"They, Too, Were Part of the Miracle"

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

The Story of Yehudit


Are women obligated in the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles? The gemara addresses this question explicitly:


A woman certainly lights, as R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated concerning Chanuka candles, since they, too, were part of the miracle. (Shabbat 23b)


Rashi (ad loc.) understands this to mean not only that the women were redeemed along with the men, but that they were actively involved in the miracle; they played a role in bringing it about:


For the Greeks decreed that every maiden to be married would lie first with the [Greek] officer, and the miracle was performed by a woman.


How was the miracle of Chanuka "performed by a woman"? The Tosafot (Pesachim 108b) provide more detail, explaining that the miracle was performed "by Yehudit." The story of Yehudit is recounted by the Kolbo:


Women are obligated concerning Chanuka candles since they too were part of the miracle – meaning, the enemies came to annihilate everyone, men, women, and children.


And there are some who explain that it was through a woman, named Yehudit, that this great miracle occurred for them. As recounted in the aggada: Yochanan, the Kohen Gadol, had a daughter who was extremely beautiful, and the Greek king ordered that she should lie with him. And she fed him a cheese dish so that he would become thirsty and drink much and become inebriated, and he lay down and fell asleep. And while he lay asleep, she took his sword and cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem. And when the army saw that their leader was dead, they fled. And therefore there is a custom to prepare cheese dishes on Chanuka. (Kolbo, siman 44)[1]


In light of the Kolbo, the Rema rules:


Some say that one should eat cheese on Chanuka, since the miracle came about through the milk which Yehudit fed to the enemy. (Rema, Orach Chayim 670:2)


The ancient source for the story of Yehudit is not clear, nor is there a precise source concerning the Greek decree concerning Jewish brides. Both the Talmud Bavli (Ketuvot 3b, 12a) and the Yerushalmi (Ketuvot 1:5) mention a similar law, but they appear to be referring to a decree enacted following the Bar Kokhva revolt, which took place many years after the time of Matityahu and his sons.[2]


Later midrashim provide different accounts of the story of Yehudit. The following is one of the most detailed:


Our Sages taught: During the period of the evil Greek kingdom, they decreed for the Jews that anyone with a lock on his home must engrave upon it that Jews have no portion in the God of Israel. The Jews immediately went and removed the locks on their homes… And they decreed further that every bride should be brought first to the commanding officer, and thereafter would be returned to her husband.


This situation continued for three years and eight months, until the daughter of Yochanan, the Kohen Gadol, was to be married. When they sought to lead her to the Greek officer, she bared her head and tore her garments and stood naked before the gathered company. Yehuda and his brothers were outraged, and said, “Take her out and burn her; let the authorities not be informed of this, lest we face mortal danger, for she dared to bare herself before this entire company!” But she said to him, “How is it that you are zealous concerning my shame before my brothers and relatives, while you are prepared to betray me and take me to the defiled, uncircumcised Greek officer, to lie with him?”


When Yehuda and his companions heard this, they began to conspire to kill the Greek officer. They dressed the girl in royal garments and made a myrtle canopy that stretched from the house of the Chashmonaim to the house of the Greek officer. All the musicians came, and they played and danced until they reached the house of the officer. When the officer heard them, he told his ministers and servants: “Look at them; they are the most esteemed of Israel, from the progeny of Aharon the Kohen - look how happy they are to perform my will! They are deserving of great honor!” And he commanded that his ministers and servants go out, and Yehuda and his companions entered together with his sister to the officer, and they decapitated him and plundered all that he had, and they killed his ministers and servants…


When the king of the Greeks heard that the Jews had killed his officer, he gathered all his people and encamped facing Jerusalem, placing it under siege. And the Jews were very afraid. And there was a widow there, named Yehudit, and she took her maidservant and went to the gates of Jerusalem and said, “Let me out; perhaps God will bring about a miracle through me.” So they opened for her and she left and went to the king.


He said to her, “What do you seek?” she said, “My master, I am the daughter of a noble family in Israel, and my brothers are prophets, and I heard them prophesying that tomorrow, Jerusalem will fall by your hand.” When he heard this, he was exceedingly glad. One of his advisors was an astrologer, and he said, “I see that the Jews will repent, and you will not be able to defeat them; return to your place.” The king was angry with him and commanded that he be arrested, and he was bound hand and foot, to be hanged on a gallows. The king said, “Tomorrow, when Jerusalem falls by our hand, we will kill him.”


The king believed Yehudit, and loved her, and said to her, “Will you marry me?” She said to him, “My master, the king! I am not worthy even of one of your servants, but if your heart so desires, make a proclamation throughout the camp that anyone who sees two women walking to the spring should not harm them, since I must go there to bathe and to immerse myself.” The proclamation was immediately issued, and she did so. And the king made a great banquet, and everyone drank and became inebriated. Then each went back to his own tent, and the king remained with her, and slept. Then Yehudit took up his sword and decapitated him, and spread a sheet over him, and went with the king's head to the gates of Jerusalem, and said, “Open the gates, for God has performed a miracle through me.” They said to her, “Is it not enough that you have prostituted yourself and become corrupt; now you seek also to mock us?” She then showed them the king's head. They opened the gates, and emerged, and raised their voices: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”


When the Greeks heard this, they said, “Tomorrow they will attack us.” They went to the king, and found him headless, and they were struck with terror, and they fled. And the Jews pursued them and killed many of them. So may the Holy One, blessed be He, avenge us of our enemies soon, and bring us deliverance, as it is written, “And a redeemer shall come to Tzion." (Otzar ha-Midrashim, Eisenstein, Chanuka, p. 192)[3]


Sefer Yehudit


The most detailed source for the story of Yehudit is to be found in Sefer Yehudit, an apocryphal work that is included in the Septuagint.


Popular tradition locates the story of Yehudit during the Hellenistic period and connects it with the festival of Chanuka. Although there are some scholars who lend support to this view, the details of the story seem to point to the Persian period, perhaps even the ancient Persian period – around the time of the building of the Second Temple. As Y.M. Grintz shows in the introduction to his edition of Sefer Yehudit (Jerusalem 5717), this is suggested by the name of the Kohen Gadol mentioned in the text – Yoyakim - who was the son of Yehoshua ben Yehotzadak, the Kohen Gadol at the time of the return from Babylon (Nechemia 12:10). Further support for this chronological framework is found in the typical Persian names that appear in the text, such as "Bigvai," Nevukhadnetzar, and Arpakhshad. Moreover, the author of the text asserts that the Jews were afraid of Olofarne (Holofernes), head of the army, "for they had just returned from the Diaspora." It would therefore seem that the story of Yehudit took place during the Persian period, not long after the return from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple.


Sefer Yehudit makes no mention of milk dishes, and in this account, Oloferne, head of the army, falls asleep, drunk (p. 161 in Grintz's edition). A bottle of milk is mentioned only in one of the midrashei Yehudit, and its source is clearly the similarity between Yehudit's actions and those of Yael, who killed Sisera (Shoftim 4-5), as we shall discuss below. However, while Yael gives Sisera milk to drink and then drives the tent peg into his temple as he sleeps, Yehudit draws Oloferne's own sword, pulls his hair, and strikes at his throat. It is difficult to imagine that Yehudit could have done this without fear of him awakening and overcoming her. It seems clear that she gave him a great quantity of wine to drink and that he was completely intoxicated at the time.


Along with the similarity between Yehudit and Yael, there is also a significant parallel between Sefer Yehudit and Sefer Daniel. Like Daniel, Yehudit declines the delicacies and wine offered to her by the head of the army (see Daniel 1:8), eating only of the food that she has brought with her. Sefer Daniel recounts how Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, and Azarya put their lives in danger through their refusal to defile themselves with the king's bread and wine. Sefer Yehudit conveys a similar message of abstinence from forbidden foods even at a time of life-threatening famine, as the Jews are punished for eating of the terumot and ma'asrot – and even impure animals – during the harsh siege of the city.


Yehudit vs. Chizkiyahu


The midrash quoted above includes many expressions that compare the siege during the time of Yehudit to Sanheriv's siege of Jerusalem during the reign of King Chizkiyahu. For example, the head of the army calls to the Jews and issues the same proclamation that is made by Ravshakeh, representative of Sancheriv:


"Who of all the gods of the lands has saved their land from my hand, that God should save Jerusalem from my hand?" (II Melakhim 18:35)


The prayer of the officers of the Jewish army, as documented in the story of Yehudit, is likewise identical to the prayer of King Chizkiyahu after hearing Ravshakeh's declaration:


"Lord God of Israel Who dwells between the keruvim: You are God; You alone, for all kingdoms of the earth. You made the heavens and the earth. Lord, bend Your ear and hear; Lord, open Your eyes and see, and hear the words of Sancheriv and him who he sent to taunt the living God. It is true, Lord, that the kings of Ashur have destroyed the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but the work of men's hands, wood and stone, and therefore they could destroy them. But now, Lord our God, I pray You – save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You, You alone, are the Lord God." (II Melakhim 19:15-19)


To these parallels we may add that according to the account in Sefer Yehudit, the events take place close to a town named Betulia, but in some versions the story takes place in Jerusalem.


In view of the parallels between the siege of Sancheriv in the days of Chizkiyahu and the siege of Oloferne in the days of Yehudit, it is important to note also the differences between them. In both instances, many of the inhabitants of the city despaired of any possibility of combating the enemy army. They despaired because of their hunger, thirst, and the lack of hope on the horizon. In the days of Chizkiyahu, these are referred to as "the party of Shevna" (Sanhedrin 26a), while in the time of Yehudit it was the entire population of the city. In both cases, one individual stood up against those who despaired and inspired them with confidence that God was going to save the city from enemy hands. In the time of the siege of Sancheriv, this individual was the prophet Yeshayahu; in the time of Yehudit, it was Yehudit herself.


But Yeshayahu was a prophet of God, and he spoke God's word. Indeed, an angel of God emerged, struck the camp of Ashur, and saved Jerusalem. Yehudit was not a prophetess, so by what virtue could she promise that God would help? Although she did not have prophecy and could not be certain that the city would be saved, Yehudit took her life in her hands in order to save the city, all the while praying that God would help her.


The trust in God that we learn from Yehudit is not the trust of a person who does nothing and waits for God to do everything. The trust we learn from her is the readiness on the part of someone who trusts and prays, to take her life in her hands in order to save her people, with God's help.


"They, Too, Were Part of the Miracle"


If there is no historical, chronological connection between the story of Yehudit and the Hellenistic regime, then what is the meaning of the ruling in the gemara that women are obligated concerning Chanuka candles since "they too were part of the miracle"? Are we forced to conclude that it means merely that the women were redeemed along with the men?


Perhaps we might propose a different interpretation of the gemara's assertion concerning the women's role in the miracle of Chanuka. Perhaps the reason women must light Chanuka candles is not because of Yehudit herself, but rather because the women of that period struggled to uphold the mitzva of circumcision. As we read in Sefer Ha-Makkabim:


And women who circumcised their sons were put to death by the king. The infants were hanged, and those who circumcised them were slain by the sword, and their homes plundered… But they preferred death to defiling their souls and violating God's covenant, and they died. (I Makkabim 1:58-60).


Two women were discovered who had circumcised their sons. So [the Greeks] tied the infants at their mothers' breasts and paraded them through the streets of the city, and then threw them down from the wall. (II Makkabim 6:11)


Women, too, cast themselves along with their infants to the depths, for having circumcised their sons, having known in advance that this would be their fate. (IV Makkabim 4:25)


It is not clear why it was specifically the women who led the rebellion against the Greek orders against circumcision. I shall not address this question here, but rather focus on the women's willingness to sacrifice their lives for the sake of this mitzva.


The gemara testifies:


It was resolved by majority vote, in the attic of the house of Nitza in Lod: Concerning all transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told, “Transgress this or you will be killed” – he should transgress and not be killed, except for idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. (Sanhedrin 74a)


This law was established in detail by the beit midrash of R. Yochanan, setting down rules concerning the commandments for which one is permitted or obligated to give up one’s life and the circumstances in which one should do so. Perhaps these laws were not yet known in detail during the pre-Hasmonean period, but, as faithful Jews, they had an intuitive understanding of the need to struggle to maintain the existence of Am Yisrael. Even during later periods, Jews sacrificed their lives for circumcision. Many historians believe that the decrees against circumcision were the main impetus for Bar Kokhva's rebellion against the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his decrees some sixty years after the destruction of the Second Temple.


Especially during the Hellenistic period, as the Greek influence spread amongst Am Yisrael, circumcision remained the principle obstacle to marriage with non-Jewish women. As such, it served as the most important barrier against assimilation and the self-destruction of Am Yisrael. We recall that Avraham made his servant swear by his circumcision – "Place your hand under my thigh" (Bereishit 24:2) – that he would not take a wife for Yitzchak from among the daughters of the local Canaanites. From testimonies dating to the Hellenistic period, describing Jews who invested great efforts in trying to conceal the fact that they were circumcised (in the Hellenistic gymnasiums, the youth would compete at sports while completely naked), we understand how central the struggle over circumcision was to the Hasmonean revolt. It therefore comes as no surprise that circumcision was one of the first actions taken by Matityahu and his companions upon announcing their rebellion:


And they circumcised by force the boys who had not been circumcised, whom they found among the Jews. (I Makkabim 2:45-46)


For obvious reasons, women were at the forefront of the struggle over circumcision.[4] We might even dare to suggest that the festival of Chanuka is celebrated for eight days specifically in commemoration of the victory in the struggle over circumcision – a struggle which was led by the women.


The women who circumcised their sons did not take up weapons and did not launch a direct attack on the Greeks. However, their willingness to sacrifice their lives to continue God's covenant seems to have been among the main motivations behind the rebellion, whose fighters on the battlefield were men. The women were therefore an integral part of the rebellion, the victory, and the salvation. They are obligated concerning the lighting of Chanuka candles, for they, too, were actively involved in that miracle.



[1] The story is cited in abbreviated form by the Ran (Shabbat 10a in the dappei ha-Rif). The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chayim 670:8) divides the story into two distinct narratives, opining that "part of the miracle of Chanuka" was performed by a woman, when it was decreed that every girl to be married would lie first with the Greek officer, while a further miracle (after the events of Chanuka brought about by the Chashmonaim) was performed by Yehudit, who gave the enemy milk to drink. He therefore concludes, "For this reason there are some who take care to eat cheese on Chanuka, even though this did not take place at the time of the miracle of Chanuka."

[2] The Rambam (Laws of Chanuka 3: 1) also alludes to this decree in his account of how the Greek rulers "passed decrees on Israel… and appropriated their property and their daughters and entered the Sanctuary."

[3] The same legend appears in the Commentary on the Siddur by the author of the Rokeach, but there the woman is named Chana, from the tribe of Reuven, instead of Yehudit, from the tribe of Shimon.

[4] This would also appear to explain the opinion of the Rishonim (accepted as halakha) that women are obligated to say, as part of the Grace after Meals, "and for Your covenant which You have sealed in our flesh" (see Rema, Orach Chayim 187:3 and Mishna Berura, ad loc., 9).