By Binyomin Radner
The Gemara, Shabbos 23a states that women are obligated in ner Chanuka since they were also involved in the miracle of Chanuka.
Rashi explains that the Greeks had enacted a law that any kallah that got married would have to first be secluded with the Greek general and only afterwards would go to the chupah. Also, the miracle of Chanuka was brought about through a woman.
Therefore, even though ordinarily women are exempt from any mitzvah which is time-bound, Chanuka is an exception and women are obligated in ner Chanuka.
The Ran explains that the miracle being “brought about by a woman” is referring to the famous story of Yehudis the daughter of Yochanan who used her beauty to gain access to the chief general, fed him cheese, then gave him wine causing him to become inebriated, cut off his head, and brought his severed head back to the city. When the enemies saw their general’s severed head, they all fled in panic, resulting in the Jewish people being freed from their rule.
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 670:1) mentions the custom of women abstaining from doing melacha while the lights of the menorah are burning.
The Taz (O.C. 670:2) says that the custom for women to abstain from doing melacha on Chanuka is similar to their custom of abstaining from melacha on Rosh Chodesh. The basis for the custom on Rosh Chodesh is that since the women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf and refused to donate their jewelry for it, they were rewarded with the Yom Tov of Rosh Chodesh. Similarly, since the miracle of Chanuka was brought about through the heroic actions of a woman, it is a worthy custom for women to commemorate this by abstaining from melacha, just like on Rosh Chodesh. Accordingly, this custom only applies to women.
This is the understanding of Matei Moshe as cited in Mogain Avrohom as well.
The Mishna Berura (s.k. 4) puts the time frame for this custom at approximately one half hour after the menorah is lit. In addition to commemorating the fact that the miracle of Chanuka was brought about by Yehudis, the minhag also serves as a reminder that one is forbidden to derive any benefit from the Chanuka lights. 2
Furthermore, the Rema (O.C. 670:2) writes that because the Greek general’s downfall was brought about by Yehudis feeding him cheese, there is an additional custom to eat milchig foods on Chanuka.
Yehudis’s heroic actions, accordingly, are commemorated in the following three ways;
Women are obligated in the mitzvah of ner Chanuka; women abstain from doing melacha for one half hour after the Chanuka lights are lit; it is customary to eat cheese/dairy dishes on Chanuka.
In fact the Tur (O.C. 417:1) cites the custom for women to refrain from doing melacha on Rosh Chodesh, and adds that originally the Yomim Tovim were enacted as follows: Pesach to symbolize Avraham, Shavuos to symbolize Yitzchok, Succos to symbolize Yaakov, and the twelve Roshei Chodesh to symbolize the twelve shevatim.
Then, when the men sinned with the Golden Calf, the Yom Tov of Rosh Chodesh was taken away from the men and given instead to the women as a reward and as a token for their refusal to participate in the sin of the Golden Calf.
(It is noteworthy to mention that for women who have the custom to abstain from doing melacha for a half hour after the Chanuka lights are lit, according to many authorities, this only pertains to melacha which would be forbidden on Chol Hamoed like sewing, tailoring, laundering and the like. But cooking, baking, and general food preparation which is permitted on Chol Hamoed would also be permitted during this time on Chanuka.)
The Chayei Adam (Hilchos Chanuka, 154:3) also mentions the story of Yehudis as the basis for the custom that women refrain from doing melacha after candle-lighting and for the custom to eat milchig foods on Chanuka.
Quite interestingly, when the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 670:8) mentions the custom of women abstaining from doing melacha after the lights are lit, he writes that the incident with Yehudis killing the Greek general did not actually occur in the same historical period as the rest of the story of Chanuka. He notes this parenthetically and does not seem to be bothered by the fact that three Chanuka customs are all in commemoration of the story with Yehudis, which is not at all related to the story of Chanuka.
However, Rav Yaakov Emden (Mohr Uketzia, O.C. 670) does raise this issue more aggressively than the Aruch Hashulchan does. He writes that there is absolutely no point in enacting a custom on Chanuka to commemorate a story that had nothing to do with Chanuka. He even adds that historically, Yehudis’s actions took place during the exile from the first Temple which was many years prior to the story of Chanuka. He, therefore, concludes that the underlying reason for the custom for women to abstain from doing melacha after candle-lighting has nothing to do with the story of Yehudis. The basis for this custom is solely the alternative reason mentioned by the commentators, that abstaining from melacha after candle-lighting serves as a reminder that there is an issur to derive any benefit from the Chanuka lights. Accordingly, the reason why women are obligated in ner Chanuka is solely because of the first pshat in Rashi that they were also affected by the miracle, not because of the other pshat that they caused the miracle, as the story of Yehudis was not during the story of Chanuka. As an alternative possibility, he suggests that perhaps Chazal wanted to commemorate the story of Yehudis in one way or another, but could not find any other appropriate time to commemorate it, and so they enacted the custom of women abstaining from melacha on Chanuka as sort of an addition. 3
The Ben Ish Chai (Vayeishev, Chapter 24) as well mentions the custom of eating cheese dishes on Chanuka in commemoration of the heroic actions of Yehudis. He adds that although the incident transpired many years before the actual story of Chanuka, it was
similar in that it was also at a time when the Jewish people were subjected to Greek rule
and Yehudis’s bravery is what liberated them.
The Kaf Hachayim (670:2 s.k. 17) cites the Ben Ish Chai and seconds that perhaps, although the story of Yehudis took place at a different period of history than that of Chanuka, it was nonetheless during a time when the Jewish people were suffering under the rule of the Greeks. Therefore, it is similar to the story of Chanuka in that it too was an incident in which the Jewish people were rescued from spiritual destruction at the hands of the Greeks, albeit at a different time in history than the story of Chanuka.
So, whereas the Ran, Rema, Taz, Mogain Avrohom, Mishna Berura and Chayai Adam all mention the incident with Yehudis in relation to Chanuka without any inhibition, the Aruch Hashulchan, Mohr Uketzia, Ben Ish Chai and Kaf Hachayim all raise the historical inconsistency that the incident with Yehudis did not take place during Chanuka, and each struggles to make sense of the customs enacted on Chanuka commemorating the incident.
With regards to the obligation to recite Hallel on the eight days of Chanuka, the Toras Refael (Siman 75) among other commentators, maintains that women should be obligated to recite Hallel on Chanuka for the same reason that women are obligated in ner Chanuka inasmuch as they were also beneficiaries of the miracle (af hein hayu be’oso haneis.) Furthermore, Tosfos (Succah, 38a d.h. mi) says that women are obligated to recite Hallel at the Seder on Pesach as it is recited due to the miracle of Pesach, and women were included in the miracle. Therefore, it stands to follow that they should also be obligated to recite Hallel on Chanuka as well since they were included in and were part of the miracle of Chanuka. Basically, these commentators take the logic of Tosfos one step further, arguing that women should be obligated to recite Hallel on Chanuka.
However, the view of R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (Minchas Shlomo, Tinyana, 58:5) is that women are exempt from reciting Hallel on Chanuka. He argues that the Hallel on Chanuka is fundamentally different than the Hallel recited on Pesach at the Seder. The Hallel which is recited during Shacharis on Pesach, Shavuos and Succos is not recited because of miracles, but because there is a separate chiyuv to recite Hallel on Yom Tov. So it is with Chanuka. While the lighting of the menorah on Chanuka is specifically to commemorate the miracle of Chanuka and we say “haneiros halalu anachnu madlikim al hanisim,” and women are obligated in ner Chanuka since they were part of the miracle, the chiyuv of Hallel on Chanuka is a regular Hallel like on any other Yom Tov from which women are exempt. So Hallel on Chanuka is more comparable to Hallel recited during the day of Pesach from which women are exempt, than to the Hallel at the Pesach Seder for which women are obligated. Therefore, R’ Shlomo Zalman rules that although women are obligated in ner Chanuka, they are nonetheless exempt from reciting Hallel on Chanuka just as they are exempt from reciting Hallel on any other Yom Tov.