Friday, December 3, 2021/29 Kislev, 5782
Parashat Mikeitz Genesis 41:1−44:17
Hanukkah is about far more than miraculous oil. Don’t get me wrong; the power of light amid darkened days is a symbol of our people’s resilience, hope, and faith. A deeper dive into the story reveals extra layers of meaning, from unlikely heroes to, yes, even feminism.
The story begins with the Jewish people in a state of despair. Their temple was ransacked. Assyrian soldiers were brutal, vicious, and determined to make Jewish practice a thing of the past. People were suffering deeply. We often hear the story about how the Maccabees fought off the army so that the Jewish people could return to the temple. Less often do wear about the heroine Judith.
Judith was a young widow, deeply immersed in her mourning. When the Assyrian army attacked her small town, and she witnessed the suffering of her community, she sprang into action. As the story tells it, she took off her mourning clothes and dressed up elegantly. At a time when everyone was afraid of the Assyrian army, Judith packed a small bag filled with salty cheeses and walked directly into the enemy camp. When she came upon General Holofernes, she flattered and charmed him. Soon he let down his guard and invited her inside. He enjoyed her cheeses, which were so salty that he drank a lot of wine and promptly fell asleep. Judith seized the moment, took his sword, and beheaded him. The next morning, when the Assyrians discovered what had befallen their leader, they fled, and the people were free.
To this day, many people eat cheese during Hanukkah because of the meal Judith served to Holofernes. It is a tribute to the unlikely hero who took it upon herself to save her people.
In honor of Judith, a minor holiday was created, called Chag HaBanot, the holiday of the daughters. It takes place on Rosh Chodesh Tevet (the beginning of the month of Tevet) each year, which happens to begin this evening. In North Africa, this holiday is when women come to synagogue, touch the Torah, pray for their daughters’ health, and give them gifts. Women dance together, visit one another’s homes, and enjoy a lavish feast. The holiday was “a gift to Judith,” explains Mizeina Cohen, who celebrated the holiday as a young girl in Djerba.
This year, let us tell the story of Judah Maccabee and candles that miraculously lasted eight days. But let us also pay tribute to Judith and all the powerful women so often left out of our holy texts. Shabbat Shalom, Hanukkah Sameach, and Happy Chag HaBanot.
Rabbi Cassi Kail