Meet the Women of Hannukah

By Simone Schicker, Women of the Wall Intern and HUC-JIR first year rabbinical student

This week’s Torah portion Mikeitz, is one of the more popular portions because it stars Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh followed by the visit of his brothers due to the famine that has at this time spread across the land. Despite the excitement of the story what struck me while I was reading is that there are no women mentioned in the portion at all. Joseph does not ask after his sisters[1] nor after his mother Rachel. He asks after his father and after his brother Benjamin who has not traveled to Egypt but rather been kept behind by Jacob (who is worried that a calamity will befall Benjamin). With this in mind I decided to compare the popular version of the Hanukkah story, the story of the Maccabees, to this week’s portion and low and behold women are absent from this Hanukkah story as well.

Yet, there is hope. While the story of the Maccabees is the most popular story to tell to children about Hanukkah, there are others. The other stories have women in the lead roles. One of the most famous is the story of Yehudit (Judith), from the Book of Judith.[2] In the story, Yehudit is the daughter of Yohanan the High Priest and through her cunning she manages to gain the trust of the Greek general, gets him drunk and then uses his own sword to behead him.[3] The story is one of a true heroine, a woman who puts her own life at risk in order to save her people. Yehudit is one of the women celebrated in the holiday of Chag HaBanot, a North African Jewish women’s holiday that WOW is celebrating at Rosh Hodesh on December 4th.[4]  I was in high school before I heard the story of Yehudit and I know that I am not alone in this. Many powerful Jewish women’s stories have been pushed to the side to favor their masculine counterparts. As a young Jewish woman studying to be a rabbi I feel that I have a responsibility to learn each of these stories and share them.

Last week I heard another story in connection with rebellion against the Greeks during the period of the Second Temple. This one does not have its own book and its historical accuracy is questioned but I feel that it is important to share. This story also tells of the daughter of the High Priest but this time she is getting married. What should be a time of celebration is a time of great fear because the Greek government has instituted a new law. The law requires that all Jewish women who get married must go from the chuppa to the head of the army unit and have sexual relations with him. Only after this interaction may she go to her new husband. The story of this horrific practice continues with the bride tearing off all her clothes in front of the guests at the wedding before she is taken to the army. Her family is horrified and asks the bride how she can shame them in such a way? She responds how can they be horrified when they are taking her to be raped? The conclusion of the story is that her bravery gives her male relatives, and the male guests at the wedding, the courage to stand up against the Greeks and revolt.

Both of these stories are violent, as is the story of the Maccabees, which is interesting because the power of violence is placed in the hands of a woman in the first story and in the second it is the woman’s actions that lead to violence. Women are not traditionally seen, in Judaism or in Western culture generally, as violent. That these two stories are a part of our lore, historically accurate or not, says something to me as a woman and especially as a Woman of the Wall. I have the right to stand up against injustice and I should fight with whatever I have at hand (whether that is Yehudit using the general’s sword or the daughter of the High Priest using her body).  To stand up for myself and especially for my fellow Jews, regardless of gender identity is kadosh, holy in its separation from societal standard. As we read these stories, and as we read the weekly Torah portions, let us remember that while we may not always see ourselves reflected in these stories there is something to be drawn from each and every one. I do not believe violence is ever the answer. I do believe that knowing that Judaism has a history of strong women making a difference in not only their lives but the lives of their communities has a profound impact on me. Just as I can draw lessons from Joseph’s story, I draw lessons from the story of Yehudit and from the daughter of the High Priest.

May this Hanukkah be one of light – both physical and spiritual. May you find guidance from the stories of our ancestors.

[1] While we are only given the name of Dinah, in Genesis 46:15 it says: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-aram, with his daughter Dinah; all the souls of his sons and his daughters were thirty and three.” (Translation is the JPS 1917 edition)

[2] The Book of Judith is not part of the Tanakh but it was well known to the rabbis. It is part of the Catholic Bible and some Protestants include it in the Apocrypha.

[3] One version of the story can be read here:

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