Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who is Judith or Yehudit and why is she important to the Story of Chanukah

Judith the Obscure

Dear Rivy,
I have heard something about a widow named Judith and her connection to the Chanukah story. But IO never seem to hear about her at holiday time. Judah Maccabee grabs center stage together with that oil!

Often what has become invisible through the ages is the female experience. The life of a seemingly obscure widow, Judith, deserves a bit of center stage of Chanukah. This comment of Susan Weidman Schneider in her book Jewish and Female got me thinking, She writes, "Whatever the reasons, Chanukah is one of the few markers on the Jewish Calendar that have not proved fruitful ground for Jewish women looking for a usable past. The only traditional Chanukah tale featuring a woman is the story of Hannah and her seven sons." I ask; could there be more?

To see a significant and meaningful place for women in the Chanukah celebration, one needs to perhaps don another pair of glasses. Let’s call them halachic glasses. These spectacles allow us to gaze at the vast body of rich Jewish legal literature. They sometimes reveal that which you least expect.

Let us begin by opening the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century. In section #970 we find the first law concerning Chanukah. He starts with the simple; Chanukah is for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. These are days when eulogies and fasting are prohibited, but work is permitted - except for women who have the custom to abstain from doing any form of labor while the candles are burning. Further on, he writes that women are obligated in lighting Chanukah candles and may light on behalf of the entire household.

Two interesting points jump out. First, though the laws of Chanukah go on for pages, it is women's custom that immediately takes center stage. The only labor prohibited on the festival is by women - during the burning of the Chanukah candles. The second significant halachic twist is that in spite of the principal that women are exempt from positive time bound commandments - when it comes to the lighting of the Chanukah candles their obligation is equal to that of men.

Questions; why do women have the custom to refrain from work while the Chanukah candles burn? Why do they seem to have a higher level of commitment or perhaps reverence for the Chanukah lights? And finally, why are they obligated in lighting Chanukah candles?

Keep your halachic glasses on as we zoom back in time to search the pages of the Talmud for Rabbi Karo’s source. Opening to page 23a of Tractate Shabbat we find that “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, for they too were involved in the miracle." They too were involved in the miracle? Rabbi Shlomo Yischaki, Rashi, tenth century scholar, suggests two possible interpretations to the puzzling phrase. First, they too were involved in the miracle - they too were subjugated to the Greeks, but in a terribly tragic way particular to women only. Each Jewish virgin was forced to be with a Greek officer before marrying. Second possibility; it was through a woman that the miracle occurred. This provocative comment is echoed and enlarged upon by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, he adds, that the Chanukah miracle was done through the hands of Yehudit, Judith.

Ah, Judith the Obscure! To uncover her mystery, we must do some pasting together of Apocrypha, midrash and poetry. The reconstruction of this episode may never be completely satisfying, but what does emerge is a tale of heroism and sacrifice. It is unclear whether it is Judith the widow who goes forth willingly or Judith the bride who is taken by force, but, once alone with the Greek general she feeds him wine and cheese. She waits for the soporific meal to take its effect, cuts off his head, As recorded in Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith,

Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence,
And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.
She then gives his head to her maid who places it in her basket and they ever so nonchalantly return to the Judean camp.

Officers, troops and soldiers of the Greek camp are left in leaderless disarray and a breach enabling the smaller Judean army to triumph. And thus the miracle was truly executed by a woman.

Now what do we see? Is this what Schneider might call a usable past? I think so. The legend together with halachic practice has bequeathed to women a powerful symbol. Yes, we were victims; but we were also heroes. We are part of the miracle. We were oppressed, but we joined together with our brothers to fight back. Yehudit, Judith is enshrined forever in sculpture, art work, librettos, and novels. Her memory is recalled on the Shabbat of Chanukah when traditionally we recite a lengthy twelfth century piyyut, poem, describing the pathos of her wedding and youthful fears of what awaited her.

Let each and every woman light a Chanukah menorah, refrain from work, watch flames and remember. Let us see in those flames both the pain of our ancestors and the courage of their actions and for this I do not think that we will need any kind of glasses. And finally, let us praise Judith as she was praised then,
O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies. For this thy confidence shall not depart from the heart of men, which remember the power of God for ever. And God turn these things to thee for a perpetual praise, to visit thee in good things because thou hast not spared thy life for the affliction of our nation, but hast revenged our ruin, walking a straight way before our God. And all the people said; So be it, so be it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Chanukha Toy Story: A New Spin on Dreidels!

Dear Rivy,

Please settle this argument between myself and my spouse. I say dreidels are a Jewish version of a typical child’s toy that we plunked Hebrew letters on, she claims that the dreidel is a uniquely Jewish toy.

Before settling this marital difference of opinion; first we must do a review of dreidelosity. The dreidel or sivivon is the toy that we amuse ourselves with over the holiday of Chanukah. The word dreidel is Yiddish, to drei, is to turn. Sometimes the dreidel is called sivivon in Hebrew, meaning “round and round.”

It is a spinning top with four sides. On each side a Hebrew letter appears, nun – gimmel – heh – shin – standing for the words nes gadol haya sham, miracle – great – was – there, meaning a great miracle happened there; referring to the Chanukah miracle.

It is essentially a gambling game with each player initially contributing to the pot and then experiencing wins or losses according to the twists and turns of the dreidel. Play begins when the dreidel is spun. Depending on the letter upon which it lands the player must contribute to the pot or alternatively may be awarded an amount from the pot; perhaps half the pot or if you are lucky the whole pot! A miracle!

Traditionally, if you land on the nun – you neither put in nor take out – if you land on the gimmel you are awarded with the entire pot. Landing on heh gets you half the pot and if your dreidel ends its dizzying twirling on the dreaded shin, you must submit and put in the predetermined amount. .

Now to your question; to quote the larger-than-life Jewish philosopher, Tevye, you are right and your spouse is also right. You are right in that, though we attribute the first playing of the dreidel back to the time of the Greek-Syrians and the Chanukah story, we also know that in Europe, there was a gambling game with a spinning top that had been played for centuries by various people. In fact, the game of totum or teetotum is a gambling game with a spinning top first mentioned in approximately 1500.

The connection to the Chanukah story has this spin to it; when we were prohibited from studying Torah we needed a way to hide our Torah learning. Using the dreidel as a decoy, we Jews would hide our books, take out the dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking that we were just playing a game.

Either way, I believe that in this unassuming whimsical dreidel there lies or shall I say spins, a number of significant Jewish ideas and even critical Chanukah lessons. Therefore, though the dreidel may very well be a universal kind of top, it is without a doubt imbued with a specifically Jewish message and meaning.

Know, that nothing of Jewish practice is arbitrary; neither the foods we eat nor the customs that we practice. There is a big word on that dreidel and I do not mean gadol, I mean nes, miracle. The notion of miracle and the approaches to the idea of miracles is a critical one in Jewish thought. To be sure, it is concept that is fraught with controversy especially in the context of the Chanukah story.

Consider these Chanukah texts. First, the prayer that we add to our daily service and to the grace after meals throughout the holiday called "Al Hanisim", for the miracles. In the prayer we find a description of the events of the days of the Hasmoneans. Of the battle that was fought in order to protect our right to worship freely and unencumbered by Greek influence. God delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few. The spectacularly sensational victory permitted the purification of the Temple and the rededication of its vessels. A miracle, but, look closer, something is missing here. The oil! Where in this prayer of wonders is mention of the miracle of the oil?

To locate the oil we must search in the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, where we find first mention of the famed cruse. The text asks the question, what is the reason for Chanukkah? The passage explains that when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and then defeated the enemy, they entered the Temple to rededicate its environs, they made search and found but one lone cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. It contained a sufficient reserve for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought and they lit the lamp and it burned for eight days, allowing for time to produce more of the needed olive oil.

A bit of confusion from our sources; which miracle are we celebrating, is it the astounding triumph on the battlefield or the supernatural metaphysical miracle of oil that lasted for eight days?

I know the skeptical answer couched in historical realism and rationality, the "No, Virgina there was no long lasting oil"- response that many give. It does not work for me. I think of the oil's lasting for eight days as a sort of Divine Wake Up call, "Maccabees and all the rest of you, did you not notice what happened out there on the battlefield? - Yes you are good soldiers, but without Me, without the intervention of the Holy One, there would have been no victory, there would be no rededication of the temple and you would not have been poised to embark on your great long history.
It is never the might of the hand alone that brings the victory; it is the commitment to a higher good that ultimately affects triumph.

All of this is spinning before us in that dreidel. You pick up the dreidel, the seemingly quintessence of randomness, you spin it and as chance determines the fate of your pot the dreidel in turn teaches you the lesson of Chanukah - a great miracle happened there. No haphazardness in that Chanukah story, no arbitrary twist of history but rather a wondrous miracle reminding us that nothing about the fate of our people is by chance. David Ben Gurion, First Prime Minister of Israel put it this way, "In Israel, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles."