Alongside the military and religious triumphs that we celebrate on Hanukkah, there is an episode of moving personal tragedy that is also part of the festival narrative. I am referring to the story of the woman whose seven sons were cruelly murdered before her eyes by the heathen oppressors as they chose martyrdom rather than betray their religious principles.
This story is attested in ancient writings in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, and it continued to circulate in virtually every language spoken by Jews, including Ladino, Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic. In each setting in which the tale was retold it was adapted to reflect the values and realities of its locality—and regrettably, religious persecution and calls to martyrdom were recurring realities of Jewish history
The earliest known version of the story is found in the Second Book of Maccabees [= 2 Maccabees], a work that was included among the scriptures of the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt. In that tale, which was inserted in order to explain the motives for the Maccabean uprising, it was the emperor Antiochus Epiphanes himself who commanded the unnamed woman to eat pork. When she refused, the tyrant ordered that each of her sons be subjected in turn to sadistic mutilation, torture and death; yet they all proclaimed their faith in the God who will restore them to life and exact vengeance from their tormentors. After the Emperor failed in his attempt to entice the youngest child to betray his faith by promising him glorious rewards, the mother urged him to join in the collective martyrdom. Then she herself was put to death, but not before taunting the frustrated Antiochus’ for his failure to bully his Jewish victims into submission. In the work known as 4 Maccabees the mother puts an end to her life by leaping into a fire.
The books of Maccabees were not known to the talmudic sages; however, they were included in the Greek Bible that was adopted by the early Roman Catholic church. In fact, in standard Catholic parlance the epithet “Machabees” was applied not to the Hasmonean fighters who drove out the Greeks from the Temple, but to the martyred mother and her seven sons, who are honoured as saints on August 1. In Christian tradition she came to be known as “Salomona.”
Nevertheless, much of the story’s content as found in 2 Maccabees was “recovered” by Jewish posterity in the early Middle Ages when it was incorporated into the “Yosippon,” a Hebrew account of the Second Commonwealth woven together by a Jewish author in southern Italy from the works of Josephus Flavius, the Apocrypha and some Latin chronicles.
The tale also found its way, with significant differences of detail, into the Midrash and the Babylonian Talmud. In those accounts, the villain is an unidentified Roman “Caesar” or a generic “prince” or “king”, probably Vespasian or Hadrian (who is identified by name in one late midrash). As such it has no direct link to Hanukkah, but rather to the Great Revolt against Rome or to the Bar Kokhba uprising.
In the rabbinic versions, the act of apostasy that was demanded of the Jewish family is more blatant: not just the consumption of ritually forbidden meat, but the actual worship of idols. The grisly descriptions of torture and executions are missing from most of those texts. Each son is killed in an unspecified way, after he quotes an appropriate scriptural text that prohibits abandoning the one true God or worshipping idols. In the rabbinic traditions the youngest child (identified in the Midrash as a 2 ½-year-old) is offered—and rejects—the option of bending down to pick up the Emperor’s ring in a way that will merely appear outwardly as if he were bowing in worship.
A boldly poignant addition to the rabbinic tale has the mother instructing her children—or the youngest of them—that upon arriving in the next world, they should pay a visit to the patriarch Abraham and tell him: Don’t be so complacent, boasting how you erected an altar, prepared to offer up your son— Our mother erected seven altars and actually offered up seven sons in one day. You were only tested, but she carried it out!
The Talmud has the mother taking her own life by leaping from a roof. The Midrash, on the other hand, seems to have been bothered by this apparent endorsement of suicide, and therefore places that event some time later, when her anguish had driven her to madness.
In the Midrash to Lamentations the mother has a name: Miriam bat Tanḥum. Curiously, many modern retellings of the story speak of “Hannah and her seven sons,” a name which has no clear source in ancient texts. It does, however, appear in one of Maimonides’ letters and in some later manuscripts of the Yosippon. It was presumably inspired by the words of the biblical Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, who sang “the barren woman hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble,” a verse that was expounded by the rabbis in connection with this story.
It has been suggested that the increased prominence of the mother’s role in the rabbinic traditions might have originated as a competitive response to Christian portrayals of the virgin Mary who had to suffer through her son’s humiliation and death at the hands of the Romans. On the other hand, versions of the story that circulated in Arab-speaking lands significantly downplay—or completely eliminate— the mother’s role.
In the Midrash, the precocious youngest child (whose age is calculated as exactly two years, six months and six and a half hours!) participates in a sophisticated theological disputation in which he bests Caesar by quoting numerous biblical proof-texts to demonstrate the folly and futility of idol-worship. In a particularly ironic passage, Caesar turns down the mother’s plea to be executed prior to her youngest son by invoking the biblical precept regarding the slaughter of animals, “ye shall not kill it and her young both in one day.” The son retorts with a sardonic quip about the heathen’s very selective interest in Jewish religious precepts.
It has been argued that the version of the story that was current in northern France in the thirteenth century reflects circumstances that were specific to that Jewish community. It emphasized the role of the mother while compressing the stories of sons #1 – #6 into a simple “and so forth.” It went on at considerable length to describe how the mother persuaded the youngest son to remain loyal to his faith (the story is brought to illustrate the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”); and it stressed the specifically maternal aspects of her relationship with her children: pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. Similar themes were also common in Christian martyrological literature from that era.
Of course, the authors of those traditional Jewish religious works were not interested in presenting an objective historical record, rather, they wished to inspire their readers with spiritual values, including a readiness to submit to martyrdom in defense of their faith. As one version of the story concludes: “therefore all Israel are admonished to fear the Holy One so that they may partake of the merit of the righteous in Paradise.”
Several scriptural verses were expounded to counterbalance the mother’s horrible tragedy with assurances of the glorious rewards that await her in the next world. A favourite proof-text was: “He maketh a barren woman...a joyful mother of children.”
One tradition even appended a passage that depicts the protagonists’ situation as a precious religious opportunity. Although the story presumably took place in the land of Israel, the author of this addition found in it a lesson about the theological purpose of exile: “For this reason I have scattered you among nations who knew me not, in order that you should tell of my wonders and they shall learn that there is none other than me alone.”
It is to be hoped that sentiments of this sort provided consolation to the spiritual heroes whose sacrifices make it possible for us to continue celebrating Hanukkah as the “feast of dedication.”