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Channah, Daughter of Mattathias: Instigator of the Maccabean Rebellion

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Channah, Daughter of Mattathias: Instigator of the Maccabean Rebellion

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Channah, Daughter of Mattathias: Instigator of the Maccabean Rebellion

1 Maccabees recounts how Mattathias instigated a rebellion against the Greeks out of zealotry against Jewish idolatry. Later midrashim tell how Mattathias’ daughter Channah goaded her father and brothers into fighting the Greeks to protect her from being raped by the local governor.

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Channah, Daughter of Mattathias: Instigator of the Maccabean Rebellion

A Greek Woman, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1869. WikiArt

Mattathias’ Rebellion in 1 Maccabees

One version of the Chanukah story, in which Judah Maccabee and his followers lead the Hasmonean Revolt and reclaim the Jerusalem Temple from the Syrian-Greeks,[1] is recounted in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.[2]

1 Maccabees tells how Mattathias instigates the rebellion.[3] Antiochus Epiphanes IV, king of the Seleucid Greek empire (175–164 B.C.E.), pillages the Temple, sets an idol upon the altar, and issues a series of oppressive decrees against Jewish observance which persisted for three years (1 Macc. 1:44–50). All this brought Mattathias and his sons to tear their clothing, put on sackcloth, and mourn greatly (1 Macc. 2:1–14).

The breaking point comes when a Greek officer erects a pagan altar in the town of Modiʿin and urges Mattathias, as a magnate of the community, to be the first to offer a sacrifice,[4] but Mattathias refuses.[5] Another Jew steps forward to offer the sacrifice,[6] and this prompts Mattathias to act:

1 Macc 2:24 And Mattathias saw this, and he became zealous, and his kidneys became stirred up. And his anger arose in judgment. And running, he slaughtered him on the altar 2:25 and killed the agent of the king, who was forcing them to sacrifice at that time, and tore down the altar.[7]

Mattathias’ zealotry here resonates with other biblical scenes: Moses galvanizes the Levites to kill those who worshipped the golden calf (Exod 32);[8] and, during the apostasy of Baal Peor, Phinehas slays Zimri son of Salu (head of the Simeonite tribe) and Cozbi daughter of Zur, a Midianite princess (Num 25).[9] With that, the Maccabean Revolt began!

The father, his five sons, and their followers took to the hills to wage guerrilla warfare against their Greek rulers and the Jewish Hellenizers, and, as the liturgy notes, caused “the strong to fall into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and the impure into the hands of the pure” (גבורים ביד חלשים ורבים מיד מעטים וטמאים ביד טהורים).[10]

Adding to the Story

Over time, the core ancient story was embellished with dramatic accounts of martyrdom, such as the woman and her seven sons,[11] and miracles, such as the little cruse of pure oil, found in the sanctuary, which lasted eight days (b. Shabbat 21b).[12] One relatively unknown elaboration involves Mattathias’ daughter, Channah (Hannah).[13]

Introducing the Daughter of Mattathias

One of the earliest sources to tell the story of Mattathias’ daughter is the Hybrid Scholion on Megillat Taanit.[14] The story is found as an explanation for why the 17th of Elul is considered a joyous day. Megillat Taanit itself explains that this is because “the Romans left Jerusalem” (נפקו רומאי מן ירשלם), but the Hybrid Scholion sets the story in the earlier Greek period:

היו מושיבים קסטריאות בעירות להיות מענין את הכלות ואחר כך היו נשואות לבעליהן... ולא היה אדם מבקש לישא אשה מפני הקסטריאות. חזרו ומכניסין אותם בחשאי... ובת אחת היתה למתתיהו בן יוחנן הכהן הגדול, וכשהגיע זמנה לינשא בא הקסטרין לטמאה ולא הניחו אותו, וקנאו מתתיהו ובניו וגברה ידם על מלכות יון ונמסרו בידן והרגום.
They would put military encampments (Latin “castra”) in the cities to rape the brides, who only afterwards could marry their husbands… So no one wanted to get married because of the military camps. They then started to get married in secret… But Mattathias son of Yoḥanan the high priest had a daughter, and when it came time for her to marry, an officer came to defile her, and they did not allow him. [Instead] Mattathias and his sons were zealous, and they came out stronger than the Greek Kingdom, who fell into their hands and they (the Hasmoneans) killed them (the Greeks).[15]

According to this source, the Greeks exercised “the Right of the First Night” (Latin: jus primae noctis or French: Droit du Seigneur). Out of fear, the Jews abstained from marriage or staged weddings covertly. But the immanent nuptials of Mattathias’ daughter (here unnamed) proved be too prominent to conceal; it was this outrage that caused the Hasmonean rebellion.

Anxiety over the defilement of the daughter undergirds many legends centered around national pride and serves as a motif throughout the Bible (as in the debasement of Dinah in Genesis 34 and the rape of the concubine in Judges 19).[16] It is deployed in literature, such as Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1816) and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (1989), and in films such as Braveheart (1995), which tells the story of the Scottish rebellion of William Wallace against England’s King Edward I (1297 C.E.), instigated by resistance to a British prima nocta decree.

While violence against women during periods of oppression was surely widespread, it is questionable whether this practice was ever enacted.[17] Rather the rape of the daughter serves as a literary trope to stir a sense of national pride and outrage against the foreign overlords.

The Attempted Rape of Channah (Sheiltot)

We see this trope used in another source, more or less contemporary with that of the hybrid scholion—the Sheiltot of Rav Aḥai Gaon (26 in the Mirsky ed.).[18] Here, he names the bride Channah. The account begins with a midrash on a verse from Psalms:

"חרבם תבוא בלבם וקשתותם תשברנה"—אמר רבי יוחנן: אלו יונים שעשו מלחמה עם בית חשמוני."
“Their swords shall pierce their own hearts, and their bows shall be broken” (Ps 37:15)—Rabbi Yoḥanan said: “These are the Greeks, who made war with the Hasmonean house.”

The sheilta then explains this war in greater detail, beginning the story with a violent and graphic description of the attempted rape:

שבשעה שנכנסו יונים להיכל טמאו כל שמנים שבהיכל, ובת אחת היתה לו ליוחנן כהן גדול וחנה שמה, שאין כיופיה בעולם, ומקודשת היתה לאלעזר בנו של חשמוני, ואביו (מגן) [סגן][19] ומשוח מלחמה היה, ובא אחד מגדולי יונים ותפש אותה בבלוריתה והציעה ספר תורה, ובקש לבא עליה בפני אלעזר ארוסה.
For at the time, when the Greeks went into the sanctuary defiling all the oil in the sanctuary, Yoḥanan the High Priest had a daughter, Channah was her name. There was no one as beautiful as her in all the world, and she was betrothed to Elazar the son of the Hasmonean, whose father was a warrior (magen, lit. shield) [alternatively, “adjutant,” segan], anointed for battle. One of the leaders of the Greeks came and seized her by her ponytail (blorit),[20] spread out a Torah scroll and tried to come upon her in the presence of Elazar, her betrothed.

The opening of the legend is rife with historical anomalies, blending the Talmudic account of the defiled oil in the Temple with the story of the Hasmonean revolt against Greek rule. Channah here is identified not as the daughter of Mattathias, but of Yoḥanan[21] the High Priest, and she is engaged to Elazar, the son of “the Hasmonean” who was the “anointed for battle.”[22]

The reader (or listener) is meant to doubly and deeply gasp in horror at the image of the Greek official grabbing the maiden by her hair to rape her on an unfurled Torah scroll.[23] Shocked at the immanent desecration of the Torah spread out like a sheet, the audience is held in suspense. The young woman, like the Torah, is in danger of desecration, for the rape would make her forbidden to her husband the kohen (priest).[24]

והיו ישראל מצפים להרי מזרח אולי יבאו להם גייסות של פרסיים, ואומר "נשא עינינו אל ההרים מאין יבאו עזרינו."
Israel (the people) looked to the mountains in the east, thinking maybe Persian armies would come, as it says (Ps 121:1, paraphrased): “Shall we lift our eyes to the hills, from where our help will come?”

The Jews initially look to foreign rule in the East to save them—to the Persians. Really? As if this would solve the immediate plight of the young woman about to be violated on the scroll!? Perhaps the author, situated in Babylon, is mocking those who rely on foreign support to save them from oppression, and urging his own followers not to trust outsiders to come to their defense.[25]

The rhetorical question in Psalms 121:1— אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי “I lift my eyes to the hills; from where will my help come?”—is rendered as a question in the first person plural—“shall we lift our eyes”—and presented as a misguided appeal to foreign aid, instead of to God, as in the psalm (v. 2):

תהלים קכא:ב עֶזְרִי מֵעִם יְ־הוָה עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
Ps 121:2 My help comes from YHWH, maker of heaven and earth.

Yet God does not help those who turn to outsiders, but those who trust in God:

אמר ליה חשמוני [ל]כהן גדול לא כך כתוב "ארור הגבר אשר יבטח באדם וברוך הגבר אשר יבטח בה' והיה ה' מבטחו"
The Hasmonean (father of Eleazar) said [to][26] the High Priest: “Does it not say, ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man,’ and ‘Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD’?” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7).
אמר ליה: הין. אלא מה תאמר שנעשה?
He [Yoḥanan the High Priest] said to him: “Yes, but what do you think we should do?”
אמר ליה: אני אומר לך הרי אני ושבעה בני ואתה ושלשה בניך הרי אנו כשנים עשרי שבטים של ישראל, מובטחים אנו שהשם יעשה לנו נס למען שמו.
He (the Hasmonean) said to him: “I and my seven sons and you and your three sons, we are like the twelve tribes of Israel. We can trust that God will perform a miracle for us for the sake of His name.”

Hearing this interchange between his father, the Hasmonean, and Yoḥanan the high priest, Eleazer is bolstered to save his bride from being violated:

כיון ששמע אלעזר כך, נתחזק ושלף סייף שלו, והתיז ראש של יוני, ואמר "עזרי מאם ה' עושה שמים וארץ."
When Elazar heard this, he was empowered and took out his sword and cut off the head of the Greek and said: “My assistance comes from the LORD, creator of heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:2)

Like Judith (in the Apocrypha) who slays the Assyro-Babylonian general, Holofernes (Jud 13:6–10), Elazar chops off the head of the would-be rapist. In contrast to Judith, however, the young woman in this account is a totally passive “damsel in distress.” In another version of the legend, however, Channah is given a voice.

Channah Gains a Voice and Saves Herself

The Sheiltot contains a second version of the tale, which builds on the version in the hybrid scholion, but is much longer. A variant of this tale, which we will look at below, was published in modern collections as Midrash Ma‘aseh Chanukah (Homily about What Happened on Chanukah) or simply Midrash Le-Chanukah (A Homily for Chanukah).[27]

אמרו בימי היונים נתחייב מקרא זה שהערימו סוד על ישראל, אמרו בואו ונחדש עליהם גזירות עד שיבעטו באלהיהם ויאמינו בע״ז שלנו.
They say that in the days of the Greeks, this scripture[28] ensured that they would challenge the “secret of Israel,” and so they said: “Come, let us renew decrees against them such that they will reject their God and believe in our idolatry.”

In this retelling of the oppressive Greek rule before the Hasmonean revolt, the king imposes a series of seemingly absurd decrees to undermine the Jew’s belief in their own religion and to facilitate their acceptance of the Greek gods.

  1. No Door Locks

…עמדו וגזרו (היוונים): כל בן ישראל שעושה לו בריח או מסגור לפתחו ידקר בחרב, וכל כך למה כדי שלא יהיה לישראל כבוד ולא רשות (צניעות), שכל בית שאין לו דלת אין לו כבוד ולא צניעות וכל הרוצה ליכנס נכנס בין ביום ובין בלילה.
They issued a decree that any one in Israel who made a bolt or lock (on their doors) would be impaled by the sword. Why? So that there would be no honor [kavod] and no privacy (modesty), since any house that does not have a door, does not have honor or modesty, for anyone may enter, day or night.

Vulnerable to hooligans, highwaymen, and voyeurs, the Jews take it to reductio ad absurdum, and remove their doors altogether:

כיון שראו ישראל כך עמדו ובטלו כל דלתות בתיהם ולא היו יכולין לא לאכול ולא לשתות ולא לשמש מטותיהם, בשביל גנבין ולסטין ופריצי יונים, ולא רואין שינה בעיניהם לא יום ולא לילה ונתקיים עליהם מקרא שכתוב "ופחדת לילה ויומם."
When Israel saw that [the decree was enforced], they got rid of all of the doors of their houses and they could not eat or drink or have sex [lit. use their beds] on account of robbers and Greek mercenaries and burglars, and their eyes did not see sleep, night or day, and through them this scripture was fulfilled (Deut 28:66): “and you will be in fear night and day.”

In the end, the houses of the Israelites no longer served as sanctuaries of modesty or decorum. Like the eye of Big Brother in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the people were totally deprived of their integrity, their sense of private self. God then explains to them that the suffering is a consequence of (neglecting the mitzvah) of mezuzah, but they would derive benefit from having no doors later,[29] ועמדו בגזרה זו שלש שנים, “And they endured this decree for three years.”

  1. Branding the horns of the animals

כיון שראו יונים שעמדו ישראל בגזירה ולא נכשל אחד מהם בשום דבר רע, עמדו וגזרו עליהם גזירה אחרת, והעבירו קול: כל אדם מישראל שיש לו שור או שה יחקק על קרניו שאין לו חלק באלהי ישראל, וכל כך למה כדי שלא יאכלו ישראל בשר ולא חלב ולא גבינה, ולא יהיה להם חרישה. אמרו יודעים אנו שאין יכולין לעמוד בגזירה זו.
When the Greeks saw that they were able to withstand the decree, and that not one of them failed on account of this terrible thing, they rose and decreed other decrees, and sent out an announcement: Any man in Israel that has an ox or a sheep will engrave on its horns that it has no share in the God of Israel.[30] Why did they do this? So that Israel would not eat meat or drink milk or eat cheese, and they would not [be able to] plow. They (the Greeks) said: We know that they (Israel) we will not be able to withstand this decree.

While the Greeks believe that this would force the Jews into submission, the oppressed again undermine the decree by taking it to extremes:

כיון ששמעו ישראל כך נצטערו צער גדול אמרו ח"ו שנכפור באלהינו, עמדו ומכרו בהמתן בין טהורה בין טמאה, והיו ישראל מהלכין ברגלים, ועליהם נתקיים "ראיתי עבדים על סוסים [ושרים הולכים כעבדים על הארץ]." (קהלת י:ז)
When Israel heard of it, they were extremely upset and they said: Heaven forbid we rebel against our God. They stood and sold all of their animals, pure and impure, and the Israelites would go on foot, and [this scripture] was fulfilled with them (Eccl 10:7): “I have seen slaves on horseback, [and princes walking on foot like slaves].”

God then explains to the Jews that this is a punishment for not bringing sacrifices during the pilgrimage festivals, but they would now derive benefit (from the earlier decree), since because they had no doors, (kosher) wild animals could come into their homes at night, and the Jews could slaughter them and eat them and thus have the food the Greeks hoped to withhold from them.[31]

  1. Against the use of ritual baths

וכיון שראו היונים שעמדו ישראל בגזירה זו, עמדו וגזרו כל מי שאשתו הולכת לטבילה ידקר בחרב וכל הרואה אותה הרי היא לו לאשה ובניה לעבדים,
When the Greeks saw that they were able to withstand the decree, they stood and decreed that anyone whose wife goes to immerse [in the mikvah] will be impaled with a sword, and any [Syrian-Greek] who sees her (going to the mikvah), she is his, and her children [will be sold] as slaves.

Again, instead of sinning, the Jews demonstrate fortitude:

כיון שראו ישראל כך מנעו עצמם מלשמש,
When the Israelites saw this, they refrained from sexual relations.
וכיון ששמעו יונים כך אמרו הואיל ואין ישראל משמשין מטותיהם אנו נזקקין להן,
And when the Greeks heard this, they said: “Since the Israelites are not ‘using their beds’, we should take them [the women].”
כיון שראו ישראל כך חזרו על נשיהן בלא טבילה בעל כרחן, אמרו רבש"ע בעל כרחינו שלא בטובותינו, שאין האשה רוצה לישב תחת בעלה בלא עונתה. אמר להם הקב"ה הואיל ועשיתם בלא כוונה אני אטהר אתכם ופתח לכל אחד ואחד מהן מעיין בתוך ביתו, והיו נשיהם טובלות בתוך בתיהם, ונתקיים עליהם מקרא זה "ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה,"(ישעיהו יב:ג) ונתקיים עליהם עוד מקרא זה "אם רחץ ה' את צואת בנות ציון." (ישעיהו ד:ד)
When the Israelites saw this, they went back to their wives without immersion, against the [women’s] will. They (the women) said: “Master of the universe, [this is] without our consent and not for our well-being, for a woman does not want to lie under her husband not in accord with her due time or pleasure.” God said to them, “Because you did this unintentionally I will purify you!” And so God opened for each one of them a spring inside the home, and the women would immerse within the house, in fulfillment of scripture: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isa 12:3); and another verse: “the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion” (Isa 4:4).

When the Greeks threatened to take the women, the Jewish husbands approached their wives against their will, and the women cried out to God, who answered them by causing natural springs to gush forth from within their homes so that they could purify themselves. Notably, it is only when the women are on the verge of being “raped” by their own husbands that God intervenes with a miracle.

  1. Jus primae noctis

כיון שראו יונים שאין ישראל מרגישין בגזירותיהם עמדו וגזרו עליהם גזירה מרה ועכורה, שלא תכנס כלה בלילה הראשון מחופתה אלא אצל ההגמון שבמקום ההוא.
When the Greeks saw that the Israelites were not feeling [the burden of] their decrees, they issued a bitter and foul decree - that no bride would enter the wedding canopy on the night of her wedding without having first gone to the governor of that place.

Here again, the Jews show their muster, and with sadness, forgo marriage.

כיון ששמעו ישראל כך רפו ידיהם ותשש כחם ונמנעו מלארס, והיו בנות ישראל בוגרות ומזקינות כשהן בתולות, ונתקיים עליהם "בתולותיה נוגות והיא מר לה" (איכה א:ד),
When the Israelites heard, they wrung their hands and lost their strength and refrained from marrying. The daughters of Israel would mature and get old as virgins, fulfilling the verse “Her virgins grieve and she is bitter” (Lam. 1:4).
והיו יונים מתעללות בבתולות ישראל, ונהגו בדבר הזה שלש שנים ושמונה חדשים, עד שבא מעשה של בת מתתיהו כהן גדול שנשאת לבן חשמונאי ואלעזר היה שמו,
And the Greeks would sexually abuse the daughters of Israel, and this went on for three years and eight months, until the act of one daughter of Mattityahu, the High Priest who was engaged to a Hasmonean son, and Elazar was his name.
כיון שהגיע יום שמחתה הושיבוה באפריון, וכשהגיע זמן הסעודה נתקבצו כל גדולי ישראל לכבוד מתתיהו ובן חשמונאי שלא היו באותו הדור גדולים מהם, וכשישבו לסעוד עמדה חנה בת מתתיהו מעל אפריון וספקה כפיה זו על זו וקרעה פורפירון שלה ועמדה לפני כל ישראל כשהיא מגולה ולפני אביה ואמה וחותנה.
When the day of the celebration came, they sat her on a palanquin [or litter, apirion], and when the time for the feast came, all the elders of Israel gathered in honor of Mattityahu the High Priest and the son of Hashmonai, for there were none in that generation as great as them. When they sat down to eat, Channah, the daughter of Mattityahu, stood atop the palanquin and raised her arms and ripped her garment and stood before all of Israel exposed, and before her father and mother and her father in law.

The midrash stretches the bounds of credulity: While her family blithely feasts in celebration, she is driven to an act of desperation, knowing the fate that would befall her.[32]

She tears her clothes in the middle of the celebration and exposes herself to her family and guests. Yet, this public display of nudity was too much for her family:

כיון שראו אחיה כך נתביישו ונתנו פניהם בקרקע וקרעו בגדיהם, ועמדו עליה להרגה,
When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed and bent their heads to the ground and tore their clothing and stood up to kill her.

Their extreme reaction derives from her status as the daughter of a priest (bat kohen or kohenet), whose sexuality must be strongly guarded (Lev. 21:9).[33] While her brothers are excessively zealous for her public “modesty”, they can somehow live with the private reality that she will be raped after the ceremony by the Greek governor.

Channah then proceeds to confront all those at the wedding feast as complicit with the Greek edict and exposes the patriarchal underpinning of “rape culture” (to borrow a modern phrase):

אמרה להם שמעוני אחיי ודודיי, ומה אם בשביל שעמדתי לפני צדיקים ערומה בלי שום עבירה הרי אתם מתקנאים בי, ואין אתם מתקנאים למסרני ביד ערל להתעולל בי! הלא יש לכם ללמוד משמעון ולוי אחי דינה שלא היו אלא שנים וקנאו לאחותם והרגו כרך כשכם ומסרו נפשם על ייחוד של מקום ועזרם ה' ולא הכלימם, ואתם חמשה אחים יהודה יוחנן יונתן שמעון ואלעזר, ופרחי כהונה יותר ממאתים בחור, שימו בטחונכם על המקום והוא יעזור אתכם שנאמר כי אין מעצור לה' להושיע וגו'.
She said to them: “Listen my brothers and my uncles, now that I have stood before you righteous ones, naked with no sin upon me, you are seized with zeal against me, but you were not so zealous on my behalf, sending me to that uncircumcised one [so he could] abuse me. Should you not learn from Shimon and Levi the brothers of Dina (in Gen. 34), who were only two, yet were zealous for their sister and killed the city of Shechem and risked their lives for the integrity of God, and God came to their assistance and did not destroy them. Yet you are five brothers--Yehuda, Yoḥanan, Yonatan, Shimon, Elazar—and over two hundred young priests! Place your trust in God and God will assist you, as it is said: “…for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” (1 Sam. 14:6).

Fashioned in the image of a learned rabbinic Jew, she makes an a forteriori (קל וחומר) argument and exposes their hypocrisy: If you were willing to kill me on account of public nudity, should you not be willing to kill the Greeks on account their intention to rape me?

She backs this up with a statement about the importance of faith in God and a reminder that she has more brothers in the room than Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, had in avenging her debasement. She adds an ironic barb: Shimon and Levi avenge their sister Dinah after she was raped, while these five brothers and the 200 young priests would willingly give their sister over to the “uncircumcised” one to be raped. She thus urges them to seize the moment.

Having taken the leadership role, which her brothers and father (temporarily) abdicated, she ends with a prayer to God:

ופתחה פיה בבכיה ואמרה רבש"ע אם לא תחוס עלינו חוס על קדושת שמך הגדול שנקרא עלינו ונקום היום נקמתנו.
And she opened her mouth, crying, and said: “Lord of the Universe, if you will not do this for our sake, do it for the holiness of your great name that is upon us, and we will rise up in our vengeance."

From a feminist reading perspective, her speech galvanizes male pride, deflecting them away from punishing her for exposing herself into protecting her from potential sexual violation. The custodial role of men over female sexuality—as both controlling and protective—are flip sides of the same patriarchal coin; the honor of the family is reflected in her sexual purity. Both in her rhetoric to the men and in her prayer to the Lord of the Universe, God’s sacred name is contingent on the integrity of the daughter’s body.

Her plea motivates her brothers to the proper path:

באותה שעה נתקנאו אחיה ואמרו בואו ונטול עצה מה נעשה, נטלו עצה זה מזה ואמרו בואו ונקח אחותינו ונוליכנה אצל המלך הגדול ונאמר לו אחותנו בת כהן גדול ואין בכל ישראל גדול מאבינו, וראינו שלא תלין אחותינו עם ההגמון, אלא עם המלך שהוא גדול כמותינו, ונכנסנו עליו ונהרגהו ונצא, ונתחיל אח"כ בעבדיו ובשריו, והשם יעזרנו וישגבנו, נטלו עצה וכו'
At that moment her brothers were seized with zeal on her behalf and they said: “Let us go and get advice as to what to do.” They consulted with one another and said: “Let us take our sister and we will go to the great king and we will tell him: ‘Our sister is the daughter of a high priest, and there is no one in Israel greater than our father, and we see that [it is not fitting] that she should lie with [a mere] governor but, rather, with the king, who is as great as we are.’ And then we will enter [the palace] and we kill him and leave. We will start with his servants and relatives, then God will help us and exalt us.”

Taking their cue from Shimon and Levi’s deceit of Shechem, the brothers decide to trick Antiochus, playing to male pride, and use their sister as an opportunity to assassinate him. She will usher in the floodgates of Hasmoneans who will rout the Greek overlords. Having finally decided to stand up to the Greeks and to trust in God, the ruse succeeds:

ועשה להם הקב"ה תשועה גדולה, ושמעו בת קול מבית קדש הקדשים: כל ישראל נצחו טליא באנטוכיא.[34]
And God [indeed] made a great salvation for them, and they heard a divine voice [bat qol] come out of the Holy of Holies, saying: “All Israel, the young priests (tali’a, lit. “the lamb”) have been victorious against Antiochus [Antokhya].”[35]

The victory is declared within the inner sanctum by a divine voice [bat qol] affirming the external military victory without. As the midrash opened with the violation of the boundaries of the Jewish home—no lock or bolt on the doors to guard their privacy or honor—now it ends with a vision of the integrity of inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.

Throughout this tale, the woman’s body serves as the site of adjudication for the collective honor of Israel and the integrity of God’s name. A female Trojan Horse, Channah becomes key to defeating the Greek overlords from within. The passage ends with the victorious cry of a bat qol, “a divine voice,” literally a “daughter’s echo” from Heaven, to the high priest: Antiochus has been defeated.

So the Holy of Holies remains intact, private, exclusively accessible to the High Priest on Yom Kippur, only because Channah was willing to expose herself, to challenge her brothers’ hypocrisy, and galvanize them to action. The integrity of the Temple is mirrored in the integrity of the daughter.

Channah’s Role: From Passive to Active

In all three midrashim quoted above, the impetus for the rebellion is the attempted rape of Mattathias’ daughter, Channah, yet the story in the third version is quite different in how it conceives her role.[36] While in the first two (Hybrid Scholion and Sheiltot), the daughter is a passive victim and her father and brothers are the active agents who save her, in the third version, Channah is a powerful, smart, and decisive woman, taking her fate and that of all other Jews into her own hands. It is her command of rhetoric, morality, halakha, Bible and drama that forces the hand of her brothers, who, following her lead, succeed in freeing the Jews from the Greeks and their humiliating decrees.

Published

December 26, 2019

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Last Updated

May 18, 2020

Footnotes

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Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).