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Women and Chanukah

Chanah and her Seven Sons


The martyrdom of a heroic mother and her seven sons occupies a prominent place in the Chanukah story, and has inspired generations of Jews. Although a brief version of this story is presented in the Talmud and Midrash, the Book of Maccabees and Yosipon (Josephus) give much lengthier and detailed accounts, with significant variations. The story is briefly summarized in the liturgy for the first Sabbath of Chanukah, by R. Yosef bar Shlomo (Otzar HaTefilos and Avodas Yisrael, p. 637) and Machzor Roma. This liturgy is quoted by Rashi (Yechezkel 21:18; see Amudei HaAvodah p. 96). The following is adapted from Yosipon.

Before Antiochus left Jerusalem to return to Antioch, his capital in Syria, he appointed Philip governor of Judea. Antiochus ordered Philip to execute a program of harsh anti-Jewish decrees. One of the decrees was: 'Whoever will acquiesce to my command, bow to my image, eat pig's meat, and reject the religion of Moses' Torah will live. Whoever refuses shall be killed without pity.' Phillip decided to initiate the campaign with a dramatic public example of Jewish submissiveness, one that would break the back of Jewish stubbornness. He arrested an aged and respected sage, Elazar the Kohen, and ordered him to prostrate himself before the king's image and to eat from the pig that had been sacrificed in Antiochus's honor. But Elazar steadfastly clung to his convictions and chose a martyr's death instead.

Thwarted and frustrated, Phillip struck again. He arrested Chanah and her seven sons. Although Antiochus was on the way to Antioch, he was still not far from Jerusalem. Learning of the events in Jerusalem, he decided to participate personally in the execution of his decree. Chanah and her children were brought to him.

One of Chanah's seven sons—the oldest—was brought before Antiochus. Apparently the king thought it wiser to achieve his end through conciliatory means, especially since he was dealing with youngsters whom he thought he could win over through flattery and bribes. Antiochus conversed with him at length to entice him to break God's covenant and to abandon the Torah of his nation.

The youth responded, 'Why do you trouble yourself with long conversations, to speak of and to teach us the religions of your abominations? Our forefathers have already taught us God's Torah. We stand ready to ascend to God, for we welcome death for the sake of God and His Torah. So we have promised our forefathers! Why need you speak more? Dispatch us speedily to Hashem our God—kill us!'

Hearing his words, the king flew into a rage. He commanded that an iron frying-pan be brought and put on the fire. He ordered his servant to cut off the boy's tongue, hands, and feet, flay the skin of his head, and place everything upon the frying pan over the fire, while his brothers and mother were forced to watch. Then, the victim—still alive—was put in a copper pot over burning coals. As he was about to die, Antiochus commanded Phillip to remove the fire from under the pot so that he would not die rapidly. In this manner he hoped to intimidate the boy's mother and brothers so that they would obey the king.

They, watching their brother die, said to one another, "Moses the servant of God declared in his song, 'When Hashem will judge His people, He will relent toward his servants' (Deuteronomy 32:36). Now, as a result of our suffering, God will relent from the harm He has decreed upon His people and will have compassion on them."

And the first brother died.

Then they brought the second brother. The king's nobles and servants exhorted him saying: "We beseech you—obey the king's directive! Why must you die with great suffering as your brother died?"

Proudly, he answered them: "Hurry with your fire and sword and do as you will with me—do not omit anything that you inflicted upon my brother! I am not inferior to him in devotion, pureness of soul or fear of God."

Thereupon, Antiochus bade his men to cut off all the boy's limbs, to put them in the frying pan over the fire, and to do to him as had been done to his brother.

He told the king, "Woe unto you, you pitiless tyrant. Do you think you can take our souls and wrap them in your cloak to do with them as you wish? They go to God Who bestowed them, to the place of the great light that is with God. When God will awaken the dead of His people and His martyred servants, we will yet live endless, boundless lives. But you? Your soul will be consigned to everlasting abhorrence!"

Then they brought in the third brother and the king turned to look at him. He faced Antiochus and said, "Woe to you, wicked foe! Why do you seek to intimidate me? It is to no avail. We fear not, nor are our hearts anxious, for we know that God's will is to atone through us for His nation, Israel. From Heaven this has come upon us, from there this punishment has reached us. We accept it all with love. But as for you, you are disgraced and despicable in our eyes, and all your tortures and punishment are nought to us. From our God we look forward to honor and kindness. He will reward us for our deeds, but you will be wretched!"

The king and his nobles were flabbergasted at the lofty spirit of this young man.

Then he, too, was murdered.

The fourth brother was brought before the king. He said, "Do not say anything to me, you vicious person. Your plans will not avail you, lawless one. Do not bore me with your conversation, but do as you wish with my body. My soul will ascend to God my Savior; we shall die for God's Torah. God will return to resurrect us and we shall arise before Him. But for you there will be no resurrection or life."

Then Antiochus killed the fourth brother.

The fifth brother was brought, and he said to Antiochus: "Do not suppose that God has handed us over to you to exalt you, or that you are deserving of honor. Nor is it because He hates us that He wants us to stand in judgment before you on this day. Rather it is because He loves us that He has granted us this honor. As for you—in vain do you think that your cruelty can make us believe in your pagan deity. To the contrary. Your name and your progeny will be wiped off the earth, for God's wrath and His vengeance will be kindled against you and your household. It is true that God is angry with us and has incited you to do what you are to do to us, but He will wreak vengeance upon you and your progeny."

They killed him as cruelly as the others.

Then the sixth brother was brought. He spoke up, saying, "We are aware of our wickedness and of the sins of our forefathers, for we have sinned against God. Now, since God is content to let our death atone for the nation, we go to our death. But you, who dare to perpetrate such punishment upon the servants of our God and to wage war against Him—He will wage war upon you and uproot you from the land of the living!"

And Antiochus killed the sixth brother.

Then the seventh brother—a mere child—was brought. The saintly mother of these children, the pious Chanah, all of whose sons were sentenced to a gruesome death in one day, felt no fear nor did she lose her composure. She recited psalms and exclaimed, 'The mother of the children is joyous, Halleluyah (Psalms 113:9)!'

She stood courageously over her slain children—over their limbs which lay strewn about on the ground and said, "My children, my children! I do not know how you entered my innards. I did not fashion your bodies in my womb, nor did I bequeath life and soul to you. I did not raise or exalt you. Rather Hashem, the God of Israel, created you. He built up your frame, He wove your veins, He grew flesh over you, covered it with skin, sprouted hair over it, breathed the breath of life into you, and brought you out into the light of this world and its air. Now, since you chose to give up your lives for His holy Torah, to die a quick death and to depart from a short life, He will return your souls to you, He will give breath back to you and you shall live. You shall be saved from eternal death and will inherit eternal life, my children, and He will reward you for your deeds. You are fortunate, and fortunate are your parents! May God's providence be with you as He has been with your forefathers."

The king marveled at her courage. Phillip was crestfallen that a woman had triumphed over them.

Said Antiochus: "Bring the seventh brother, who is yet a young lad; perhaps I can persuade him to do my will. Let not a woman boast that she has defeated King Antiochus and inspired her young son to die for the Torah of her God."

So they brought the seventh brother—a mere child—before the king. Antiochus implored him saying: "Do my will and I swear to you I will appoint you as my viceroy; you will reign over my entire kingdom. You will be wealthy, with gold and silver and many possessions."

The lad, contemptuous of the king's proposal, answered him: "You old, foolish king! How can you boast of a false gift? You do not even know what today will bring. How can you propose to foretell the morrow?"

Upon hearing this, the king answered harshly, threatening the boy with the various tortures he would inflict upon him if he persevered in his refusal to do the royal will.

The lad retorted, "'Why do you pride yourself with evil, O mighty warrior? The kindness of God is all day long' (Psalm 52:3). Hurry-do as you have said. Do not delay. God has made my journey successful, so let me embark upon it."

Hearing the youngster's words, the king was amazed. He summoned the lad's mother. She stood before him with her hands tied. Antiochus said to her, "Good woman! Have compassion upon this child, have pity upon the fruit of your womb! Persuade him to do my will so that you will have at least one surviving child, and you will live and not be destroyed!"

She answered, "Give him to me, I will take him aside at a distance from you. Perhaps I will be able to convince him."

The boy was brought to his mother. Chanah took him a short distance away. She kissed him and smiled contemptuously at the king's humiliation. Said she to her child, "My son! Meditate upon my words and understand them. I carried you nine months in my belly. For two years I nursed you. Since then I have nurtured you with food and drink, till this day. I also taught you about the fear of God and His Torah, as your ability and years allowed. Now my son! Open your eyes and see Heaven and earth, sea and land, fire, water, wind, and all the other creations. Contemplate them and be aware that 'with the word of Hashm were the Heavens made' (Psalms 33:6). Afterwards God created man, to serve Him perfectly, to cleave to Him, and to cultivate the fear of God in his heart. God will reward him for his deeds. The assurances of man are vain and empty—they will not avail nor give success. It is all nothing compared to the everlasting world to come.

"Now my son! Let not this merciless tyrant reassure you with deceitful promises, do not rely upon his pronouncements—for what can he give you? What can a human, who has no control over his own body, over his own life give, ? The king sees that he is condemned before God for killing your brothers, therefore he persists in vindicating himself, hoping God will forgive him. He thinks that if he convinces you and you do not die, his compassion on you will save him from God's judgment.

"Now my son! If you submit to him, you may be temporarily saved from his judgment. But how will you escape God's judgment if you exchange His Torah for the king's folly?! God controls your life's breath and can take your soul to Him if He so desires. He can destroy you and every creature on earth in one second. It would be sacrilege for you to do submit to the king! Listen to me—die for God! Go as your brothers did!

"My son. Would that I could now see the greatness of your glorious place, where we would be illuminated with God's light and rejoice and exult together. As for me, my son, I will come to you there with joy, and rejoice with you as if I had participated in your wedding. Let me have a share in your holiness and righteousness."

As Chanah had spoken to him at length, the lad responded and said, "Why do you delay me from going to my martyred brothers? I do not intend to obey the king. I will not listen to him. His words and promises are nothing to me. Rather I will listen and submit only to the Torah of our God, which was given through Moshe our teacher, peace be upon him, to Israel the Holy nation."

With that Chanah returned her son to the king and said, "He is in your hands. I could not convince him."

Again the king said to the lad, "Woe, you silly child! Why do you not take my advice, do my will and not die?"

The boy answered, "Woe to you, old and foolish king, tyrant and foe of God! In the eyes of whom do you seek glory, that you attempt to aggrandize yourself by bragging that you have triumphed with your arguments and foolish enticements over me, a boy of seven years, while you are a man of seventy years? I scoff at your foolishness, but you have refuse to be shamed. I believe in the Torah of Hashem our God, Whom you have blasphemed and profaned in word and deed. Yet I do not take heed of your delusion and folly.

"As for you, you foolish king, woe to you! Where will you hide from our God's spirit? Where will you flee from Him? Wicked foe! Lawless man! God will one day exalt and elevate us, but as for you—who conspired to lay hands upon His servants—you would have been better had you never left the womb of your vile mother who bore an ignoramus and fool such as you. You have harmed yourself, but you have benefited us. Though here, in this world, we suffer the pain of your judgments, we go to an everlasting life, to the place of light where there is no darkness, to the place of life where death does not exist. But you will remain an abomination to all mankind, loathsome and far removed from God. He will wreak vengeance upon you. You will die an unnatural death, suffering many afflictions and excruciating pain. To the nethermost abyss will you sink, a place where there is no light or life. It is the place of darkness, it is overshadowed by death. There you will find neither rest nor solace. Instead calamity and distress will embrace you, fire and brimstone will surround you; this is your lot from my God, as befits a blood thirsty and lawless man.

"Hashem our God will have compassion upon His people, and bestow mercy upon His devout ones. Until now His wrath was upon us, but from now on He will be angry with us no longer and He will reconsider all that He has done to us. For Hashem has acted with truth and justice and we have sinned before Him. Nonetheless He will once again have compassion upon us and repress our iniquities for the sake of His Name. He will accept our punishment as atonement for all of Israel, and will make our souls live an eternal life."

The king was enraged that his will had not been done. He commanded that the soldiers beat this last son even more brutally and severely than his brothers, and they killed him too.

According to the version of this story in the Talmud (Gittin 57a), Antiochus offered the youngest child a chance to save himself. "I will throw my signet ring in front of you so that you can bend down to pick it up. Then people, thinking you bowed to me, will say that you have accepted my authority."

But the little boy mocked the monarch, "Woe to you, O King, woe to you, O King! If your own prestige is so important to you, how much more prestige is due to the Holy One, Blessed is He?!"

As they removed him to be killed his mother pleaded, "Give him to me so that I can kiss him briefly!"

She spoke to him, as if speaking to all her seven sons. "My children, go and tell your ancestor Abraham, 'You bound only one [son upon the] altar, but I have bound seven!'"

Then their mother, the holy Chanah, pious and pure, who was unique in her devotion, stood over the seven bodies that lay upon the earth, strewn about her, and lifted her hands skyward.

And Chanah prayed, "My heart exults in Hashem. My pride is uplifted through my God, for through my sons He has chosen to reconsider His wrath against His people, that may they again be His servants. My mouth opens wide against my enemies, for they were unable to entice even one of my sons to turn to the service of their idols which are worthless, powerless and as nought. There is none as holy as Hashem, and no one but He is the savior of the souls that trust in Him. Do not increase your haughty bombast, you foes of Hashem, enemies of Yehudah and Israel! Let not haughty talk escape your mouths, saying that you have triumphed with your might, that your gods have power.

"Hashem is the God Who knows all, Who counts all deeds. Just as He has punished us for our sins and those of our forefathers, so will the God of our Salvation return and have compassion upon us, while the enemies of Yehudah will be destroyed."

To this she added, "God Who is above all powers, exalted and awesome, God of the world, Hashem! Please, Hashem, grant success now to Your maidservant Chanah. Gather in my soul and let not the foe smite me, let not the infidel mock me, let him not defile me. Show me the place You have designated for Your servants, my sons who died for the holiness of Your Torah; bestow upon me a small portion together with them. All Your creatures shall laud You, Your devout ones shall bless You, and so will I together with them."

When she finished praying and pouring out her supplication to God, her soul departed her and her spirit left her. She fell over the bodies of her sons and lay upon the earth together with them.

Reprinted with the permission from The Artscroll Mesorah Series - Chanukah

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