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Head Notes

Adam Eilath

Happy Chanukkah Dear Wornick Community,

For this week’s blog, I thought I would do something a little different and share two Chanukkah customs that might be less familiar to members of our community and might add new dimensions to your celebrations this week.

Hag Habanot (The Holiday of Girls)

In many Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa, it was customary to hold a special holiday for girls on the 7th night of Chanukkah which coincides with the first day of the month of Tevet. This holiday was known as Hag Habanot (in Hebrew) or Eid El Banat (in Arabic), or la fête de filles (in French). Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month) was regularly a special time for women. It was customary to abstain from work on those days and to focus on gathering with other women, introspection and community building. In some communities however the Rosh Hodesh of Chanukkah was especially significant.

In Tunisia, where my family is from, this day was a collective Bat Mitzvah celebration for all young women who were in their twelfth year. Even before the modern day Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony existed, Hag Habanot was a way for Jews to celebrate a coming of age moment with their peers. In other countries women made peace with one another or celebrated recent engagements and often gathered to sing together and pray.

The custom is the result of a number of historical connections. In Megillat Esther, (the story of Purim), we are told that Esther entered the palace and became queen on the first day of Tevet. Esther’s story is known as a story of bravery and courage and in many ways her narrative embodies the same strength of the Maccabees. Additionally, many communities celebrated the Heroism of Judith whose story is not in the Bible but is still recognized and celebrated by Jews around the world. In a rather gruesome story, Judith seduced and then killed a Bablylonian military commander, Holofernes, who was occupying and tormenting the lives of Jews. She seduced him with cheese and dairy which is why in Tunisia it was a custom to eat only dairy and cheese during the celebration of Chag Habanot.

I love this holiday. Most books depict the heroism of the Maccabees with male soldiers but it’s so important to me to tell the story of the women who led change and helped fight for freedom historically.

“A light, a person, and their home”

Another interesting law of Chanukkah I wanted to share with all of you centers around the rules of who needs to light the Chanukkah candles. In Rabbinic literature there is a Hebrew phrase; “Ner Ish UBeito”, which translates to “a light, a person and their home.”

Different Rabbis have debated the meaning of this phrase for centuries and there are a range of opinions about who needs to light the candles, how many chanukkiyot need to be lit and what happens if someone misses the candle lighting with their family.

In the Sephardic tradition, there is a custom that when you light candles in your home you are also lighting for all the members of your family who are not present. In fact, Harav Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Rabbi of Israel wrote that unmarried university students or students studying in a religious boarding school should not light their own candles because their parents lighting counted for them as well.

These laws and the legal obsession that Rabbis have had with the “reach” of candle lighting in terms of who is counted in each lighting points to the last word of the Rabbinic phrase, the home. Chanukkah is one of the main holidays where the mitzvah has to happen in the home. The home is central to the commandment.

A few years ago I wrote an article about Sephardic Hanukkah Traditions where I quoted a legal question sent to a 20th century Rabbi about the Chanukkah miracle. Here is an excerpt from that article that reinforces this notion.

“In the early 20th century, Moroccan Rabbi Yosef Messas received a letter from a Jew who had become skeptical of the Hannukah oil miracle story because he couldn’t find a written source that attested to its authenticity. In his response, Messas strongly rejected the idea that a written source was the only way to prove something as authoritative and accurate. Messas argued that the home, and specifically the teachings of the parents, were of equal importance to the written Rabbinic laws. He wrote that the “love and care that parents build with their children” creates a source of authority. Parents, he wrote, “teach stories to their offspring that pass on from generation to generation,” and these stories are on equal standing with written traditions. In this response, Messas highlights the authority and importance of parents in passing on Hannukah traditions and locates the home as the center of authority in this holiday.

Rabbi Haim David Halevi a 20th century Sephardic rabbi who served as the chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv argued that it was more important for all family members to be present during the lighting of the Hannukiah than for the Hannukiah to be lit in a timely manner. He wrote that such a lighting in the home is the “miracle of our time.””

Wishing you all a Happy Chanukkah filled with light!


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