Festival of the Daughters

The seventh night of Chanukah, Chag haBanot, is a North African Jewish women's holiday. In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, women would celebrate Chag haBanot by feasting and remembering the heroine Judith, who saved her village from destruction by seducing and killing an enemy general (the story is told in the apocryphal book of Judith. Some women would go to synagogue and touch the Torah--it was the only time of year they were permitted to do so--and make prayers for their daughters. In other places, women would give inheritances to their daughters on that day, or a groom would bring presents to his bride (see The Book of Festivals, Dr. Yom Tov Lewinsky).

The holiday falls on the new moon a time especially associated with women, and on the longest new-moon night of the year. Perhaps it is the most powerful new moon of all because of the length of the night. So it makes sense that this day was chosen in medieval times as a day to celebrate women. Few women still remember the practice of this holiday, but one eyewitness account says that special round cakes were baked, and this is evocative--in some cultures cakes are baked to honor the Divine feminine.

In response to my attempts to reclaim this holiday, an artist (I have not learned her name) has created the Chag haBanot box, a ceramic box for giving to women you honor (your daughter, bride, sister, friend, teacher, etc.) a legacy you wish to pass on--a photograph, jewelry, a story. One ritual to perform on this night is to pass on your own "new moon" wisdom--whatever brings you light when there is darkness--to someone you love. Anotehr ritual might be to light an extra candle representing the new moon, as Sephardic women did, or create a special menorah only for the seventh night of Chanukah, perhaps out of floating candles, to represent the moon.

Incidentally, the opposite new moon from Rosh Chodesh Tevet is Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the new moon of the summer, when women used to celebrate the god Tammuz and the fertility and love of all men. The two new moons of spring and autumn represent the whole people; one is near Passover and one is Rosh haShanah. So the Jewish year balances between male and female, nation and individual, darkness and light.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the founder of Tel Shemesh, a senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's project (www.mayan.org), and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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