for there were no greater in that generation than them. When they sat down to the meal, Chanah the daughter of Matityahu rose from upon her throne, clapped her hands together, and ripped her garment and stood revealed before all of Israel, her father, mother and her in-laws.
When her brothers witnessed this act they were embarrassed and looked towards the ground and tore their garments, and then began to approach her to kill her [for her terrible act]. She said to them, "Hear me my brothers and cousins! If you are zealous towards me for the fact that I stood naked before righteous people without committing any sin, yet, you are not zealous to hand me over to an uncircumcised heather to mistreat me!? We must learn from Shimon and Levi the brothers of Dinah, who were only two, but still zealously endangered their lives to destroy Shechem for the sake of God's name – and God helped them and did not shame them! And you are five brothers, Yehudah, Yochanan, Yonatan, Shimon and Elazar – and the young priests number over two hundred – place your trust in God and He will help you, as it is written, 'for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few.'" (Shmuel 1 14:6) Then, she burst into tears and said, "Lord of the Universe – if You do not have compassion upon us, have compassion upon the holiness of your great Name by which we are called, and avenge our vengeance on this day!"
At that moment, her brother were zealous and said, let us gather and consider what course of action we should take…
This incredibly powerful story speaks for itself. The brazen, almost unthinkable act of a single pious girl shook the Jews to their very core, forcing them once and for all to overcome their fear and rise up against the Greek oppression.

Explanation 2:  The Actions of Yehudit – Jewish Women Took Up Arms Themselves

The Gemara (Megillah 4) notes that women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, for, just as we find regarding Chanukah, on Purim as well, אף הן היו באותו הנס – "they were also in that miracle." Women's involvement in the Purim miracle is relatively obvious: Esther played the primary role in saving the Jewish people from extinction. Yet, Tosfot on that Gemara add that, בחנוכה על ידי יהודית – "on Chanukah [women were involved in the miracle] through the actions of Yehudit." This, of course, refers to the story related in the Book of Yehudit (which, like the Book of the Macabees, never made it into Tanach), which relates the story of a widow named Yehudit, who ingratiates herself with the Greeks to gain their trust, only to lure the Greek General Holofernes into her tent, where she chops off his head, throwing the Greek army into turmoil.
In reality, it's difficult to know whether the story actually took place at all – as different versions of it appear in the Midrash. (In fact, the continuation of the Midrash quoted above suggests that the brothers used Chanah herself as bait for the Greek general), but the gist of this interpretation is clear: in the story of Chanukah of Chanukah, the women couldn't allow themselves to sit on the sidelines. Rather, when needed, they themselves fought to rid the nation of the invading Greek armies.

Explanation 3: Women as Supporters, Sending their Husbands to Fight

When I taught these sources during a class on Midrash at Orot, I began by asking the class whether women may light Chanukah candles at all. One married student answered that she knew that she in fact could. How did she know? She knew because the issue had already come up at home, and she would be lighting in her home that year, on behalf of her husband.
"Where is your husband?" I asked her. "Why won't he be lighting for you?"
"He's an officer in the army, currently in a training course, and he won't be home for Chanukah," she explained. "So we already planned for the fact that I would light at home, and he would fulfill his obligation through my lighting."
Hearing her words, I found myself truly moved by her nonchalance. She didn't think much of it, but how often do we consider the wives of our soldiers, who send their husbands to defend the Jewish nation, maintaining homes, raising families – or even just suffering many, many nights of loneliness – on our behalf.
I believe that this might very well be another meaning of the Gemara's statement that women too were involved in the miraculous victory of Chanukah. Even if the women never physically fought in any of the battles, Jewish women paid a very heavy price for the victory over the Greeks. They encouraged their husbands and sons to go out to war; they maintained their homes during the months of battle; and too many of them made the ultimate sacrifice when their loved ones never returned home. Even victory carries a heavy price.
If the victory of Chanukah represented the last Jewish military victory before the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, today, we truly merit to live in a time when we can enjoy the great gift of our return to that very same Land. Yet, that gift is not free. We continue to pay a heavy price to ensure Jewish sovereignty over the Promised Land.
This Chanukah, as we light our Chanukah candles, let us resolve to focus on the great sacrifices that Jewish women have made to ensure Jewish freedom, whether those sacrifices were בימים ההם – "in those days", or whether they are בזמן הזה – "in our days as well."

Chanukah Sameach!


  1. We had a large group of women at our Shabbat table this past Shabbat so I used this D'var Torah to encourage discussion. It was a very successful conversation. Thanks for the thoughts

  2. Hi Laurie,
    Thanks so much for the feedback. It's really meaningful to me.
    Reuven Spolter


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