Jewish Customs in Judith by Tal Ilan

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, "Jewish Customs in Judith", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2022]. Online:


Tal Ilan

Tal Ilan
Professor, Freie Universität

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

A person who abstains from worldly pleasures, usually for religious reasons.

Formally recognized within a religion; most commonly describes books of the Bible or Christian saints.

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

Also known as the rules of kashrut (the system for keeping kosher), these are the biblical laws stating what it is permissible for Israelites to eat. The laws appear primarily in Lev 11 and Deut 14, though a few appear elsewhere.

An ascetic sect of early Judaism whose adherents probably included the inhabitants of Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

a person who is not Jewish

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A general of Nebuchadnezzar who attacked Israel, according to the Book of Judith, but was ultimately beheaded by Judith.

Completely surrounding a person in something. Within Christianity, it refers to baptisms where the baptized person is dunked entirely underwater, as opposed to having water poured over them.

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The Jewish system of dietary rules. Among other things, it prohibits pork and shellfish, requires meat products and milk products to be eaten separately, and mandates a specific method of slaughtering animals.

Permitted within the Jewish system of dietary rules.

A collection of rabbinic interpretations of biblical law. The Mishnah records the judgments of a group of rabbis called tannaim (as distinct from the amoraim, whose interpretations of the Mishnah are recorded in the Talmud). According to tradition, the Mishnah was compiled and edited by a rabbi named Judah the Prince around 200 C.E.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

An arrangement whereby widows dedicated themselves to charity and were supported by the early church, as early as the first century C.E.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

Jdt 8:4

4Judith remained as a widow for three years and four months

Jdt 8:4

4Judith remained as a widow for three years and four months

Jdt 16:21-23

The Renown and Death of Judith
21After this they all returned home to their own inheritances. Judith went to Bethulia, and remained on her estate. For the rest ... View more

Jdt 12:2

2But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.”

Jdt 12:7

7So Holofernes commanded his guards not to hinder her. She remained in the camp three days. She went out each night to the valley of Bethulia, and bathed at the ... View more

Jdt 16:23

23She became more and more famous, and grew old in her husband's house, reaching the age of one hundred five. She set her maid free. She died in Bethulia, and t ... View more

Exod 21:2

2When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.

Deut 23:3

3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly ... View more

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