Resurrecting Yehudit as a Heroic Figure for Our Times
On Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the leader of the Syrian empire, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, and we commemorate the miracle of a flask of oil lasting eight days instead of the one day it was expected to last when the menorah was lit at the Temple rededication.
But did you know that there is another important tale of a brave woman named Yehudit who is associated with Chanukah and whose story was recounted in detail throughout the Middle Ages at this time of year?
Yehudit’s incredible journey began at a time of religious intolerance in a city called Bethulia in ancient Judea. Nebuchadnezzer sent one of his generals, Holofernes, to conquer Judea and the Jews who lived there. His troops camped outside Bethulia, blocking off water, food, and other supplies necessary for survival. Though the Jews fought back, their situation was becoming dire, and they were ready to surrender. Yehudit, however, had other plans.
Late at night, under the cover of darkness, Yehudit and her handmaid left Bethulia to make their way to the enemy encampment. They carried a basket filled with rolls and the most expensive cheeses and wine with them. Described as beautiful, charming, and graceful, Yehudit approached the guards, asking to speak with Holofernes. Granted entry, she introduced herself as a Jewish lady from the city of Bethulia who was concerned about her people’s survival. She told him she had confidential information for him on how to conquer the city and that she hoped he would show mercy to its inhabitants.
Invited into the general’s tent, Yehudit served him the cheese and strong wine she had brought with her. Shortly afterwards, Holofernes passed out drunk on the floor. Whispering a prayer to G-d, she took the general’s sword and killed him, taking off his head. Then, she and her handmaiden quietly left the encampment with his head wrapped in rags, concealed under her shawl.
Back to Bethulia the two headed. Once back, she admonished the Jewish commander to prepare his troops for a surprise attack at dawn. She was certain the army of Holofernes would be in a state of confusion and likely flee when they saw his headless body in his tent. Yehudit was correct, and her act of courage saved the Jewish people of Bethulia from oppression by their invaders.
At Chanukah this year, I will ask my daughter to retell the story of Yehudit, the woman she chose to speak about at her bat mitzvah, and recognize her heroism despite difficult, potentially deadly circumstances. Though I am left to wonder how and why her tale disappeared from the Chanukah stories at this time of year, I can only hope other families will share her story so her legacy will live on for generations to come. From strength to strength…Happy Chanukah!
Debbie Diamond is a contributor to Atlanta Jewish Times.