The Schmooze

A Bloody Beheading for Hanukkah

There’s no way of getting around the violence in the noteworthy, but often neglected, Hanukkah-related story of Judith and Holofernes. Judith’s heroic action, the political assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes, is one of the reasons, some say, why one Jewish legal code states that women shouldn’t work while the Hanukkah candles are burning.

Here’s the short version of the story. Apparently unaware of Jael’s successful strategy — detailed in Judges 4 — of lulling Sisera to sleep with a jug of milk and then pounding a tent peg through his temple, Holofernes invites Judith (Yehudit in Hebrew) into his tent one night while he is in one of his drunken stupors. That mistake costs him his head, which Judith brings back to the Jewish camp.

Although Holofernes gets decapitated in every telling of the story — whose canonical status is questionable in the Hebrew scriptures — artistic representations of the political assassination prior to the 17th century were relatively tame.

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A Bloody Beheading for Hanukkah

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