December 30, 2022
As we make our way toward the close of the Gregorian calendar year of 2022, we find ourselves only 4 months into the Hebrew calendar, having just entered the month of Tevet, at the end of Hanukkah. And though we’re a week into the month, I am compelled to share a tradition that I just learned about: Chag HaBanot, or Eid el-Banat, the celebration of daughters, celebrated on Rosh Chodesh Tevet among the women of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Though the exact traditions vary across Tunisian, Moroccan, Libyan, Turkish and Algerian communities, women gather to pray, eat, sing, dance, study and simply be together to celebrate the uniqueness of women’s experience and the power of sisterhood.
According to the rabbis, Rosh Chodesh has long been seen as a women’s holiday, a day for women to rest and refrain from the melachot, the specific tasks of labor prohibited on Shabbat. But why has Rosh Chodesh Tevet been elevated above other months by women in these particular communities? There are a few explanations:
One is that Rosh Chodesh Tevet marks the anniversary of the brave actions of Yehudit, accounted in the biblical apocryphal Book of Yehudit, or Judith, written by Jews during the 2nd Temple period, which is not included in the Jewish canon, but was preserved in Christian sacred literature. Yehudit was a beautiful young widow who seduced, drugged and then beheaded Holofernes, a military general to the Assyrian king Nebuchanezzar who was on his way to conquer Jerusalem, thus halting an all-out takeover. What a boss!
Another is that Rosh Chodesh Tevet marks the wedding day of Hannah bat Matisyahu, the only daughter of the Hasmonean priest and sister of Judah Maccabee, who took matters into her own hands and, according to Midrash Ma’aseh Hanukkah in the midrashic collection, Otzar HaMidrashim, and commentators such as Rashi, catalyzed the Hasmonean revolt!
During the Assyrian-Greek occupation of the land of Israel, in the years leading up to the precipitating events of story of Hanukkah, they imposed increasingly brutal and dehumanizing restrictions on the Jewish community, including prohibiting locks on their doors, use of their farm animals for labor, milk or meat, and women’s use of the mikvah (ritual bath). With each of these decrees, the midrash says, God provided safety, alternatives and even a spring of running water in each Jewish home to circumvent the Greek’s efforts. However, they made one final decree, that a bride would not go to her husband on her wedding night, but rather to the local ruler. The Jewish people were beside themselves, and resolved to refrain from marriages, but the Greeks would take the young women anyway…
This continued for over three years, until the wedding of Hannah, the daughter of the High Priest Matisyahu, to the Hasmonean Elazar. During the wedding feast, before the entire assembly of all the great and powerful people of the community, Hannah stood up, clapped her hands and tore off her royal garment and stood naked in front of everyone. Her brothers, in shock and embarrassment, rose to kill her, but then she calls them to task for standing idly by while the women in their community are continuously abused, “Listen, my brothers and uncles! So what – I stand naked before you righteous men with no sexual transgression and you get all incensed?! And you’re not becoming incensed about sending me into the hands of a […] man who will abuse me?!”. Hannah then cites the biblical story of Dinah and her brothers who rose to avenge her rape, and begs God to intervene, at which point her brothers, “have a council and decide what to do …and God made for them a great salvation,” in the form if the Hasmonean revolt and the miracle of Hanukkah!
To me, this story is incredibly powerful on many levels, including naming the realities of sexual violence and its ravaging affects on whole communities, and is truly exemplary of the power of women, and certainly deserving of celebration.
One last explanation is that Rosh Chodesh Tevet is the day when King Ahashverosh becomes so taken with Esther that he crowns her queen. This coronation day, though she does not know it yet, marks the securing of Esther’s position of power and influence, enabling her eventual appeal to the King and saving her Jewish community from certain peril, celebrated with Purim on the 14th of Adar (March 6-7th this year!).
For any and all of these powerful Jewish women and their heroic acts, we have much to celebrate, and Jewish women throughout the Middle East and North Africa have taken advantage of this opportunity in many ways. Some communities, such as those in Tunisia, hold a joint bat mitzvah for all the girls who turned 13 that year. In others, like in the Greek Jewish community of Thessaloniki, there were traditions similar to those of Yom Kippur: women would pray together, recite selichot (penitential prayers and sacred poetry), and apologize to one another. And in other communities, women gather before the ark and kiss the Torah, bake and send cookies and other treats to one another, or gather to make and eat festive meals together. And in recent years, organizations like the Institute of Jewish Experience, SVIVAH and others have taken to the internet and convened virtual gatherings of many varieties to facilitate Chag HaBanot/Eid al-Banat celebrations all over the world, and lift up the incredible stories of women whose lives and actions shaped the Jewish people in countless ways.
While Rosh Chodesh Tevet has already passed, I hope this inspires you, as it has inspired me this week, to give gratitude to our foremothers, whose stories have long gone unspoken, and to express appreciation for the women and girls in each of our lives.
Rabbi Jennifer Queen