Women have always played a remarkable role in Jewish history. However, two of
them – the possibly apocryphal Maccabean heroine Yehudit and the Hasmonean
princess Berenice – are hardly remembered today. Both attempted to save the
Second Temple. One succeeded and the other failed, yet both inspired numerous
poets, writers, sculptors and musicians. Painters from Michelangelo to Gustav
Klint tried to visualize them, while patriots of all nations regarded Judith as
a shining example of a heroine fighting tyranny.
Who was Yehudit (the
Jewess)? Was she a real person or a literary invention meant to warm the hearts
of the Maccabean defenders of Jerusalem, those brave women who during a siege
stood on the walls and poured boiling oil on the heads of Syrian invaders. There
has never been a festival in her name, and yet Yehudit, who saved the day,
continues to play an integral part – together with Hanna and her seven sons – in
Chabad’s celebration of Hanukka.
Queen Berenice, on the other hand, was
never popular, even when she stood barefooted, with her hair shaven, before the
Roman procurator Gessius Florus and begged that he stop spilling Jewish blood
and robbing Judea. And yet she came very close to becoming First Lady of the
The Book of Yehudit is included in the Septuagint, and is
read by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations, although it is rejected
by Protestants. It must have been very popular during the Maccabean upheaval
2,200 years ago, but interest faded when every bloody Jewish attempt to get rid
of the Roman occupation which replaced the Maccabean state ended in
Thus the Hebrew original of the book was lost, and only some
fragments, preserved in Greek translation, appeared in Jewish libraries as the
“Ma’ase Yehudit.” These fragments were read at Hanukka. And yet the story of the
Jewish people threatened by a barbarian with extinction is just as timely today
as it was yesterday.
According to at least one variant of the text, the
Jews (who had just returned from the Babylonian exile) were again threatened
with extinction by Nebuchanezzar, the mighty King of Babylon who claimed to be a
living god. Since no Jew would ever recognize such folly, an army of 120,000
footmen and 12,000 horses, led by his general Hloroferness, was ordered to
destroy Jerusalem and the Temple. On his way, Hloroferness laid siege to an
imaginary town of Betulia, even after he was warned by Achior the Ammonite, his
close adviser, that the Law-obeying Jews enjoyed heaven’s protection. He
reprimanded Achior: “Who is god except Nebuchadnezzar? He will send his forces
and will destroy them [the Hebrews] from the face of the Earth, and their God
will not deliver them… So says King Nebuchadnezzar, the lord of the whole Earth.
For he has spoken; none of his words will be in vain…” So the struggle was
between the God of Israel and Nebuchadnezzar. All other nations recognized the
man as their god, except for the obstinate Jews, who therefore had to be
After Betulia’s water supply had been cut, the thirsty
citizens were ready to surrender. However Yehudit, a wealthy and beautiful
widow, a good Orthodox Jewess, well-versed in the Law, urged further resistance
and took matters into her own hands by leaving the besieged town to meet
Hloroferness. She first prayed: “For your power depends not upon numbers, nor
Your might upon men of strength; for You are God of the lowly, helper of the
oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forlorn, savior of those
Having discarded her widow’s black robes Yehudit,
accompanied by her maid, then marched straight into the enemy’s camp. Everybody,
including the general, was stunned by her glorious and dignified
After a few days, Yehudit returned to Betulia with
Hloroferness’ severed head.
Her feat inspired the town’s defenders, who
then routed the enemy. Jerusalem and the Temple were saved.
PHILO ALEXANDRONI fails to mention Yehudit in his extensive historical essays.
Perhaps there was no place for her in the liberal library of this Alexandrian
Josephus Flavius also ignored Yehudit, but had good reason, for her
story could put him, an adopted member of the Flavian family, in grave
Rome was well aware of the romance between Titus and Berenice,
the beautiful, red-headed and blue-eyed Jewish princess.
Josephus, Titus had, on the eighth of Av, 70 CE (a day before the Second Temple
was burned) assembled a war council.
The council included Tiberius Julius
Alexander, the highestranking officer in his army.
Tiberias was a Jew and
the nephew of Philo Alexandroni, who left Judaism completely, having joined the
Roman forces as a young boy.
Alexander served as the procurator of Judea
from 46 to 48 CE, and was a prefect of Egypt in 66 CE. Other officers on the
council included Sextus Cerealis, commander of the Fifth Legion; Larcus Lapidus,
commander of the Tenth Legion, and Titus Frigus, commander of the 15th
Titus declared that he had ordered his men to extinguish the fire
which had already burned the Temple’s outside cloisters and could easily spread
inside. It was obvious, he said, that by burning the Temple, Romans would gain
an important military and psychological advantage, but he had doubts, and
therefore wished to hear the opinions of all concerned.
The question was
whether the Temple should be destroyed or preserved.
argued that the Temple ought to be burned, since “the Jews will continue to
rebel so long as it is standing.” To this, Titus replied that “although Jews
could get upon the roof of this holy building and fight us thence, yet we should
not avenge ourselves on things that are inanimate.” Once Titus expressed this
opinion, Alexander, Cerealis and Frigus joined him and an order was issued to
fight the enemy, but not with fire.
There was little doubt that Titus’
opinion, which made little military sense, was part of a pledge he had made to
his beloved Hasmonean queen Berenice. The daughter of the king of Israel,
Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, she was born in 28 CE and at 13 was
married first to Marcus Lysimachus, and when he died to Herod, King of Chalcis,
her father’s brother. Herod died in 48 CE, and since then she had lived with her
brother Agrippa II, except for her short marriage in 65 CE to Polemon II, King
of Cicilia. She was in Caesarea with Agrippa II in 60 CE when Saul/Paul was
tried before the Roman governor Festus (Acts 25).
The Jerusalem riots of
66 CE were provoked by the Romans, who slaughtered thousands of Jews in the
Jerusalem market. The riots led to an uprising against Roman oppression, and
found Berenice in Jerusalem in fulfilment of a vow she had made when she was
ill. She presented sacrifices at the Temple and risked her life by begging
Gessius Florus to stop his campaign of provocation and robbery, crucifying
Both she and King Agrippa II tried hard to stop the
riots. They opposed the freedom fighters – the “zealots” – warning them that
however just their cause, Rome ruled the world. But it was too late. In 66 CE
the zealots, provoked by Florus, attacked the Romans and expelled both Berenice
and King Agrippa from Jerusalem.
Agrippa later contributed 2,000 archers
and calvalry to the Titus force. But there could be little doubt that while both
Agrippa and Berenice opposed “the zealots,” they would do anything they could to
save the Temple.
Berenice failed. Josephus claims that an undisciplined
Roman soldier, eager for revenge and plunder, ignored Titus’ explicit
instructions and restarted the fire in the heat of battle. Titus ordered once
more that the fire be quenched, but it was too late.
Titus to Rome, and by 75 CE he had established her in his royal palace. The
Romans, however, did not look kindly on this romance, and so Vespasian ordered
his son to send her away. Is it Berenice who appears on the famous Roman Judea
Capta (Judea enslaved) coins issued to commemorate the Roman victory? This might
have been a cruel Vespasian maneuver.
After Vespasian’s death in 79 CE
Berenice returned to Rome.
THUS these two beautiful and wealthy Jewish
widows, the first a straightforward and unsophisticated matron, the second a
vain, aristocratic princess, entered the annals of history. Not only historians,
but countless writers, poets, painters and sculptors sought inspiration in their
But what makes Yehudit’s prayer very special is not only her
courage but her trust in the Almighty as a protector of the weak, poor and
persecuted. This prayer, written over 2,000 years ago, when poverty and weakness
were regarded as a curse, was unique.
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