Who Is That Jewish Warrior Woman in the Chanukah Story?
Dear Jew in the City-
I heard that there is some sort of female Jewish Warrior in the Chanukah story that I never learned about in Hebrew School. What’s this about?
Dear Female Fan-
Great question. Chanukah, as you may be aware, is not overt in Tanach (the Jewish Bible). There are some hints to it in the Torah, and some prophecies in the Book of Zechariah that appear to refer to the Maccabees and the miracle of Chanukah, but the actual event occurred after prophecy ceased, too late to include a historical, narrative account of the war and the miracle. But this doesn’t mean that we have no account of it. In fact, we have several; they’re just not part of the Bible canon.
We usually just point out that the Chanukah story is retold in the Talmud (tractate Shabbos) and leave it at that. Let’s take that as a given and look at some other sources.
For our purposes, the most authoritative is probably what we call Megillas Antiochus (the scroll that tells the story of Antiochus, who was the leader of the Syrian-Greek forces opposed by the Maccabees). This is generally dated to the second century, but it is popularly attributed to the scholars of the academies of Hillel and Shammai. If that attribution is accurate, it would actually date the scroll to more like the first century.
Following that, there are the various Books of the Maccabees. The first two are part of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are books of dubious canonicity, often falling between the Jewish and Christian Bibles. The Catholic Church generally accepts Apocryphal books in their canon but Jews and most Christian denominations do not. While we do not consider them to be holy, not having been authored with Divine inspiration, they can be an important source of historical information. (The third and fourth Books of the Maccabees are part of the Pseudopigraphia – the “false writings” that spuriously claim prestigious authorship. These books can also provide insights into the times in which they were written but are less useful than the first two. There are at least four more works that lay claim to the name but they provide continuingly-diminishing returns.)
Of interest to us here is another Apocryphal book, the Book of Judith (Yehudis in Hebrew; Yehudit to those who pronounce things in the Sefardi style). I cannot stress enough that we do not accept this book as holy in any way but it does relate a story that is in fact part of our tradition.
The first part of the work describes the rise of Nebuchadnezzar, though there is much reason to believe that it’s actually talking about Antiochus; our tradition is that Judith occurs during the time of Chanukah so we’ll just simplify things and say Antiochus. Antiochus had an enthusiastic general named Holofernes, who led a campaign through the town where Yehudis lived.
Yehudis, frustrated with her peers’ lack of faith in God’s ability to save them, took matters into her own hands. She went over to the enemy camp, pretending to be sympathetic to the invaders’ cause. She ingratiated herself with Holofernes as a potential spy. Once she gained his trust, she allowed herself to be taken back to his tent. Getting Holofernes drunk on wine, Yehudis beheaded the general with his own sword. She took the head back to the Jewish camp and they used it as part of a PR campaign to demoralize the enemy over the loss of their powerful leader.
While the Book of Judith is a non-Jewish source (or, perhaps, a non-Jewish translation of a lost Jewish source), the story of Yehudis is firmly part of the Jewish tradition:
- Rashi alludes to the the story of Yehudis as a reason why women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah: because the victory was brought about through a woman (Talmud Shabbos 23a);
- The Book of Judith doesn’t mention it but we have a tradition that Yehudis fed Holofernes cheese in order to make him thirsty. For this reason, some have the tradition to eat cheese on Chanukah (Ran, Shabbos 10a);
- The prevalent practice is for women to refrain from performing acts of labor while the Chanukah lights are burning, at least for the first half hour (which is the minimum amount of time that the lights must burn). This is in the merit of Yehudis’ actions (Magen Avraham 670:1).
So, even though we lack an existent Jewish narrative of the story of Yehudis, there is a strong oral tradition and, anachronistic misrepresentation of the enemy leader notwithstanding, a non-Jewish book that retells the story pretty much as we have it. Despite the lack of a book, Yehudis is held as the model of a Jewish heroine, alongside the likes of Esther, Ruth, Devorah and Yael.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent