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During the Greek rule over Judea a Jewish mother and her seven sons dared defy the cruel monarch Antiochus Epiphanes. According to the Book of II Maccabees, the Jewish mother and her seven sons were brought before the monarch and commanded to bow to an idol. First the eldest son stood before the monarch and refused to bow down, declaring that it is forbidden in the Torah. At this point Antiochus appealed to the mother to persuade the boy to bow down and save his life. Instead, the mother encouraged her son to follow the teachings of the Torah, whereupon the boy was subjected to horrific torture until he died. The mother withstood intense agony while her seven sons were tortured to death, one by one dying for Kiddush Hashem. The story ends with a short note to the effect that after the deaths of her sons, she too died.

The story is further elaborated in IV Maccabees. This version is substantially a retelling of the II Maccabees story with expanded philosophical justification that includes the depiction of the mother’s death as suicide, perpetrated in order to escape abuse by her captors.


In Rabbinic literature the story undergoes radical changes. In a chronological shift the incident takes place in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion and the persecutions that followed during the second century C.E.

In the Talmud Bavli the story is greatly elaborated upon. Here we learn that the youngest son was not yet weaned: the mother nurses him until his gruesome martyrdom whereupon she commits suicide. In Eicha Rabbah the mother is given a name: she is referred to as Miriam, daughter of Tanchum.  Her role is much enhanced in both rabbinic versions, in which she sends a message to Avraham Avinu, telling him that her trial was much more severe than his had been when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac.

Only in late medieval period, in another version of the story, is the mother called Chanah. The first instance is in the Book of Josiphon, from the year 1160 C.E. Scholars propose that the name was adopted from a verse in Shmuel Aleph referring to Chanah, mother of Shmuel: “The barren woman bears seven.”

Ever since, the tragic tale is told and retold as “Chanah and Her Seven Sons.”

Judaism does not advocate martyrdom. On the contrary, we are encouraged to live, not to die, for the sake of our commandments, great and small. And yet our Kedoshim, the holy martyrs of our history, are held in the highest esteem. The Aseret Harugei Malchut, the great rabbanim who were martyred during the Roman persecution, like Rabi Akiva, Rabi Tarfon, Rabi Yishmael, etc., are included in the Yom Kippur davening.

The most often told tale of martyrdom, however, is Channah and her seven sons.

It is the Jewish mother’s martyrdom that inspires most powerfully and has exercised the greatest impact.

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