Yehudis and the Bride
The True Heroes of Chanukah
The Miracle of Chanukah – Cheese?
In the beginning of Hilchos Chanukah (Orach Chaim 670), the Tur discusses the miracle of the flask of oil. However, in the Shulchan Aruch, there is something completely different mentioned.
The fact that we eat more meals is optional. Some say that there is a mitzvah to eat more meals, because the days were the days of Chanukas Habayis (Maharal MiPrague). It is customary to sing zemiros during these meals, and then it becomes a seudas mitzvah (Minhagim). Some say we should eat cheese products on Chanukah, because of the miracle that happened when Yehudis served the enemy milk (Kol Bo V’Ran).
The Darkei Moshe writes something similar in the Tur in that place:
And the Ran writes, in Chapter Bameh Madlikin, (Shabbos 70b): The miracle happened by a woman. The daughter of Yochanan Kohen Gadol fed the main enemy cheese products until he was completely drunk and he fell into a deep sleep. She then chopped his head off, all the enemies fled, and therefore it remained a custom to eat cheese on Chanukah.
We note a slight contradiction in the Rema. The Shulchan Aruch and the Darkei Moshe both write that we eat cheese on Chanukah. However, they differ when discussing what Yehudis gave the enemy to eat. The Shulchan Aruch writes in the name of the Ran that she fed the enemy ‘milk,’ while the Darkei Moshe writes in the name of the Ran that it was ‘cheese.’
Whatever the case is, the miracle of Chanukah definitely has a strong connection to the dairy products that Yehudis fed the enemy, so much so that this is discussed first in the Shulchan Aruch while the halachos of lighting the Chanukah candles are written afterward.
Obviously, Chanukah is not cheese and not milk. We don’t make a special brachah for the “mitzvah” of eating dairy products on Chanukah. However, the fact that it is written in halacha before the halachos of the Chanukah candles is enough to make us think a bit deeper.
What is the connection between the story of Yehudis and Chanukah? Who is Yehudis? What made her do what she did? What exactly happened?
Who is Yehudis?
Yehudis was the daughter of Yochanan Kohen Gadol.
That alone is already connected to Chanukah. She was a sister of Mattisyahu Kohen Gadol, the hero of Chanukah.
The Kol Bo, in his discussion on Chanukah, brings more detail to the story of Yehudis. He writes:
Women are also obligated in the Chanukah lights, because they too were part of the miracle. The enemies wanted to wipe out all men, women and children.
Different commentators say that the miracle happened by a woman. Her name was Yehudis, the daughter of Yochanan Kohen Gadol. She was very beautiful and the king wanted to marry her. She went to the king of Greece and fed him cheese products that made him thirsty. He then drank until he became so drunk that he fell into a deep sleep. She then grabbed his sword and chopped off his head, and brought it to Yerushalayim. As soon as the army noticed that their king was dead, they all ran away. Therefore, we eat cheese products on Chanukah.
Reading the Kol bo, we get a nice part of the story.
The Rashbam in Tosafos writes:
The main part of the miracles happened through women. Purim through Esther and Chanukah through Yehudis.
The Rashbam’s words are amazing. The main part of the Chanukah miracle happened through Yehudis, not the Chashmonaim and not the flask of oil!
The first source
In order to get a clearer understanding of what’s going on, we will discuss the story of Yehudis as written in the earliest reliable source.
We looked into one of the earliest printed seforim of this story, a sefer called Sheiltos D’Rav Achai. It was written not too long after the Talmud was completed. Rav Achai was one of the first Savoraim. He discusses the story, and it’s extremely similar to the piyut we wrote about in the beginning of this article.
The Terrible Decrees
We will now discuss the story of Yehudis based on the writings in the sefer Sheiltos D’Rav Achai. We will then clearly understand the connection it has to Chanukah, and why the story of Yehudis is considered the main part of the miracle.
In the time of the Greek Empire there were terrible decrees placed on the Jews:
No learning Torah! What did the Jews do? They learned in secrecy. That’s where the dreidel came into play.
Whoever owned a bull had to engrave ‘hariga’ on its horns! What did the Jews do? They sold all of their bulls.
Engrave on the horns of the bull ‘Hariga’
What does hariga mean?
In Bereishis Rabbah (Parsha 2), there is a different yet more understandable wording:
You should write on the horns of the bull that you have no part in the G-d of the Jews.
What does “hariga” mean? Using the Greek alphabet the word is written ρήγα – ríga, which translates in english as king, from the word rex or reich. Perhaps the Greeks wanted to state that the king is the boss, and chas v’shalom not the Ribbono Shel Olam.
We have a proof that hariga means the king. The Sheiltos uses this wording again. When he discusses the kallah of the Chashmonaim that officially gave into the Greek law, it says that she gave herself over to hariga. Then when discussing that Yehudis risked her life and went to the king, the Sheiltos writes there that she gave herself over Lashamayim, to Hashem. We see that Lashamayim is the opposite of Lahariga.
No bris milah! What did the Jews do? They circumcised the newborn babies in hiding. How did the people know that there was a child that needed a bris milah? They came up with a new minhag that continues until today. On the eighth day after a baby boy was born, they would light a candle by the door of the yard indicating that there is a child in need of a bris.
No sacrificing the korban tamid!
No immersion in a mikvah! (What did Hashem do? He created streams of water in the Jewish homes.)
Everyone must engrave the word ‘hariga’ on the lock on their door! What did the Jews do? They removed the locks from their doors.
On the night of the wedding, the kallah must be brought to the king before she can go home to her chosson. What did the Jews do? They celebrated weddings at home, far away from the Greeks’ evil eye. How did friends and family know to partake in the celebration? On the night of the wedding, someone would go up onto the roof of the home and grind herbs. All the people passing by would then understand that there is a wedding taking place, and they would go in to wish the chosson and kallah mazel tov.
As we have seen, the Jews managed to circumvent some of the decrees, but not all of them. With the korban tamid, there was no way out. The Greeks placed soldiers to make sure the law was being enforced. The decree regarding the bulls and the doors the Jews managed to get out of completely. Learning Torah, bris milah, and chasunah they managed to do in hiding.
This went on while the Jews were under the leadership of the Greeks, a total of three years and eight months.
All this went quite smoothly behind the backs of the Greeks, until…
A Big Wedding
It was the 17th of Elul. In the city of Akko [Acre], a big Rebbishe wedding was taking place. One of the Chashmonaim was marrying off his daughter. The Chashmonaim were extremely popular and important people by the Jews and even by the non-Jews, the Greeks. Such a wedding was impossible to hide.
What did they do?
There was no choice; life had to continue. They prepared for the wedding and hoped that somehow they would find a way out of the terrible decree. During the wedding, a delegation from general the hegemon arrived, ready to carry out the king’s order and bring the bride to him.
The kallah thought to herself, “If I will give in and go along with them, all the other Jewish brides will learn from me. It will be a terrible desecration of Hashem’s Name!”
She went into a side room, took off all her jewelry, and changed from her elegant bride’s clothing into simple rags. (She hoped that if she looked unappealing, maybe the hegemon wouldn’t want her.) She then took a jug of wine and started handing out drinks.
The people at the wedding were shocked at the scene. When she saw this, the kallah cried out loud, “Oh, tzaddikim, children of tzaddikim, chassidim, children of chassidim, why are you ashamed of me, because I donned some rags? How are you not ashamed of Hashem, and you are willing to hand me over to an uncircumcised gentile?”
Yehudah Hamacabi and his brothers and friends saw how far their sister had gone to try to save herself from the terrible decree, and they decided to take matters into their own hands.
They took bundles of myrtle and other fragrant herbs, creating a row of canopies starting from their house leading all the way to the home of the hegemon.
When the wicked one noticed what they had done, he told his servants, “Wow! These are the greats of Israel! They’re coming to rejoice with me and my new laws! It would be proper of me to give them some honor.” And he sent all his servants out.
When Yehudah Hamacabi found himself alone with the enemy, he sprang into action and swiftly chopped off the head of the hegemon. On his way home, he tossed the head into the Greek army base.
Yehudah and his friends then chased the Greeks from Akko until Nemarim, killing thousands of soldiers in the process.
News of this story spread to Yerushalayim, where the Jews were extremely worried about the inevitable Greek retaliation. A heavenly voice was heard from the Holy of Holies: “Nitzchu Talya…” “The children won the battle in Antioch.” Antioch is Akko.
It’s interesting to note that Rashi says that the voice was heard on Yom Kippur. “The children of the Chashmonaim went out to war against the Greeks before Yom Kippur. They fought on Yom Kippur, and Yochanan Kohen Gadol heard the Heavenly voice as he was doing the avodah of Yom Kippur.”
When Elipornis [Holofernes] the king of the Greeks heard that they killed his general the hegemon, he gathered his army and surrounded Yerushalayim.
The Jews, realizing the terrible danger they were in, immediately started to do teshuvah, tzedakah, and learn Torah day and night.
The Greeks had an astrologer named Itor. He approached Elipornis and told him the following:
“Your Majesty the king, as long as the Jews are busy doing mitzvos, there is no way anyone can possibly hurt them.”
“Grab him and tie him to the doors of Yerushalayim, so that when Yerushalayim will fall into my hands, he will be the first to get killed with them!” Elipornis yelled back.
When the Jews found Itor chained to the wall they asked him for an explanation.
“It is because I spoke favorably about you.”
Yehudis lived in Yerushalayim. As she noticed how the Jews were learning Torah and keeping the mitzvos, she decided to risk her life and try to save the Jews. She thought to herself, “I will go to the rasha. Maybe there will be a miracle through me?”
Yehudis dressed nicely put on her nice jewelry, and went with her maid to the doors of Yerushalayim.
“Can I please leave? I am sure that Hashem will perform a miracle through me.”
“You’re not ashamed? You want to go and marry the impure gentile?”
“I am not at all ashamed, for my intentions are only for the sake of Heaven.” The guards saw that her intentions were pure. They opened the gates and let her out.
When she reached the base of the Greeks, she started praising them, “Long live the king! Long live the king!”
“What are you looking for here?”
“I’d like to speak to the king. Go and let him know.”
The Greeks went to Elipornis and said:
“A beautiful woman from Yerushalayim is here to see the king.”
“Bring her in!”
They ushered her into the king’s room.
“Your majesty the king,” Yehudis began. “My brothers and my fathers were prophets and priests. I heard them say that Yerushalayim will fall to a king by the name of Elipornis. Therefore, I came here to beg you to protect me and my family.”
“It’s all taken care of, that is if you will agree to marry me. Then I will give you up to half of my kingdom.”
“It would even be an honor for me to marry one of your slaves, let alone the king himself. However, I’m not completely ready yet. I’d need to wash up first. Later on tonight I’ll be ready to carry out the will of the king. If possible, the king should announce in the camp of the Greeks that whoever sees two women heading in the direction of the well should not speak to them, not good nor bad.”
Elipornis ordered the announcement to be made immediately.
Elipornis was overjoyed. He prepared a major banquet where he invited all his servants to come and enjoy. They ate and drank, and Elipornis himself drank a lot until he became drunk and he fell asleep.
The people at the party then said, “The entire meal was truthfully prepared for us. However, the point was that we should eventually leave, and let the king stay with the Jewish woman.” They all left for their own homes. Only Yehudis and her maid stayed in the room with Elipornis, who was in deep slumber. As soon as Yehudis noticed how deeply asleep Elipornis was, she grabbed his sword and chopped off his head. She then covered him with a sheet, put his head in the bag her maid was holding, and they both headed toward the well.
Nobody dared to stop and talk to them because of the king’s announcement not to talk to the ladies heading in the direction of the well.
From the well, they went toward the gates of Yerushalayim.
“Open the gates and let me in.”
“You’re not ashamed in front of Hashem? You went to the impure gentile, and you want to march back in together with the enemies?”
“Look and you’ll see for yourselves what I have with me — the head of Elipornis!”
“How do we know it’s really him?”
“We can ask Itor that’s chained to the wall here.”
“Itor, whose head is this?”
“What do you mean? This is the head of none other than Elipornis himself!”
“If so, then you may enter.”
The Jews were overjoyed! As soon as it became morning, they went into all the shuls and yelled in loud voices, “Shema yisrael…”
The Greeks, hearing the great commotion from Yerushalayim, got scared. “Who knows, maybe the Jews have decided to come and fight against us?” They ran to inform their leader Elipornis. As soon as they found him beheaded, they all dispersed and ran home. The Jews chased many of them and killed countless Greek soldiers.
The Sheiltos finishes off, “And it should be his will, the one who made miracles for our fathers, He should continue making miracles for us. Amen.”
The Miracle of Chanukah
What do we derive from this story?
The Jews were suppressed under Greek leadership. They tried to manage under dire circumstances behind the backs of the Greeks until a kallah came around and decided to put her foot down. Then Yehudis went and finished off the job.
It is clear, then, that Chanukah is thanks to these two women. It’s quite obvious that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah lighting because they were part of the miracle.
These two heroic episodes are what pushed the Chashmonaim into their fight with the Yevanim. Perhaps Elipornis was an easier fish and they still had to overcome Antiyochus himself. They eventually won the war, came back to the destroyed Bais Hamikdash, and then found only one small flask of oil.
As we sum up the article, we must mention that the Sheiltos makes no mention of the fact that Yehudis served the enemy cheese. In the apocryphal Sefer Yehudis, it says that she took along “a bottle of wine, a flask of oil, and a sack. She put inside figs, flour, and bread for food.” It doesn’t say anything about cheese and nothing about giving from her food to the enemy.
In the Sefer Maasios of Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon, there isn’t any mention of such a thing either.
To our distress, we do not have the source for what the holy Rishonim knew clearly, the fact that Yehudis fed the enemy cheese.
Ironically, the only source that makes mention of dairy is a midrash that the Chemdas Yamim brings (the reliability of such is a story in itself), “And she opened the bottle of milk, and she drank, and she also gave the king to drink.” This midrash is definitely not the source that the Rishonim based their information on. The Rishonim state that she fed him cheese, while the Chemdas Yamim claims that it was milk.