The Ballad of Hannah and her Seven Sons

Introduction

The Ballad of Hannah and her Seven Sons tells a story well known from the Apocrypha II Maccabees 6:12-17. During the persecution of the Jews in Syria at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (d. 163 B.C.E.), the seven sons of Hannah were commanded to worship an idol. Each refused, and each in turn was slaughtered. The Babylonian Talmud Gittin 57b sets the story in the time of "Caesar," that is, at the time of the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. The ballad follows the medieval version of Jossipon in its account of the mother's death. The Judeo-Arabic ballad based on this story appears to have been very popular, and like so many of its type, is "known only in its variants." It is found throughout the eastern dialect area extending from Libya to Iraq, and the western dialect area has a different ballad on the same theme. In the past century or so, the eastern ballad has been printed in such far-flung spots as Calcutta, Bagdad, Aden, Tiberias, Leghorn, Tripoli and Tunis. The version translated here is that printed in Tunis in 1910 by Mardochée Uzan and brother, and sold by him at his "modern bookstore" in Rue Sidi Mardoum, Tunis. At that time Tunis had a large Jewish population, perhaps as much as one third of the inhabitants of the city. Occasionally, I have preferred a reading from a different edition to which reference is made in the notes.

The ballad is chanted on the Fast of the Ninth of Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem on two occasions. On that day, Jewish tradition dictates that only sad and depressing materials may be read, and this includes this ballad which fosters the frame of mind suitable for the occasion.

In the Tunis version given here, Nebuchadnezzar is named as the tyrant. Other versions follow the Talmud and refer to "Caesar." This is the eastern version which seems to have reached as far west as Tunis. Its language is somewhat adapted to the Tunisian dialect, but it is probably Iraqi in origin.

In form the poem is a zejel, a kind of poetry brought to its flower by the Spanish Arabic poet Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Malik ibn Quzman, who died in 1160. Characteristic of the zejel is its colloquial language, as well as a typical rhyming scheme: aaab cccb dddb where b rhymes with a constantly recurring refrain of one or two lines. In the version given here the number of syllables per line varies greatly. The strophe has four or five lines. After each strophe the refrain It is proper for us … is repeated.

The poem possesses a pathos which is simple yet compelling, and is somehow not marred by such illogicalities as Hannah's suffering in silence, although she is always talking, and the precociousness of a three year old who demolishes the king's ideology. There is constant contrast between the gruesome physical sufferings of the sons, and the mental anguish of the mother, and there is no doubt that the mother suffers more. Impressive too is the unshakeable faith of the martyrs, who never doubt the justice of God, the rightness of their cause, or the certainty of their reward. It breathes the spirit of Jewish society in the lands of Islam, inured to suffering, yet strong in the faith of ultimate reward and restoration.

The Ballad of Hannah and her Seven Sons

I am Hannah. Listen to my speech, and look what happened to me.
I had seven sons, whom I cherished and honored and pampered.
Among them was a baby whose face brightened the night.
But they fell into the the unbeliever's hands who feared not Almighty God.
It is proper for us to weep all our nights and days!

Nebuchadnezzar spoke gently to them and said: "Worship my idol.
Come forward the eldest, intelligent Jew.
Worship my idol, and you will not be slaughtered and laid low.
Listen not to what others say, and disobey not my intent,
For if you disobey, woe to you. You will fall like a bird from the sky.
It is proper for us &c.

He answered him scornfully: "Listen, king,
I worship only God, creator of mankind.
You are nothing by comparison, for soon you will be in the dust.
Your idol does not profit, nor money, nor images."
He said: "Kill the unbeliever by my leave and on my responsibility."
It is proper for us &c.

They grabbed and held the poor man, and tied his hands behind him.
They pulled off his clothes, and threw him into a pit.
They brought his mother to see his severe torture.
He cried out: "Mother, have pity on me by enduring,
For where is the love we bore, Mother who pampered me?"
It is proper for us &c.

They brought the second one weeping, his tears running like a flood,
But his heart was strong in the Lord, creator of mankind.
Four men grabbed him, and dragged him to the king.
He said to him: "My child, obey me, get up, worship the image.
Do not listen to what other people tell you."
It is proper for us &c.

He answered him: "King, do not prolong your speech.
What are you, you miserable man, and what is your status?
Soon you will perish, and your affairs will be in disarray.
He will destroy all your wealth, and make nothing of your officers."
He said: "Kill the unbeliever, and do not annul my words."
It is proper for us &c.

They took the boy, and slaughtered him in his mother's presence.
She cried: "My child" and pressed him to her bosom.
She threw herself upon him, and wallowed in his blood.
She found no one to be close to her and exhort her to patience in her trouble.
"Be sad for me and dwell on my trouble and grief."
It is proper for us &c.

They brought the third handcuffed, and his tears were flowing.
He said to him: "My child, obey me in a single matter.
Arise, worship my idol and your days will be long.
We shall raise you to high rank, and give you great power.
If you hear and obey me you will be exalted over all my servants."
It is proper for us &c.

He answered him with fine speech. "Pay attention and listen.
Your idol is the work of man. He has ears and does not hear.
He has a nose and does not smell, eyes and does not see.
He has hands and does not grasp, feet and does not walk.
You are like your idol, you ignorant unbeliever."
It is proper for us &c.

He condemned him to death and said: "Bring a firebrand.
Take him and torture him, roast and fry his flesh.
He disobeys my religion, he constantly speaks arrogantly.
He despises my idol and mocks my deeds.
Bring his blood to me in haste, hurry up and do not delay."
It is proper for us &c.

They took the poor fellow, mutilated him, and stripped the skin from his head.
They cut off his hands and feet, and threw him next to his brothers.
His mother saw it with her eyes when they drew out his insides.
She could not say a word, but her soul was with his soul.
She wept and cried and said: "Oh, my babies."
It is proper for us &c.

They brought the fourth, poor fellow, apprehensive, heart-broken.
He said to him: "My child, obey me, do not disobey my order.
See what your brothers have become, lying unburied.
Obey me, listen to me, and you will escape and get great riches.
I will build you high castles if you do not oppose my will."
It is proper for us &c.

The boy spoke up and said to the king: "O tyrant,
We accept upon us the judgment of God, and all of us will die by your sentence.
On account of our sins he has caused this, and cast us before you.
We accept it and will not obey you, and will not serve your images.
We shall worship only our God, who is honored above the mighty."
It is proper for us &c.

The king gnashed his teeth and said: "Kill him speedily with an ugly death."
They slaughtered him in his mother's presence, but she was obedient to God.
They slaughtered the child in her presence, while she suffered in silence.
She looked at him, and was distressed, and said: "Oh, my babies."
It is proper for us &c.

They brought the fifth and he cried in distress:
"Mother, accept God's judgment and do not oppose his decision.
Though he destroy a thousand of us, we will not worship in his manner.
Let God judge as he pleases in all matters."
It is proper for us &c.

They stood the child before him, and he said to him:"My child, I inform you
That my idol will profit you and save you from your anxieties."
He answered him thus: "Do not rely on your images.
Soon you will die and pass away, you and all your counsellors,
You are like your idols, soon you will be burned in fire."
It is proper for us &c.

The king arose, and stamped his foot and said: "I will not retract."
They took the poor fellow, and tortured him, so that all his flesh felt pain.
In great torture, poor fellow, two days he agonized,
Stretched out two whole days and nights in the sun.
It is proper for us &c.

Then they brought the sixth, shackled with iron chains.
And when he saw the idol, his face changed.
He said to him: "O unbeliever, do not speak much to me, but do not overlook what I say.
Kill me quickly. The Lord will take vengeance on you.
I will die rather than disobey the command of God Most High."
It is proper for us &c.

The king spoke up and said: "Kill him, and let his mother see."
They slit his throat from ear to ear, and the tears flowed from her eyes.
And she cried out and wept, and her heart could not bear it.
And she cried out and wept and said: "My babies."
It is proper for us &c.

They brought the seventh, poor child, who was only three years old,
And he wept with flowing tears and said: "O master of the worlds!"
His mother bent down behind him and cried in a pleading voice:
"Do not obey them, my precious. Do not let them persuade you against what I say."
It is proper for us &c.

"Arise, young man. Hear and be obedient to my words.
Do not disobey my command and reject my idol and my images.
I shall make your rank high, and make you a leader.
A minister of the realm, a minister of state, you will be chief of my counsellors.
Everything will be yours, prosperity and wealth."
It is proper for us &c.

He answered him: "O evil-doer, you are afraid of created things,
And forsake God Most High, living and existing, who is all-powerful.
How can you tell me to worship your images made of wood from the street?
A pity for your intelligence. You have taken leave of your senses."
It is proper for us &c.

And he said: "O child, obey me in what I tell you.
I shall put down my ring among the soldiers, next to the idol, I shall throw it down for you.
Stoop and give it back to me, and repeat it twice.
Tell your mother to worship my idol, and you will not be killed or harmed.
Your brothers would be glad, since you are the youngest of all."
It is proper for us &c.

And the king said to the servants: "Bring Hannah before me."
"O Hannah, urge your child to do obeisance to my images.
And we shall make him chief minister, he will be chief of my counsellors.
You shall live, your child shall live, only do not disobey my words.
Hannah, tell your child to listen to my commands."
It is proper for us &c.

She gave answer to the king: "Include me with my children."
"Precious, do not obey them, my breath, my life,
Look how you were nine months in my womb, my child,
I brought you up and reared you and fed you in my house
Day and night, year after year."
It is proper for us &c.

He answered her: "Mother, let me go to them.
Let them do what they want, and what their heart desires.
I am more precious to you than my brothers, so is my death than theirs.
I worship none save one God who is exalted over all others."
It is proper for us &c.

She clasped him to her breast, and wept and said:
"My child, my little one, accept the decree of your Lord.
Your place in paradise with all your forefathers is assured.
Our God will judge Nebuchadnezzar, and punish him severely."
It is proper for us &c.

They took him from her, and she wept and said: "My little one,
What are my sins, what my deeds, what my behavior?
My Lord has left me neither oldest nor youngest.
Fate has deprive me of them and taken my babies from me."
It is proper for us &c.

They slaughtered him in her presence, and she saw it with her eyes.
She fell upon him, and stamped her foot, and her spirit went up to God.
She died for what she underwent, and what happened to her children.
Praise be to Him who desired this. To him is the command and the action.
It is proper for us &c.

A voice went out from Heaven: "Happy are you, Hannah,
Paradise is open to you and your seven sons."
Soon he will build our sanctuary, and we shall dwell in it as we were.
All our enemies will perish, and he will pity all our people.
Elijah will come with good news, with Messiah, son of David!
It is proper for us to rejoice all our nights and days!

Notes

  1. Intelligent. This is the reading of the Tiberias version. The Tunis version has unbelieving, a reading which goes better with summoned, the alternate reading for spoke gently. «--
  2. What others say. The Tunis version has your ignorant ones, a conflation of what others say and the ignorant. «--
  3. From ear to ear. So the Tripoli version. The Tunis version reads "from vein to vein." «--
  4. Laments such as this traditionally end on a hopeful note.

Go back to Title Page
Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu