The Book of Judith is an apocryphal text. It is not included in the canon of Hebrew or Protestant Bibles, but it does appear in the Roman Catholic Old Testament. Nevertheless, we have Jewish traditions that are based on this story. So, what is the story?
During a siege of the otherwise unknown Jewish city of Bethulia, the beautiful widow Judith is determined to save her people by assassinating the Assyrians' general, Holofernes. She acted as if she was forced to flee the city with her maid, reached his camp, and encouraged him to believe that victory would soon be his. Holofernes invited her into his tent for an evening banquet, intending to seduce her; instead, Judith waited until he fell into a drunken sleep, grabbed his sword, and cut off his head, bringing it in a sack to Bethulia. The Hebrew defenders mounted the head on the town's ramparts and soon routed the leaderless Assyrian troops.
In Jewish legal codes they tell a different version of the story. One version teaches that every virgin bride prior to marriage was obliged to sleep with the Assyrian governor. Judith, the daughter of Yochanan the high priest, fed the governor cheese which made him sleepy and she seized the opportunity to chop off his head thus saving the virtue of all future brides from sexual exploitation. (Mishnah Berura)
Shulchan Aruch (The set table) Orach Chaim 670 A highly authoritative Code of Jewish Law, states the Following:
"There are those who say that we have the custom to eat cheese on Chanukah to commemorate the miracle when Judith fed cheese to the enemy." (Rabbi Moshe Isserles quoting Rabbenu Nissim and the Kolbo)
Your Judith Navigator
1. What are the main differences you can find between the two versions of the story? For example, whom does Judith defend in each case?
2. In your opinion, which version makes a stronger case for Judith as a feminist heroine?
3. What connections can you see between this story and the story of the Maccabees? Does the Judith story seem to naturally fit into the themes and history associated with the Maccabees?
Two Chanukah StoriesA Solstice Festival
Before Chanukah—indeed, at the very beginning of time—there was an eight day festival of light. Here's the Talmudic story:
When Adam [the first human] noticed that the days were getting shorter, he said: "Is the world becoming darker because of my sins? Will it soon return to chaos? And this is what God meant when He punished me with mortality?" He prayed and fasted for eight days. When the period prior to the winter solstice arrived, he saw that the days were now growing longer. He realized: This is the way of the world. Adam then made eight days of celebration. (Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a)
A Military Victory and a Miracle of Light
Here is the story of Chanukah as recounted by Maimonides in his legal code:
1. When the Greeks ruled during the Second Temple period, they oppressed Israel with harsh decrees. They banned their religion and did not allow them to be engaged in Torah and Mitzvot. They also robbed their wealth and invaded their daughters and entered the shrine and raised havoc, defiling all that was pure. And Israel suffered greatly from them until the God of our fathers had mercy and saved us from them, for the high priest of the Hasmonean house arose and killed them and saved Israel from them. A kingdom was made from the Priests and the kingship was returned to Israel for more than two hundred years until the destruction of the Second Temple.
2. When Israel reigned victorious over her enemies and destroyed them, it was the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They entered the Shrine and found only one cruse of oil, which would suffice for one day, and yet they lit their lamps from this oil for eight days until they pressed new olives and produced pure oil.
3. For this reason the Sages of that generation decreed that these eight days, which begin on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, are days of celebration and praise. On these days we light candles each of the eight evenings in the entry ways of homes in order to reveal and publicize the miracles of these days which are known as Chanukah. It is forbidden to eulogize and fast on these days, just as it is on Purim, and lighting candles is commanded from rabbinic tradition in the same way as the Megillah reading. (Mishneh Torah)
Following is Maimonides' final statement in his chapter on the Laws of Chanukah. Why does he discuss the prime importance of Shabbat candles at the end of his long discussion on Chanukah?
If a person needed to light Shabbat candles and Chanukah candles and can only afford to do one, or he required wine for Kiddush, the Shabbat candles take precedence because they bring peace to the household. For God's own Name is erased in order to bring peace between husband and wife. Great is peace, for all the Torah was given in order to make peace throughout the world. As it is written: "Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways lead to peace." (Proverbs 3)And a Coda….
In the Talmud our namesake Hillel argued that we light one candle on the first day of Chanukah and then increase it by one candle until we have eight burning on the last night. Shammai argued that we start with eight and subtract one each night, until there would be only one candle remaining on the eighth night. Your Talmud Navigator
1. What elements of this story are unfamiliar to you?
2. Adam connects darkness with punishment. Explore the connections among darkness, sin, and mortality. Then explore the different concepts you associate with light. Do these tensions between darkness and light play into your view of Chanukah?
3. Why does Adam decide to celebrate?Your Maimonides Navigator
1. What are some elements present in this story that are absent from the Talmudic version?
2. What reasons for celebration does this text provide?Your Hillel/Shammai Navigator
Do you prefer Hillel's view about increasing the light, or Shammai's position about decreasing the light?