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    A heroine for Chanukah – the case for Judith

    Judith and Holofernes, by Gustave Doré, 1866

    Judith and Holofernes, by Gustave Doré, 1866

    Chanukah has always been a highly popular festival. It had a great, romantic hero – Judah Maccabee – whose exploits reverberate through history. But unlike Purim, it lacked a heroine. Purim had Esther, but what did Chanukah have in comparison?

    Jewish tradition tried to fit Judith into the role, but though everyone enjoyed the story the attempt didn’t quite take off. The Judith episode is found in Greek sources, probably based on Hebrew material, about a young Jewish widow called Judith (said to have been the daughter of the high priest) who enticed and then assassinated a heathen general called Holofernes and saved the city.

    The historicity of all the details is not our concern here, but the basic idea of a woman who was clever and courageous enough to “take arms against a sea of troubles”, in Shakespeare’s phrase, was inviting and exciting. It attracted artists, writers and musicians, and we even find chanukiyyot bearing depictions of the story.

    In the Middle Ages there were attempts to rewrite the story in Hebrew, and Jewish poets even composed piyyutim (religious hymns) on the subject. Christian culture saw it as the maiden’s defeat of the devil, but this is going too far.

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