On the seventh day of Hanukka YouTube gave to me seven sons refusing
The video above is of the song, Who Can Retell which is probably the second most common religious song sung on Hanukka (second to Maoz Tzur). It contains the lyrics, “in every age a hero or sage came to our aid.” Many would label Judah Maccabee and his followers as the heroes of the Hanukka story. However, there are eight other heroes who occasionally get short shrift: Hannah and her seven sons. Her sons are known, not for what they did, but for what they refused to do, and at what cost.
There are two versions, however. In one version they are commanded by Antiochus to eat pork, and they refuse, one by one, eldest to youngest, each seeing their brother die for his refusal. In another version, they refuse to bow down.
The difference is important, because all but three of the 613 commandments are breakable “to save a life.” The three unbreakable commandments are 1) Murder. No one but G-d has a right to decide who should live and who should die. So killing one person so another can live isn’t permissible. This, of course, doesn’t include self-defense. Self-defense isn’t murder, and isn’t considered a violation of a commandment. However, this does include suicide. Killing yourself so someone else can live is deciding their life is more important than your own. Virtuous in some religions, this is viewed as usurping G-d’s role. 2) Biblically prohibited sexual relations. (There is some disagreement between branches of Judaism on which these are.) 3) Idolatry. (more)
The kosher dietary laws aren’t in that list of three. So if Antiochus commanded the children to ‘merely’ eat pork, shouldn’t they have done so to save their life? The answer is that some feel when the entire religious community is threatened, instead of just one individual, it becomes admirable to refuse to break any commandment. It’s the only time that martyrdom is actually encouraged.
Here’s a short poem I wrote about fifteen years ago, and which appeared in an early chapbook:
Hannah’s seven sons sacrificed their lives
refusing to bow down
to King Antiochus.
Surrounded by the Romans nine hundred and sixty
men women and children ended their own lives
on Mount Masada.
I meanwhile have difficulty getting to the synagogue
more than two or three times a year and the dietary laws