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Hannah and Her Seven Sons

HANNAH AND HER SEVEN SONS, a story told in II *Maccabees , Chapter 7, of seven brothers who were seized along with their mother by *Antiochus IV Epiphanes, presumably shortly after the beginning of the religious persecutions in 167/166 B.C.E., and commanded to prove their obedience to the king by partaking of swine's flesh. The brothers defiantly refused to do so. Encouraged in their resolve by their mother, they were executed after being put to frightful tortures. When the mother was appealed to by the king to spare the youngest child's life by prevailing upon him to comply, she urged the child instead to follow in the path of his brothers, and she herself died shortly thereafter.

The accounts of the manner in which she met her death differ. According to IV Maccabees, she threw herself into the fire. The Midrash states that she lost her reason and threw herself to her death from a roof, while according to *Josippon she fell dead on the corpses of her children. The story, along with that of the martyrdom of the aged priest Eleazar (II Macc. 6:18–31), became the subject of the book known as the Fourth Book of Maccabees. In rabbinic literature the story is recounted as an instance of martyrdom during the Hadrianic persecution (Lam. R. 1:16, no. 50; Git. 57b; PR 43:180; SER 30:151). The martyrs were venerated in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints (Aug. 1) as the "Seven Maccabee Brothers," although the mother is also mentioned with them, their martyrdom being considered a prefiguration of later Christian martyrdoms. According to Antiochene Christian tradition, the relics of the mother and sons were interred on the site of a synagogue (later converted into a church) in the Kerateion quarter of Antioch. On this and other grounds, it has been suggested that the scene of the martyrdom was Antioch rather than Jerusalem.

Whatever its historical substratum, the story in II Maccabees and in all subsequent sources is doubtless an adaptation of a stock form of a terrible tragedy (cf. I Sam. 2:5 and Isaiah di Trani's commentary; Job 1:2, 19; Ass. Mos. 9; Jos., Ant., 14:429; BB 11a; Sem. 8:13). Drawing directly on II Maccabees, Sefer Josippon (c. 953) restored the story to its original Epiphanian setting. Although in II Maccabees and Gittin the name of the mother is not given, in other rabbinic accounts she is called Miriam bat Tanhum, while in Syriac Christian accounts she is called Shamone and/or Maryam. However, the obvious association with I Samuel 2:5 impelled a Spanish reviser of the Josippon (ed. Constantinople, 1510, 4:19) to name the anonymous mother of II Maccabees "Hannah," by which name she has become famous, thanks to the dissemination of the longer (Spanish) version of Josippon and the medieval piyyutim in Hebrew, Arabic, and Judeo-Persian which are based on it. The shorter recension of the work (ed. Mantua, c. 1480, 126f.) and the literature based on it continued to refer to her anonymously. The story has inspired many legends on the place of the martyrs' burial, as well as works of art, poetry, and drama on their martyrdom, down to modern times.


G.D. Cohen, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… Kaplan (1953), 109–22; H.M. Michlin, in: MizraḤ u-Ma'arav, 3 (1928/29), 194–9; J. Gutman, in: Sefer YoḤanan Levi (1949), 25–37; F.M. Abel, Les Livres des Maccabées (1949), 370–84; E.J. Bickerman, in: Byzantion, 21 (1951), 63–83 (Fr.); M. Hadas (ed.), The Third and Fourth Books of Maccabees (1953), 91ff.; Nissim b. Jacob, ḥibbur Yafeh me-ha-Yeshu'ah, ed. and tr. by H.Z. Hirschberg (1954), 58ff., introduction; T.W. Manson, in: BJRL, 39 (1956/57), 479–84.

[Gerson D. Cohen]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.