19 December 2015

Judith's Feast

The Scroll of Judith

You also, son of man, take a written scroll, feed your stomach and fill your belly with what I give you, and it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.  

Thus begins the medieval Hebrew manuscript Megillat Yehudit (Scroll of Judith).*  Beneath the title, in smaller letters, is the instruction: "to be said on Hanukkah."

Okay, I know I'm a little late this year but I'll make it up in 2016. 

Anyway, the feast is real and the date is yours to choose.

In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful Judith leaves the besieged city of Bethulia intending to trick the invading general Holofernes.  In the Scroll, the city is Jerusalem and Holofernes is the enemy king.  In both versions, he lusts after her body: Come now, lie with me, my sister, for it is a great love I have for you, a love with all its rapture.

Judith takes food with her to tempt Holofernes: a jar of wine, a cruse of oil, barley groats, fig-cakes, white bread, and cheese. The cheese does the trick:  Judith feeds him pancakes with salty cheese; he gets thirsty and drinks too much wine (his heart was merry).  Drunk, he falls to the ground and sleeps.

Then she took the sword and went softly to him, for he was fast asleep. Then she held up her right and her left hand and she smote his head, she smote him and killed him and she cut off his head.

Dead drunk, you might say.  Still, she saved her city and, of course, her virtue, too. And that, they say, is the reason you eat cheese on Hanukkah -- which, I admit, does not make much sense to me.  

In the Scroll's entirely apocryphal story, Hanukkah becomes the feast of Judith:

Then Judith became queen over the land and judged Israel.  Because of this the children of Israel shall make a very great feast in their pots and cauldrons, with pieces of cheese, gladness and feasting, a good day, of sending portions to one another, baked pieces, food from the frying pan [pancakes] and dough kneaded until it is leavened so its glory will grow with honey, all manner of baked goods ... and the drinking was according to the law: none did compel, for thus the Queen Judith had appointed to all the officers of [this] house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure.

From the Scroll of Judith, written by Moses Shmeil Dascola (probably somewhere in the Provence), on the 30th day of the month of Silvan, 5162 [= 1402 CE].*

So, lifting a glass of sparkling wine (none did compel), I wish my readers Happy Feast Days and all the very best in 2016 CE!

*Translated with commentary by my namesake, Dr Susan Weingarten: 'Food, Sex, and Redemption in Megillat Yehudit (the "Scroll of Judith")', in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Cambridge, 2010, 110-125.


Judith in pigmented plastic, plaster, paint, and steel armature with wheels, by the Polish artist PaweĊ‚ Althamer. A plaster cast from the face of a living woman is formed into a mask, then embellished with extruded bandage-like polyethylene strips and fixed to a frame.

Photo credit for statue of Judith: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin.

Photo of the artist (left): Phaidon

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