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Hannah Mother of Seven

by Tal Ilan

In the Second Book of Maccabees (II Maccabees, Chapter 7) a story is told of a (nameless) mother of seven who was arrested with her sons for defying the decree of the Seleucid monarch to transgress the commandments of the Torah. Refusing to capitulate to the king’s demands, the sons were tortured to death one by one. Instead of persuading them to desist, their mother encouraged them to die for their belief. The story ends with a short note to the effect that after the death of her sons, she too died. In contrast to the elaborate description of their death, hers is merely mentioned, not described.

The story of the mother of seven sons is further elaborated in the first-century c.e. composition, IV Maccabees. This is substantially a retelling of the II Maccabees story, with philosophical justification added to it. The woman remains nameless but her death is described as suicide, perpetrated so as to escape abuse by her captors.

In rabbinic literature the story undergoes some more meaningful changes, primarily a chronological shift, which now places the story in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion and the decrees it brought with it, namely in the second century c.e. The rabbis tell the story twice: Once in the Babylonian Talmud, where the woman remains nameless (BT Gittin 57b) and once in Lamentations Rabbah (1) where she is designated Miriam daughter of Tanhum. The version in Lamentations Rabbah is much longer but both versions preserve the idea that only the sons were martyred, while the mother committed suicide. Her role is much enhanced in the rabbinic version, because she both nurses the youngest of her sons, who is said to have been only six years old, and through him sends a message to Abraham, telling him that her trial was much more severe than his had been when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac.

The name Miriam was probably acquired through similarity to three other women mentioned in this composition, all of them victims of wars, all also called Miriam. Only in late medieval reworkings of the story is she designated Hannah. The first instance of this name is version C of the Book of Josiphon, dating, according to Flusser, to 1160 c.e. (Josiphon 15:1, Flusser edition, n. 1). He has suggested that the name was invented based on a verse from the Song of Hannah (mother of Samuel) in the Hebrew Bible, which states “The barren woman bears seven” (1 Samuel 2:5). This name became common in popular retellings of the story.

Bibliography

Boyarin, Daniel. Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism. Stanford: 1999.

In this book Boyarin discusses the Jewish martyr stories, including that of the mother, within the Jewish-Christian discourse on Martyrdom in late antiquity.

Cohen, Gershon N. “Hannah and her Seven Sons.” In Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures. New York: 1991, 39–60.

An attempt to trace the development of this legend from antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Duran, Robert. “The Martyr: A Synoptic View of the Mother and Her Seven Sons.” In Ideal Figures in Ancient Judaism: Profiles and Paradigms, edited by J. J. Collins and G. W. E. Nickelsburg, 189–221. Chico, CA: 1980.

In this article all the versions of the story of the mother and seven sons are discussed and compared.

Guttman, Joshua. “The Mother and Her Seven Sons in Legend and in Books II and IV Maccabees” (Hebrew). In Johanan Levi Memorial Volume, edited by M. Schwabe and J. Guttman, 25–37. Jerusalem: 1949.

This study traces the development of the mother-and-seven-sons tradition from Jewish to Christian martyrological legend.

Hazan-Rokem, Galit. The Web of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature. Stanford: 2000, 108–129.

This chapter is a sophisticated folkloristic analysis of the mother and sons story within the context of Lamentations Rabbah.

Rajak, Tessa. The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction. Leiden: 2001, 99–133.

This chapter is a discussion of the story of the martyrdom of the mother and seven sons within the context of ancient Greek discourse.

van Henten, Jan Willem. The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. Leiden: 1997.

A careful literary analysis and historical contextualization of Jewish martyr stories in II and IV Maccabees, including the story of the mother and seven sons.

Young, Robin D. “‘The Woman with the Soul of Abraham’: Traditions about the Mother of the Maccabean Martyrs.” In ‘Women Like This’: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 67–81. Atlanta: 1991.

Feminist-literary analysis of the mother’s martyrdom story in II and IV Maccabees.

How to cite this page

Ilan, Tal. "Hannah Mother of Seven." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 31, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hannah-mother-of-seven>.

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