As Jews celebrate Chanukkah tonight, it is important to remember that Jewish women took an active part in the Maccabean struggle against the Seleucids. Jewish women during that time felt just as strongly as the men that the future of the religion of their ancestors was under threat and sought to defend Judaism at all costs. One of the stories that highlight this point is that of Yehudit, an early Jewish feminist heroine.
According to the version featured on the Chabad website, Yehudit was the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest and took an active role in the Maccabean revolt in the town of Bethulia that came under siege. Holofernes, a mighty general, was notorious for his cruelty, showing no mercy towards men, women or children. During the siege, Bethulia was on the verge of starvation and the inhabitants wanted to surrender. However, the elders of the city pleaded for five more days before deciding to surrender and the city’s residents reluctantly agreed.
Yehudit, objected strongly to the idea of surrender: “Why do you test G-d, giving Him only five days in which to send us His help? If you truly have faith in G-d, you must never give up your trust in Him. Besides, don’t you know that surrender to Holofernes is worse than death?” The elders of Bethulia agreed with Yehudit, but saw no alternative to surrendering within five days unless a miracle occurred.
Yehudit told the elders that there was another option and that like Yael before her, who successfully eliminated Sisera, she planned to perform a similar act against Holofernes. While they were reluctant, in the end, they agreed to let her go to try and save Bethulia. So, she set out dressed in her best clothes, carrying with her cheese, wine, and rolls. With her beautiful seductive charm and false assurances that she possessed the secrets to invade the city (waiting until the inhabitants become so famished that they devoir non-kosher food and thus lose G-d’s favor), she got Holofernes very drunk and ultimately beheaded him. While his entire camp was drunk, the Israelites managed to attack and to scare off the enemy.
Even until today, many Jewish communities around the world commemorate Yehudit during Chanukah. In her honor, all of the Jewish communities traditionally eat dairy. Many Ashkenazi Jews will eat cheese or blitzes, while Moroccan Jews make a special dairy couscous that is served with sugar, cinnamon, dried fruits, and yoghurt. And in Tunisia, Jewish families would attend the synagogue on the seventh day of Hanukkah in honor of Yehudit. There, women used to traditionally kiss the Torah, while the men studied what the Talmud had to say about the Chanukkah story.
As Jews around the world commemorate the honorable memory of Yehudit, it is critical to remember that throughout history, there have always been Jewish women who fought for the survival of their faith courageously in the face of enemies who sought the annihilation of the Jewish religion and in some cases, also the genocide of the Jewish people. Women such as Queen Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia from genocide, Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi, who rescued countless Jews from the Spanish Inquisition, Hannah Szenes, who sought to save Hungarian Jewry from the utter destruction of the Holocaust, and Zivia Lubetkin, a female leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, all fought to save Judaism at its desperate hour of need. This Chanukkah; let not just the memory of Yehudit but all Jewish women who have fought to defend Judaism be a shining light for all eternity!