Women of the Bible

Hannah on an Ancient Hilltop – A Tale for the New Year

On the Jewish New Year, the sacred readings reverberate with the triumphs of the vulnerable and the powerless. On Rosh Hashanah we remember that Sarah’s longing for a child was requited (Gen. 21) – and  Hannah’s humiliation came to an end when her son Samuel was conceived (1 Sam. 1–2). In her thanksgiving song, Hannah compares that miracle to no less than victory over enemies, evil, death and injustice.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) also says this was the time of year that the hopes of another barren woman of the Bible were fulfilled  – Rachel (Gen. 30:1).

Hannah and Eli the priest. Engraving by German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1764–1841). Wikimedia Commons.

There’s even part of the sacred liturgy of Rosh Hashanah that’s couched in terms of birth: Congregations around the world chant the hymn Hayom Harat Olam,  which means (freely translated) “this day is pregnant with eternity,” reflecting the belief that Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday.

A few weeks ago, I asked my husband Arik if he wanted to take a little archaeology-themed drive to a rocky hilltop not far from our home that I had read might be the burial place of Hannah. I didn’t realize until I stood among the ruins there that a Rosh Hashanah message was hidden among them.

Hannah times three

It dawned on me there that we now have three places to remember Hannah in the Holy Land. The first, of course, is where Scripture says Hannah prayed for a child – Shiloh, next to which an elaborate visitor center now stands. The second is Ein Karem, at the Church of the Visitation – where Elizabeth and Mary met when both were pregnant. That’s the perfect place to read Mary’s paean of praise, the Magnificat, which she traditionally uttered there. Hannah comes into our midst naturally as we compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s prayer.

And now a third place – this hill, called Burj el-Haniyah in Arabic, and Horvat Hani in Hebrew.  It’s marked by the remnants of an ancient convent excavated some 18 years ago by a team led by Uzi Dahari and Yehiel Zellinger. The intersection of an unpaved forest road with the path to Horvat Hani, on a rocky mound in the western Bethel foothills, is almost invisible. But what I would like to see here very clearly is an intersection of three traditions remembering a remarkable woman of Scripture.

Wall of the convent, visible from the dirt road that passes Hurvat Hani, “Hannah’s Ruin.” Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

Archaeologists tell us that the complex that once stood here contained a church, crypt, convent, tower, seclusion cells for nuns (which, by the way, could be locked from the inside, which is not the case in men’s monasteries) a kitchen, pilgrims’ accommodations, dining room, courtyard, olive presses, a winepress, storage cave and cisterns!  Human bones were also unearthed. The bones were only of infants, children and women, whereas archaeologists say they normally find at least some male skeletal remains in such a mix. Hence, they conclude, this was a convent.

Artist’s rendering of the church and convent over Hannah’s putative burial place. Courtesy of Uzi Dahari.

When I was there last month, almost everything was overgrown but the church apse, and I barely caught a glimpse of the cave openings, choked with thick, dry vegetation. After my time on the hilltop, when I hopped back into the van where Arik was patiently waiting, the first thing I said was: “I forgot my cellphone in the van.” “I know,” he responded laconically. We admitted that we both realized I could have ended up at the bottom of one of those ancient caves…Not the kind of drama I had come to invoke!

People may have started coming here to pay homage when only an arcosolium (arched-ceiling tomb) stood on the hill, built in the second or third century CE, and containing, the archaeologists say, a number of female skeletons. But pilgrims really started streaming in apparently  in the fifth century when the convent was first built, with the tomb now in a place of honor under the church apse. And even after the site was abandoned, girls and women, probably Muslims from surrounding villages, continued to be buried there. But who was the revered lady in the tomb? Part of the Arabic name of the site, Haniyah, has led scholars to conclude she was Hannah.

But which Hannah?

Among the scriptural women named Hannah, or Anna, is Jesus’ grandmother and the Temple-residing prophetess of the New Testament. And then – and perhaps most intriguing –  there’s Samuel’s mother. That Hannah, the Bible says, was from Ramatayim-Tzofim (1 Sam. 1:1), and the Church father Eusebius, whose lead pilgrims would have followed, identified  Ramatayim-Tzofim as as a place he called Remphis, east of the pilgrimage magnet of Lod (Lydda). Following the thread of name-related clues, we find that Remphis apparently morphed into the present day village called Rentis, which can still be seen from the ruined church walls.

Apse of the church at Horvat Hani, “Hannah’s Ruin,” looking east toward Rentis. Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

One of the three mosaic inscriptions in Greek unearthed at the site, in fact, right in the church, reads:  “Remember O Lord, Anasia, “the abbess” (or “the most pious”).

Inscription honoring “Anasia, the abbess,” or “the most pious.” Courtesy of Uzi Dahari.

The story of Hannah has many lessons that cross the boundaries of faith and culture. One was taught by the ancient rabbinic sages:  Hannah’s experience shows the power of prayer as it pours from the heart. (And that’s knowing how important structure is to Jewish prayer services.) And moving from form to essence – Hannah’s prayer,  as well as the Magnificat, speak volumes about the power of change, and the possibility of an end to suffering symbolized by that ultimate transformative experience, childbirth.

May Rosh Hashannah be a time of rebirth and new beginnings for us all.


Thanks to Dr. Uzi Dahari for his assistance with information and illustrations.

Hurvat Hani is an off-the-beaten track ruin in the Samarian foothills northeast of Shoham and northeast of road 444. It appears by that name on the 1:50,000 map of Israel (available in Hebrew only). There are no English signs at the site. Colleagues and others interested in reaching Hurvat Hani can contact me for more specific directions.

Want to know more?

Bolton-Fasman, J. 2016. Hannah’s Prayer: A Rosh Hashannah Story. https://www.jewishboston.com/hannahs-prayer-a-rosh-hashanah-story/

Cook, J.E. 1999. Hannah’s Desire, God’s Design: Early Interpretations of the Story of Hannah (Journal for the  Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 282).

Cohn, G.H. 2000.  A Prayer for Rising Above the Routine.  https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/rosh/coh.html) (a   ccessed Aug. 22 2018).

Dahari, U. and Zelinger,Y., with contributions by L. di Segni, Y. Nagar and E. Klein. 2016. The Excavation at Ḥorvat Ḥani – Final Report and a Survey on Nuns and Nunneries in Israel. In: Knowledge and Wisdom. Archaeological and Historical Essays in Honour of Leah Di Segni (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum  Collectio Maior 54).




King David’s Mother: She Stands for Us

Shavuot (Pentecost), among its many aspects, is the traditional death date of King David. This is an opportunity to return to my theme “Of King David’s Women,” and this time, I want to tell you about David’s mother. She’s mentioned twice in the Bible, but like most of its female characters, she has no name. And so the sages filled in the blanks in riotous color. They said her name was Nitzevet, which means “standing woman.”

Life in the Hareem. John Lewis (1858). Wikimedia Commons.

In Psalm 69:8, David wrote: “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.” Why, the sages asked. They found the answer in the convoluted path David’s family took on its way to establishing the best known dynasty in Judeo-Christian tradition.

David was the great-grandson of the Moabite Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot and who famously joined her fate to the Israelites. But Jesse, after years of marriage to the Israelite Nitzevet, the mother of his seven sons, suddenly realized that as a prominent public figure, his part-Moabite status was an impediment.

Jewish tradition accords Ruth high honors but the law in Deut. 23:3 explicitly forbade intermarriage with Moabites. So, the sages said, Jesse felt compelled to cast Nitzevet out. This was for Nitzevet’s own good, they said – Jesse didn’t want to impugn Nitzevet’s status as the wife of a despised Moabite.

The separation lasted for three years. Jesse became lonely and wanted more children. And so he took a Canaanite slave woman, who could provide him with a child of unquestionable lineage. This was possible, it was said, because if Jesse were to emancipate the slave, their children could be recognized as full-fledged members of the tribe.

Compassion Births a Plan

What an awkward, painful situation. Nitzevet and the slave woman, living alongside each other, meeting every day at the loom, the grinding stone or over the cooking fire, neither of them with any real way out. And then, out of compassion, the slave woman came up with a plan, using one of the few tools biblical women had: subterfuge. She would switch places with Nitzevet on Jesse’s sleeping pallet that night. This apparently worked well enough, because Nitzevet became pregnant.

But from the moment her pregnancy began to show, Nitzevet’s own sons, ignorant of the bedroom switch, shunned and shamed her as an adulteress. The conscience-panged Jesse forbade his sons to harm her or the child, and eventually Nitzevet gave birth – to David. Jesse recognized the child as his own, although, like some biblical Cinderella, David was relegated to shepherd status, distanced from the family, a “stranger,” “hated without reason” (Psalm 69:4). Only twenty-eight years later – when Samuel the prophet anointed David king of Israel “in the midst of his brothers” (1 Samuel 16:12–13) – was the dignity of both mother and son restored. According to one source, it was at this point that Nitzevet uttered the words ascribed to David in Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected….”

Anointing of David, Veronese, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the Moral?

Some people in their anguish distance themselves from God, and some come closer. David, it was said, was among the latter. Women commentators have put a new gloss on the moral. They say Nitzevet is the one to be admired for bearing her pain with dignity and faith and for passing on her strength to her son David. What’s more, the story of “Standing Woman” doesn’t end in the Bible or its interpretations over the ages. It’s timeless and universal. Nitzevet stands for us. We can change the ending.



Further reading:

Chana Weisberg, “Nitzevet, Mother of David: the Bold Voice of Silence. https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm#comments

The legend of Nitzevet is based, among other sources, on the following sources:

Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 91a.

Eliyahu KiTov. Sefer HaTodaah, 1958 (Hebrew on line http://sifrei.blogspot.co.il/2014/03/blog-post_9.html, p. 302­–303, the section on Sivan and Shavuot tells about Nitzevet). English translation, Feldheim, 1998.

 Yalkut HaMachiri http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=32637&st=&pgnum=205 (Hebrew).


Chickpeas and Parched Grain: the Lunch Date that Launched a Dynasty

What’s the connection between an Israeli culinary favorite and women of Scripture?

Our next major religious festival is Pentecost, on May 20. But in between is another holiday. No, not Lag B’Omer, which we marked last week, on the 33rd day between Passover and Pentecost. I’m talking about International Hummus Day, marked on May 13. Google it.

A hummus field in Galilee, with Mount Tabor in the background. Photo: Eitan F, Wikimedia Commons.

This blog is about hummus, which is mentioned in the Bible once, in the story of Ruth, though not by that name.  In Ruth 2:14, Boaz said to our heroine, who’d been hard at work harvesting his barley all morning: “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” Hard to imagine serving vinegar to a hungry lady you want to impress…not even balsamic vinegar, as the Israeli author Meir Shalev has pointed out, and not even “wine vinegar” as the New International Version translated the Hebrew word hometz (that’s the modern Hebrew word for vinegar). And elsewhere in the Bible where hometz is mentioned, it’s not something you’d consume by choice (Prov. 10:26, Psalm 69:21, for example, and see Matt. 27: 48). So what was the dip? Some say it must have been hummus – pureed chickpeas.

Fresh hummus before toasting.

When we adjust our biblical lens to imagine Boaz offering Ruth pita dipped in hummus rather than vinegar, it becomes a different story, literally. Hummus  with a little olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon (in our day that is, no lemons in the Bible), is delish, and apparently for Boaz, it was a surefire way to get a second date.

Everybody likes to try the pureed version of hummus when they come to Israel. I’d like to tell you about a less well-known way to enjoy it. The next course of that memorable Bethlehem lunch date was parched grain, a biblical staple. “Parching” basically meant toasting the green, still-sweet heads of grain in a pan over the fire. You can do the same thing with hummus in the pod. And I do just that,  for the few weeks a year I can get it fresh in the fruit and veggie shop in our neighboring village of Abu Ghosh. But if you’re not going to be passing through Abu Ghosh or an open-air Israeli or Middle Eastern market any time soon, I’ve been told that in the U.S. you can sometimes find fresh hummus at farmers’ markets and specialty stores.  So here goes: Heat a medium-size skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle some sea salt in the bottom. Place a layer of fresh hummus, right in the pod, in the pan and shake it around for a few minutes, browning it nicely on all sides. That’s it. Put the whole pod into your mouth to get the salty flavor, holding on to the end of it, then pop out the chickpeas (two or three per pod usually), remove the pod and discard. Hands get oily, have napkins handy. Fun for the whole family, and an idea for a little home-school project.

Fresh hummus in my skillet, almost ready to munch on.

Speaking of the whole family, as you snack on your toasted hummus, or dip your pita in hummus puree for that matter, you can teach a Bible lesson on charity from the book of Ruth: Remember how Ruth, whose great-grandson was King David, went out to glean? She was harvesting the stalks in the corners of the field that Boaz had left for the poor, as commanded by Leviticus 23: 22:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field…You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger.” As the ancient Jewish sages said: “Why was the Book of Ruth written? To teach us the greatness of reward for deeds of lovingkindness” (Ruth Rabba 2:14).

Happy International Hummus Day.

The Gleaners, by 19th-century artist Jean-François_Millet. The artist was criticized in his day for too “social-minded” a subject.


For further reading:

“Toasted grain” makes a dramatic appearance early in my historical novel, The Scroll (Koren).

For more about biblical foods check out my Food at the Time of the Bible, Women at the Time of the Bible (Palphot), and Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (Avi Media).




Women of the Bible

Their messages of endurance span the millennia

Some women of the Bible are so well known that we name our daughters after them – Sarah, Deborah, Mary, Martha. Others have left us familiar names, but less familiar stories, like Joanna of the New Testament, who put all her considerable resources at the disposal of Jesus. There’s fascination with the misdeeds of the infamous ones, like Jezebel and Delilah, as well as those of heroines like Rebekah. And there are some whose names we’ll never know, but whose stories still touch us – Jepthah’s daughter, the wise woman of Tekoa, the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed.

Mary and Elizabeth meet. Detail of a mural at the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As seekers of inspiration from Scripture, we try to imagine ourselves walking a mile in the sandals of these female Bible characters, especially women of faith like Hannah and Ruth. Many of the strong women of the Bible, like the midwives Shifrah and Puah, the matriarch Rachel, or Queen Esther (and her predecessor, Vashti, for that matter) possessed the secret of finding power in a society that thrived on taking it from them. And let’s recall Michal, David’s wife, who, like many of her scriptural sisters, had to resort to subterfuge to reach her goals.

Some of the women of the Bible became “leading ladies.” Miriam, for example, was both leader and prophet. Her impression on Jewish history was so great that legend has portrayed her as part of Jewish experience for millennia after her death. And then we have Mary Magdalene, whom Christian scholars like Mary R. Thompson consider an early leader in the Judeo-Christian community.

The Rape of Tamar, by the 17th-century artist Le Sueur.

We painfully recall Tamar, a rape victim of her own half-brother, and Dina, raped as part of a biblical political drama. These are women who had everything taken from them. The biblical telling, or rather not-telling, leaves us to imagine that they must never have gotten over their tragedy, a fate that pursues all too many of their modern-day sisters.

The barren women of the Bible teach us special lessons in faith and strength. There’s Manoah’s wife, Samson’s future mother, who believed more strongly than her husband in the angel’s message, and Hannah, Samuel’s mother; both dedicated their sons to divine service.  Hannah in her praise poem gloriously presages Mary’s song when she met Elizabeth, another barren-fruitful, faithful woman.  Both these paeans point to unifying aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition and lead to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Woman kneading dough, terracotta, 12th century BCE, from the cemetery at Akhziv, Israel. Courtesy of Palphot

We are fortunate in the gift that archaeology has given us in unearthing the tools of their everyday existence. Real archaeological finds bring these women alive!  Most of them (like us) worked from dawn to dark. Perhaps the first multi-tasker in biblical history was the indomitable “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31.

Cover of The Scroll, depicting a woman marching from darkness into light.

In my historical novel, The Scroll, I sought to make the spirit of the strong women of the Bible pivotal in my plot. which begins with the fall of Masada. According to the historian Josephus there were two women survivors of Masada. One is my heroine in the first generation of The Scroll. She brings a message of female empowerment down through the generations. With it comes striving the for the elusive goal of Jewish unity, with which we still struggle today.

Delve into the stories of the women of the Bible and don’t be surprised to discover that in their stories, you’ll find your own.

I gratefully acknowledge the publisher of my book Women at the Time of the Bible, Palphot, for permission to use material from it for this article.



Singing but Often Unsung – Ancient Women Musicians

A recent discovery at “Solomon’s Mines” in Timna reveals the first evidence of women at this harsh desert site. It’s an intriguing prelude to the tradition of women musicians in the Bible and enriches our thoughts about the women of the Bible who came later.

Archaeologists excavating the ancient copper mines in Timna in southern Israel were startled, according to the recent report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to find the 3,200-year-old remains of a woman. Touchingly, the skeletal remains of her fetus were entombed with her.

Pottery figurine of a pregnant woman. Akhziv, seventh–sixth centuries BCE. Courtesy of Palphot.

Why were the the experts startled? Archaeologist Erez Bar-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, digging at the site, explained to Haaretz that because Timna was not home, but rather a work site, prominent people who died there might be temporarily buried and eventually taken home for permanent interment. Slaves were accorded no real burial at all, Bar-Yosef said. Hence, most tombs they find are empty. But even when human remains were found, none were of women. Thus, this woman must have been someone special. She was important enough to be buried with jewelry – two beautiful, Egyptian-style glass beads were found – and what’s more, her final resting place was just 200 meters from the famous temple of Hathor, at the base of the massive cliffs known as Solomon’s Pillars.

Egyptian woman playing an instrument. From a fourteenth century BCE.

Tel Aviv University Egyptologist Deborah Sweeney told Haaretz that this apparently highly regarded woman may have been a singer or musician for Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love, fertility, music and mines, whose image was incised millennia ago into the red rock of Solomon’s Pillars, high above the temple.

Women and music have been associated for ages in this part of the world, as attested by ancient figurines and plaques.  Nine sistra (musical rattles associated with the worship of Hathor) were found at Timna itself by its first excavator, Beno Rothenberg.

Reconstruction of a banquet scene, showing women musicians, common in Egyptian tomb decorations of aristocrats in the New Kingdom (1570–1070). Courtesy of Palphot.

Women in the Old Testament in Song and Dance

The dramatic discovery at Timna is a good opportunity to recall the female Bible characters who sang and danced in praise of God. While the role of women in the Bible seems often to have been limited to family and home, it was in song and dance that they could give full expression to their creativity and devotion to God in the public sphere. Perhaps the most famous songstress in the Bible – and one of its best-known women of faith – is Miriam, who led the women in song and dance by the Red Sea – “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted…”(Exod. 15:20–21).

Biblical Miriam dancing and playing the tamborine, by contemporary artist Rikki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Rikki Rothenberg.

A New Psalm”

Deborah – one of the strong women of the Bible, sang a song of victory in battle in Judges 5. Later, Solomon says he had both men and women singers at his court (Eccl. 2:8). Also in Ecclesiastes (12:3–5) are references to slowing down in old age, one of which relates to women singers. “The daughters of music are brought down low.” The Apocrypha contains a magnificent praise poem by another of the strong women of the Bible, Judith: “Begin unto my God with timbrels, sing unto my Lord with cymbals: tune unto him a new psalm.”

And moving on to women of the New Testament, while according to Luke (1:46–55), Mary spoke the Magnificat, the text itself  appears in poetic style, and it became one of the earliest hymns, dating back to the beginning of Christianity.

Who was the “pregnant woman of Timna”? We hope the archaeologists will be able to tell us more in the future. She must have been a strong woman to have traveled so far and endured the rigors of the unforgiving desert. This woman lived on the cusp of Bible times, and in the southern reaches of the Bible lands.  And so we can call upon her to help us remember with love and admiration a long line of strong women of the Bible, who sing out to us to this very day.

In addition to her series on daily life in Bible days, Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of The Scroll, a historical novel about a woman of Masada and her descendants over three generations, who faced the challenges we still face today.

For further reading:

“Archaeologists startled to find remains of pregnant woman buried in ‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ by Ariel David. Oct. 31, 2017. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/1.820180.

“A Joyful Noise: Music and Dance, in Women at the Time of the Bible, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh (Palphot).



Spiritual Liquid Sunshine: the Blessing of Rain in its Season

It was a lifetime ago, one sunny July day in New Jersey, where I brought our two little Israeli daughters to visit their grandparents, that I made them a little promise: “Tomorrow, girls, we’ll go to the beach if it doesn’t rain.” I’ll never forget the quizzical look they both gave me. “What do you mean, if it doesn’t rain. It won’t rain, mama, it’s summer!”

That’s what I get (among other things) for raising children in the Holy Land. In Israel there might be only one thing that’s guaranteed – it will never rain in July. Or August, or June. Okay, you get the idea. In fact, for about eight months of the year, basically, not a drop.

Then comes the rainy season, now upon us here in the Holy Land. This all-important season is framed by two important meteorological/spiritual events: the “former rains” in the fall and the “latter rains” in the spring (Joel 2:23).  Then, dry again until the fall. That powerful cycle has shaped virtually every aspect of our Jewish faith and culture, as well as that of our desert-born or nurtured sister faiths, for thousands of years and to this day.

Oh, how we longed for water in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-2; Num. 20:2). Scripture turned that longing into the ultimate spiritual metaphor – for joy and salvation (Isaiah 12:3) eternal life (John 4: 7-14), justice (Amos 5:24), wisdom (Proverbs 20:5), and yes, sorrow (Lam. 3:48) and God’s wrath (Hosea 5:10) as well.

Oleg Jacob and Rachel at the Well 2

Rachel and Jacob at the well. Artist: Oleg Trabish. Courtesy of Palpnot.

It is at the well is where we often find the women of the Bible – drawing water for home and family as one of their many daily tasks. That made cisterns and springs just about the most important meeting place in any human habitation and as such – the backdrop for some unforgettable biblical encounters. Abraham’s servant deemed Rebecca to be “the one” for Isaac when he saw the energy and strength she put into her well-side work (Gen. 24:14–21) ; It was the best place for Jacob to show how his body-building skills had paid off (Gen. 29:10); Moses meets his future wife Zipporah by the well after fighting off rival water-seeking shepherds (Ex. 2. 16-20) And our ancient sages saw the juxtaposition of the death of Moses’ sister in the wilderness and Israelite clamoring for water (Num. 20: 1–2)  as the reason for the appearance of a miraculous spring.  And by the way, forever after, “Miriam’s well,” according to legend, appeared whenever her people needed her special brand of sustenance (eventually plunking, just as miraculously, into the Sea of Galilee where if you watch and wait, you can see it bubbling up to this day).

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Water quenches, cleanses, heals, revives and purifies – that was an axiom of our biblical ancestors’ lives. And from there, it’s just a short leap of human understanding to making water the ultimate symbol for spiritual renewal, and for life itself.

I hope you’ll find pleasure in the slide show, “Waters of Joy” that I prepared, which includes photos of my favorite Holy Land springs, rivers and waterfalls, accompanied by biblical verses and is set to part of Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 2 in D.

Here’s wishing us all rains of blessing in 2017, and may we all draw strength from our deepest wellsprings.

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of a series of books about daily life in the Bible. Her first historical novel, The Scroll  is available in paperback from Koren Publishers .

What “a Mother” Wants: Tale of Darkness – Season of Light

Blog Hannah courage of a mother Gustave Dore

Hannah, Gustave Dore

On this, the seventh night of Hanukkah, I would like to jump into the debate on the meaning of the festival – admiration for the fight against tyranny, esteem/excoriation of cultural separatism, paganism at midwinter  – the sky’s the limit. For my part, at the risk of being considered the Grinch who stole Hanukkah, I would like first to focus on a tragic heroine, Hannah.

This is not the Hannah whose fervent prayers at Shiloh were rewarded with the birth of a son who served the sacred and grew up to lead Israel through war, peace, and extreme regime change. This Hannah is still nameless when she appears in 2 Macc. 7:1 as “mother” and later in that chapter, “the woman,” who watched her seven sons tortured and executed one after the other, and who triumphed in their sacrifice to a higher cause.

Yes, I admit, I’m feeling more than a bit grinchy these days, in light of Arik’s and his mother’s ongoing medical challenges since their car was struck in May. And so I’d better quickly tell you that our little family, from great-grandma Tamar herself down to seven-month old Elia, enjoyed our holiday very much, lighting the candles, singing the blessings, eating jelly donuts we made and thinking of Nili and Ami who will be home with us soon. In the photos at the end of this post, you’ll see the Vamosh-Dubinsky family celebrating Hanukkah from generation to generation. Below is a teaser.

Hope of the future - Hanukkah 2014

“In the candles’ rays I see”* – the face of hope in the future.

But bear with me as I return to a tale of darkness at this season of light. We  learn that the story of this mother evolved as it wended its way from the Book of Maccabees to rabbinic tradition and on into Christian tradition. Scholars say that “the woman” of 2 Maccabees and in the version told by Rab Judah in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 57b) becomes Miriam in other rabbinic literature, and Maryam in Syriac Christian sources.

It was only in an early 16-century revision of a 10th-century work, “Josippon,” that she received the name that came down in history. There, the author apparently could not resist a connection with 1 Sam. 2:5, where the biblical Hannah praises her miraculous reversal of fortune: “Those who were full go out to work for bread. But those who were hungry are filled. She who could not give birth has given birth to seven.” Scripture teaches, by the way, that seven sons are the ultimate symbol of divine blessing (Ruth 4:15, Jeremiah 15:9, Job 1:2).

According to 2 Macc. 7: 20-23: “…the mother was marvelous above all, and worthy of honorable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord. Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them, I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you; But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.”

To the narrator, this horrific tale seems to be not much more than a human interest angle, because right after he completes his account with the death of the mother, like a news anchor pressed to get everything in before the commercial, in a meanwhile-in-other-news tone, he says: “Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures” (2 Macc. 7:42). He then moves on to a security-related story – Judah Maccabee’s draft efforts and subsequent battles, where his victories as a guerrilla warrior lionized him for all time.

I’ve learned in studying about daily life of women in the Bible that the convoluted family ties of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, with their subterfuge, violence, humiliation and other dysfunctions, were about the perpetuation of family lines at a time when so many died young. But martyrdom is a very different call, one whose circumstances I am fortunate not to be able to imagine.

Some people point out that the lessons of Hanukkah are best served not by glorifying the battles of Judah the Maccabee, but by focusing on the achievements of his brother Jonathan who succeeded him, and is said to have excelled at treaties. But eventually, “us against them” was supplanted (again) by “us against us.” Jonathan’s great-great grandnephews, the sons of Queen Alexandra (Salome) and her second husband, divided the nation in a deadly feud. It can be said that their unceasing and bloody machinations were what eventually brought on Rome’s conquest of our land.

In Gittin 57b Rab Judah intersperses his instances of martyrdom (interestingly, the story of Masada is not among them) with, as was the norm, appropriate biblical proof texts. Transforming the mother’s death at the hands of the tyrants into suicide in his retelling, Rab Judah says: “the woman went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed. A voice thereupon came forth from heaven saying, A joyful mother of children.”

“A joyful mother of children”: That reference to Psalm 113:9 is simply chilling. It forces us to ask when death might be perceived as a preferable alternative, even a glorious one. And thus, it forces us to demand of our leaders and those of our neighbors – in our “own language, filled with courageous spirits” – everything possible to rein in extremists, a task we must undertake in honor of the exhortation of Deuteronomy 30:19: “Choose life, that that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”

Hanukkah 1985

Our own little seeds, candle-lighting on Nili’s first Hanukkah, December 1985.


Hanukkah 2014

Maya, at right, now with her own seeds, Tamar and Elia, lighting the candles with us, Hanukkah 2014.

* “In the Candles’ Rays I see,” by Elma Ehrlich Levinger, a Hanukkah hymn written in 1960.