Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Women & Chanukah: Halachos, Heroines & Holiness

To go to the sources, click here.

A Review of the Chanukah Time Period:

  • Greek rule 3468-3621/323-140bce begun by Alexander the Great (positive period).
  • Increasing hellenization of Jews; rise of the Misyavnim: Jews change their names, attend gymnasiums, Torah-jews are forced to flee from cities. 
  • Misyavnim fight Torah Jewry to gain political & cultural control. 
  • Rule of Antiochus 3 (c.200-190bce): Misyavnim openly confront Torah-Jewry; impose control through taxation.
  • Antiochus 4 (‘wicked King Antiochus’) forbids torah observance (shabbat; milah; taharas hamishpacha; rosh chodesh; possibly Jewish ownership of possessions); the Misyavnim begin to hide their milah in competitions, usurp the Kehuna & turn the Temple into pagan temple.
  • 3597/165 BCE - Miracle of Chanuka. Temple rededicated, but Syrian-Greeks & Misyavnim control all the rest of the country. 
  • 3621-3725/140-36 BCE - Hasmonean Dynasty. Jews in control of the country. 
  • Ongoing conflict from tzadokim (breakaway Jewish sect) towards Torah Jews; 
  • King Yannai murders Torah Jews in a 6-year purge c. 70 bce; 
  • Eventually civil war b/w Hasmonean brothers Hyrkanus & Aristobulous leads to Hyrkanus calling in the Romans to settle their dispute. Romans then take control of country through puppet king Hyrkanus (from 63 bce). Hasmonean dynasty ends w/Herod’s murder of remaining Hasmoneans in 36bce

This is neither an article about halachah, nor to be taken as a psak halacha (halachic ruling). We are just going to do some intersting tracing of a practice through halacha.

We’re going to hear 3 stories of women today: Judith, Chana & her seven sons (which I’m sure you all learned in school or cheder); and the daughter of the Kohen Gadol, or at least of someone. There is a problem with the Judith and bat kohen-gadol stories, as we shall see; the sources are somewhat confused & not very reliable. All of them are all v late sources - midrashim are not real midrashim in their period of provenance but medieval, or are found in apocrypha which only survived to modern times through its inclusion in the Greek Septuagint of the Bible, and so because Jews did not keep them as holy texts, there is every likelihood that the text became corrupted at some point in its history. The versions we have today of the apocrypha were not even preserved in their original Hebrew, but in Greek, and then re-translated back into Hebrew.

You’ll find a translation of each of these stories - or a version of each of these stories - on the source sheet.

1-Judith: this is the most famous, and almost most confused, story. We have 4 versions of what happened: 1 is in the apocrypha, and 3 are medieval texts (so there is no reliable documentation of it from the time period in which it occurred). Furthermore, various important details were edited in the apocrypha so as to make it more acceptable to the Romans: for example, the name of the city was changed from Jerusalem to Betulia, the general in the story was named Holofernes even though the dates are wrong for this man, in order to make it not seem like the populist uprising propaganda which it secretly was.

(have a look at the story of Judith here).

Ok. So it may not come across in my translation, but the original - all the versions - borrow v heavily from megillas esther, especially, and also from the story of yael cutting off the head of sisera, and other good-sounding pesukim in tanach.

There is huge confusion about who Judith was - the Apocrypha & 2 of the medieval midrashim call her Judith & a widow, but they give different genealogies for her, and one just says she was a girl in the city and that’s all. None say that she was the daughter of any kohen or kohen gadol.
This medrash is the only one which mentions milk at all, and none mention cheese, which she is most famous for. The main point, in all the version, as one might expect, is that the general got drunk on wine. It is possible and necessary to ask how much of this can be relied on as having happened. We’re going to come back to that, because this story as well as the next one are quoted by rishonim and acharonim as having really happened, but as we will see the details are not at all clear.

Ok, so we will come back to the story of Judith and how it was transmitted in halachic literature, but first will look at another woman of Chanukah, who it seems is often confused with Judith. I’ve given you the translation of the whole thing because it is not as long. You can read it here.

Ok. As you can see, this is the one about a bride who avenges having to submit to this droit de seigneur-type practice. There is also another midrashic version of this, in which the girl is the daughter of Matisyahu Kohen Gadol - but this is always a problematic title. Was Matisyahu ever the Kohen Gadol? probably not, because the Misyavnim took over the priesthood before his time, so likelihood is that this girl was a daughter of Matisyahu, who was the son of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and this was elided into the phrase we are so familiar with. Otherwise the second version is very similar, in that she tore her clothes and stood naked, her brothers were furious, and then she inspired them to avenge what she’d otherwise have to go through. But here it was not the woman who did the killing, but her brothers. This is a detail left out when elided with the story of Judith.

Right. Last story-you probably all learned about Chana & her seven sons. I'm not going to discuss this one so much because does not make a halachic appearance, but i've included it for the sake of being thorough. Chana is probably not a chanuka woman. Her story is included, in far more gruesome detail, in the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, but this version is also in the Talmud, along with many other sad stories about the terrible things that happened during the Hadrianic persecutions after the Bar Kochba revolt, & seems likeliest it happened then not at chanuka time. You can read that here too.

Also while arguably heroic, Chana's story is not in the same catergory as judith & bas matisyahu (or whoever they were).

Halachic Impact:

Ok. Now lets  see what impact those first two women had on halacha.

The Talmud, in Masechet Megilla regarding Purim, and in Masechet Shabbat regarding Chanuka, says about women that they have to keep the positive mitzvot of those holidays, even though they are mitzvot aseh she’hazman gerama (positive, time-bound commandments from which women are usually exempt), because ‘af hen hayu b’oto hanes’- 'they too were incuded in the miracle'. I’ve given the source from Masechet Shabbat because that’s the one about chanuka, but the 5-word-phrase is the same. (see source 1)

שבת כג. דא"ר יהושע בן לוי נשים חייבות בנר חנוכה שאף הן היו באותו הנס:

I am not going to discuss what the halacha is practically, or give any psak or say what anyone should do. I am interested in this: what does ‘involved in the miracle’ mean?

So let’s jump around a bit - going to begin with Tosfos (a group of commentators writing about halachic issues in gemara b/w 1100-1500approx). You can read it here - it's source #4.

Tosfos includes 2 opinions - that of the Rashbam (earliest of the Tosfos and often taken on his own right), that women were primarily responsible for the miracle, in uniquely feminine ways (not just happened to be a woman not a man), thus women could/should join primary mitzva.
But then Tosfos rejects this and brings the version from the Yerushalmi that ‘women were included in that danger’: Ie, women join in the primary mitzva b/c they too were threatened by the enemy from which we all were saved.

The Mordechai (ashkenazi halachic commentary on Talmud who mostly follows Tosfos) gives a subtly diff middle-of-the-road view. See source #5 here. He accepts the opinion of the Rashbam that the miracle was done through women, but qualifies that miracle was done for them just as for men: not that miracle happened only because of women, also not just they also suffered, but they shared in the miracle AND in the suffering.

Now look at Rashi in sources 2 and 3 here. Rashi comments on phrase of 'they too were included in the miracle' in two different palce. 1st time seems to be saying that women shared in making the miracle, but in the second comment, he's saying that women shared in the danger.

Why does he give 2 different explanations? notice what his dibbur hamaschil is (the words one which he comments). In one, it is ‘af hen’ - that is, how were they included? because they were also included in the threat. In the other, it is ‘hoyu b’oso hanes’: ie. What miracle were they included in? that he was killed through a woman. So Rashi holds that a woman was the instrument of the miracle, but seems to hold that she is included in the mitzva on the strength of having been included in the danger.

Ok. Now moving on to halacha. Note that everyone agrees that women are involved in the mitzvos of Purim & Chankah because of their involvement in the miracle in some way:  either it came through them, or they too suffered, or the miracle was for them as well as for men. the stories seem to have meshed.

See source 5 here Shulchan aruch/rema.
Notice no reason is given here for the first custom, but later halachists do give a reason. The mechaber seems to be agreeing with rashbam that women had uniquely femenine role in the miracle.

Rema -he is not the only one to make the cheese point. The Rishonim (early Sages 1000-1500 CE approx) are all very adament about the role of cheese in the chanuka story, despite the fact that as we saw cheese never comes into anything (though milk does, once) and really, the point seems to be the wine which got him drunk.

Mishna brura in source 7 shows a real mix of the 2 stories. There is no version of the stories which says that Judith was the daughter of a kohen gadol, or that she was a bride. Equally, the story of the daughter of the kohen gadol did not involve cheese, nor did she cut off his head herself (it was her brothers who did it). Many rishonim - almost all of them actually - conflate the 2 stories in this way. It makes it quite hard to unravel what mish the Mishna Brurah thinks ‘af hen hayu’ means.

See source 9 here: the Mishna Brurah explains the ruling of the shulchan aruch that we saw above, that women can light the chanukah lights. It seems that he follows the opinion of the Mordechai, that the ‘miracle was for their sakes’, but in source 7  the Mishna Brurah seems to say that Judith carried out the miracle. The Shulchan Aruch seems to rule that 'af hen hayu' means that the miracle happened through the women's hands (like that Rashbam does).

So it’s v interesting that the Acharonim (later sages post 1500 CE approx) all say that 'af hen hayu' refers to either women doing the miracle, or that the miracle was done for their sakes - not just that they also suffered.
All the acharonim are adament that:
1. the judith/bat kohen gadol story really happened, even if they conflate the two,
2 about the cheese/milk involvement even though the important point is the wine, and only one version inplies it at all.

The interesting question is, why do they take the stories so seriously? I have several thoughts/possibilities, and maybe you can think of more.
A friend pointed out that since the midrashim about judith - & bat kohen gadol- are all late sources, it seems likely they were trying to inspire heroism and fighting-back with these stories.
Also, the idea that the miracle was done by a woman is v important in the theme of ‘lo bakoach lo bachoyil ki im b’ruchi’ ("neither by strength nor by valour will you succeed but rather by G-d's Will") - or as judith herself says, Hashem’s Name will be glorified even more if enemy is killed by a weak woman.

Regarding the cheese/milk theme:
1. possibly more feminine, more weak, and therefore more of a miracle if someone is killed through use of milk/cheese than wine.
2. milk we know is a metaphor for torah, so it is maybe better metaphorically to say he was killed with the milk, that is, killed through torah - again lo bakoach lo bachoyil idea.
3. maybe not a popular thing to say, but may be echoes of yael coming through.

The main and most important point is that someone was killed by a woman - this is definite, the details are unclear - and that’s what the halachic discussion centres on and also the central concept of the might of Rome/Greece being overthrown through the medium of a weak woman...

Final idea from the Bnei Yisaschar.  You're probably familiar with the thought that redemption came through women. He quotes the Ari - essentially, women's involvement in the miracle is not happenstance, but rather it had to be this way. See source 10 here.

The opinion of the Beni Yisaschar is that this redemption from Greece needed to come through women just as all previous redemptions had done. It's not that this story was made up to be a ‘woman’ story, but that a woman’s vital involvement was divinely prescribed. That redemption, like all the others, had to come about in a feminine way. And the Beni Yisaschar says that the future, final, ultimate redemption will come about through G-d's attribute of netzach, which is masculine - that is to say, through men.

There is a footnote of Rabbi Ellinson in his books 'Women and Halacha', stating that these differences of opinion over whether 'af hen hayu b'oto hanes' means that women were the instrument of the miracle of salvation, or that women, like men, were in danger from this threat, can have halachic ramifications. His example is that of women saying hallel on yom haatzmaut. Should women also say hallel, because women, like men, were part of nation which was threatened? Or should women not say hallel, because there was no uniquely feminine role in the miracle of salvation that was the establishment of the State of Israel (this presupposes that you would say hallel at all on yom haaztmaut. Just go with the assumption for now, ok?).

So i wonder, perhaps this is part of what the Bnei Yisaschar writes in the name of the Ari? In all the past redemption, we’ve had women bringing about the miracle of salvation specifically through their femininity, in the most feminine way. Whether Judith and the daughter of the Kohen Gadol are 2 events, or one, or more than that, is not important ideologically. What matters is that there was a woman who instigated the uprising, who encouraged men to fight, who through her femininity - like Esther, like Yael, like the Righteous Women mentioned in Egypt - conquered the enemy.

This matters, because it places Chanukah firmly in the annals as a real redemption, not just a pause in fighting. It also ensures that our focus is not on the military victory, which was anyway v small and temporary, but on the spiritual victory which did endure. Possibly without this tag of women's involvement in the miracle, we would not be sure that the Chanukah story could really be called a redemption, but rather a small, local, temporary victory.

So regardless of the halacha, the role of women in the Chanukah story is vitally important, not just for women, but for all of the Jewish nation, in making Chanukah into an enduring story of redemption. The exile of Greece is often described as a separate exile that segues immediately into the exile of Edom/Rome (which we still live within today). With the involvement of Judith and the bat-kohen-gadol, we now have a story of redemption from the Grecian exile which follows the same pattern as our redemptions from the exiles of Egypt, through the 'righteous women', and of Babylon/Persia through Esther. As the Bnei Yisaschar continues, we have now only one redemption. left to go, which this time will be masculine in its nature (presumably carried out by men, so the pressure is all on them, i reckon), and will be complete and final, bimheirah biyameinu - amen.

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