11. The Prohibition on Women Doing Work

Jewish women have preserved a special custom to refrain from working while the Ĥanuka candles are burning. Some women do not work the entire holiday, especially on the first and eighth days. In practice, though, the custom is to avoid work only while the candles are lit, and even then only during the first half-hour, which is the minimum time that the candles must be lit to fulfill the mitzva.

Two reasons are given for this custom. First, so they do not use the light of the Ĥanuka candles accidentally. Since women were more likely to make this mistake, only they must refrain from work while the candles are lit. The second reason is based on the sanctity of Ĥanuka, when we recite Hallel, indicating that it is similar to Ĥol Ha-mo’ed and Rosh Ĥodesh. This sanctity is revealed when the candles are lit. Only women observe this custom because they have a special merit on Ĥanuka, since the courage of Yehudit and other women set the miracle in motion.

The custom is that women refrain from forms of work that are prohibited on Ĥol Ha-mo’ed, like laundering, sewing, and the like. However, cooking and frying are permitted.[13]

Upon close examination, we find that there are often two reasons given for customs that apply specifically to women. The first is that women were generally less astute and are thus were more likely to use the light of the Ĥanuka candles mistakenly. The second is that they have a certain special virtue, and therefore the sanctity of the day manifests itself in them to a greater extent.[14]

[13]. Shibolei Ha-leket and Tur 670:1 cite a custom that women do not work all eight days of Ĥanuka, and they conclude that one who has such a custom should not be lenient. Beit Yosef, however, states that since there is no prohibition to work on Ĥanuka, this custom is inappropriate. Ĥakham Tzvi §89 goes so far as to say that one may not remain idle all day long, since idleness leads one to sin. mb 670:5 concurs. ma states that some women refrain from working as long as the candles are burning in the synagogue, which is until midnight, while other women avoid working the entire first and eighth day. mb ad loc. 4 rules that women should only stop working for a half-hour. Sefer Ĥasidim §121 states that it would be appropriate for men to refrain from working as well, but this is not common practice. See also Kaf Ha-ĥayim 670:9. According to the first reason stated in the main text, it would seem that cooking and frying should be prohibited during the first half-hour like all other forms of work. Nonetheless, we are lenient in this matter, perhaps because the primary idea is to treat certain acts as forbidden just as a reminder that one may not benefit from the light of the candles. Still, some maintain that a family that is stringent in practice should continue in its ways. See Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayeshev 27; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 670:9. Also see Peninei Halakha: Festivals 11:7, which states that one may iron clothes on festivals for the purpose of wearing them during the festival; the same certainly applies to Ĥanuka.

[14]. The Sages say that women must hear the Megilla on Purim, drink the four cups on Pesaĥ, and light the Ĥanuka candles, because “they too participated in that miracle” (Megilla 4a, Pesaĥim 108b, Shabbat 23a). Tosafot and many other Rishonim maintain that these mitzvot are primarily incumbent upon men, while women are also obligated because they too were saved from Egypt, Haman, and the Greeks. Rashi and Rashbam (Pesaĥim 108b) maintain that a woman’s obligation in these mitzvot stems from the fact that women played a major role in the miracles that took place. After all, the Gemara (Sota 11b) states that we were redeemed from Egypt by virtue of the righteous women of that generation, who had faith in God and encouraged their husbands to procreate despite the harsh decrees. The Purim miracle as well came about through Esther, and the Ĥanuka miracle was precipitated by Yehudit. From this perspective, these mitzvot are more pertinent to women than they are to men. Therefore, only they are meticulous and refrain from working while the candles are lit.

See above, 1:7, regarding Rosh Ĥodesh, which is more significant to women than it is to men, because women were not involved in the sin of the Golden Calf, and they also donated toward the construction of the Mishkan. Perhaps this is also why women have a higher connection to Ĥanuka, because the Hasmoneans rededicated the Temple at that time, just as the Israelites completed the construction of the Mishkan in the wilderness. In addition, the element of the Oral Torah, which we mentioned above, is connected to the attribute of kingship (malkhut), which has a feminine aspect. See Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayeshev 27. See also Peninei Halakha: Laws of Women’s Prayer 6:2, regarding the berakha of She-asani Ki-rtzono; 7:1, regarding Torah study; and ch. 3, which discusses the respective virtues of both men and women and the ways in which these virtues are manifested.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman