“Women are obligated to participate in kindling the Chanukah lights,” instructs the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, a nineteenth century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the basic Jewish legal text. And, surprisingly, even more: “A woman can light the candles for all the members of her family.” According to the accepted Jewish legal decision, “Women are not obligated to perform time-bound mitzvot.” Time-bound mitzvot are commandments to be performed at set times, such as public prayers, in order to accommodate women’s commitment to their vital chores in the home. Logically, the kindling of Chanukah light should be included in the list of time-bound commandments. Why then the exception? Why the surprising empowerment of women to light the candles for all the family, on par with their husbands?
The reason that is given: “Because the miracle was done through a woman.”
Here the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch renders a summary of the story of Yehudith, the woman alluded to as the source of the Miracle of Chanukah.
It is a remarkable story. In the Apocryphal “Scroll of Yehudith,” Yehudith is identified as the daughter of Merari from the tribe of Shimon. According to another version, Yehudith was the daughter of the High Priest Yochanan, a young, virtuous widow of great beauty, wisdom and wealth who lived in Bethuliah on the northern tip of the Hills of Shomron. As the Greco-Syrian forces led by Antiochus’s General Holofernes in their victorious sweep towards Jerusalem, found Bethuliah on the approach road the Jewish capital an obstacle to their advance, they placed it under siege, cutting off the town’s water supply. When under the impact of a severe water shortage, the town elders resolved to surrender to the enemy, Yehudith advised them to hold off for one more day.
Later that evening, dressed in her finery, Yehudith approached the enemy camp and asked to see the general. Upon meeting her, Holofernes was so bedazzled by her beauty and wisdom that he honored her with an invitation to a feast in his tent. According to the Midrash, during the banquet Yehudith fed cheese to Holofernes, causing excessive thirst which prompted the Greco-Syrian general to drink heavily of intoxicating beverages she offered him. Having succeeded in luring Holofernes and his attendants into a drunken stupor, Yehudith cut off Holofernes’ head and swiftly departed from the camp under cover of darkness, carrying the severed head of Israel’s arch enemy back to her own people.
On the ramparts of Bethulia, Yehudith and her trophy were greeted with great jubilance. The following dawn when Holofernes’ forces beheld the severed head of their general triumphantly displayed above the gate of the Jewish city, they fled in panic. Bethulia and the Judean approaches to Jerusalem were safe, and Yehudith, whose extraordinary wisdom and courage accomplished this, entered the pages of not only Jewish history but world literature and art as a role model in heroism.
“It is allowed to do work on Chanukah,” the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch continues, “except the women customarily do not work all the while the lights are burning in the house, without exception.”
There is also a custom widespread among many Jewish communities to eat dairy dishes on Chanukah, commemorating one detail of Yehudith’s act, and honor the memory of her incredible daring and self-sacrifice.
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s allusion to the story of Yehudith as rationale for women’s prerogative in Chanukah candle lighting despite the established halachic norm for time-bound mitzvot, places Yehudith on par with Esther who similarly was the instrument through whom “the miracle was done,” and in whose honor women are obligated to participate in the reading of the Megillah, another time-bound commandment.
In the view of some modern scholars Yehudith was not a historical figure but the fruit of a nation’s fantasy fulfillment at a time of great national distress.
If so, is it not remarkable that in an era of heroic devotion to the Land of Israel, when fierce battles were fought by a small, oppressed Jewish minority against the overwhelming might of the Greco-Syrian armies, the image of ultimate heroism was assigned to a woman.