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How a Beautiful Widow Defeated a General and Inspired a Hanukkah Tradition

Detail of Judith. Christifano Allori, 1613

You might call her the Face That Graced a Thousand Paintings, but one beautiful woman's bravery and wit saved her life, her city, and inspired a holiday tradition that still endures for millions of people around the world.

Eating cheese and other dairy foods during Hanukkah is a minor custom that owes its origins to the story of Judith and Holofernes. The account is given in the deuterocanonical book of Judith, which (by definition) is not part of the Hebrew Bible but is accepted by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians as part of the Old Testament. Judith's book, specifically, contains a number of historical anachronisms that lead many to believe that it is not historical but is possibly the first historical novel. Despite the tale's disputed legitimacy, it has inspired a custom among some celebrants of Hanukkah that seems a bit strange: what the heck does this have to do with cheese? The story goes like this:

Return of Judith to Bethulia. Botticelli, 1470Holofernes, an Assyrian general, surrounded the city of Bethulia as part of his campaign to conquer Judea. Judith, angry that her countrymen have lost faith in God's protection, decided to make friendly with Holofernes in a daring ploy to save her city. She, accompanied by her maidservant, visited the enemy general and offered information about the Israelites. Judith's bold plan worked, and one night, because Holofernes is taken by her beauty, she was invited to his tent. She then plied him with wine and cheese until he fell into a drunken slumber -- though the book is clear that "no defilement" occurs. Again accompanied by her faithful maid, Judith decapitated Holofernes using his own sword, and then returned to Bethulia, where Holofernes's head was mounted on the city walls. The Assyrians were overcome with fear after finding Holofernes's headless body, and so they fled. The city was saved, and one of the more riveting stories in religious history was born.
The account of Judith and Holofernes is a popular theme in classical art, with perhaps the most famous examples produced by Artemisia Gentileschi (who inserted herself as Judith), Donatello, and Caravaggio. Hundreds of works survive into modernity, and who knows how many were lost. Judith's victory was so popular among artists, in fact, that she appears in her own corner of the Sistine Chapel. 
Detail of Judith and Holofernes. Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1508-1512.
And cheese, of course, now makes an appearance during Hanukkah festivities in honor of the heroine Judith, who delivered Israel from the enemy using only food, drink, and a borrowed sword. 

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