Allen S. Maller

Esther and Judith: two heroic and fierce Jewish woman

When we celebrate Purim this week, we should also remember Judith, who ended a threat to the Jewish People by single handedly killing an enemy general. In many medieval Jewish sources, Judith became linked with the festival of Hanukkah. Hasmonean events did influence the composition of Judith’s original tale. So in medieval times, perhaps as a result of this, Judith became an actual participant in events surrounding the Hasmonean victories.

Another more important reason for the introduction of Judith into Hanukkah tales and customs is the many parallels between Judith and Esther; both being two beautiful and seductive Jewish heroines who save their people from the threats of a foreign ruler; by taking decisive action at great personal risk to themselves.

The holiday of Hanukkah can be associated with the festival of Purim, for both holidays are late, dating to the Second Temple period, and the same rabbinic blessing is used for both holidays: ”On Miracles,”.

Purim has a heroine, Esther, and a scroll telling her story, Megillat Esther, and in medieval times this led to the analogous holiday, Hanukkah, being assigned a similarly seductive heroine, whose story was entitled at times, Megillat Yehudit, the Scroll of Judith.

It is also worth noting that the final verse of the Vulgate Latin version of Judith, speaks of an annual celebration (Hanukkah): ”The day of this victory was accepted by the Hebrews among their holy days, and is observed by the Jews from that time up to the present day.” (Vulgate Judith 16:31) so it is possible that the connection of Judith to Hanukkah goes back to Roman times.

Thus, even though there is no actual basis for linking Judith with Hanukkah; Judith’s tale was frequently enmeshed with Hanukkah in medieval times in several Hebrew stories of Judith, often termed Judith midrashim, which are the largest and most varied group of medieval Jewish texts that mention Judith.

Some of the stories are attributed to named authors who can be dated, other tales are simply found anonymously, in manuscripts written as late as the sixteenth century.

Two of the Judith stories are known only in published form, in books dating to the eighteenth century, and there maybe, other Hebrew manuscript versions of Judith’s tale which have yet to be published.

Many of the texts cannot be dated with any certainty, but some of them were already in circulation in the eleventh century. The tales are not readily accessible. They have been published, chiefly in Hebrew, in a variety of books and journals, but there is no one comprehensive collection of these Judith midrashim.

Several of the Hebrew Judith midrashim that are linked to Hanukkah have two parts. In the first half, we hear of the killing of an enemy leader by the Hasmoneans, who object to the leader’s desire to exercise his right of ‘first night sex’ (ius primae noctis) when their sister is about to be married.

Judith, who is now identified as a relative of the Hasmoneans, performs her daring deed of killing the enemy general in the second half of these stories.

Two of the midrashim are hybrid tales that begin with a Vulgate inspired account of the historical events, prior to Judith arriving on the scene. The second half of these stories resembles the accounts of Judith found in the Hanukkah tales.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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