Judith: More Than Just a Cheesy Story

by Lisa Kogen

It’s a story that has everything: piety and patriotism, sybarites and seduction, murder and mayhem. At the height of a military siege, a pious widow feigns interest in seducing the general of the enemy army, plies him with wine, and when he is passed out drunk beheads him with his own sword and returns to her home army with his head in a bag. Sounds like the brothers Grimm, but no, it is the story of Judith, hailed by medieval commentators as the epitome of a righteous woman.

The Book of Judith is found in the Apocrypha, the collection of post-biblical writings from the Second Temple period that were not included in the biblical canon. While these books were incorporated into the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and later into the bibles of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, the only mention of their contents in the Talmud is as sefarim hitzonim, extraneous books. With the exception of Ben Sira, the stories from the Apocrypha did not appear in Jewish writings again until the middle ages.

But then, perhaps as early as the 11th or 12th centuries, Judith emerges as an unabashed hero, inexplicably associated with the celebration of Chanukah. By the early modern period, several centuries later, the image of Judith regularly adorned chanukiot and even Passover haggadot. These images show her brandishing a sword in an upraised hand, often holding the severed head of the ill-fated Assyrian general Holofernes in the other.

But unlike the story of Chanukah detailed in Macabees I and II, also in the Apocrypha, in which the heroic deeds of the Maccabean brothers abound, the story of Judith has no historical connection to the Maccabean revolt.

And thus begins a parallel tale – not the story itself, but the storytelling. How does Judith, the hero of a war between Israel and the Assyrians, lead by King Nebuchadnezzar and his testosteroneladen general Holofornes (and we will not even begin to discuss those historical difficulties!), become a hero of Chanukah? And while we are looking at questionable connections, what about the cheese? That same tradition maintains that we eat cheese at Chanukah in commemoration of the salty cheese Judith fed Holofornes to increase his thirst, resulting in his drunkenness. This juicy little tidbit also does not appear in the book of Judith. When we have interpretations of events that are not contained in the original text, we look for rabbinic fingerprints. In this case, we can see them connecting the dots.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 23a) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi places three timebound obligations on women; kindling Chanukah lights is the first. (Second and third are drinking four cups of wine at the Passover seder and reading the megillah on Purim.) Yehoshua ben Levi’s rationale is that women “were involved in that miracle.” No woman in particular is mentioned, and that was not the point; the discussion was about women’s very circumscribed obligations. (Remember, the rabbis of the Talmud refrained from discussing the books of the Apocrypha, other than as a generic category.)

A half millennium later, in the 11th century, Rashi explains in his Talmudic commentary on Shabbat 23a that the Greeks had decreed that on the eve of her marriage every virgin must first succumb to the commander. When the Greeks were vanquished, according to Rashi, women also were benefactors of the miracle of Chanukah. He suggests that this miracle was performed by a woman, most likely referring to Judith. By superimposing the Greeks, the enemy of the Maccabee story, onto the story of Judith, whose enemies were the Assyrians, Rashi – intentionally or not – connects Judith to the Maccabees.

Let him eat cheese
Subsequent commentators compound the tale, adding layers of midrash to the story: Judith was the daughter of Jochanan the high priest and she fed Holofornes salty cheese to make him thirsty.

How or why did medieval commentators arrive at this “historical insight” about Judith? The answer might be context, context, context. To Jews living in a Christian world, with its very visible models of female chastity and piety, Judith’s story was compelling. Rashi’s allusion to Judith’s chastity is reflected in his commentary that virgins were forced to submit to their Greek overlords before marriage. But this practice corresponds more to the feudal prerogative of prima notte, the right of the feudal lord to have first sexual relations with a bride, in medieval Christian Europe than to ancient Greek social custom. Perhaps the motivation of Rashi and the others was to demonstrate that Jewish women, too, were renowned for their chastity.

It was just a small step to associating the righteousness and heroism of Judith with the miracle of Chanukah, in which all women participated and so were obligated to kindle Chanukah lights. It was a perfect connection because, just like Judah Maccabee, Judith helped rid Israel of an idolatrous enemy occupation. (It may just be a coincidence, but Judith is the feminized version of Judah.)

As a woman, Judith had to be more than just a military hero. She was pious, she was cunning, she was valorous, and she was chaste. For centuries, Judith had become the subject of countless artists, writers, composers, and librettists. Hers was a fascinating migration, in fact, from the world of “extraneous” to center stage.

Lisa Kogen is education director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

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