For me, part of the charm of Hanukka is seeing the array of hanukkiot lined up by our window, some with olive oil, some with many-colored candles, all the flames flickering and dying down at different rates. Yet, the minimal requirement is that a man and his household (ish u'beito) are obligated to light a single candle each day (B. Shabbat 21b). If the husband is not able to return at the proper time for lighting, soon after sunset when everyone is hurrying home from work, then a woman can light for the household (beito, here, is understood as a euphemism for wife; Shulhan Aruch, Orah Haim 675:3-4).
Women are as obligated as men in the commandment to light the Hanukka candles because, according to the Talmud, "they too were involved in the miracle" (B. Shabbat 23a). According to Rashbam, this implies that women were pivotal in bringing about the miracle, and Judith is credited with this central role at Hanukka (cited in Tosafot on B. Pesahim 108b). Rashi, on the other hand, alludes to the story of Hannah, daughter of Mattathias: "'They too were involved in the miracle' refers to a time when the Greeks had decreed that a bride should be given over to the magistrate on her wedding night and a miracle was enacted at the hands of a woman" (Rashi, on B. Shabbat 23a).
Who are these mysterious women, Judith and Hannah? The story of Judith is not found in the Talmud or the classical midrashim, but, like the Book of Maccabees, in the Apocrypha. Many know the story of Judith beheading Holofernes, the Syrian general, but few are familiar with the story of Hannah, the daughter of Mattathias. The events take place during the tyrannical rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BCE).
At that time, the Greeks imposed "the right of the first night" - every Jewish bride on her wedding night would be forced to have relations with the local magistrate first and only then return to her groom. Many Jews were afraid to marry. The decree continued for more than three years, until Hannah, daughter of Mattathias, became engaged to marry Elazar the Hasmonean. On the night of her wedding feast, when they had all sat down to eat, Hannah stood up from her bridal chair, clapped her hands, and tore her clothing, exposing herself to her husband and relatives.
Out of shame, her brothers tried to repress her, crying "take her out and burn her," but she pointed to their hypocritical piety. "Hear me, my brothers and uncles. Yes, now I stand before the righteous naked, without transgression, and yet you are zealous against me. Why are you not zealous against handing me over to the gentile who will violate me? If only you would learn from Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah (and there were only two of them). They were zealous for their sister. And you, you are five brothers - Yehuda, Yohanan, Yonatan, Shimon and Elazar - and more than two hundred youthful priests. Place your trust in God and He will help you!"
So the Maccabean brothers were galvanized to fight the humiliating decree. They dressed Hannah up in royal apparel, as if to hand her over to the Greek magistrate, but when they presented her, they entered his chambers along with her, slaying him and all his henchmen. And thus the battle began, with God on their side. At that time, a heavenly voice was heard from the Holy of Holies: "All Israel has been victorious, the lamb against Antiochus, and so may God enact salvation in our day."
This Hanukka when you light the candles, remember Judith and Hannah, women who placed themselves in the breach, drawing only upon the unconventional weapons of women's warfare, feminine wile and audacity. They cried out from the private interstices of their being, when that inner sanctum was most vulnerable. And the heavenly voice, from the Holy of Holies, resonated with their cry and their courage.
The miracle of Hanukka begins from the inside - a little flask of oil, a woman's sense of honor - and so the lighting of the hanukkia is on the border between home and public sphere, the mitzva incumbent on the household. From the entrance to the house, the news of the miracle radiates outward. This Hanukka, may the light in your homes dispel the dark, on the longest nights of the year, as in the time of Esther, when the Jews enjoyed "light and gladness, happiness and honor" (Esther 8:16). For there can be no light without also a sense of honor, the privacy of the inner sanctum.
The writer lectures in Hebrew Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.