Women, Wine and Feminine Wiles: A Chanukah Tale
Every Hebrew School child knows about Yehudah (Judah) HaMaccabee, the Kohen (Jewish priest) who led the Maccabean Revolt against the influence of Hellenism. In many Jewish communities, right next to the ubiquitous chocolate Chanukah gelt, it’s possible to buy chocolates shaped like the courageous Maccabees, holding a sword in one hand and a shield with a huge Jewish star in the other.
Less well-known is the story of Yehudit (Judith) and her relationship to Chanukah. There are different versions of her story. This one highlights Yehudit’s amazing bravery and act of courage that is said to have happened during the time of the Maccabean revolt.
It also explains why Jews have a custom to eat cheese during Chanukah.
Yehudit was the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest and the aunt of Yehuda haMaccabee.
Her Judean town of Bethulia, south of Jerusalem, was under siege by the cruel Syrian-Greek general Holofernes and his huge army. The men of Bethulia fought bravely against Holofernes and his men. They were able to keep Holofernes from taking the town by force, but they were not able to conquer the enemy completely.
To break the stalemate, Holofernes decided to force the town to surrender by cutting off their food and water supply. And he likely would have been successful if it wasn’t for Yehudit’s incredible act.
She was a young widow, well known for her grace and charm and also her devotion to God and to selfless acts of charity. She had a bold and risky plan to save her town from Holofernes.
She dressed in her best clothes and took her maid, who carried a basket filled with bread, wine and cheese, and approached the camp of Holofernes. Beautiful woman that she was, she was welcomed into Holofernes’ tent.
By ruse, she convinced Holofernes that she was going to help him conquer her town. We might call her actions holy chutzpah, because, of course, she lied to his face.
Over a few days, she had gained his complete confidence, and she and her maid were granted freedom to walk through the enemy’s encampment, at will. On the third day, Yehudit advised Holofernes that the time had come to capture the city. Holofernes was so excited about his upcoming victory that he invited Yehudit to a private party to celebrate.
To the celebration, Yehudit brought salty cheese and strong wine. She fed him so much salty cheese and gave him so much wine to quench his thirst, that he fell on the floor in a drunken stupor. While he was passed out, Yehudit, with a prayer on her lips, beheaded the enemy Holofernes with his own sword.
With incomprehensible courage, she wrapped Holofernes’ head in cloth, placed it in a basket, walked out of the enemy camp and brought the head of their enemy to Uzziah, the commander of the Jewish defense.
Strengthened by the death of the enemy general, the men of Bethulia conducted a surprise attack on the enemy’s camp. Holofernes’ soldiers ran to his tent to inform him of the attack. Seeing his lifeless, headless body, they fled in confusion and terror.
Yehudit’s story has many parallels to the story of Yael, which appears in Chapter 4 of the Book of Judges. Like Yehudit, Yael killed the general of an enemy in the privacy of her tent.
The average woman may be physically weaker than the average man, but the spiritual strength of both Yehudit and Yael, the ability to overcome their feminine nature and kill an enemy to save an entire community, adds to the more familiar miracles of the Chanukah story.
Now, when you celebrate Chanukah by eating cheese dishes like rugelach, blintzes, cheesecake and cheese latkes, think of Yehudit’s salty cheese and how it led to a singular, woman-led victory for the Jews against the Syrian-Greeks.
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Why is the Book of Maccabees not read on Chanukah? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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