When I was in synagogue this past week, I learned about a peculiar minhag (custom) in Jewish practice: eating cheese on Chanukah. In spite what people might think, latkes, or potato pancakes [commonly eaten on Chanukah], were not originally derived from potatoes, but from cheese. Considering that the potato was a New World crop, this would make sense. But that isn't the disturbing part. It's how the practice of eating cheese on Chanukah began. The origin of this practice is first mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch by the Rema, also known as R. Moshe Isserles. In it, the Rema attributes this practice to the milk that "Judith (יהודית) fed to the enemy."
This made me ask an initial, but important question: who in the world is Judith? The Book of Judith is a deuterocanonical text, which is to say that this text made it into Christian Scripture, but never made it in the Jewish version of the Bible (Tanach). Why was this text not considered for the Jewish canon? The story itself could provide some context.
Although the text was allegedly written in Hebrew, the oldest surviving text is in ancient Greek. What the text depicts is that the Greeks conquered Judea, and the evil general Holofernes declared that all the Jewish virgin females had to sleep with a Greek official or be punished by death. Someone had to stop the madness, so Judith took it upon herself to do so. Essentially, Judith used her good looks to enter the Greek camp and seduce Holofernes. One night, she fed him cheese, which made him thirsty for wine. This was the point where she brought Holofernes to the point of inebriation, after which she decapitated Holofernes. The decapitation eroded the Greek morale, and the Greeks retreated.
Whether it's that Judith decapitated someone or that she used her sexual allure and prowess to get the job done, using Judith as an example of valor was probably something that the rabbis didn't want women emulating. Is the message that religious communities want to send to their daughters that exploiting a situation by using your sexual appeal is acceptable as long as the ends justify the means? Perhaps this is why the Book of Judith never made it into Jewish canon, or perhaps it is due to the historical anachronisms in the text or its possible Greek origin. What's even more ridiculous about using this as a basis for a minhag for Chanukah is that Holofernes wasn't Greek; he was Assyrian. This story took place during the rule of Nebuchadnezzar (6 c. B.C.E.), which was centuries before the Chanukah story, so the connection between Judith and Chanukah is literally inconceivable. It's also interesting to note that the earliest mention of this practice is during the 14th century.
I don't like the fact that a practice in Judaism, even if it's a minor one, is based on an apocryphal, fictional text with historical inaccuracies and a problematic protagonist. Fortunately, I was able to find another explanation for this practice because the primary, traditional one was very perturbing. This insight comes from the Ben Ish Chai. When the Greeks occupied Judea, they banned three specific Jewish institutions: maintaining the Jewish calendar [based on the lunar cycle], Shabbat, and circumcision. The Hebrew word for "month" is חודש, which begins with ח. The second letter of the word Shabbat (שבת) is ב. The third letter in the word מילה (a ברית מילה is the Hebrew term for circumcision) is ל. These three letters spell the world חלב, which is the Hebrew word for "milk," which gives us the basis for eating dairy on Chanukah.
It's a tenuous explanation, but let's go with it. The story of Chanukah took place during a time when the Greek rulers banned practices vital to Jewish observance. Milk is a source of sustenance. Not only does the Bible refer to Israel as the "land of milk and honey" (e.g., Exodus 3:8, 33:3; Deuteronomy 31:20), but milk symbolizes life in Judaism, as is observed by the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy. Much like milk can nurture life, Jewish rituals and practices nourish the Jewish people.
On the one hand, the universalist morals and ethics are a vital part of Judaism. On the other hand, without the ritualistic, particularistic practices, there is nothing to distinguish Judaism from other world religions. If consuming dairy products on Chanukah is to remind us of anything, it is that studying Torah, Shabbat, affixing mezzuzot, and the plethora of Jewish ritualistic practice engenders, vitalizes, and helps define Jewish spirituality.