Yehudit bat Merari (c. 2nd century BCE) was a Jewish woman who lived in the town of Bethulia in Israel. Her husband, Menashe, fought and died with the Maccabees during the Chanukah wars against the Syrian-Greeks. When a massive Greek legion led by General Holofernes invaded her village, the local men were too frightened to fight back. Taking matters into her own hands, the young widow (together with her maid) crossed enemy lines and pretended to be a Greek spy. Slowly, she got closer to the Greek authorities and eventually made it to the tent of Holofernes. One night, Judith plied him with wine and fed him cheese until he was asleep. She then decapitated him with his own sword. Judith brought the head back to the fearful Israelites and roused them to attack the Greeks. Her inspirational words and wise military counsel led to a monumental Jewish victory. Jewish texts credit this event as the turning point of the war, leading to the recapture and re-dedication of the Holy Temple, the preservation of Judaism, and the ultimate collapse of the Syrian-Greek empire. Judith is often listed as one of the genuine prophetesses of Israel, and a great heroine like Esther, Deborah, Yael, and many others before her. (She was even canonized as a saint in Catholicism!) In honour of her feat, it is customary to eat dairy products during the 8-day festival of Chanukah, and for women to abstain from any work while the Chanukah lights are burning. Judith continued to lead the nation until her passing at the age of 105.
Having entered the month of Adar, famous for the holiday of Purim and the heroics of Queen Esther, it is fitting to speak of the very first Jewish heroine: Sarah (c. 1803-1677 BCE). According to the Talmud, Sarah was among the four most beautiful women that ever lived (as was Esther). She was the first matriarch of Israel, and in many ways the first Jewish woman; a wise teacher and a great prophetess who “made souls” (see Genesis 12). A woman of great strength, she survived two abductions over the course of her travels across the Middle East, from present-day Iraq, to Syria, Israel and Egypt. Miraculously, she became pregnant at age 90. Sarah reached such a level of holiness that her tent shone with the Divine Presence. Sarah (שרה) is not to be confused with a lesser-known Biblical character: Serah (שרח). With her expert musical skills, Serah (also spelled Serach, or Serakh) soothed and saved her grandfather Jacob from devastation. Legend has it that for this she was blessed with immortality, living to the times of the Exodus and helping Moses in some of his endeavours. In fact, many believe she was the very person who identified Moses as the redeemer of Israel! Having never died, it is said Serah owns a palace in the afterlife where she teaches the Word of God to the masses.
Words of the Week
We, all of Israel, are emissaries of God, each of us has Divine Providence decreed for us. None of us is free from this sacred task placed on our shoulders… – Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch (1880-1950)
Rivka bat Betuel (c. 1677-1554 BCE) Often known simply as “Rebecca”, she is famous for being one of the four Matriarchs of Israel, wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau. A prophetess of the highest degree, she communicated with God to determine the fates of her twin children. Later, she out-prophesied her husband and drafted an ingenious plan for Jacob to rightfully receive the divine blessings (thus ensuring Jewish survival and continuity). Rivka is the Torah’s epitome of modesty, true love and purity. In fact, the first time the Torah mentions the words “love” and “virgin” are in regards to her. Embodying an incredible measure of strength – perhaps the first icon of girl power – she single-handedly watered Eliezer’s 10 camels. (That’s about 2000 litres of water that she personally hauled from a well!) Yom Kippur is her birthday.
Words of the Week
It’s better to eat in order to pray, than to pray in order to eat. – Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866)