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Women and Chanukah

The Daughter of the Kohen Gadol

One of the important motifs in the Chanukah story is the heroism of Jewish women in preserving their modesty. The Sages have been reluctant to give many details about the ordeals and indignities inflicted by the Syrian-Greeks, no doubt out of respect for the dignity of the Jewish woman. Nevertheless, here and there in the Talmud we find veiled references to the nature of their challenge, while the Midrash is slightly more explicit.

Megillas Taanis (17 Elul) relates that the Syrian-Greek kings appointed officers in the towns of Eretz Yisrael to ravish all Jewish brides. Only after submitting to the officers would the women be permitted to marry their intended husbands. Consequently, many Jewish people refused to marry and others married clandestinely. Mattisyahu, the son of Yochanan the Kohen Gadol (high priest) and the father of the famous five Maccabee brothers, had a daughter who was engaged to be married. When her wedding day arrived and the Syrian-Greek official came to defile her, Mattisyahu and his sons prevented him from doing so. They battled against the offending official and his troops and, miraculously, were able to defeat and kill them. The day of this victory was designated as a festival.

A sequel to this story is given in the Midrash for Chanukah (Otzar Midrashim, p. 192). Upon hearing about the execution of his officials, the Syrian king gathered his entire army and besieged Jerusalem. A widow named Yehudis volunteered to go to the king and rescue the city. She gained an audience with him and succeeded in seducing him. He made a lavish feast in her honor during which much wine was consumed. He became drunk and fell into a deep sleep. That night, as he slept, she took his sword and decapitated him. She put his head in her pouch and brought it back to the city, whereupon the Jews hung it on the city walls. When the Greeks realized they had lost their leader they panicked and fled. (See Chanukah and Women for a slightly different version of this story.)

From the information given in the various versions found in different sources, it is difficult to pinpoint with certainty the time frame during which this story took place. However, the Midrashim Ma'aseh Chanukah (version 1;Otzar Midrashim p. 189) and Midrash LaChanukah (p. 192) and the liturgy for the first Sabbath of Chanakah concur that the decree against Jewish brides was in force for three years and eight months. If the first three years of the decree coincide with the three years of persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, which commenced in Kislev 3594 and ended in Kislev 3597 with the rededication of the Temple on Chanukah, then even after the Temple was rededicated some of the immoral legislation of Antiochus remained in force for the next eight months.

Reprinted with the permission from The Artscroll Mesorah Series - Chanukah

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