Deep ideas and notable historic events are translated in Judaism into detailed Halakhot, which give them tactile shape and active ways to raise them anew into our general awareness.
Lighting the Hanukah Candles is the central mitzvah of the holiday and its goal is to publicize the miracle. The burning candles act as a sign of God’s presence in history, and witness to the real possibility of redemption. In three of our holidays a miracle stands as the foundation. These are the three festivals of redemption: Pessach, which commemorates liberation from slavery and the preparation for spiritual freedom; Purim, in which we celebrate being saved from a real threat of physical destruction; and Hanukah, the reason for which is the spiritual salvation that was gained by the victory over the Greeks.
Regarding all of these, the Sages determined that women are obligated by the special holiday mitzvot, even though they are generally exempt from mitzvot that have a time related element.
Deep ideas and historical events worth marking are translated by the Jewish tradition into meticulous halakhot, that give them physical form and practical ways to raise them into general consciousness.
Lighting Hanukah candles is the central mitzvah of the holiday, and it’s goal – publicizing the miracle. The reasoning used here is “they (the women) were also witness to the same miracle” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 23a); which is to say: because the same historical event and the trouble before it is given meaning as an event experienced by all of Israel, it should be sanctified by all of Israel – women and men alike. Not only were the women included in the redemption, but in all of these events (as commemorated by the three holidays), women took an active role in the redemption itself. Regarding the redemption from Egypt, “by the merit of righteous women in that generation were the Israelites redeemed from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b). Regarding Purim, there is no need to add words (to the Megillah of Esther). And regarding Hanukah, the tradition tells us about three women whose heroism supported the Hasmonean rebellion.
In any event, women were obligated by the mitzvot of these holidays: Reading the Megillah of Esther on Purim, or at least hearing it read; Most if not all of the mitzvot of Pessach, including drinking four cups of wine (“in the way of liberty”); and lighting the candles of Hanukah. But distinct from the first two mitzvot, the lighting of the Hanukah candles doesn’t need to be done personally by each person, and seemingly it is enough that each household need only light a single hanukkiah. In spite of this, apparently since the lighting of the hanukkiah is so popular, this mitzvah has been given three categories: the minimum requirement that one candle be lit each night, the medium “mehadrin” level of lighting one candle for each member of the household, and the “first class” or “mehadrin mehamehadrin” level of Bet Hillel, lighting an additional new candle each night so that the hanukkiah is filled with candles as the holiday progresses.
According to the Mehadrin tradition of Ashkenazi Halakha, in addition to the mehadrin mehamehadrin, most homes today light a whole hanukkiah for each obligated member of the household, and from this, simply, each woman of the household is obligated to light her own hanukkiah. But women have generally allowed themselves to be yotzeit (halakhically exempted) by the actions of the men of the household. As things stand:
- Women are obligated to light candles at Hanukah.
- Ashkenazi halakha adopted the norm of each member of a household lighting their own hanukkiah.
- Women nevertheless did not have a habit of lighting Hanukah candles.
The result is women didn’t only give up the right to do this mitzvah independently, rather, in practice, they willingly neglected an halakhic obligation. The Hida (Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azoulay, Jerusalem, 18th Century) wondered about this in colorful language: “Why has the glory and the splendor of a woman given way, while the children, themselves like lanterns, light their own candles, but leave her behind in the shadows far from the light.” (Birkei Yosef, OH 671)
The excuses given by Orthodox Rabbis in previous generations, such as “his wife is like his own body” and the problem of modesty – these reflect temporary social expectations more than halakhic truths. Active candle lighting as a religious act, even if it is within one’s own house, did not reflect the place of women in the home and the society of the time. Women actively preferred not to participate in the mitzvah.
Rather, they found their own special ways to commemorate the holiday: “Women have a practice to refrain from work as long as the candles are burning” according to the Shulchan Arukh (OH 670). There were additional minhagim of refraining from work for whole days during the holiday. The practice of commemorating the holiday was passive, but the message – independence from the never-ending slavery of housework and self definition of how to celebrate the holiday.
We must ask the question: did these women perhaps give up on the liberty that is expressed by active mitzvah observance, in order to point out the distance between their situation and the action of lighting candles, in order to express their own spiritual freedom? Or, perhaps, davka their avoidance of the mitzvah expressed their true freedom, by their choice (their passive choice, it must be said) to not perform the explicit mitzvah and thus celebrate the holiday in their own way?
*Translated by Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn