Cheese and dairy products were once central to the celebration of Hanukkah, a tradition that has all but faded from modern Jewish life in favor of oily potato latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts) that represent the miraculous oil that burned for eight days in the besieged Temple. What happened? It goes back to Judith, a righteous, wealthy widow from the town of Bethulia, outside Jerusalem, during an assault on the holy city. Recorded in the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful widow gets fed up with the local leaders, who are ready to surrender to the wicked general Holofernes. Taking matters into her own hands, Judith offers a dramatic prayer to God and finds her way into Holofernes’s tent, offering herself as a defector to the Assyrian side. Aroused by her presence, the general allows her to feed him and get him drunk on wine. Passed out on his couch, Judith takes his sword and, in two powerful strokes, cuts off his head and tosses it into her maid’s basket. Upon return to Bethulia, she raises the severed head in the air and shouts, “God, our God, is still with us, to show his power in Israel, and his strength against our enemies, even as he has done this day!” The story resonates with those of Esther, Yael, and the Song of the Sea. Victorious, the residents of Bethulia plunder the disgraced camp of Holofernes.
So where’s the cheese? Judith never made it into the Jewish canon, probably because of its dubious historicity. However, the legend made its way into midrash associated with Hanukkah, in which Judith is able to get Holofernes drunk by plying him with salty cheese and wine. By the 14th century, cheese was established as a customary Hanukkah food, as mentioned in the gloss on the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the 1500s. Cheese likely lost out to the humble potato, which came to Eastern Europe as late as the 19th century. At a time when chicken fat was commonly used to cook, some speculate that cheese was pushed out of practice by the prohibition of mixing meat and milk.
Whatever the history, raise your forks this Hanukkah to salty cheese, powerful heroines, and the survival of the Jewish people.