Women and Chanukah
By Hagai Yisroel
Long before the advent of feminism, Jewish women have taken their place in the spotlight of Jewish valor and heroism. One of the most interesting stories connected with Chanukah is the story of Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the high priest, from the famous Maccabbean family. This story has been handed down from generation to generation describing the heroics of one daughter of Israel. Although no fact can be substantiated through the ancient writings, still the very fact that our tradition, for the several thousand years has been retelling this story, we, too, shall bring it to you.
A siege was brought against the small village of Betul, located in the area of Yehudah, roughly between Jerusalem and Hebron, centering on Bethlehem. The Jewish leader, a courageous man named Uziahu was fighting against the wicked Greek-Syrian general Holoparnash. Holoparnash was known for his extreme cruelty. He had no mercy on men nor boys, women or children. Conquered cities were made to pay the price not only in blood, but also in suffering and torture.
When the wicked general saw the fierce opposition of the small village, he decided to surround them and wait for their water and food rations to expire. The small walled city was closed from the inside by the Jews and sealed from the outside by the Greeks. No person entered or left the besieged city and no food or drink came in to refresh the beleaguered townsfolk.
After the effects of the siege were felt, the townsmen came complaining to Uziahu.
"Perhaps, it would be wiser to negotiate for a peaceful settlement?" the elders of the town asked. "We are almost out of water, and food provisions are very low. If we bargain now, we bargain with strength, but if we wait until we have no water, we cannot possibly bargain."
"If we were bargaining with a person interested in only conquering our village and setting up his form of government, as you speak. But we are dealing with a despot, who enjoys torturing all who fall into his hands. Give us five more days. If G-d does not bring the rain and fill our wells, then we shall do as you say. But let us have faith in G-d. He will not desert us."
The crowd disassembled and soon the meeting place was near deserted. Only one person remained, a woman named Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan, the high priest. Only a few years earlier, her husband, Menashe died. Since then she occupied herself with helping others in need. She was known as a righteous and intelligent woman, and was highly regarded in the small village.
"Pardon me, Uziahu," she began speaking as she approached him, "I must disagree with you."
Uziahu looked up and was surprised to see this modest woman who rarely spoke with men, challenging him. Yet he let her speak, for she was known for her wise words.
"If we are to have faith in G-d, as you have spoken, why set a time limit? And for negotiating with the wicked Holoparnash, death from thirst or starvation is better, than being subjected to his treacherous hands."
"What do you suggest?" Uziahu asked.
"G-d has given us heads to think with, and bodies to act upon our thoughts. We do not rely on miracles. We must think and act, not wait for heaven to open up and give us our victory.
"The soldiers are frightened by the wicked Holoparnash, he has total control over them. If we can eliminate him, victory will be ours. Let me out tonight and I will see what can be done."
"Yehudit, are you serious? All who have been found outside the gates have been tortured to our eyes. I can not bear to live, if he catches you."
"Fear not, pray to G-d for my success for we have no choice"
As so, that night, Yehudit, dressed up with her nicest clothing and covering her face with an embroidered scarf, wearing jewelry and perfumes, bearing a large sack of food and drink, slipped out of the gates. As the Greek soldiers intercepted her, she told them in a stern voice that she has come to give important information to their general, Holoparnash and must be taken to him immediately. The guard, taken aback by this self assured and charming woman, escorted her to the tent of his commander.
Holoparnash, who was in the midst of drinking with several of his officers, was pleasantly surprised to see such a beautiful woman coming to his tent. His lewd eyes gazed at her beauty.
"What is this?" he demanded in amazement. His attention was completely enraptured by this stunning foreign beauty.
"I am Yehudit. I bribed the guards in the Jewish village to let me out. I have come to give you information on how you can best and easiest conquer the village. I am sick of the siege. If you will spare my life, I will give you information on when and how to attack. I am friendly with the guards and they tell me what the situation is with the fighters and their defenses"
"What do you propose?"
"If you will agree, I will go back to the village and come to you with reports on the food situation. As long as the fighters have kosher food to eat, you will never triumph. Once they begin to eat non-kosher foods, then G-d will not help them and you will become victorious."
The lecherous commander agreed. He had nothing to lose. If she was indeed faithful to him he promised to take her for his concubine. If she were not faithful she would die a death more bitter than acid.
So every few nights Yehudit would slip between the village and the military camp, bringing reports of military activity and food and water reports. After three visits, she came to visit Holoparnash again. This time he requested all to leave his tent and not to enter unless he calls them.
In the center of his tent, a table was set up with delicacies and fine drinks. The lecherous general eyed the Jewish beauty.
"Come dine with me tonight," he motioned with his hand toward the set table.
"Yes, I will, but I must only eat my kosher food."
"Kosher food? What kind of nonsense is that?"
"Ah," she smiled with a captivating smile that radiated charm; "You shall see the difference. Here is my own cheese that I have made with my own hands. Tell me, is it not better than all your cheeses?"
She approached the leering general with outstretched arms and a seducing smile.
"Very good," he acquiesced, "I must admit although it is a bit salty it is very tasty. It makes one thirsty."
She poured a goblet with his wine. "Here try your own wine." Her eyes flashed and smiled to him.
"Thank you, my sweet," he said enjoying the grace and charm of this foreign beauty as well as the wine.
"She took from her sack a bottle of her own wine. See the difference between your wine and my Kosher wine."
He took the goblet with the kosher wine and downed it.
"No, silly," she reprimanded him with a seductive smile, "To taste the difference, you must eat some cheese in between the two wines, or you will not be able to differentiate between the two wines."
Holoparnash's head was beginning to spin from the wines. But he was enjoying the company of this elusive yet seductive lady. "OK," he agreed, "let me have another slice of your Kosher cheese."
She gave him a large piece of salty cheese followed by a large goblet of wine. By now his head was swirling faster.
"Yes, you are correct, your wine is superb." He said motioning for her to come closer.
"Actually, I must confess, I have saved my best wine for now." She took another bottle of wine from her sack and filled up his goblet. "Have this cheese and then try this wine."
Holoparnash could hardly grasp the goblet, yet he raised it to his lips and drank the entire contents in one fast drunken gulp.
"Oh, please! I insist, I worked very hard making a wine fit only for a king. You must drink it slowly in order to truly savor the rich flavor and fruity taste. Now, try again." She handed him another goblet filled with the strong brew. Slowly he drank it and upon completion belched and fell over onto the table. His head cradled by his arms.
"Holoparnash, Holoparnash" she called. But it was to no avail. The wicked general was sleeping heavily.
Trembling, Yehudit looked for his sword. It was on his waist. Could she remove it with out his awaking? She looked up to heaven and prayed, "Master of the Universe, you have helped me this far, that I have not fallen beneath this evil mans hands. Guide my actions, for I act ofor your great name!"
Slowly she drew the heavy sword from the scabbard on his waist. The drunken commander budged, but could not wake up. Yehudit extracted the long and heavy weapon completely from the sheath.
Again she prayed, "G-d give me the strength to do this." With the completion of that prayer she raised the heavy and fearful sword high above her head and with all of her might she brought it down on Holoparnash's neck.
The mighty sword seared the head from the body and embedded itself in the table. Quickly she grabbed the rolling head, wrapped it up in several garments and inserted it in her sack.
Leaving the tent, she summoned the guard to escort her to the village as he had done on prior nights. In the village, she quickly came to Uziahu and showed the trophy that she brought back.
"Thank the Lord, who has done kindness and saved you from the hands of this evil man," said Uziahu with a completely wondrous look in his eyes.
"Yes, but let us not lose time. Round up your men and attack. When they see that they have no leader, they will panic and flee. If you wait until tomorrow, they will discover by themselves his body and swiftly elect a new leader."
Uziahu lost no time in assembling his men. With a quick explanation coupled with the head of their enemy, the soldiers were regenerated and full of energy. In a short time the small band Jewish warriors attacked the Greek soldiers, and as predicted, the enemy, surprised by the unpredictable attack and the frightful lose of their leader, turned and fled. Many enemy soldiers were killed on that night.
Until this day, we celebrate the heroism of that brave woman, whose thoughts and actions were only for her people and for her G-d. That is the reason that cheese is eaten during Chanukah, to remember the heroism of that righteous woman, Yehudit the daughter of Yochanan, the high priest.
from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine