A Young Holiday

Hanukkah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Where does it come from then?

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Judith

The Book of Judith is a well-known deuterocanonical book in the Apocrypha that is related to Hanukkah. During the medieval period, especially after the ninth century, it became customary to recount this story during the holiday, even though it has no direct relation to the Maccabees or to the rededication of the Temple. The setting and details, in fact, vary by storyteller and by era in which the story has been told.

Judith (Yehudit, literally "Jewess" in Hebrew) is a wealthy, pious, and beautiful widow from a time earlier than the Maccabees. In one version, after the Assyrian general Holofernes besieges a town in Israel, Judith single-handedly infiltrates the army encampment and, with her beguiling and seductive powers, succeeds in reaching the general's tent. She plies Holofernes with wine, and he soon dozes off. Judith seizes this opportunity to behead him. The Israelites are then able to defeat the invaders.

In several other biblical or apocryphal stories and proverbs of the same era, beautiful, non-Jewish, enemy women arc depicted as a danger to the Jewish people, for example, the notorious Delilah. Judith, however, is made into a heroine of Jewish redemption. The plot and theme of her story closely mirror that of an Israelite woman named Jael in the biblical Book of Judges.

During a time of war, Jael serves milk to the Canaanite general Sisera, who subsequently falls asleep. She then kills him by driving a tent pin through his head. Her action is followed by the Israelites' victory in battle. Most scholars identify the Book of Judith as fiction, perhaps because it is a copy of the biblical story of Jael. But whether fact or fiction, the Book of Judith conveys an historical portrait of the ancient Near East and thus provides valuable insights into the story and meaning of Hanukkah.

Josephus

Perhaps of most significance to Hanukkah is the account written by the first century CE author Josephus, an aristocratic Greek Jew known also as the Roman citizen "Flavius Josephus." As a military leader of the Jewish soldiers and later as an agent of the Romans, he was an eyewitness to the first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 CE) and to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). The transition in his allegiance had occurred following a siege in the Galilee, when Josephus surrendered to Rome rather than commit suicide with his compatriots.

Afterwards, he served two Roman generals as an informer and negotiator. Despite being regarded as a traitor to his people, he remained a loyal and law-observant Jew in his own eyes and those of most Rabbinical commentators. The works of Flavius Josephus, particularly The Antiquities of the Jews and The War of the Jews, are some of the only surviving historical material from that time and place. They provide invaluable records of Jewish history and practice, including an account of the Maccabean revolt.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.