The story of the martyrdom of Chana and her seven sons is recorded in several sources. The primary sources are the Talmud (Gitin 57b), the Midrash Rabba (Eicha 1:50), the book of II Maccabees (chap. 7), and the medieval historical work, Yossipon (chap. 19). There are some significant variations in the different versions of the story. For example, only Yossipon identifies the mother as Chana; most of the sources do not give the mother a name but simply refer to her as a widow. (The Midrash Rabba gives her name as Miriam bas Nachtom or Tanchum.) It is possible that there were actually two (or more) similar stories that merged over time.
One difference in the versions that seems to get a disproportionate amount of attention is that in the Talmudic and Midrashic versions, the martyrs were killed for refusing to bow before an idol, whereas in the version found in II Maccabees and Yossipon they were killed for refusing to eat pig meat. However, in reality this is a very minor distinction, as the the latter sources are almost certainly referring to an idolatrous offering (as is explicit in the story of the martyrdom of Eliezer that immediately precedes the story of the seven sons in both sources) and the critical issue, in both versions, is idolatry. (Although, given the circumstances, Jewish law would almost certainly demand martyrdom even if there was only a violation of the dietary laws.)
In my opinion, the most dramatic distinction between the versions is that, in the versions of the Talmud and Midrash, each son justifies his refusal by simply quoting a Biblical verse (except the youngest son, who engages in a more extended dialogue with the king, especially in Midrash Rabba), whereas, in the versions of II Maccabees and Yossipon, each son gives a short but powerful speech, discussing many important principles of Judaism. While these speeches are quite edifying, in my opinion the Talmudic version is far more plausible. While it is not at all surprising that devout Jewish children of the period were proficient in the Bible (especially the famous verses that are quoted), the skilled rhetoric described in II Maccabees seems rather incongruous coming from the mouths of youngsters. It would seem that the author of II Maccabees (or his source material) modified the story for a Greek speaking audience.
The following recounting of the story is based primarily on the Talmudic version with some additional details from the other sources, primarily the Midrash Rabba.
Chana and her seven sons were brought before the King. The eldest was brought forward and commanded to bow down to an idol. The son refused, stating, “It is written in the Torah 'I am HaShem your God' (Exodus 20:2).” They took him out and killed him.
(II Maccabees and Yossipon describe the manner of execution in detail. Yossipon writes that when the king heard the eldest son’s refusal, he became very angry. He commanded that an iron pan be brought and placed upon the fire. He then ordered that the son’s tongue should be cut out, his arms and legs should be cut off, and he should be scalped, and that all of these pieces should be placed in the hot frying pan. This was to be done in front of the family. He then ordered that the son, who was still alive, be placed in the pan himself. When the son was close to death, Antiochus ordered that the fire be removed so that the son would not die quickly. This was done to terrify the other members of the family.)
The second son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says, 'You shall not have any other gods before me' (Exodus 20:3).” He was then taken out and killed.
The third son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says, 'Do not bow down to another god' (Exodus 24:14).” He was then taken out and killed.
The fourth son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says, 'He who sacrifices to any god other than HaShem shall be destroyed' (Exodus 22:19).” He was then taken out and killed.
The fifth son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says 'Hear
, HaShem is our God, HaShem is one' (Deuteronomy 6:4).” He was then taken out and killed. Israel
The sixth son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says 'Know today and take to heart, that HaShem is God, in the sky above and the below, there is no other.' (Deuteronomy 4:39).” He was then taken out and killed.
The seventh, youngest son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says 'You have, today, declared HaShem to be your God…and HaShem has, today, declared you to be His special people' (Deuteronomy 26:17-18). We have already promised HaShem not to exchange Him for another god, and He has promised us not to exchange us for another nation.” The king said to the boy, “I will throw my seal (or ring) on the floor, bend down and pick it up so that the people will say that you have accepted the authority of the king.” The boy responded, “Woe on you, King! Woe on you, King! If your own honor is so important, how much more so the honor of the Holy One, blessed be He!” They took him out to be killed.
His mother said to them, “Give him to me so I may kiss him a little.” She said to him, “My son, go tell Abraham your father, you bound one son to the altar, I bound seven, yours was only a test, mine were for real.”
A few days later the mother went mad and fell off a roof to her death. A heavenly voice said, “a happy mother of sons” (Psalms 113:9).