Secrets of the Sixth Candle

By Lori Hope Lefkovitz

Image above: Italian Chanukah menorah (17th or 18th century) featuring Judith, in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Dawn of History

At this season, when daylight hours are few and all around us people are displaying decorative lights—on homes, in windows, on evergreens—I like to imagine a time when the planet was younger, consciousness was dawning, and religion was being born. People learned to collaborate to survive, planting and hunting, but also collectively managing fear, expressing gratitude, and invoking blessings. Our contemporary winter rituals hint at primitive sympathetic magic. The sun is disappearing, and so people kindle flames to encourage the sun to return, and reliably the sun does come back, as if in answer to our hopes.

Speaking of light, my favorite refrain as an educator is that what we know of that dark place called “the past” has everything to do with who is holding the lantern and the direction in which the light is cast. All memory—even historical memory—is necessarily selective, and often our work in the present is to move the lantern so that we find what we need in our traditions to shape a more inclusive future. The various explanations for Chanukah exemplify this conviction.

All memory—even historical memory—is necessarily selective, and often our work in the present is to move the lantern so that we find what we need in our traditions to shape a more inclusive future.

The Chanukah We Learned in Hebrew School

For the Jewish people, Chanukah, The Festival of Lights, is in our time commonly explained with two, separate, familiar stories: one is the unlikely military victory of the Maccabees, recounted in books of the Apocrypha, in which right triumphed over might, and religious freedom was restored when the Temple in Jerusalem was rescued from pagan hands and rededicated on what came to be called “Chanukah” (the Hebrew word for “dedication”), on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev.

The other famous story explains why this holiday is celebrated for eight days. This story, found in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b), is premised on the Temple Priests’ urgent need to rekindle the eternal light in the Temple (most synagogues to this day sustain a permanent light over the Torah ark) for the rededication, but only a small cruse of consecrated oil with enough to last a single day could be found. Perhaps because they had perfect faith, the lamp was lit, and miraculously, it stayed lit for eight full days, enough time to secure the ritually pure oil necessary to keep the Temple flame aglow.  

This explanation is followed in the Talmud by an oft-quoted debate between the always arguing Houses of Hillel and Shammai. Shammai (who typically loses these debates) makes the entirely reasonable point that on the first night of Chanukah, we should light eight candles, reducing the count by one each day, reminding us of the diminishing oil in the miracle commemorated by those candles. Hillel argues for the custom most of us observe that we must add a candle each night because the important thing is spiritual: we must grow light. (Echoes of sympathetic magic?)

For most of Jewish history in the Diaspora, the anti-assimilationist military story, which championed rebellion, was almost fully eclipsed by the second rabbinic miracle story, with its emphasis on faith. When modern Zionism adjusted the lantern on the Jewish past, the Maccabees were reilluminated as prominent heroes, champions of Jewish political autonomy and military strength, and Israel embraced the muscular Maccabees as counter images to the pious bearded Jew whose days were spent bent over books. So, a popular Israeli beer is called “Maccabee Beer,” and international Jewish Maccabee sports clubs compete in Israel’s Maccabiya.

Whichever of these stories one prefers, whether those located on the battlefield, with warrior heroes, or in the Temple precincts, with Priests for heroes, one finds oneself in all male spaces, visions of Chanukah’s beginnings entirely devoid of women.

Alternative Sources

There are less well remembered explanations for Chanukah. In a collection of legends from the middle of the ninth century, we read that when “the children of the Hasmonean, the High Priest … entered into the Temple, they found there eight iron spears and they planted them and lit fires in them” (Pesikta Rabati 2:1). In this historical “memory,” the origin for the Chanukiah (the Chanukah lamp) were eight spears transformed (like weapons into plowshares) into a source of light. And the Books of the Maccabees themselves suggest yet another origin story for Chanukah and its rituals. When the Temple was rededicated on the 25 of Kislev, the Priests were eager to make amends for not having been able to celebrate in the Temple the recent Jewish Holy Days, which culminate in the eight-day fall harvest festival of sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. Joyfully, they belatedly prepared the palms (the ritual objects waved on Sukkot), sang psalms, and ordained this second minor eight-day festival. By this rendering, Chanukah began as a belated echo of Sukkot (2 Maccabees: 10). 

Whichever of these stories one prefers, whether those located on the battlefield, with warrior heroes, or in the Temple precincts, with Priests for heroes, one finds oneself in all male spaces, visions of Chanukah’s beginnings entirely devoid of women.

The Stories of Chanukah’s Women

But of course, there must have been women. Come with me as we move the lantern, recast the light, and expand our view of this legendary Jewish past.

But of course, there must have been women. Come with me as we move the lantern, recast the light, and expand our view of this legendary Jewish past.

If one continues reading the passages in the Babylonian Talmud about candle-lighting on Chanukah, you come to the question: “may women light the Chanukah lamp?” (Shabbat 23a). (This is not a surprising question since women customarily light the Sabbath candles.) Yes, the rabbis confidently assert, women are obligated to participate in the lighting because “women were concerned in the miracle.” This language echoes the Talmudic decision that women must participate in reading the Scroll of Esther because women were also “concerned” in that miracle. No further explanation is offered, but in the case of the story in the Book of Esther, it is Queen Esther whose bravery helps save the people from a genocidal decree, though it turns out that what the rabbis meant by “women’s participation in that miracle” refers less to Esther’s heroism than to the fact that women and men alike were spared annihilation.

The Freudian and Marxian rule of overdetermination, well-respected in Judaism, is that when there is no specific explanation, explanations will proliferate. The first explanation for women’s “participation in the miracle” harks back the Books of the Maccabees (1 Maccabees: 26ff) where we learn that under the oppression from which the Maccabees freed the people, Jewish virgins were subject to the jus primae noctis (the “rule of the first night”) that granted the local governor the privilege of deflowering brides on the night of their wedding. Although there is limited historical evidence of this practice in this period, this terrible strategy for oppressing the Jewish population (not unknown in other historical contexts) is elaborated elsewhere in the Talmud when the rabbis in the text debate whether it is permissible to change custom and move Jewish weddings from Wednesday to Tuesday (Ketuboth 3b). The rabbis explain that by moving the wedding a day earlier, the governor would be outwitted, but they wonder if sparing girls from rape is adequate reason to change a time-honored rule, since such rules are ordinarily changed only for matters of life and death. Upon consideration, the rabbis conclude that some pious girls might be tempted to suicide sooner than submit to sexual assault (they hasten to add that suicide is a bad idea), and therefore weddings may be moved to Tuesday. Here, the conclusion is reached that women must light the lights because the lifting of the oppression effected by the Maccabees benefitted women MORE than men.

The Daughter of Mattathias

A number of legends developed from this explanation that featured a heroine sometimes called Hannah, sometimes Miriam, and sometimes Judith. In this midrash (Jewish legend), Mattityahu (Mattathias), the father of the Maccabee rebels, also had a daughter, Hannah. On her wedding night, standing before the altar, Hannah began to rip off her clothes with shameless immodesty. When her brothers loomed in to kill her for her brazen impiety, she called out to the assembled: “you blame me when I would disrobe before my family and friends, and yet you would allow me and your daughters and sisters to be raped by a foreign King!” Reminding them that Dina’s brothers in the book of Genesis avenged a whole tribe for her rape, Hannah attacked the men for their dishonorable submissiveness and roused them to follow her to the King’s chamber, whereupon they killed the rapist and his ministers before she could come to harm. And so, in an act of glorious guerilla theater, this daughter is credited with having begun the Maccabean revolt by attacking male pride and inspiring a just war (M.Y. Ben Gurion, miMekor Yisrael 1; Y.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim: Hannukah). 

Now, we see that women benefitted most from the victory and also inspired the rebellion.

Now, we see that women benefitted most from the victory and also inspired the rebellion.

Judith

In the early nineteenth-century folkloric digest of Jewish Law, Ganzfried’s “Kitsur Shulchan Aruch,” a summary and update of Joseph Karo’s definitive law code, Ganzfried indicates that work is permitted on Chanukah. (Jews do not labor on major festivals but may do so on minor festivals like Chanukah.) He adds an exception that women, however, should not work when the Chanukah candles are burning. (I have always thought this this is why Chanukah candles burn down so quickly.) He explains what we have already learned, that the “Greek decrees were harsher for women” because the Greeks “had decreed that any maiden who marries must be possessed by their governor first.”

The Kitsur Shulchan Aruch continues with a different story, the story of Judith, here identified as Yehudis (Judith), daughter of Yochanan, the High Priest. The text proceeds to tell a much abridged version of the apocryphal Book of Judith, in which the beautiful widow Judith, in an elaborately planned seduction, plies the enemy general (in the Book of Judith, his name is Holofernes) with salty cheese so that he will drink himself into a stupor, whereupon she and her loyal maidservant slice off his head. They spirit the head off in a bag, climb the hill home, where their people are under siege, and hoist his head on a tall stake. When the enemy awakens the next morning and sees their leader’s head on display, they fear the Hebrew God and flee. And so ends the Maccabean revolt! Although the story recounted in the Book of Judith is historically unconnected to the Maccabean era, Jews around the globe have long associated Judith’s bedroom military victory (a classical biblical trope) with the Chanukah story.

Judith used to be featured on Chanukah lamps.


Her story is a favorite in the history of art:

Judith Slaying Holofornes by Artimisia Gentileschi, 1612-13, at the Museo Capodimente.
Judith with the Head of Holofornes, by Cristofano Allori, 1613, at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Judith and the Head of Holofernes, by Gustav Klimt, 1901, at the Belvedere Museum.

The same source explains that the story of Judith is why it is customary to eat salty cheeses on Chanukah. With the loss of the story of Judith’s association with Chanukah, so too has been lost the practice of eating cheese. We are more accustomed to potato pancakes (latkes) and more recently, Israel introduced jelly doughnuts, fried foods designed to evoke the well-honored miracle of oil that lasted eight days. Of course, it makes sense that in the Jewish food pyramid, fats and oils are winter foods, just as fruits and grains are associated with harvest festivals.

Moving the lantern reveals that from describing Chanukah having nothing to do with women, we discover that: 1) women benefitted most from the miracle; 2) a woman initiated the revolt; 3) a woman ended the revolt; 4) women observe more stringently and don’t work when the candles are lit; 5) women are therefore obligated to light the candles; 6) and it is customary to eat cheese because of Judith. See these Laws of Chanukah:  https://ohr.edu/1304

The Secret of the Sixth Candle: Chag HaBanot—the holiday of daughters—Eid el Benat

Rabbi Jill Hammer’s research brought to light that Jews in North African Jewish communities long recognized the centrality of women to Chanukah by celebrating an extraordinary holiday within the holiday called Chag HaBanot (the holiday for daughters). Today, especially in Israel, families with origins in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are reviving these customs. The confluence of Chanukah and the New Moon are auspicious for this special recognition for girls.

North African Jewish communities long recognized the centrality of women to Chanukah by celebrating an extraordinary holiday within the holiday called Chag HaBanot (the holiday for daughters)…The confluence of Chanukah and the New Moon are auspicious for this special recognition for girls.

Most Jewish holidays begin on the full moon, in the middle of a Jewish (lunar) month. Chanukah, as we know, starts on the 25th of the month of Kislev, and because it extends for eight days, Chanukah uniquely begins in one month and ends in another. Chanukah therefore includes the monthly holiday of the New Moon festival (Rosh Hodesh, a monthly mini-Rosh Hashanah, or New Year) on the sixth night, embedded within it. Rosh Hodesh is associated with women in Jewish folk traditions (and in many traditions: menses, both moon and monthlies, pulling at the tides and the womb), and Jewish stories gift women with the holiday of Rosh Hodesh as a day of women’s community, when, according to one such story, women refrain from unnecessary work as a reward for women’s refusal to worship the golden calf. The new moon festival for the month of Tevet, within Chanukah, amplifies the Chanukah message of growing light. Just as the sun will begin to return with the solstice, the moon, too, will now begin to wax.

On this New Moon, the sixth night of Chanukah, North African Jewish communities celebrated Chag HaBanot, in Arabic called Eid el Benat. Girls are given gifts, sometimes jewelry that would be their inheritance, and special blessings. It is customary to read the Book of Judith, and yes, to eat salty cheeses. And one custom that I especially like, girls who were quarreling used the occasion of the festival to kiss and make up. If ever a holiday deserves to be revived it is this one.

Ritualwell.org features some suggested contemporary observances for Chag Habanot. https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/chag-habanot-festival-daughters

May we grow the light, illuminate the past, brighten our present, and create a future full of hope and joy.

Happy Chanukah.

Lori Lefkovitz, Ph.D., is the Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University

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