It’s All in the Details

The following is a classic Jewish folktale I heard again and again since, probably, the 1st grade, usually known as “Hannah and Her Seven Sons.” In the classic telling of the story, we hear of a woman with seven sons that are coerced to bow to an idol by the abusive heathen overlord upon pain of death. Yet even under duress, these righteous young boys all faithfully adhere to their conviction not to bow down to an idol and thereby meet their death, sanctifying the name of the One True G-d in the process. Just beautiful. However, decades later, perusing through some Midrashic literature, I discovered the source for this story, and let me say, when examined in its original detail, the story, I found, is much more meaningful and moving. Here’s my loose translation of the text from Tana d’Vey Eliyahu Rabah, Ch. 30:

Hadrian Caesar came and seized a widow with her seven sons.

He said to her: “Who are you?”

She said to him: “I am a widowed woman.”

He said to her: “What are these children to you?”

She said to him: “They are my sons.”

Immediately he brought the first [son] and said to him: “Bow to this deity.

The child said to him: “G-d forbid! I will not bow to the handiwork of man! For so it is written in the Torah: ‘You shall know today and you shall set it into your heart that the Lord is G-d in the heavens above and upon the earth below — there is no other’ (Deuteronomy 4:39).”

Immediately [the Romans] took a sword and killed [the child]. 

He then brought the second [son] and said to him: “Bow to this deity!”

He said to him: “G-d forbid! I will not bow to the handiwork of man, for so it is written in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your G-d, He is the Power above all powers and Lord above all lords, the great, mighty and awesome G-d Who will not show favor nor take a bribe, Who performs justice for the orphan and widow’ (ibid v. 17-18).”

Immediately [Hadrian] commanded and they killed [the child].

He then brought the third [son] and said to him: “Bow to this deity!”

[The child] said to [Hadrian]: “G-d forbid! I will not bow to the handiwork of man, for so it is written in the Torah: ‘For you shall not bow to a foreign god, for Jealous G-d is His name; He is a jealous G-d’ (Exodus 34:14).”

Immediately, Hadrian commanded and they killed [the child].

[Hadrian] then brought the fourth [son] and said to him: “Bow to this deity.”

[The child] said to him: “I will not bow to the handiwork of man, for so it is written in the Torah: (verse missing from text).”

Immediately [Hadrian] commanded and they killed [the child].

[Hadrian] then brought the fifth son and said: “Bow to this deity!”

[The child] said: “God forbid! I will not bow to the handiwork of man, for so it is written in the Torah: ‘One who offers sacrifice to the gods shall be annihilated, except for [sacrifice] to the Lord alone’ (Exodus 22:19).”

Immediately [Hadrian] commanded and they killed him.

[Hadrian] then brought the sixth [son] and said to him: “Bow to this deity!” [The child] said: “God forbid! I will not bow to the handiwork of man, for so it is written in the Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and ever’ (ibid. 15:18).”

Immediately [Hadrian] commanded and they killed him.

[Hadrian] then brought the seventh [son], the smallest of them all, and said to him: “Bow to this deity!”

[The child] said to him: “God forbid! I will not bow to the handiwork of man! We swore to the Holy One Blessed is He that we would not worship another god, and the Holy One Blessed is He swore to us that he would not trade us for another nation, as it says: ‘You (Israel) have chosen the Lord today to be your G-d, to go in His ways and to guard His statutes and His commandments and His ordinances, and to hearken to His voice, and the Lord has chosen you today to be for Him a treasured nation as He has spoken to you, that you should keep all of His commandments, and to set you most high over all the nations that He made, for praise, for a name, for splendor, and for you to be a holy people to the Lord your G-d as He has spoken’ (Deuteronomy 26:17-19).”

The Caesar said to [the child]: “If you will not bow to this deity, behold, I will throw for you this ring before [the idol] in order that [when you bend down to pick it up] those standing before me will say that you obeyed the words of the Caesar and bowed to this deity.”

The child said to him: “Shame on you, Caesar, for the words that you say to me! You are flesh and blood and are ashamed of flesh and blood like yourself (i.e. you are trying to save face through this charade because you are embarrassed that even young children will not obey you)! How then shall I not be ashamed before the King who is King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed is He?”

The Caesar said to him: “Is there indeed a G-d in the world?”

[The child] said to him: “Have you seen a haphazard world?” 

[Hadrian Caesar] said to him: “If indeed your G-d has the power, why has He not saved you from my hands?”

[The child] said to him: “You world-class fool! You are not worthy that [G-d] should render miracles on your account! Furthermore, we have [clearly] been found liable to death by the Holy One Blessed is He, and if you would not kill us, the Everpresent One has many agents of death — bears and tigers and snakes and scorpions and many lions that could strike us!”

Immediately [Hadrian] commanded to kill [the child]. Immediately their mother came and said to the Caesar: “By your life, O Caesar, give me my son so that I may kiss him first!” Immediately they gave him to her and she caressed him and hugged him and kissed him and put her nipple into his mouth, and honey and milk fell to the ground [i.e. together with her milk that dripped down, the child’s words, that were sweet as honey, fell upon deaf ears and were not heeded (according to Tuvey Chayim citing Meorey Esh)]…

[The widow] then said to [Hadrian]: “By your life, O Caesar, put the sword upon my neck and upon my son’s neck together!”

The Caesar said: “G-d forbid! I will not do so for so it is written in your Torah: ‘You shall not slaughter an ox or lamb and its child on the same day’ (Leviticus 22:28).”

The child said to him: “You world-class fool! Have you upheld any of the Torah other than this verse?”

Immediately they cut off [the child]’s head. The Sages calculated the years of the child and found that he was two years, six months, and seven and a half hours old.

At that time, the heathens began pulling out the hair [of their heads] and their beards and crying a great cry. They said: “How great are the deeds of the Father of these [Jews] and how great is His praise that they [allow themselves] to be killed so over Him.” …

At that time, their mother said to them: “My sons, go and say to our forefather Abraham, ‘Do not think highly of yourself, saying, ‘I built an altar and brought up my son Isaac upon it,” for I built seven altars and brought up upon them my seven sons in one day. And Abraham was only tested to do so and did not carry out the action, but I carried out the action.” She then said to them: “My sons, fortunate are you that you carried out the will of your Father in Heaven, and you only came into the world so that His holy name would be sanctified through you, as it says: ‘Through those who are close to Me, I am sanctified’ (Leviticus 10:3).” She immediately ascended to the roof and fell and died. A heavenly voice came forth and said, “The mother of the children is happy” (Psalms 113:9).

Thoughts?

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One thought on “It’s All in the Details

  1. What words can one say? I had heard the story in connexion with Hanuka, and that it took place in a Jewish village and the villain was an official of the Greeks. I have been quite certain that this event was one of the precursors of the Hasmonean Revolt.

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