Hanukkah, which begins at sunset Wednesday, celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rule and the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.
It is known as the Festival of Lights and is observed for eight days by Jews worldwide by lighting another candle each night until all eight are lit. Latkes, playing dreidel and gifts also are part of the observance in America.
Most of the celebration occurs in the home and the lighting of the candles is considered a sacred time, according to Shula Reinharz, Jacob S. Potofsky professor of sociology at Brandeis University and an expert in Jewish women's studies.
(Courtesy photo) Emily Knepp kindles the lights on an antique Hanukkah Menorah at Temple Beth Israel in Altoona. Watching are Marissa Dubrow (left) and Shani Evans.
She said the lighting of the Hanukkah candles is a woman's obligation and when they are lit, the worshippers are transforming their thoughts from a secular time to a holy time. While the candles burn, people are not supposed to work.
In the past candlelight made it possible for women to sew and do other chores in the home. But when the Hanukkah candles are lit, the family is "creating another world, another way of being rather than everyday life," Reinharz said.
It is a time to reflect on the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks. Antiochus, the Greek king of Syria, had outlawed Jewish rituals and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods.
Community menorah lightings
Several community observances of Hanukkah are planned
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel will lead the menorah lighting at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria of the Bon Secours Hospital Campus of Altoona Regional Health System and at noon in the foyer of the Altoona Hospital Campus.
Rabbi Yossi Stein, director of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center, will lead a community lighting of an 8-foot menorah and celebration at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Blair County Courthouse patio. It will include gifts, music, singing and dancing.
When Judah Maccabee and his soldiers cleaned the Temple, they lit a lamp that only had enough oil for one day. Instead of the flame going out, it continued to burn for eight days until the supply could be replenished.
The story focuses on the soldiers' victory, but folklore tells stories of Jewish women also standing up against their oppressors. In the past, these women were acknowledged during Hanukkah.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel said the stories do not appear in the Jewish Bible, but are part of tradition.
"Jewish stories that circulated at that time - in the 2nd century BC - highlighted the role of Jewish women maintaining their faith and imparting it to their children," she said.
"In the Books of Maccabees, we twice have the story of the mother who sacrificed herself and her seven sons as martyrs to the Jewish God rather than submit to idolatry," she said.
The story relates how the king's men tried to force them to eat pork during the reign of Antiochus the 4th.
According to the story, each son is tortured to death in front of his mother who urges them to keep their faith and courage. She, too, is martyred.
Korotkin also related the story of Judith who is said to have beheaded Holofernes, the general of Assyrian King Nebudchadnezzer II after he became drunk. Although it occurred about 400 years before the Maccabees victory, the story was written during Maccabean times.
"These two stories really form the basis of the notion that women were in the forefront of the resistance to pagan oppression," she said.
For this reason, some Jews throughout the ages honored women during Hanukkah.
She said in Tunisia, girls received gifts from their parents and brides from their grooms.
The seventh night of Hanukkah was dedicated to Jewish women and their bravery in some Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) communities, she said.
In North Africa, women and girls kissed the Torah scrolls, an action forbidden to women under strict Jewish law, and refrained from working for all eight days.
She said the customs sometimes became more powerful than the Jewish law and legal scholars respected them.
From those traditions came an entry in the Code of Jewish Law written by Solomon Ganzfried in the mid-1800s and translated by Judah Goldin into an English version in 1927.
The Goldin translation states: "Work is permitted on Hanukkah; however, women refrain from work during the entire time the lights are burning, and they should not be deterred (from this obligation). The reason women are more scrupulous is because of the harsh decree affecting the daughters of Israel (during the Maccabean period); For example, a virgin about to be married was required to have sexual intercourse with the monarch."
"Furthermore, the miracle was effected by a very beautiful woman, the daughter of Johanan, the high priest.
When the monarch demanded that she lie with him, she replied that she would acquiesce. Then she fed him cheese dishes until he became thirsty. He then drank wine, became drunk and fell asleep; whereupon she severed his head and brought it to Jerusalem.
When the enemy general saw that their king was dead, he and his army fled."
Korotkin said the monarch's decree that engaged virgins were to have sex with him is one of those circumstances through history "where our oppressors wanted to humiliate us - to destroy the fabric of our families, of our community, by doing things like that."
And like the Maccabee's victory and the miracle of the oil, she believes the stories have meaning for the Jewish faith.
"The stories tell of the faith of the Jewish women who faced adversity and were willing to sacrifice everything they had for the future of their community, including themselves and their families."