Yehudit to Berenice

The tale of two Jewish woman who each attempted to save the Second Temple. Find out why one succeeded when the other failed.

Women 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of
Women 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of
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 Roman Empire.
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 failure.
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 destroyed.
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 without hope.”
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 appearance.
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 Jew.
Josephus Flavius also ignored Yehudit, but had good reason, for her story could put him, an adopted member of the Flavian family, in grave danger.
Rome was well aware of the romance between Titus and Berenice, the beautiful, red-headed and blue-eyed Jewish princess.
According to 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 Legion.
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.
Larcus Lapidus 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 innocent people.
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.
Berenice followed 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 experiences.
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.