It is not clearly known when the story which we are about to tell actually took place. The story first appeared in a very ancient book named after the heroine, Yehudit (Judith), and it was written in Hebrew. However, the original text was lost, and only a Greek translation remained, and not a very accurate one at that.
The story was retold in different versions. According to one version, it happened during the time of the Maccabean revolt against Syrian oppression, and Yehudit was a daughter of Yochanan the high priest, father of the Hasmonean family.
At any rate, the heroic deed of Yehudit has inspired faith and courage in the hearts of Jews throughout the ages.
The town of Bethulia, in the land of Judea, came under siege by Holofernes, a mighty Syrian-Greek general, at the head of a huge army.
Holofernes was notorious for his cruelty in suppressing rebellions. When he captured a rebel stronghold, he showed no mercy to the men, women and children sheltered there.
Now he was determined to crush the rebellion of the town of Bethulia, whose inhabitants refused to recognize the oppressive rule of the Syrians.
The men of the beleaguered town fought bravely and desperately to repulse the repeated assaults by the superior enemy forces. Seeing that he couldn’t take the fortified town by force, Holofernes decided to starve the inhabitants into submission. He cut off the food and water supply, and before long the town was indeed brought to the verge of surrender.
Hungry and thirsty, and in utter despair, the townspeople gathered in the marketplace and demanded that, rather than die of hunger and thirst, they should surrender to the enemy.
Uzziah, the commander of the defense forces, and the elders of the town tried to calm the populace without success. Finally they pleaded, “Give us five more days. If no salvation comes by the end of five days, we will surrender. Just five more days . . .”
Reluctantly the people agreed, and slowly they dispersed. Only one person, a woman, remained in her place, as if riveted to it, and she addressed Uzziah and the elders, who had also turned to go. Her voice was clear and firm.
“Why do you test G‑d, giving Him only five days in which to send us His help? If you truly have faith in G‑d, you must never give up your trust in Him. Besides, don’t you know that surrender to Holofernes is worse than death?!”
So spoke Yehudit, the noble daughter of Yochanan the high priest. She was a young widow. It was several years since she had lost her beloved husband, Menashe, and she had devoted all her time to prayer and acts of charity ever since.
Yehudit was blessed with extraordinary charm, grace and beauty, but she was particularly respected and admired for her devoutness, modesty and lovingkindness.
Yehudit’s words made a deep impression on Uzziah and the elders.
“You are quite right, daughter,” they admitted, “but what can we do? Only a downpour of rain that would fill our empty cisterns could save our people, but it is not the rainy season. We are all suffering the pangs of hunger and thirst. Pray for us, Yehudit, and maybe G‑d will accept your prayers . . .”
“We must all continue to pray, and never despair of G‑d’s help,” Yehudit said. “But I have also thought of a plan. I ask your permission to leave town together with my maid. I want to go to Holofernes . . .”
Uzziah and the elders were shocked and dismayed. “Do you know what you are saying, Yehudit? Would you sacrifice your life and honor on the slim chance that you might soften Holofernes’s heart? We cannot allow you to make such a sacrifice for us.”
But Yehudit persisted. “It has happened before that G‑d sent His salvation through a woman. Yael, the wife of Heber, was her name, as you well know. It was into her hands that G‑d delivered the cruel Sisera . . .”
Uzziah and the elders attempted to discourage Yehudit from such a dangerous mission, but she insisted that she be allowed to try. Finally, they agreed.
Yehudit passed through the gates of Bethulia, dressed in her best clothes, which she had not worn since her husband passed away. A delicate veil all but hid her beautiful face. She was accompanied by her faithful maid, who carried on her head a basket filled with rolls, cheese and several bottles of old wine.
The sun had already begun to hide behind the green mountains when Yehudit and her maid wound their way toward the enemy’s camp, their lips whispering a prayer to G‑d. Presently they were stopped by sentries, who demanded to know who they were and who sent them.
“We have an important message for your commander, the brave Holofernes,” Yehudit said. “Take us to him at once.”
“Who are you, and why are you here?” Holofernes asked, his eyes feasting on his unexpected, charming visitor.
“I am but a plain widow from Bethulia. Yehudit is my name. I came to tell you how to capture the town, in the hope that you will deal mercifully with its inhabitants . . .”
Yehudit then told Holofernes that life in the beleaguered town had become unbearable for her, and that she had bribed the watchmen to let her and her maid out. She went on to say that she had heard of Holofernes’s bravery and mighty deeds in battle, and wished to make his acquaintance. Finally she told Holofernes what he already knew, that the situation in the besieged town was desperate, that the inhabitants have very little food and water left. Yet, she said, their faith in G‑d remained strong, and so long as they had faith, they would not surrender. On the other hand, she added, before long, every scrap of kosher food would be gone, and in desperation they would begin to eat the flesh of unclean animals, and then G‑d’s anger would be turned against them, and the town would fall . . .
“But how will I know when the defenders of the citadel will begin to eat unkosher food, as you say, so that I can then storm the walls and capture the city?” the commander of the besieging army asked.
“I had thought of that,” Yehudit answered confidently. “I have arranged with the watchmen at the city’s gates that I would come to the gate every evening to exchange information: I will tell them what’s doing here, and they will tell me what’s doing there.”
Holofernes was completely captivated by the charming young Jewish widow who had so unexpectedly entered his life and was now offering him the key to the city. “If you are telling me the truth, and will indeed help me capture the city, you will be my wife!” Holofernes promised. Then he gave orders that Yehudit and her maid were to have complete freedom to walk through the camp, and anyone attempting to molest them in any way would be put to death immediately. A comfortable tent was prepared for the two women, next to his.
The two women, veiled and wrapped in their shawls, could now be seen walking leisurely through the armed camp at any time during the day and evening. Fearful of the commander’s strict orders, everyone gave them a wide berth. Soon, they attracted little if any attention. Yehudit could now walk up to the city’s gates after dark, where she was met by a watchman.
“Tell Uzziah that, thank G‑d, everything is shaping up according to plan. With G‑d’s help, we shall prevail over our enemy. Keep your trust strong in G‑d; do not lose hope for a moment!”
Having delivered this message for the commander of the defense force of the city, Yehudit departed as quietly as she had appeared.
The following evening she came again to the city’s gate and repeated the same message, adding that she had won Holofernes’s complete confidence.
In the meantime, Holofernes, having nothing special to do, spent most of his time drinking, with and without his aides. When he was not completely drunk, he would send for Yehudit. She always came to his tent in the company of her maid. On the third day, he was already getting impatient.
“Well, gracious Yehudit, what intelligence do you bring me today? My men are getting impatient and demoralized doing nothing; they cannot wait to capture the city and have their fun . . .”
“I have very good news, general. There is not a scrap of kosher food left in the city now. In a day or two, famine will drive them to eat their cats and dogs and mules. Then G‑d will deliver them into your hands!”
“Wonderful, wonderful! This surely calls for a celebration. Tonight we’ll have a party, just you and I. I shall expect you as my honored guest.”
“Thank you, sir,” Yehudit said.
That evening, when Yehudit entered Holofernes’s tent, the table was laden with various delicacies. The general was delighted to welcome her, and bade her partake of the feast. But Yehudit told him she had brought her own food and wine that she had prepared especially for that occasion.
“My goat cheese is famous in all of Bethulia,” Yehudit said. “I’m sure you’ll like it, General.”
He did. And he also liked the strong, undiluted wine she had brought. She fed him the cheese, chunk after chunk, and he washed it down with wine. Before long he was sprawled on the ground, dead drunk.
Yehudit propped a pillow under his head and rolled him over on his face. Then she uttered a silent prayer.
“Answer me, O L‑rd, as You answered Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, when you delivered the wicked general Sisera into her hands. Strengthen me this once, that I may bring Your deliverance to my people whom this cruel man vowed to destroy, and let the nations know that You have not forsaken us . . .”
Now Yehudit unsheathed Holofernes’s heavy sword, and taking aim at his neck, she brought the sword down on it with all her might.
For a moment she sat down to compose herself. Then she wrapped up the general’s head in rags, concealed it under her shawl, and calmly walked out and into her own tent.
“Come quickly,” she said to her maid, “but let’s not arouse suspicion.”
The two veiled women walked leisurely, as usual, until they reached the gates of the city. “Take me to Uzziah at once,” she said to the sentry.
Uzziah could not believe his eyes as he stared at the gruesome prize Yehudit had brought him.
“There is no time to lose,” she told the commander. “Prepare your men for a surprise attack at dawn. The enemy’s camp is not prepared for it. When they run to their commander’s tent, they will find his headless body, and they will flee for their lives . . .”
This is precisely what happened.
The enemy fled in confusion and terror, leaving much booty behind. It was a wonderful victory, and it was the G‑d-fearing and brave daughter of Yochanan the high priest, the father of the Hasmonean family, that saved the city of Bethulia and all its inhabitants.