Saturday, December 31, 2005

Chanuka, Women, and a Book Review

Mirty commented last week about different aspects of Chanuka, and her mixed feelings about the religious war theme of Religious Jews fighting against the Hellenized Jews. Here's a different point that I had forgotten about -- it probably came from learning sanitized Chanuka history in yeshiva.

While studying the halachot of Chanuka with my daughter last week, we learned that women are also required to light Chanuka candles. I remembered the story of Yehudit, but totally forgot about the "other" part.

I'm not sure why it slipped my mind, but I looked it up in the Gemara to make sure....and Rashi says it very clearly.

The Gemara (Shabbat; 23A) states; Rav Yehoshua ben Levy says: Women are required [in the lighting] of Chanuka lights, for even they were part of the miracle [of being saved]
Rashi reminds us of the Greek edict, which can be summarized as the following:

According to ancient Jewish sources, during the period of Syrian rule, Syrian officers in Israel had the authority to rape all Jewish brides. The bride would be allowed to marry her husband only after submitting to the Syrian officer.
Or, as stated very clearly on an MSNBC article (Happy 4rth night of Armed Jews Week) from last year (and blogged about again this year):

During the years of Syrian tyranny, Syrian officers enjoyed the "droit du seigneur" -- the authority to deflower virgin Jewish brides on their wedding nights, before they could join their husbands. So some stories which Jewish families retell at Hanukkah, such as the Book of Judith, extol brave Jewish women who went to the tent of enemy officers who were expecting sex, but who instead met their deaths as the hands of lone Jewish women.
The halacha is that women are not supposed to work during the time that Chanuka candles are burning since a major part of the miracle of salvation from the Greeks was specifically for women.

It boggles the mind to wonder how this terrible custom occurred and how it was accepted within the Jewish community.

Was every Jewish wedding a cause for sadness and despair? Did Jews get married in secret? How did young Jewish husbands receive their brides after being molested? How many of those brides were impregnated that first time by Greek soldiers?

With these questions burning in my head, I recall a newly published book I read on my recent trip to the US a few weeks ago. "The Immortal" by Sy Polsky details the life of Joseph, a fictional Jewish physician/warrior at Beitar on the 8th of Av, the day before the final defeat of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman empire. Abandoning his comrades at arms, he deserts the city only to find himself attacked by Romans. Hanging between life and death, a mythical kabbalist offers Joseph the option of immortality -- with a catch. He must accompany the Jewish people into exile and in addition to bearing witness to the 9th of Av tragedies which would afflict the Jewish people for generations, the same day would mark personal calamities in his private life as well.

This 800 page book of historical fiction is a fascinating journey through Jewish life in the Middle East, Arabia, Spain, France, England, Germany and many parts of Europe from 135 c.e. at the fall of Beitar in Israel through the 1600's in the Netherlands. Joseph's travels take him through the ancient library of Alexandria, to the Parthian empire and the city of Nehardea where the Gemara was authored. Joseph meets and debates with the Amoraim; Shmuel, Rava, Rabba, Rav Ashi and Rabina.

It's far from easy for Joseph the Jew -- he doesn't age externally and survives terrible tragedies while witnessing the murder and abuse of his family, generation after generation. He goes off and on "the path" of religious Judaism throughout the entire book.

The historical stories are accurate and colorful, yet the book painfully recounts how many times the world has tried to eliminate the Jewish people. One amazing story that stood out in my mind was Joseph's leading one town's Jewish uprising during the Crusades -- one of the only Jewish revolts (if not the only one) recorded in the historical period of the Crusades. While there was no "Joseph" leading the actual revolt, it's historical fact that in 1349 the Jews in Regensburg revolted.

This is not a book for younger readers, and while there is quite a bit of violence and sex, it's definitely non-gratuitous and an important part of the story.

The Immortal is only the first book of a trilogy, and I was rather disappointed that I'll have to wait for parts 2 and 3 to be published.

While the specific questions I posed before about Chanuka and women aren't addressed by this book, the human element of tragedy is very clear and is profoundly and painfully described.

If you want a book to rekindle your fascination with Jewish history, this is it.

Chanuka Sameach.

Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael


Jameel @ The Muqata said...

One final point (for tonight):

For all those Hellinistic Jews who were fighting against the Religious/Fanatics/Chashmonaim:

Do you think they had no problem with this Greek custom towards Jewish brides? Perhaps they didn't view it as problematic? Or maybe they were exempt from this "special treatment" if they were Hellinized?

Irina Tsukerman said...

Thanks for raising the point - it's very often forgotten.

And thanks for the recommendation - I can't wait to check it out! Happy Chanukkah!

tafka PP said...

I had not heard about that before. Thanks for raising such important issues.

Anonymous said...

Considering that many of the Hellenized Jews underwent surgery to reverse their circumcisions (and I don't know if you've met any modern anti-circ activists, but they can be pretty, uh, tightly wrapped even by crazy leftie standards) my guess is that many of them had no problem whatsoever with this policy.

They probably had a secret yearning for this intrusion of "real manhood". This exactly parallels the sick fascination of modern liberals with violent revolutionaries.

Look around you: show me where the self-abasement of self-hating modern Jews bottoms out, and we'll draw the line there.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Irina and Parrot: Thanks. I don't understand why the topic is so hushed up, if its the #1 reason why women are supposed to light Chanuka candles.

Sounds to me that during that period of history, there couldn't have been anything as a normal newly married Jewish couple --without having to go through years of serious therapy.

Anonymous; I think you went a bit over the edge...I was asking a serious question about then, with no connection to any modern parallelisms you may want to draw.

MC Aryeh said...

I had heard of this before, but hope someone will be able to shed light on your questions. The book looks interesting and I will add it to my ever-growing list of books to get to...thanks for the recommendation.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...


1. Most people don't seem bothered by the questions, which seems consistant. They bury their heads in the sand.

2. I just want to mention one more thing about the book.

What carries the book along is the story and the history.

The actual writing style is not what I give the book high marks for. JoeSettler just got a copy of the book last night, and we'll see what he has to say about it.

elf said...

The Judith-Chanukkah connection is somewhat convoluted. AFAIK, there's no reliable evidence that "droit du seigneur" was practiced in the Hellenistic period.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Elf: Rashi writes about it on the gemara in Shabbat (23A). Why do you say there's no reliable evidence?

BTW - IMHO, the Yehudit story doesn't have to have anything to do with the "droit du seigneur" connection.

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