Chanukah Heroines

There are two famous stories about women associated with Chanukah, the story of Yehudit and the story of Hannah and her seven sons. The two stories show the courage and inner-strength of the Jewish people in the time of adversity, and how strength can be shown both in action and in lack of action:

Yehudit/Judith

Life under the Hellenist aggressors was a constant trial. Not only did they forbid basic Jewish observance, but, after the beginning of the Maccabee revolt, they laid siege to cities and towns across the land. And the siege was not simply a siege of food and water, it was also a siege on morality and morale. By decree of the king, any Jewish maiden who was to be married had to first spend the night with the local governor or commander. The Hellenists loathed the very sanctity of Jewish family life, knowing that it was a source of strength for the Jews, and were determined to undermine this lifestyle.

The Hellenist armies, under the command of Holofernes, laid siege to the town of Bethulia where Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, was a young widow. While she was beautiful and wealthy, Yehudit was also known for her piety and good deeds. Holofernes, let it be known that he desired the beautiful widow.

As the siege persisted against the town of Bethulia, the people grew discouraged. They began to suffer from severe hunger. Out of despair, the town gathered together and the elders announced that in 5 days time, when they ran out of food, they would surrender. But Yehudit spoke out at the meeting, expressing her disappointment in their lack of faith in G-d. As the meeting ended, Yehudit told the elders that she had a plan that would deliver the enemies into their hands, but they must not ask her what it was. They must simply have faith in her. Because of Yehudit’s reputation for wisdom and piety, they agreed.

Taking with her one maidservant and a large basket of cheese, bread and wine, Yehudit left the city and was immediately stopped by the soldiers. She told them that she wished to speak with their commander, Holofernes. When she was brought before him, he welcomed the beautiful woman.

Yehudit told Holofernes that she worried for those in the city who were suffering under the siege and had decided to come and tell him how to capture the city and, hopefully, receive, in return, mercy on her people. He encouraged her to go on.

The people’s faith in G-d remained strong, she explained. So long as they had faith, they would not surrender; and, G-d would not allow the army to take the city. On the other hand, she added, before long, every scrap of kosher food would be gone, and in desperation they would begin to eat the flesh of unclean animals, and then G-d’s anger would be turned against them and the town would fall. She proposed to stay with Holofernes in the camp of his army, but would return to Bethulia each day in order to find out how low the supplies were. Then she would tell Holofernes when the time to strike was. Eager to spend time with the beautiful widow as well as to end the siege victoriously, he agreed.

After several days of Yehudit relaying that the people in Bethulia were almost out of supplies, she felt that she and her maidservant had gained the trust of the army. They came and went as they pleased. It was time to implement the second half of the plan.

Yehudit informed Holofernes that the Bethulia was now out of food and there remained only to wait a few days until they would be eating the non-kosher animals. He invited her to come alone to his tent that night to celebrate. She agreed, insisting that he partake of her ‘renowned’ goat-cheese. As he ate the salty cheese, he grew thirsty and Yehudit hurried to give him the heavy wine she had brought with her. While Yehudit pretended to eat and drink, Holofernes became sluggish from imbibing and eating. Shortly thereafter, he was in a deep sleep. Calling her maidservant in, Yehudit took Holofernes’ sword and cut off his head. The two women wrapped the head in a cloth and returned to Bethulia.

The elders were surprised to see her. Yehudit showed them Holofernes’ head and told them that the men of the city must attack the Syrian-Greeks now. When the soldiers would go to wake their leader they would find him dead. The elders followed her advice and, sure enough, the Syrian-Greek army fled at the surprise attack and after learning that their commander was dead. Thus Yehudit saved the day.

Hannah and her Seven Sons

When Antiochus tried to destroy Jewish culture by outlawing Torah, he mistakenly thought that the Jews would quickly adopt the Hellenistic lifestyle. While some Jews did assimilate without a fight, Antiochus was not prepared for the unprecedented obstinacy of the Jews who refused to give up their heritage. Since the Jews would not quietly submit, Antiochus launched a full-scale ‘culture war.’

Those Jews who refused to give up studying Torah, who refused to eat pork, etc., were killed or tortured. Antiochus recognized that Judaism and Hellenism were antithetical and that he could not allow Judaism to survive or Hellenism would disappear. One of the well-known examples of the lengths to which Antiochus went to convert the Jews, and their fierce resistance to his attempts, is the story of “Hannah and her Seven Sons.”

Brought before the king for the crime of being devout Jews, Antiochus demanded that they bow down to an idol before him. The eldest son stepped forward and said:

“What do you wish from us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.”

Shocked and angered, the king ordered him tortured. His tongue, hands and feet were cut off and he was placed in a cauldron of boiling water. While the tortures continued, the wicked Antiochus turned to the next son and demanded that he worship the idol. This brother refused as well and was similarly tortured. Antiochus continued down the line and each brother held fast to his faith and gave up his life, tortured in front of his mother and remaining brothers until only Hannah and her youngest son remained.

Aware that this event had not gone the way he had planned, and, in fact, was becoming a public relations disaster, Antiochus called the child forward and begged him not to be a martyr for such a small thing as bowing before a statue. The king went so far as to promise him wealth beyond his dreams for this one act. When he saw that he was not getting anywhere, he called Hannah forward and beseeched her to talk some sense into her son so that she might have one child left. Hannah agreed to talk to him, and took him to the side, pretending to beg him for his life.

But Hannah was proud of her sons. She knew what this one small act would mean to her child and to the morale of the Jewish people. Without tears, Hannah told her youngest, a mere child: “My son, I carried you for nine months, nourished you for two years, and have provided you with everything until now. Look upon the heaven and the earth — G-d is the Creator of it all. Do not fear this tormentor, but be worthy of being with your brothers.”

Without a second thought, the boy refused to obey the king’s commandment and was put to death. As her child lay dying, she cradled his body and asked him that, when he arrived in heaven, he say to Abraham that he, Abraham, had been willing to sacrifice one son to prove his loyalty to G-d, while she had sacrificed seven. For him it had been a test, for her it was reality. Pleading with G-d that she should be considered worthy to her children in the world to come, Hannah fell to the floor and died.

Hannah is considered a heroine for her faith in G-d. By teaching her sons that sometimes one must give up even life itself for the sake of one’s beliefs and by not begging for mercy from this evil king, by encouraging even her youngest son not to bow to evil, Hannah made a stand that resonates with all who hear her story.