Judith: Female Strength in Myth and Menorahs

This post was written by Museum intern Leena Zelman.

Judith with the head of Holofernes by Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, second half of 17th century.

As we are getting ready for our upcoming exhibition Lighting the World: Menorahs Around the Globe, we cannot help but notice the depiction of a female heroine on so many of these menorahs. As we pour over research on international Hanukah customs, and sort through the diverse pieces that will appear in this show, female figures continue to appear. Some hold a sword; some even hold a human head. This led us to wonder, who exactly was this women? And why is she found on so many menorahs?

Judith’s Story
Based on how the woman is depicted on these menorahs – in battle, on the attack – we can infer that she is Judith, around whom a prominent Jewish legend is centered. The book of Judith is not part of the canonized Jewish Bible, yet her story is one taught to children and discussed on Hanukah. Around the year 100 B.C. the Assyrians besieged the Jewish city of Bethulia. The leaders of Bethulia were ready to surrender to the Assyrian general, Holofernes, when Judith, a wealthy widow, decided to endanger her life to try and save her city. Judith dressed herself in beautiful clothing and packed food and wine. Along with her maid, Judith left Bethulia to go to the enemy’s camp. Once there, Judith was welcomed into Holofernes’s tent where she fed him salty cheese and wine. Holofernes fell into a deep sleep, which allowed Judith to take his sword, and with the help of her maidservant, she decapitated him. Judith left his headless body behind and returned to Bethulia with the head of the enemy. Emboldened, the Jews in Bethulia attacked the Assyrian camp. As the Jews approached the Assyrian camp, the Assyrian soldiers ran into their general’s tent – to discover his headless body. This led to much confusion and fear, causing the Assyrian army to flee and leave Bethulia free once again.

Despite her act of bravery, Judith never made it into the canonized Jewish texts. She is, however, remembered as a strong, brave and beautiful woman who used her abilities to overpower a man and save the Jewish people. The very fact of her femininity toppled an Assyrian army and she is celebrated for that. Judith is known as a savior and an individual who retained complete faith when most others had lost it.

Facts or Folk Tale
The oldest known written story of Judith is in Greek, though some believe Judith was written originally in Hebrew. There are many questions about Judith’s real identity, as well as the veracity of the entire story. Judith may have been a daughter from the Hasmonean family, who saved the Jewish people in the Hanukah story. Others believe she was a daughter of the high priest. Yet another opinion is that Judith was not real at all and was just a story made up to convey a lesson. The people of Bethulia were ready to give up and surrender to the Assyrians. But Judith’s determination and faith saved her people. Her story is a compelling way to teach bravery and perseverance.

Judith in Judaism and Menorahs
The story of Judith may be associated with Hanukah as a result of the hypothesis that Judith is from the Hasmonean family. Or perhaps it is because both her story and the Hanukah story involve a dramatic tale of saving the Jewish people. Judith and Hanukah are entwined in other ways, too – there is a custom to eat dairy on Hanukah, which commemorates the cheese Judith fed Holofernes before killing him. So it makes sense that, as artisans around the world were crafting intricate Hanukiah, they would have looked to Judith’s story for visual inspiration.

This menorah is dated to approximately the eighteenth century, and was crafted in Italy. Judith appears at the top of the piece, holding a sword. In accordance with her story, it is Holofernes’s sword, which Judith used to kill him. The significance Judith had in Italy for the Jewish people may have been more secular then religious. Judith signified a civil virtue; a struggle, which many Florentines dealt with in association with their Medici rulers. Judith is clothed in a revealing wrap rather than Biblical clothes. She is standing in a strong and defiant way – showing her courage in killing the enemy.

This is another Italian menorah in the exhibition, this time from the seventeenth century. It appears that her face may have been rubbed off. This may have happened because generally Jews do not use graven images, and someone may have wished to get rid of the face on this menorah in accordance with that belief. The menorah features lions, representing strength and the Judean dynasty.

Some menorahs have mythical creatures on it, such as mermaids. Historically symbolic of womanhood and womanliness, these mermaids can be understood as other images representing Judith. This menorah, from sixteenth century Italy, features mermaids and figures resembling horses. A menorah with mythical or fictional images is common for Italy, and the custom eventually spreads to other areas in Europe and North Africa.

These are just a few of the menorahs that depict the brave Judith. It’s fascinating that see how many differences there are between menorahs from different parts of the globe, and how many similarities there are as well. In the exhibition, you’ll see many more Hanukiah from around the world, each featuring different designs, artistic flairs, and local customs. Lighting the World: Menorahs Around the Globe opens December 6! More exhibition information will be on our website shortly, so check back soon and mark your calendars.

Leena Zelman is a senior at Brooklyn College studying History with a concentration in Judaic Studies. This fall, Leena is interning in archives and exhibitions at the Museum, assisting with archival research for the Lighting the World exhibition. In the future, Leena hopes to continue her studies and plans to become a Judaic Studies professor.

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