Yehudit's Elusive Miracle

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

A collection of writings known as “Midreshei Yehudit” began to appear in the Middle Ages. These works relate the story of a woman named Judith, who brought about the salvation of the Jewish people by using her courage and wit to insinuate herself into the enemy camp and cunningly behead their general, Holofernes, after enticing him to a drunken stupor. This climactic assassination turned the tide in the ongoing war against the Jews, leading ultimately to their victory. In other medieval writings, including commentaries on the Talmud and works of Jewish law, Yehudit’s heroism is linked to women’s obligation to recognize the Hanukkah miracle through lighting the menorah, and through the holiday custom of eating cheese and dairy foods, the ones fed to Holofernes.

The fact that the many versions of the Yehudit tale differ in their details—from the minor (the specific foods with which Yehudit plied the general) to the major (who was the reigning king)—make it difficult to determine this story’s origin. The majority of scholars believe it was a kind of novella originally written in Geek at the beginning of the first century or the end of the second century BCE and was later translated into Latin. The fact that the names of both places and figures are not consistent with any known time period suggest that the work was intended to be taken as fiction and made no attempt to convince its readers otherwise. However, the Latin version preserved in the Vulgate Bible as the “Book of Judith” eventually made its way to the Jewish community whose scholars expounded on the text in their writings.

Pictured here is a commentary on the Judith story from 1606 by Avraham Weinges.

However, the story of Yehudit had most certainly stayed in circulation among the Jews within two hundred years of the Maccabean revolt, as two Jewish works—the Greek version of Esther and Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum—incorporate elements of the Yehudit story into their retellings of the deeds of their biblical heroines, Esther and Yael, respectively. According to Andre-Marie Dubarle, the foremost collector of Hebrew versions of Judith stories, it is entirely possible that an original Hebrew version of the story was preserved within the Jewish community until it reëmerged in the medieval writings mentioned above. To some, this would logically explain the medieval rabbis’ link between this story and the events of Hanukkah; while the non-Jewish Book of Judith is not anchored in a specific time, in the supposed Jewish tradition, the story was always directly related to the Maccabean revolt and rededication of the Temple.

Pictured here is Ms 600, a mohel book (circumcision liturgy) from 1775. The section for blessings after the festive meal includes the supplementary prayer “Al ha-Nisim” (On the Miracles), which is recited on both Purim and Hanukkah. Interestingly, the “miracle” depicted to represent Hanukkah is Yehudit clutching the head of Holofernes. The Purim depiction is that of Haman leading Mordechai on the royal horse of Ahasuerus. One could say that each of these episodes provided the climax in these holiday stories. It is at this point in the Purim story that everything Haman had plotted begins to unravel against him, eventually leading to his own destruction rather than the Jews’. Both Yehudit’s brave actions and impassioned words lend inspiration to the rest of the Jewish people, flipping a story headed toward the Jews’ capitulation to their Greek oppressors into their ultimately successful rebellion.