Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich points out that Eastern Christianity includes prayer and a festival honoring the martyrdom of a woman and her seven sons who, in the time of the Greek King Antiochus IV, refused to eat pork. The Syriac Christian Aphrahat (Adiabene c.270–c.345), a leading scholar of the Antiochian church who lived in the Sassanian Persian empire, praised the mother and her seven sons.
But the Talmud reimagines their story, depicting the woman and her sons as refusing to worship an idol in Roman times. This change reflects the early rabbis’ tendency to downplay martyrdom.
The Talmud also retells the story of the woman and her seven sons, anchoring it in a verse from Psalm 44:23 “For Your sake we are killed all the day long; we are reckoned as sheep for the slaughter.” Rav Judah said: “This [verse] is about a woman and her seven sons. They brought the first [son] before Caesar saying: “Worship an idol!”
The Talmud recasts the story to the time of the Romans, with an unnamed Caesar playing the role of Antiochus IV the Greek King, with no mention of Hanukah or the Hasmoneans, and no reference to not eating pork, only to not worshiping an idol, one of three basic rules a Jew must choose death to avoid (along with murder and incest) according to rabbinic law.
The book of 1 Maccabees, originally written in Hebrew by a Judean member of John Hyrcanus’ court, speaks of how certain Jews, who had fled from cities and towns to escape persecution, were surrounded by Greek Seleucid troops, who ordered them to surrender or do battle. The ultimatum fell out on Shabbat: 1 Maccabees 2:32 …They (the Seleucid army) encamped opposite them (the Judeans) and prepared for battle against them on a sabbath day. 2:33 They said to them, ‘Enough of this! Come out and do what the king commands, and you will live.’ 2:34 But they said, ‘We will not come out (from their cave fortress), nor will we do what the king commands and profane the sabbath day.’
The Judeans here refuse to fight on Shabbat, so they are easily slaughtered by the Greek troops: 1 Maccabees 2:35 Then the enemy quickly attacked them. 2:36 But they did not answer them or hurl a stone at them or block up their hiding-places, 2:37 for they said, ‘Let us all die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.’ 2:38 So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and livestock, to the number of a thousand people.
While presenting these people as pious, Mattathias and his sons and followers understand the behavior as a religious error, however well meaning: 1 Maccabees 2:39 “When Mattathias and his friends learned of it, they mourned for them deeply. 2:40 And all said to their neighbors: ‘If we all do as our kindred have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.’ 2:41 So they made this decision that day: ‘Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding-places.'”
In the author’s view, Judea is saved not only by the piety of those who gave their lives without a struggle, but also by the Hasmoneans who took up arms and fought. The rest of 1 Maccabees details the successive military exploits of Mattathias’ sons, ending in the establishment of Simon, and then his son John Hyrcanus, as high priests of an independent Judea. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were heroic because they took matters into their own hands and refused to wait passively for God’s intervention.
After lighting the Hanukah menorah, many people sing Maʿoz Tzur, a hymn from the 12th/13th century. The hymn ends with the request “Raise up for us the seven shepherds.” which is taken from the book of Micah, which promises that if the king of Assyria invades Israel, God will “raise” seven shepherds to save the people of Israel from him: Micah 5:4/5 …”Should Assyria invade our land and tread upon our fortresses, We will raise up over him seven shepherds, (or) eight princes of men.”
The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) suggests that the seven shepherds are important figures from Israel’s past: “Who are the seven shepherds? David in the middle, Adam, Seth, and Methuselah to his right; Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, on his left. And who are the eight princes of man? Jesse, Saul, Samuel, Amos, Zephaniah, (Zedekiah) [Hezekiah], Elijah, and the Messiah.
This is clearly an eschatological vision, with these ancient heroic figures appearing again on earth in order to save Israel from some future, final crisis, and it is this general idea of the seven shepherds that Maʿoz Tzur is referencing.
I think it is important to notice that while the princes are all Jewish, three of the more important seven shepherds are non-Jews: Adam, Seth, and Methuselah, who are placed on the right hand of King David. Thus, in the time of pre-Messinic Age turmoil, the People of Israel is destined to be protected by three non-Jewish leaders: (perhaps Lord Balfour, and presidents Harry Truman and Joe Biden).
Professor Melamed writes that the seven shepherds in a messianic context abound in Jewish Messianic literature, especially of the past five centuries. For example, Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, describes himself as ascending to the heavenly castle of the Messiah where he encounters the Seven Shepherds.
In short, messianic understandings of the verse in Micah dominates traditional interpretation. If “seven shepherds” is the original text of Maʿoz Tzur, the poet is envisioning a Messianic Age in which the shepherds are the forerunners of the Messiah son of David.
Indeed, since no biblical or rabbinic text refers to a shepherd of seven. The phrase may be a reference to the most quoted expression of the Bible’s vision of a peaceful world at the climax of the Messianic Age in Isaiah 11:6 “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
This verse enumerates seven animals, and they are all led by an (seventh the) little child. Although the verse does not use the word “shepherd,” the child is envisioned as one, so the little child of Isaiah 11:6 may be “the shepherd of the seven” alluded to in the ending of Maʿoz Tzur.
Professor Melamed says if the author of Maʿoz Tzur’s intention was to allude to Isaiah 11:6, then the last stanza is a prayer for a peaceful end of days. Following the collapse of the “evil kingdom” (i.e., the European inheritors of Rome), the poet beseeches God for a world filled with universal love, peace, and human brotherhood, where even a young child can shepherd a wolf alongside a lamb, a leopard with a kid, and a lion with a calf.”