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Jewish Customs in Judith

The book of Judith provides evidence for a number of early, biblically based Jewish practices that never became part of the standard practice of rabbinic Judaism.

Lucas Cranach the Elder

The book of Judith was composed sometime after the Hebrew Bible was completed. It came into being, however, considerably earlier than the books that canonized rabbinic law (the Mishnah and the Talmud). Thus, Jewish customs recorded in Judith were influenced by the Hebrew Bible and reflect an earlier Judaism than that practiced today. The Jewish customs in Judith relate to fasting, widowhood, kosher food, immersion, conversion, and slavery.

Judith, a pious widow, lives her days in mourning and fasting on the roof of her house (Jdt 8:4). Fasting is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible but not as a perpetual mourning practice. The idea that one fasts while in mourning (especially in memory of the destruction of the temple) eventually became a common Jewish practice, but it is first recorded in the book of Judith. It never became customary to fast and mourn for a prolonged period.

The book of Judith expects its heroine to remain a widow. She has already been a widow for over three years when her story opens (Jdt 8:4), and she returns to the practices of her widowhood once she accomplishes her mission, dying a widow as well (Jdt 16:21-23). In other words, remarriage for a widow is out of the question. This ideal is represented neither in the Hebrew Bible nor in later Jewish sources. Even in the ascetic writings of the contemporary Dead Sea Scrolls, although remarriage after divorce was forbidden, it was seen as unproblematic after the death of a spouse. The custom of perpetual widowhood, then, though offered as an ideal by this Jewish book, never became a Jewish custom.

While at the Assyrian camp, Judith prepares and eats her own food, refusing table-fellowship with the Assyrian general Holofernes (Jdt 12:2). This custom is part of the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut given in the Hebrew Bible that are in force even today in Orthodox Jewish circles. One might imply from this custom that table fellowship with foreigners on their own “turf” was prohibited.

Also while in the Assyrian camp, Judith goes nightly to the nearby spring to immerse herself (Jdt 12:7). Immersion was practiced in Second Temple Judaism to remove impurity. It was also practiced by sectarians such as the Essenes on a daily basis, as a sign of piety. Immersion in Judaism today is practiced only by women after menstruation and certainly not on a daily basis, but Judith’s daily immersion is a sign of her piety.

Before she dies, Judith sets her loyal female slave free (Jdt 16:23). The Hebrew Bible commands the Israelites to set free their male Hebrew slaves after seven years of labor (Exod 21:2) but this text speaks of a female, who is treated like a gentile slave. No law instructs Jews to set gentile slaves free. Perhaps the book of Judith wishes to promote a custom popular among non-Jews of releasing slaves after a long service. This custom, however, never took hold in Judaism while slavery was still practiced.

Finally, the book of Judith reports the conversion to Judaism of the Ammonite Achior. The Hebrew Bible explicitly forbids Ammonites and Moabites to join the congregation of Israel (Deut 23:3). By welcoming this proselyte, the book of Judith joins the book of Ruth in opposing this biblical injunction.

  • Tal Ilan

    Tal Ilan was born in Israel and is professor of Jewish Studies at the Freie Universität, Berlin (Germany).