In the Sephardic tradition, especially in the countries of North Africa, the seventh night of Hanukah was celebrated as Chag Habanot, the Festival of the Daughters. The seventh night is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet, so it already had significance for women in these communities, but in addition to the usual monthly blessings for women, there were special benefits.
Exact customs varied from community to community. In some places women were allowed to enter the synagogue and touch the Torah Scrolls, which was normally not allowed. They would do this, then pray for their daughters. It was also the custom for some that mothers give gifts to their daughters, or that inheritances be passed on at this time.
Women who were at odds with one another were expected to make peace. Old and young women would dance and feast together, a cross and inter-generational celebration of the holiday, of mothers and daughters, or of the heroine Judith.
Judith, a ancient wise woman and widow, lived in Judea in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria. Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes laid siege to Judith’s hometown of Bethula during the Assyrian war against Judea. The town was going to surrender to the Assyrians when Judith came forward to stop them, promising that she would end the siege and save the town.
Judith was very beautiful. She dressed in her finest clothes and went out to the Assyrian camp. She found Holofernes and charmed and flattered him. I can see her in my mind, smiling and flirting, batting her eyelashes, and telling him just what he wanted to hear: that he was going to be victorious, and that God had sent her to him to tell him of his coming victory.
Holofernes apparently believed she was sent to him for more than conversation, because he invited her back to his tent for a feast. Judith went willingly, and I see her again, flattering and flirting, feeding him olives. Very, very salty olives. And cheese. Very, very salty cheese. And of course, pouring his wine without his ever having to ask, making sure his cup was always full.
Just as salt made him thirsty, wine made him sleepy – perhaps, we might think, passed out or blacked out, because no sooner was he sound asleep than Judith pulled out a sword and beheaded him. She took his head and put it in a bag (one version I read said “put it in her purse” which I rather like as an symbol of feminine wiles). She then left the camp and returned home.
The Assyrians were so disheartened by this that they gave up the siege and returned home. Judith’s town and the country were saved.
There are menorahs that feature Judith, usually with a sword in one hand and Holofernes’s head in the other, which is a bit grisly for modern tastes and for a holiday which in the U.S. today is more associated with children and gifts. Other traditions from derived from Judith’s story are that of eating salty food and drinking wine, and giving gifts to daughters and women friends.