The biblical women who inspire us with their strength

Heroines like Rachel and Yael inspired Jewish women through the centuries.


As I held my siddur close in the Remah Synagogue in Krakow, I had the distinct feeling that I wasnt alone. It was Chanukah 2009, I was a leader on a school Poland trip and I had the privilege of praying in this synagogue that once belonged to the decimated community of Krakow. As I prayed, I closed my eyes and felt the presence of all the women who, for almost 400 years, had stood in the same spot as me and had poured out their hearts in prayer.

I felt buoyed by the presence of these women and I visualised my prayer being carried on their shoulders, connecting the present and the past. Across the road from the synagogue I saw the building in which the movement for Jewish women’s education was born. In 1917, Sarah Schenirer, a young, single, religious woman recognised a lack of Jewish education for women and began a kindergarten for 25 girls in her apartment. Her leadership and determination was the precursor to the successful worldwide education system nowadays known as Beis Yaakov. While she died in 1937, mercifully of natural causes, her students were among the millions incarcerated in Auschwitz. In their account of the horrors they experienced, these young Beis Yaakov women described how they were able to light Chanukah candles in the barracks.

Reading their account, whilst standing and lighting our own Chanukah candles in the same barracks in Auschwitz in 2009 was one of the most harrowing and inspiring experiences. It symbolised the fierce determination of a group of young women to continue against all odds. Where did these women get their strength from?

The Bible is rich with the influence and leadership of women, not least from our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, who overcame infertility, taught the nations and guided their families to serve Hashem. We have stories of Miriam and Queen Esther who led the nation to freedom from tyrannical rulers and detailed descriptions of the lives of Ruth the Moabite who converted to Judaism as well as Deborah the judge who sat under the date tree and ruled on legal matters.

These narratives show us that the greatest women were those who overcame personal hardship and transformed those around them through their actions and words. Learning about the lives of these early women and their inner and outer strength helps us to understand what we as their female descendants are capable of achieving nowadays as well.

As an example, our matriarch Rachel is a paradigm of inner strength. When she alongside Jacob came to her scheming father Laban to ask to be married, he would only agree if Jacob would first work for him for seven years. Left with no choice if he wanted to marry the woman he loved, Jacob agreed. Fast forward seven years and the night before her long awaited wedding, Rachel catches wind that her father is planning to trick Jacob into marrying her older sister Leah who is still not wed.

Rachel had predicted something like this may occur and so had created a secret code with Jacob so he should know it is her under the veil. However, at the last minute, out of deep sensitivity and compassion for her sister Leah, who would be mortified to be rejected under her chupah, Rachel teaches her sister the secret code and Leah is the one who Jacob marries. Rachel’s inner strength led to her decision to give up her place with Jacob, this was no doubt painful and yet she does it in order to sacrifice herself for her sister’s dignity.

Yael is another biblical example of female strength and leadership. Yael singlehandedly slaughtered Sisera, the general of the Canaanite army who was waging war on the Jewish people. She went to his tent, fed him wine and milk and then used a tent peg to kill him in his sleep. Yael courageously saved her people at the risk of her own life.

If we move forward in time to Chanukah, in the second century BCE, many years after the times of the Bible, we meet Judith who, using Yael’s example, changed the course of history with her actions and bravery. Judith lived in a Jewish town that was under siege by the Assyrians. Its inhabitants were about to surrender when Judith pleaded with the leaders of the town to hold out for a few more days. Using her knowledge of her Biblical ancestor Yael,

Judith headed out to meet the Assyrian general Holofernes. She tricked him into trusting her as an informant, and also fed him cheese and wine until he fell into a deep sleep. Judith then used his sword to sever his head. She wrapped it in her basket and took it back to her town in the middle of the night to be displayed by the town leaders the following day. Terrified, the Assyrians retreated, leaving the Jews victorious.

It is because of Judith that Jewish law states that women should refrain from any work (including household work) for around half an hour after lighting the Chanukah candles. It is a time for women to reflect, not only on the actions of Judith and to appreciate how she saved the nation, but also to recognise that just as she stood on the shoulders of those before her, so too do we stand on the shoulders of those women before us — including those of Rachel, Yael, Judith, the women of Krakow and Sarah Schenirer.

Chanukah reminds us of the tremendous women in our history who exhibited amazing inner strength which transformed the lives of those around them. It is taught that in every generation a redemption will occur in the merit of the righteous women of that generation — and so not only is it important for us to emulate those who came before us, but it is also incumbent upon us to recognise our vital role in shaping the Jewish future. Chanukah sameach.


Abi Kurzer is assistant rebbetzin at Edgware United Synagogue. She will be among the first to graduate from the Chief Rabbi’s Ma’ayan programme for women educators.

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