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Celebrating Hanukkah in the Middle Ages

By Cait Stevenson

“Instead of one day of presents / we have eight crazy nights,” sings Adam Sandler, and “So when you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree.” He illustrates the pattern quite nicely. Even in jest, even in the Jewish imagination, commercialism and consumerism have turned Hanukkah into a shadow-holiday of its Christian calendrical cousin, Christmas.

In medieval Europe, however, this was not so. Hanukkah was a minor holiday then, as now, but a minor holiday that needed celebrating. Its model or partner for how was no Christian feast but a perennial Jewish favorite: Purim.

Purim, of course, is the festival celebrating the victory of Esther and Mordecai over the evil Haman recounted in the biblical book of Esther. Hanukkah similarly celebrates an event described in one of the Books of Maccabees—but that’s not how medieval Jews saw it! Instead, they partnered Hanukkah with the story of Judith in her deuterocanonical biblical book. Esther’s bravery helped thwart Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews; Judith snuck into Holofernes’ tent and hacked off his head with a sword. There was a certain symmetry to the medieval Jewish mind, apparently, that wanted to balance Esther with Judith and Purim with a Judith-holiday. The chosen candidate was Hanukkah.

Detail of an historiated initial ‘I'(n diebus) of King Ahasuerus’ feast with Esther, princes and three musicians, at the beginning the Book of Esther. British Library MS Royal 1 E IX f. 132v

But the biblical element of the two stories, propagated in texts like the Megillat Yehudit (Judith Scroll) must not cover up the facts of celebrating those stories. Purim, you might know, is the festival where rabbis hand out booze in the streets. Drinking and eating for joy and pleasure is a religious obligation! So too we find this as the central component of celebrating medieval Hanukkah. For example, one halakhic opinion—legal decision—attributed to Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg addresses the penance he prescribed for one woman in a case of her child’s accidental but preventable death:

He required her to fast for a full year, without eating meat or drinking wine, with the exception of Sabbaths, festivals, the New Moon, Hanukkah and Purim, when [not only] should she refrain from fasting but she should eat meat and drink wine. For those holidays and New Moons and Hanukkah and Purim that she does not fast, she should fast on the same number of additional days until she has completed a 365-day fast. (trans. Elisheva Baumgarten)

In other words, it was important enough to celebrate Hanukkah, like Purim, by eating and drinking and feasting, to delay the completion of penance!

This decision, you might agree, was only fair. A holiday centered on food and feasting was a holiday predicated on food preparation. So while Purim and Hanukkah in the Middle Ages already focused attention on two stellar women of Jewish history, Esther and Judith, the mode of celebration centered on the efforts of contemporary Jewish women as well!

Marginal illustration of people celebrating Purim. On folio 209v: in the upper margin a foliate scroll with a duck, a magpie and a dog chasing a rabbit; in the outer margin a man with a jar and a glass; in the lower margin men playing dice. On folio 210: in the outer margin, a hunter with a stick full of game on his shoulder, attacked by a lion (?) from behind; in the lower margin: two men at a campfire, one is about to smite the other with a club. British Library MS Additional 26968 ff. 209v-210

French rabbi Kalonymos ben Kalonymos and the Megillat Yehudit both make the connection explicit. Kalonymos’ poem Even Bohan asserts:

The important women should gather,
Knowledgeable about making lavish foods and special fried foods (levivot)
[…] They bake the dough and make different kinds of tasty food from the mixture
[…] And the joy should be what is proper to festivals, with joy over every single cup. (trans. Weingarten)

Both texts, furthermore, indicate particular kinds of food associated with the celebration of Hanukkah, including pan-fried cakes and honey porridge.

Miniature of Judith and Holofernes, in the Bible Historiale. British Library MS Yates Thompson 20 f. 215

And while “tradition” with religious holidays so often dates back only decades or a century, there’s one Hanukkah-associated food that has not just its origins in the Middle Ages, but specifically medieval Hanukkah origins: cheese.

Fourteenth-century Iberian rabbi Rabbenu Nissam writes,

[Judith] gave the chief enemy cheese to eat to make him drunk and they cut off his head and everyone fled. Because of this there is a custom to eat cheese on Hanukkah.

Not only is the custom of eating cheese tied to the association of Hanukkah with Judith, not the actual origins with the Maccabean revolt, but it is tied specifically to the medieval legendary version recorded in the Megillat Yehudit. Biblical Judith feeds Holofernes no cheese. Megillat Yehudit feeds him several foods, including cheese and the levivot fried dish mentioned by Kalonymos, that recall the deeds of other biblical heroes—most notably fellow victorious woman warrior Jael, who drove a tent post into Sisera.

So, as Adam Sandler encourages us, it’s more than fitting that you “tell your friend Veronica / it’s time to celebrate Hanukkah.” In remembrance and in preparation, medieval Hanukkah seems to have been a surprisingly women-oriented or women-involved holiday in a overwhelmingly patriarchal calendar of them.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Top Image: Preparing food in the Rotschild Haggadah

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