Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights,” begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. The holiday is full of traditions that are tied to the story of the triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the N’er Tamid in the Holy Temple. In addition to lighting the menorah and giving gifts, many Jewish families eat dairy on Hanukkah. These meals with dairy are eaten not because of a great battle or the miracle of oil, but because of the courage of a Jewish widow, named Yehudit (Judith.)
While the story of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Holy Temple relates to the oppression of Greco-Syrian King Antiochus in 174. The story of Judith relates to the Assyrians and is found in the Book of Judith.
In the second century B.C.E, the powerful Assyrian army, on the order of their King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the Near East, which included the city of Bethulia. Lead by General Holofernes, the Assyrians besieged Bethulia.
Bethulia was an important city and many felt that if it fell, the entire country and all the children of Israel would fall under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. While the Bethulia’s elders anguished over what to do, a young and beautiful widow challenged them to stand strong. With the elders ready to surrender, brave Judith took matters into her own hands.
With only her maid to help her, Judith made her way to the enemy camp. General Holofernes, a ruthless man, was taken by Judith’s beauty. Inviting her to a banquet, Judith accepted. Judith fed the General salty cakes of cheese which made him thirsty; however, instead of water, Judith offered Holofernes wine. Holofernes ate his fill of cheese and drank his fill of wine and eventually fell into a drunken sleep. Judith prayed to the Lord for help while alone in Holofernes tent. Her answer came in the form of a plan. Judith took Holofernes sword and cut off his head. She returned to her people with Holofernes head in a basket.
The Assyrian army, without their leader, were lost and confused. The Israelite, with a new sense of strength and restored faith, attacked and defeated the Assyrians. Judith and her people were saved.
Hanukkah commemorates the ancient victories of both faith and fight with blessings and festive foods. Of all the food traditions of Hanukkah, only the eating of dairy is related to the bravery of the widow Judith and her faith that G-d would not forget his people. Eat well and have a joyous Hanukkah!
For more information on the story of Judith and the Hanukkah tradition of eating dairy, check out these websites: