Talk of the Table: Why Feminists Should Eat Dairy on Hanukkah

By Guttman, Vered | Moment, November-December 2018 | Go to article overview

Talk of the Table: Why Feminists Should Eat Dairy on Hanukkah


Guttman, Vered, Moment


Hanukkah is associated with the bravery of the Maccabees, the group of heroic Jews who rebelled against the Greek-Syrian empire, defeated it against all odds and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. They lit a menorah with a little oil that lasted for eight days, sentencing us to centuries of eating fried food to excess.

But there is an interesting feminist alternative to this male-dominated and oil-laden narrative. For some, Hanukkah is a time to celebrate the courage of a Jewish heroine, a woman who defeated, against all odds, a powerful enemy with her wit, daring--and some salty cheese.

This is the story of Judith, a rich and beautiful widow who lived in the Judean town of Bethulia more than two and a half millennia ago. When the army of Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar led by Holofernes invaded, Bethulia was put under siege. As the water in the walled town began to run out, citizens decided it was time to surrender. But Judith was not one to give up. She left town with her maid and entered the enemy camp to meet Holofernes himself. Fearless Judith told him the town was about to surrender and that she'd rather side with his people. Enchanted by her beauty and charm, Holofernes fell for her. That was when Judith went to work. She prepared him a meal featuring a salty cheese. The cheese made Holofernes so thirsty he drank enough wine to pass out. Judith then cut the warrior's head off with his own sword, wrapped it in her bag and ran. When the Assyrian army discovered the body of their headless leader, they fled in panic and Bethulia was spared.

But why celebrate Judith during Hanukkah? Frankly there is no one convincing explanation. According to some traditions, Judith was a daughter--or an aunt--of Judah Maccabee. This could explain the connection to Hanukkah, except for the pesky fact that the Maccabees lived in the 2nd century BCE, while the story of Judith is from the 4th or 6th century BCE. Other traditions and medieval rabbis suggested that the connection stems from the similarities between the two stories: In both, outnumbered, weaker Jews defeat strong warriors who are on the verge of overpowering them.

The Book of Judith never made it into the Jewish canon, and the original Hebrew version, probably from the first or second century BCE, was lost. But the story itself was passed on, and Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages noted the custom of eating cheese during Hanukkah and attributed it to the story of Judith's bravery. The Catholic Church included the story as part of the Old Testament, but the Greek and Latin versions made no mention of cheese. Instead, Judith carried fig cakes, barley, oil and bread to the enemy camp.

In her book Medieval Hanukkah Traditions: Jewish Festive Foods in their European Contexts, Susan Weingarten of Tel Aviv University writes about Megillat Yehudit (The Scroll of Judith), a 1402 version of the Judith story written in Provence by an unknown writer. In this version, Judith feeds Holofernes levivot (Hebrew for latkes) made with cheese. "She said to her maid: 'Cook me two pancakes so I can eat at your hands.'" She salted the pancakes heavily and then mixed them into a pot with cheese. Judith then brought the salty fritters to Holofernes's room. …

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