Do you know why women are obligated to participate in kindling the Chanukah lights while they are freed from all other time-bound mitzvot? In the words of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, its because “the miracle of Chanukah was accomplished by a woman.”
Who was that woman and what is her place in Jewish history?
According to one version, Yehudit was the daughter of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and a young, virtuous widow of great beauty and wisdom. She lived alone in Bet-Aliah on the northern tip of the Hills of Shomron. The Greco-Syrian forces led by Antiochus’ general, Holofernes, in their victorious sweep towards Yerushalayim, found Bet-Aliah to be an obstacle to their ferocious advance. They decided to place the town under siege and cut off the town’s water supply.
Under the deleterious impact of a severe water shortage the town elders resolved to surrender to the enemy. Yehudit approached them and asked that they hold off for one more day.
Later that evening, dressed in her finery, Yehudit approached the enemy camp and asked to see the general. Holofernes was so bedazzled by her beauty that he honored her with an invitation to a feast in his tent.
According to the Midrash, during the banquet Yehudit served him and his attendants salted cheese which caused them to be excessively thirsty. They promptly made use of the heavily intoxicating beverages she offered them. Having succeeded in luring Holofernes and his attendants into a drunken stupor, Yehudit assassinated her people’s enemy. She approached Holofernes and, with a sword concealed under her robe, severed his head. Then she departed swiftly from the camp, carrying the severed head of Israel’s archenemy back to her own people.
On the ramparts of Bet-Aliah, Yehudit and her trophy were greeted with great jubilance.
The following dawn when Holofernes’ forces beheld the severed head of their general triumphantly displayed above the gate of the Jewish city, they fled in panic. Bet-Aliah, the Shomron and the Judean approaches to Yerushalayim were safe, and Yehudit, whose extraordinary wisdom and sheer courage accomplished this, entered the pages of not only Jewish history but world literature and art as a role model in heroism.
There is a custom widespread among Jewish communities the world over to eat dairy dishes on Chanukah to commemorate Yehudit’s act of feeding cheese to the enemy and thereby reminding us of her incredible daring and self-sacrifice.