Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi said, “Women are obligated to light the Hanukah menorah for they took part in the miracle.” (Shabbat 23a)
Two heroines emerge from the Hanukah story that often get lost in the heroic tales of the Maccabees.
Their names were Judith and Hannah and they also symbolizes the victory of the Jews over the Greeks.
No one is exactly sure how the story of Judith became linked to the story of Hanukah because according to the Apocrypha, she lived centuries earlier, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Assyria. Her story may have been written down during the Maccabbean era to give Jewish rebels courage. Ultimately, her story became incorporated into Rabbinic lore, with the Assyrians becoming the Syrians, whom the Maccabees fought.
In the original story, Nebuchadnezzar’s commander-in-chief, Holifernes, is on a mission to conquer Judea. He lays siege to Bethulia, possibly Jerusalem. The townspeople are ready to surrender when a beautiful widow named Judith announces a plan.
Taking along a maid, Judith goes to the general’s camp where in a private audience, convinces Holifernes that she, by praying to her God, can help him conquer Judea. She stays with him for three days, leaving each night to pray, and lulling the camp guards into a false sense of security.
On the fourth day, Holifernes invites Judith to a special, private banquet, where he plans to seduce her. Judith feeds Holifernes salty cheese to make him extra thirsty. Soon, he is drunk and fast asleep.
While asleep, Judith takes his sword and cuts off his head. When the army sees their general’s decapitated head, they run away in retreat. She and her maid leave the camp with Holiferne’s head in a sack, which they display to their townspeople. Israel wins a great victory and Judith leads the people in dancing and singing praises to God for defeating the enemy “by the hand of a woman.” (Judith 16:6)
In honor of Judith’s bravery, women are to refrain from work on Hanukah while the candles are burning.
Another custom is to eat dairy foods since she fed the general salty cheese before she killed him.
Another legend honoring a woman’s bravery tells of the daughter of Mattityahu, sister of the Maccabees, named Hannah. One of the Syrian decrees against the Jews was that Jewish brides spend their wedding nights with the local ruler.
In defiance of that decree, and at her own wedding, it is said that Hannah stripped naked before all the guests. When her brothers sought to kill her for her ludeness, she demanded they revolt against the Syrians to save the honor of all Jewish women. Her action was said to have sparked the revolt.
Another Hanukah story about a woman named Hannah is told in the second book of the Maccabees. It describes a mother of seven sons who was forced to watch while King Antiochus tortured and murdered each of them for not eating pork. When it was the youngest son’s turn, the King urged her to convince him to save himself by breaking the Jewish law against eating un-kosher meat. Hannah would not, and told her youngest son to follow his older brother’s example and die rather than break the Torah commandment.
Tradition has named her Hannah, although in the book of the Maccabees, she is simply referred to as “mother.”
When her youngest son is about to be murdered, she kisses him and whispers, “Say to Father Abraham, ‘Do not pride yourself on having built an altar and offered up our son Isaac. Our mother built seven altars and offered up seven sons in one day. Yours was only a test, but hers was real.’”
Special piyutim, or liturgical poems, were written about Hannah and her sons and were recited during the synagogue service on the Sabbath of Hanukah.