Did Chana and Her Seven Sons Exist?

Many of us grew up learning the legend of Chana and her seven sons as part of the Chanuka story. We were taught that all seven of Chana’s sons were killed, one by one because they would not bow down to Antiochus’ idol. I remember learning this story in first grade and being very disturbed by it.

While revisiting the story, I found that the facts were not as clear as I had been taught and that the story actually has many versions and variations.

There is an account in the Talmud, Gittin 57b where the story is told with no mention of the name of the mother of the seven sons. The king in the story is called Caesar (a Roman king, probably Hadrian) which means that it took place after the Second Beit Hamikdash (Temple) was destroyed, way after the time of the Chanuka story.

There is also an account in the Midrash, Eicha Rabba 1:50 which names the mother of the seven sons Miriam bat Nachtum, a widow. There too it takes place in the time of the Caesar.

In Book of Maccabees II:7, the mother’s name is not mentioned. Here the story is presented in the time of Antiochus (the time period of the Chanuka story). However, instead of telling them to bow down to the idol, Antiochus tries to force them to eat pig. In that version, none of them agree to eat it so they are all killed.

In Yossipon, Chapter 19 (written in 10th c) the story is similar to the one in Maccabees II where the story takes place at the time of Antiochus, with the addition of the woman’s name (here she is called Chana).

Why is she called Chana in Yossipon’s account?

After her sons are killed, Yossipon includes a prayer that “Chana” said (this is not included in any of the other accounts) which is based on the prayer that Chana (Shmuel the prophet’s mother) recited: “My heart exults in HaShem…”

Both Maccabees and Yossipon say that she died after her sons (no detail is given). The Talmud and Eicha Rabba say that she fell off of a roof (committed suicide).

Since there are so many discrepancies between the different accounts, it is clear that the entire story can’t be taken literally, so what then can we learn from it?

Throughout history we have had many enemies who gave the Jews the option of either converting or being killed. Those who were killed are said to have died “Al Kiddush HaShem”, for the sanctification of God’s name.

The fact that we really don’t know the name of the mother of the seven sons reminds us that there were a lot of women who sacrificed their children “Al Kiddush HaShem”. The story is not just about one woman, it is unfortunately about many women.

The time has come for us to declare that we will no longer be pressured by our enemies to give up Judaism and practice another religion. Rather than die “Al Kiddush HaShem”, we should live our lives sanctifying God’s name.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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