Hanukkah: The Secret Women who inspired the Maccabee Victory


Behind the heroic revolt against the Greeks, our sources are clear, it is Jewish women who provided the inspiration for this sensational victory.

In the final years of Greek rule in Israel, a series of new decrees aimed at the fabric of Jewish life, radically intensified the hellenisation of Judaea. One edict, aimed at undermining the family unit and progeny gave the Greek Governor ‘first rites’ to every Jewish bride on the day she was due to be married.

Jewish weddings were public events that were hard to miss. This was especially so following a rabbinic proclamation protecting the ‘daughters of Israel’ that a wedding feast needed to be suitably fancy that it should take three days to prepare. Since it was not possible to prepare food for the wedding on Shabbat, and fridges were not so easy to find, most weddings would take place mid week, making them easy picking for the Greeks.

greg_hildebrandt_judah_maccabee_fights-300x212The decree created a number of dilemmas for the rabbis since there were women who were highly modest and would likely resist the governors attempts, even to the point of death.

Understanding the danger, the rabbis relaxed the rule regarding wedding preparations, therefore increasing the days on which weddings would take place and lessening the chance of being caught by the Greek governor – who did not live among the Jews but would send soldiers into the town on certain days of the week.

In addition, they called on the people to continue Jewish life, but to conduct weddings in a clandestine way. If the worst happened, the women should neither resist, nor should they show willing, instead survive the ordeal and be like a stone.

What complicated the situation further was another group of women – those who were destined to marry kohanim, members of the Jewish priesthood for whom there was another very serious implication. Having relations with another man, would disallow the marriage to their intended husband, making these women the most likely of all to risk death. Acknowledging the desperate situation they were in, they had no other answers and hoped only that the decree would be a passing phase. It lasted three long years.

Why did the rabbis not advocate mounting resistance against the Greek rule? Why not fight back? Now we are hitting on the deeper meaning the of the ‘light of Judaism being dimmed’ which we speak about in the ‘Al Ha Nissim’ (about the miracles) prayer. The Greek empire had spent a hundred years slowly chipping away at Jewish values, in response the rabbis always chose life over death, but at what point would the threat of spiritual death warrant risking physical life? This was the conundrum of the rabbis at the time. The lines were blurred even further since many Jews had assimilated embracing parts of Greek culture, even within the highest ranks of the priesthood.
As the candle of Jewish independence faded to a flicker, it was women who were in the eye of the storm, at the heart of a ‘me-too movement’ 2200 years ago that brought the greatest mysogenest empire to its knees.

240px-Hanuka-Menorah-by-Gil-Dekel-2014Open up the laws of Chanukah and you will find a curious custom for women to rest when the candles are lit. The reason given is to recall their role in the chanukah miracle with special praise reserved for Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, who is credited with cutting off the Greek governor’s head kick-starting the war. There are lots of questions to ask, and thankfully we have a set of midrashim (Jewish sources) to help put the pieces together.

Yehudit, daughter of the High Priest was engaged to be married to the son of the nasi -(president) the highest lay office in the nation. It was possible to keep some weddings quiet but this was not one of them. Imagine telling Hello magazine not to report on a royal wedding and you start to understand the predicament. The Greek edict regarding Jewish brides was in full effect, but life didn’t stand still. Yehudit was on her way to the Greek governor, accompanied by her wedding party, before her marriage could take place, when she stopped the ‘procession’ stepped down from her carriage and tore open her dress.

As her shocked brothers called for her to be punished for such an act of immodesty, Yehudit stepped forward calling out her brothers hypocrisy. “You want to punish me for showing some flesh, yet as you speak you are escorting me to be raped! When will you see that it is time to fight back?”

These stinging words shattered the glass, exposed the desperation of the Jewish predicament and filled the hearts of those present with an abounding courage to fight back. With any doubt removed that there was still any other option to a full-on revolt, together with his family, Yehudah a grandson of the high priest hatched a plan.

Yehudit continued on her way, with her family singing and dancing around her, holding a canopy over her head as the Greek governor looked on boastfully. “Look how happy the leaders of Israel and the descendents of Aharon the kohen are to do my will.” Taking the bait, he ordered his guards away leaving Yehudit to wine and dine him until he fell asleep sleep, whereupon she killed him, cut off his head and fled to the hills, cue the dreidels, donuts and latkes.

The role of women in this festival is closely tied to the role of the lights. Just as we don’t make use of the light of the candles except to publicise the miracle that took place through them, so too, as we stand in wonder at the miracle of our national survival, our attention is also turned to the courage of the Jewish women who are also are reminded to rest, since the miracle, was inspired by their daring courage to hold up a mirror to society, stand up for Jewish values and for their own dignity.

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Wake the sleep out of your eyes!

euvxttxawivnsfafdiviWaking up is probably the most significant thing that will happen to us all day. We can often relate to going to sleep and to waking up as pretty standard parts of our daily routine, yet Judaism underpins the importance of this process and actually sees the daily transition from night to day as significant as death to life- and with this understanding, that we are actually a new person each time we wake up.

One of the first blessings we say is ‘Elokai Neshama.’ – a blessing on renewing our appreciation for the soul inside us each day.The words we say are the soul you have given to me is pure and we go to thank Hashem for giving this soul back to us each day.

But what if I forgot to say this blessing? Should I say it when I remember later in the day? The Be’er Haitev, R Yehuda ben Shimon Ashkenazi in 1770 decreed if a person forgot but continued his prayers through to the Amidah – the standing prayer which includes a blessing ‘Mchayei Matim,’ praising G-d who resurrects the dead, that person would not need to repeat his prayer of Elokai Neshama.

This again shows us how Judaism sees the transition from night to day and sleep to being awake as being a journey of death to life.  Now here’s the scary truth, what if a person doesn’t fully become awake in the morning and never enters the day so to speak. he or she actually will spend their daytime not only sleepy but also like the waling dead.  How much of our lives do we actually spend this way? I know there are times when I can decide at some point in the day to wake up and start to live with greater alertness, greater sensitivity, vitality, urgency and with open eyes.

ImageForArticle_941(1)This is the reality of life, we can live it on many wavelengths, each a varying degree of being awake, which wavelength we choose is in our hands.

Sometimes we only become aware we of our soul when we do it damage and start to hear a faint cry inside of us, sometimes we become sensitive to it through certain experiences or through spiritual endeavours such as praying or learning, but to start our acknowledging that we have a soul, and that it has returned to us for another day of opportunity is part of the essential Jewish wake up, the other is appreciating just how hard it is to move from death to life every morning. It’s not easy, the challenge awaits us every day and when we get it right, its a real win.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Waking up in the morning is  probably the most significant thing that will happen to us all day, it will grant all of the opportunities and challenges the day will bring and how we wake up will determine how best equipped we are to deal with them.

The Jewish day is from sunset to sunset and the seeds of how wake up are not sewn in the morning, but in how we enter the night.

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The first blessing of the day, is amazingly in a bed time prayer in a hope – for continuity uninterrupted by the night –that we go to sleep in peace and also that we wake up in peace, to to continue, with a sense of peaceful transition building and fulfiling our potential in this world.

Reconnecting body and soul again is a major endeavour, if we do this right, the day starts with alertness, with energy and with a sense of intense awareness yet if we don’t get this right, the whole day can feel like we never really got out of the blocks.

But why is this? Why can it be so hard to start the day?

The Talmud described sleep as being like 1 60th of death.  We come to a shut down in a spiritual sense with awareness of body and soul temporarily cut.– It is this state of reconnecting  ourselves that Judaism relates to as more than simply waking up but as actually being born anew.

This is a concept worth contemplating. As it is what will liberate ourselves from the me of yesterday and open up door to a new me for today,


 From the moment we wake up we do so with the invitation to be freed from any restrictions on our own potential we may have placed upon ourselves to date. For each of that is such a personal thought, we will always need to take responsibility for who we were yesterday, but how we define ourselves today has a new potential.

And along with this awesome concept comes a new responsibility. To relate to the things in our life in a totally fresh way, and the morning blessing reflect this.

On rubbing our eyes we appreciate our sight,
on stretching out – we gain a new gratitude for our ability to move,
on getting dressed – the fact that we are not cold and bare, and on taking our first steps, the most trivial thing of a firm surface to walk on is something we look on in wonder.

This is how Judaism requires us to start the day, as if we’ve never noticed things before,  hitting refresh as we reconnect body and soul. Why don’t you try it. Take a moment as you wake up and welcome the new you to the world, wake up in amazement!


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Waking UP!

IMG_0578-1024x682The difference between a bad day, an average day and an incredible day is so often dictated by the way we start it.

Going back at least 2000 years our sages began each morning with an energizing, motivating morning routine that filled their day with vitality, gratitude and purpose.

The code of Jewish Law actually begins begins with how we wake up in the morning and includes a list of 15 or so blessings which are said, each at a different stage of the ‘waking up’ process, gradually easing ourselves out of our slumber and lethargy into the fresh reality and  opportunity of a new day.  Each was said  accompanying a different stage of the  start to the day.

There is a blessing for recognizing it is morning, for rubbing ones eyes, for stretching out ones legs, for standing up, taking those first morning steps, washing one’s face, putting on shoes, getting dressed and the list goes on. With each prayer came a pivotal moment of reflection connecting thought and deed. Each was accompanied by a plethora of ideas and meditations.

Sleep is described as being like a 60th of death and with this understanding it is clear why it was so important to help us to wake up and start our day.

At a certain stage in Jewish history, the level of observance of Jewish laws and customs declined across many communities and for fear that these morning prayers would be forgotten, recited incorrectly or in an impure way without first washing our hands, the rabbis decreed that the bulk of these meditations or prayers that accompany the waking up process should be delayed until arrival in the synagogue for morning prayers where they would be said by the person leading the service and answered by an ‘Amen.’  Unfortunately with the rush of the day, the fast pace of life, these are often said quickly and without the connections to the actions our rabbis had originally intended them to enliven and enrich.

Had the rabbis not made this decree these prayers may have been lost forever, but one thing which all of our sages agree is that we have lost something very special, an essential recipe for transitioning from night to day, a vital key for waking up in the most powerful way possible.

Over the next few posts I hope to review the original process for waking up as the rabbis originally intended in the hope of re energizing the start of my own day.

the hour is late now, so should probably get some sleep, or the morning will have no chance  however many blessings I say!

Stay tuned for more and wishing you a shabbat shalom!

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Chayei Sarah – Getting it all…


In this week’s parasha, after the passing of Sarah, the Torah teaches that Abraham was blessed with ‘Kol’ – which translates as ‘all.’  But what does this mean? Was he granted a winning lottery ticket? win a trip round the world? or gifted with a bumper hamper of delicacies?  Reliable as always, Rashi  helps us out. He looks ahead and notes that the very next thing to happen was the search for a wife for his son Isaac.  Rashi therefore explains that the word ‘kol’ can be understood to mean a son – this explanation is rooted in other much older sources as well – but how can it be that the Torah would use the word ‘all’ as a synonym for ‘son?’

Perhaps, the blessing of future generations is the blessing to reach a completion, an ‘all’ which none of us can even hope to achieve in our own lifetimes. We hope that our children will build on that which we have achieved, not make our same mistakes, and learn from us to help build themselves, their family and society to greater sense of perfection.  Seeing this way, children really are G-d’s gift for reaching the true sense of ‘kol’, ‘all.’

Wishing you a Shavua tov umvurach!


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Crying in the Arms of a Sukkah

PikiWiki_Israel_38198_Sukka_in_the_DesertHow can it be that the simcha of the festival of sukkot could be so abruptly halted by such difficult and sad news.

Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin, are killed before their children’s eyes and we are expected to continue singing ‘vsemachta bchagecha?’ (“…And you shall be Happy on your festival?” How can the Torah command and expect us to wear a smile  and really mean it?

The word simcha is linked to the Hebrew  tzmecha, צמחה meaning to flourish and it should not be mistaken for sasson, the loud, fanfare of joy which is what gives most party atmosphere’s their obvious energy. Although the simcha of sukkot is often expressed through dancing and public shows of joy, I would suggest that true simcha is a fine, deep feeling of fullness and spiritual expansion.

Rabbi Chaim Freidlander invokes the Talmudic statement that the festival of Sukkot commemorates the clouds of glory’ (Ananei Hakavod) which accompanied the Children of Israel through their journeys in the desert. The clouds of glory being essentially a physical manifestation of G-d’s presence, not a likeness of him, but a proof of his presence.

Rabbi Friedlander continues that sukkot is an invitation to us to dwell inside those clouds of glory, where G-d’s presence is all around us. For this reason it is a festival of emuna, (faith) with the walls of the sukka being the arms of an embrace coming to sooth, to comfort and to recharge faith for the year to come.

At times. the structure of a sukka may be vulnerable to rain, winds and stormy weather, just as our faith can often be vulnerable to all kinds of trauma, upset and tragedy. Just as the embrace of the sukka reminds us we had to enter the sukkah to find those clouds of glory, so too, we may at times, also need to enter a deep place within us to rediscover that faith.

roofAnd what of the roof of the sukkah, duty bound to reveal the stars piercing though its roughage? Just as the Cohanim bless the people with open hands to show that the source of the blessing is to be found in Hashem, standing behind them, so too we need to know there is also a meaning beyond that which the eye can see.

When we are faced with tragic news, perhaps then there is no place we would rather be than deep in the embrace of the sukkah’s comforting walls. If within that 7 day embrace our faith can grow, we have experienced simcha of the  most profound kind – the kind which deepens and broaden our relationship with G-d,

May the memory of the highly accomplished yet deeply humble Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, (the son and daughter in law of my wife’s Rosh Midrasha) be for an eternal blessing.

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Kicking Sadness to the Kurb!

balloonThis week my wife Anna and I had the great simcha of naming our new son, Hillel Nechemya, so this week I’d like to share a thought for Shabbat from the book of Nechemya…

First I need to paint the setting, so let’s wind back the clock. The year is around 516 BCE, and we are in Babylon, 70 years after the 1st Temple in Jerusalem with all of its miracles and glory had been destroyed and burned to the ground.  The Jewish People had been decimated, with vast numbers killed and the remnant hauled off as slaves in Babylon – only a few remained in Israel among the ruins, wallowing in pity and disbelief at the destruction they had witnessed.

ezra_nehemiahNechemya, received a prophecy that it was time to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. After seeking permission from the new king of Persia who had just over run the Babylonian empire, he travelled to a destitute, charred city and began galvanising the locals to start the process of rebuilding.

After the walls were completed, Nechemya and his fellow prophet Ezra also re dedicated the Temple and gathered the remnant of the people together. Ezra then opened and began to read from the Torah scroll but the people simply fell to the floor and wept inconsolably. The memory of the Jerusalem that used to be was so alive that their sadness completely overcame them.

Ezra and Nechemya speak to the crowd and here is what they say.

“’This day is holy to the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep.’ For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.  Then he said to them: ‘Go your way, eat heartily, and drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be you grieved; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

This is one of the most momentous pep talks ever given and is so profound in its message on pulling oneself out of sadness and despair.

cakeNumber 1. Go eat well and drink sweet drink.

With sadness, we lose our appetites, and so our strength wains.  Sometimes happiness can be stimulated by outside factors such as what we eat, drink or what we wear. If it’s not happening in its own internally, we can use these external aspects to kick start a new beginning.

Number 2. Give to others.

helpI have often found myself wrapped up in my own thoughts and feelings and a small act of doing something for someone else, takes you to a completely different place. Even giving a coin of tzedaka, calling a friend to ask about how they are, cooking someone else a meal… Nechemya teaches that however counter intuitive it may sound, the secret of really feeling alive is to be found in the kindness and time we are prepared to give to others. Cool!

Number 3. Enjoyment in Hashem is your strength.

EnergyO.k this is the religiousy one which is hardest to relate to.. what does it mean?  Well I think it means, focus on the blessings you have or that you’ve had and really to try see them, and then trace that thought back to the source of that blessing. It is a comforting feeling and one that connects us to infinity and the source of goodness. I guess we also then realise that we do have someone looking out for us.

What’s really great is that we do all of these things on Shabbat . Great food! We can host others! And we get the chance to focus on the source of all blessing – so in this way, Shabbat comes as a great healer and an opportunity to kick sadness to the kurb and re connect with happiness each week!

I hope our new son can be a true comfort to those around him and we can all enjoy a great Shabbat.

Adam and Anna.

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