By Rabbi Mark Melamut
Make sure to watch this video on Judith.
Like me, you may have missed reading this story as a kid in religious school or as an adult in your general Jewish education. By the 7th night of Hanukkah you are either ready to light that 8th candle already and return to your evening routine or you are just getting into the Hanukkah spirit. Either way, this story is stimulating enough to make us want to learn more. Plus, it gives some credence to my attempt to make potato/apple/cheddar latkes this year, which turned out to be creamy and tasty!
“In his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) relates: It is customary to recite songs and praises at the festive meals which are common on Hanukkah and then the meal becomes a mitzvah meal. Some say that one should eat cheese on Hanukkah because the miracle occurred through milk which Judith fed the enemy. The Kol Bo (14th Century France) says that the daughter of Yohanan the High Priest fed the Greek King ‘a cheese dish in order that he become thirsty and drink a lot and get drunk and lie down and fall asleep.’ That is what transpired; she then cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem and when his army saw that their hero had died, they fled ‘and that is why it is the custom to cook a cheese dish on Hanukkah.’
The question, of course, is where did the Kol Bo find this story? It sounds like the story of Judith and Holofernes as found in the Apocryphal Book of Judith. Indeed cheese is mentioned in some ancient versions of Judith 10:5 which lists the foods that Judith took with her when she left the besieged city to visit Holofernes. Nevertheless, Judith 12:17-20 which describes the way in which Judith got Holofernes to go to sleep says explicitly that Judith gave him wine to drink and not a cheese dish! In any case, the Book of Judith seems to have been written in Hebrew but has only reached us in Greek translation and was unknown to medieval Jews. They, however, knew the story of Judith from medieval Hebrew sagas called “The Story of Judith” and the like….Megillat Yehudit relates that after fasting, Judith asked her maidservant to make her two levivot (pancakes, fried cakes, modern Hebrew for latkes). The servant made them very salty and added slices of cheese.” (David Golinkin)
Tonight, sit back and relax, watch the video above and learn about Judith, take a snapshot or selfie in front of your menorah, and say, “Cheese, it’s Hanukkah!”