If you know anything about the Chanukah story at all, you have certainly heard of the Maccabees, the Jewish warriors who fought back the Syrian-Greek oppressors.
What you might not have heard though is that there are Jewish traditions about how women contributed to the history of Chanukah.
Chana The Heroine
One such story is about the daughter of Matityahu, father of the Maccabees. One of the cruel edicts of the Syrian-Greeks was that every Jewish woman was raped by the local Syrian-Greek official on her wedding night, before she could be with her husband. This doctrine is known as jus primae noctis, which means “the right of the first night”.
Jews combatted this evil decree by abstaining from marriage and also by holding weddings in secret. However, Matityahu was the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest. His daughter’s marriage was too high profile to hide.
As the story is told, at the feast following her wedding ceremony, the daughter of Matityahu, known in some traditions as Chana, stood before her wedding guests and tore open her dress. Her brothers were horrified by her immodest act and intended to punish her for it.
In response, she challenged them for their willingness to turn her over to the Syrian-Greek official, as was required. Calling on a Biblical model, she urged them to be like Shimon and Levi when they defended their sister Dina.
Yaakov‘s sons answeredShechem and his father Hamor—speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister Dina and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Genesis 34:13-14
She reminded them that Shimon and Levi were just two brothers but they were five altogether.
Her speech and her righteous indignation inspired her brothers to begin their war against the evil Syrian-Greek rulers over the Land of Israel. Her brave act and fiery speech was the catalyst for the Maccabean revolt.
That same evening, the Maccabees brought their sister, elegantly dressed, to the Syrian-Greek official, as if they were turning her over to be raped. Instead they killed him and his attending soldiers, thus inaugurating the battle between the cruel Syrian-Greeks and the Jews who desired to maintain loyalty to God and the Torah.
Yehudit (Judith) the Heroine
Another traditional story was originally recorded in Hebrew, in the Book of Yehudit which is not part of Hebrew Scriptures. Sadly, the Hebrew version was lost, and all that remains is a Greek translation.
During the war between the Maccabees and the Syrian-Greeks, Yehudit, a beautiful young Jewish widow, took a lesson from Yael and there are some striking parallels between the two stories.
Then Yael wife of Chever took a tent pin and grasped the mallet. When he was fast asleep from exhaustion, she approached him stealthily and drove the pin through his temple till it went down to the ground. Thus he died. Judges 4:21
Some say that Yehudit was the daughter of Yochanan (Jonathan) the High Priest and sister to Matityahu, father of the Maccabees. Her town of Bethulia was under siege and the locals, badly outnumbered, were considering surrendering.
With a strong faith in God, Yehudit took it upon herself to enter the enemy camp and speak to Holofernes, the general who was leading the battle against her Judean town.
As with Chana, she dressed herself in finery and entered the enemy camp. Despite the fact that she was a Jew, her beauty and elegant clothing were disarming to the guards and they allowed her entry. Her beauty ultimately allowed her access to the tent of Holofernes.
Her plan was to convince Holofernes that she would give him useful military intelligence against her town if he would have mercy on the people. She traveled to and from the enemy camp several times over the next few days, ostensibly to pass on secret information. Her presence in the enemy camp ceased to raise suspicion.
When Yehudit suggested that the following day would be the best time to mount a successful attack, Holofernes declared that they should celebrate. Yehudit brought specially prepared cheese and wine. As she fed him the salty cheese, his thirst was quenched by the strong wine she had also brought.
Soon, he was passed out on the ground, drunk, as had been her plan.
First she prayed these words to strengthen herself, “Answer me, O L‑rd, as You answered Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, when you delivered the wicked general Sisera into her hands. Strengthen me this once, that I may bring Your deliverance to my people whom this cruel man vowed to destroy, and let the nations know that You have not forsaken us . . .”
And then she beheaded him with his own sword. When the enemy camp learned that their leader had been killed, chaos reigned and they fled in multiple directions.
This story is the source for the well-known custom to eat cheese over Chanukah.
On one of the last nights of Chanukah, there is a tradition, largely among Arabic-speaking Jewish communities, to celebrate the roles of women in the Chanukah story. This tradition is called Eid al-Banat in Arabic or Chag Habanot (the daughters’ holiday) in Hebrew. Although it is not well-known, there are modest efforts to revive the traditional celebration in Israel today. Among the customs of the Eid al-Banat are to eat dairy foods and drink wine, in remembrance of the menu Yehudit employed to bring down a fierce enemy of the Jewish people.