By Dave Kopel
MSNBC.com, Dec. 8, 2004, revised Dec. 8, 2023. More by Kopel on Judaism and Hanukkah.
Hanukkah began at sundown last night, and during Hanukkah, many Jewish families retell the story of Judith, one of the many heroic women in Jewish tradition. The story comes from the Book of Judith, which is part of the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha are later Jewish writings, composed after 200 B.C. Jews do not consider them scriptural, although they do consider the books important and worthy of study; the Hanukkah story itself comes from the Apocrypha (in the First and Second Books of Maccabees). Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopalian Christians make the Apocrypha part of their own Bibles; Lutherans do not, but still recommend study of the Apocrypha. So Judith's story from the Apocrypha is not just a Jewish folk tale, but is also an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage.
According to the Book of Judith, during the reign of the evil eastern King Nebuchadnezzar, Judith's hometown of Bethulia, in Samaria (on the West Bank of the Jordan River, much of which is presently controlled by the Palestinian Authority), was besieged by General Holofernes. The beautiful Jewish widow Judith went out to Holofernes' camp, and over several days, maneuvered him into planning a great banquet where he would seduce her.
At the banquet, "Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in one day since he was born." (Judith 12:20.) Holofernes' slaves departed, so "Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was dead drunk." (Judith 13:2.)
Judith prayed for God's help, and then took down the sword hanging on Holofernes' bedpost. "Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head." A little while later, she summoned her maid, who was waiting outside, and the head was placed in the maid's food bag. Judith and the maid pretended to walk away from the camp to pray. They returned to Bethulia.
When the enemy army saw Holofernes' head hanging on the city wall, they panicked and fled. The Jewish soldiers pursued them and wiped them out. Then, Judith "went before all the people in the dance, leading all of the women, while all the men of Israel followed, bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns." (Judith 15:13.)
Judith is quite plainly a parable, rather than literal history. The story would not have taken place during the reign of Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar, for the Jews were carried into captivity in Babylon (Iraq) during his reign of approximately 605-562 B.C. Moreover, Judith describes Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria (eastern Syria and western Iraq), when he was in fact king of Babylon. Judith calls Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian empire, but Nineveh was destroyed in 606 B.C. or before.
So Judith combines Israel's greatest national enemy (Assyria) and its single greatest personal enemy (Nebuchadnezzar)--like an American parable which began by telling about a general who attacked the United States on the orders of Adolf Hitler, the Premier of the Soviet Union.
Any literate American of today would recognize the Soviet Hitler story as a parable, containing a veiled but not literal historical truth. Many Jews would have (and do) similarly understood Judith.
So what is the veiled historical core of Judith? Stylistically, Judith resembles the First and Second Books of Maccabees, Apocryphal books which were near-contemporaneous accounts of the successful Jewish revolution against Syria, and the foiling of the Syrian plan to exterminate the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. So even though Judith is set around 600 B.C., the book may have been intended to teach lessons for Jews who needed to resist the Syrians. (The people who lived in what is today known as "Syria," were not Arabs; the conquest of much of the Middle East by Arab Muslims lay many centuries in the future.)
According to ancient Jewish sources, during the period of Syrian rule, Syrian officers in Israel had the authority to rape all Jewish brides. The bride would be allowed to marry her husband only after submitting to the Syrian officer.
Various Midrash (rabbinic commentaries on the scriptures) tell the story of how a bride's family defended her on her wedding day, and killed the Syrian rapist and his soldiers. Enraged, the Syrian king besieged Jerusalem. A Jewish widow went out to the king, and sought an audience with him. She seduced him, got him drunk, and then decapitated him with his own sword. She placed his head in a bag, and took it back to the city walls, where the Jews displayed it prominently. The Syrian army, deprived of its leader, panicked and fled.
Likewise, the Talmud (a collection of the oral Jewish law, along with commentary) includes this story:
Jewish women were uniquely affected by the oppression, since the Greeks [the Syrians, who were homogenizing successors of part of Alexander the Great's empire] decreed that every virgin bride must first submit to the local Greek commander. Hence, they too were saved by the Hanukkah miracle. Further, a woman actually served as an instrument of the miraculous deliverance, for Yehudis the daughter of Yochanon, the Kohen Gadol [the Jewish high priest], fed the Greek general cheese to increase his thirst, and then gave him wine to drink until he became inebriated. She then cut off his head, and this sight caused the enemy soldiers to flee.
Scholars may never be able to determine with certainty if there was a Jewish woman who beheaded an enemy officer. But the persistence of the story in Judith, the Midrash, and the Talmud, suggests that the story may well be true, in some form. And the moral of the story is crystal-clear: Jews should fight to protect themselves from foreign oppressors; even when the Jews seem hopelessly outnumbered, God will protect them if they are bold and faithful. And Jewish women (like the great Hebrew military commander Deborah, from the Book of Judges) can and should use lethal force to rescue themselves and their nation.
It should be no surprise, then, that audacious Judith was a favorite subject of Renaissance painters, including Botticelli (The Return of Judith to Bethulia), Caravaggio (Judith Beheading Holofernes), Correggio (Judith with her Maidservant Abra), Lucas Cranach the Elder (Judith with the Head of Holofernes), Artemisia Gentileschi (Judith Beheading Holofernes), Andrea Mantegna (Judith with the Head of Holofernes), and Michelangelo (Judith and Holofernes).
These Christian painters, like so many people in the Judeo-Christian tradition, admired the resolute woman who rescued her small nation, defended the weak, and wielded a weapon in holy service of her community. As I detail in the Penn State Law Review article The Torah and Self-Defense, under Jewish law there is an affirmative duty to use deadly force when necessary to protect innocents. Judith's very name is the feminine form of "Jewish," and in Judith, we see virtues worthy of emulation by good people of every faith.
David Kopel is author of the book The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Tradition (Praeger, 2017).