06. “A Monument and a Name”: Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya

A saris has a choice: he can sink into the pain and despair of knowing that he will not leave anyone to carry his name forward, or he can link his life to the eternally holy, thereby gaining an everlasting name, better than sons and daughters. As the prophet Yeshayahu says:

Let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.” For thus said the Lord: “As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant – I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.” (Yeshayahu 56:3-5)

As long as sin exists, so will death and disease. Once the world is cured of all its sins, it will also be cured of all its illnesses. Certain sins in particular may cause infertility; one of them is dishonoring the Jewish people and the Temple. Following the miraculous recovery of King Ḥizkiyahu, emissaries of the Babylonian king visited him. Instead of drawing them closer to faith, he was arrogant and fawning, showing off all of his personal treasures as well as those of the Temple. The prophet told him, “Some of your sons, your own issue whom you will have fathered, will be taken to serve as eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (Yeshayahu 39:1-7).

The Sages say that this harsh prophecy was fulfilled in the lives of Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, who were descendants of King Ḥizkiyahu. In childhood they were separated from their family and nation and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace to serve as attendants and advisors. In keeping with ancient practice, they were castrated (Sanhedrin 93b; Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 51).[9] By examining their character and deeds, we can learn about the life purpose of one decreed by fate to be a saris.

After Nebuchadnezzar brought these four youths to his city, he ordered that they be fed meat from his table and be taught the Chaldean language and culture, so that they would assimilate. However, they made great efforts to remain loyal to their faith. Since the meat was not kosher, they did not eat it; for years they survived on a variety of legumes. Had the king discovered their disobedience, they would have been put to death. But they were prepared to sacrifice their lives if it came down to it.

During their years of exile in the king’s palace, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews to Babylonia. Nevertheless, Daniel and his friends, who by then were important officials, did not lose their faith. Eventually, Babylonia was defeated, and Medea became the ruling power. Darius, King of Medea, enacted a decree that required his subjects to pray exclusively to him. However, Daniel defied the decree and continued to pray to God. When he was caught, he was thrown into the lions’ den, but was miraculously saved by God (Daniel 6).

Although Daniel was a eunuch, he did not wallow in his grief. Rather, we are told that “Daniel, a beloved person, devoted himself to acts of kindness…. He helped brides prepare for their weddings and made them happy, accompanied the dead, gave charity to the poor, and prayed three times a day. His prayers were accepted with favor” (Avot De-Rabbi Natan 4:5).

Let us return to the time when Babylonia reigned. The Jewish nation was in crisis. An evil kingdom ruled the world. The Temple lay in ruins. The Jewish people were exiled from their land, and it seemed that there was no hope left for the Jewish faith. Consequently, many of the exiled Jews abandoned Torah and mitzvot, as they felt that within a generation or two, assimilation was inevitable. Nebuchadnezzar decided to erect a large golden idol to symbolize the power of his kingdom and his rule. He set a time for an impressive ceremony, during which all attendees would prostrate themselves before this idol. It seems that many Jews were among those who bowed down. Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, who were senior officials in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, could have justified bowing down by claiming that it was not an idol, merely a statue to glorify the king (Rabbeinu Tam in Tosafot, Pesaḥim 53b s.v. “ma”). However, because the statue looked like an idol, they decided it was better to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than bow down to it publicly and desecrate God’s name. A great miracle occurred; they emerged from the furnace unscathed. God’s name was sanctified in front of everyone, Jews and non-Jews. (Daniel was not present at the time, as explained in Sanhedrin 93a.)

The Sages say that at that dark time, when the Jewish people abandoned their faith and heritage to prostrate themselves before the image, “God sought to transform the entire world into night…and blood…but He looked at Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, and He was placated” (Sanhedrin 93a). In their merit, the Jewish people remembered their covenant with God, returned to their land, and rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Instead of giving up on life, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya chose to identify with God’s wishes and laws, and as a result were able to accomplish great things. As the Sages said, “Make His will into your will, so that He will make your will into His. Subordinate your will to His so that He will subordinate the will of others to yours” (Avot 2:4). While they could not participate in the covenant of brit mila, so strongly connected with continuity, they embraced the divine covenant with the Jewish people, the Torah, and Eretz Yisrael. This enabled them to reveal the inner value of life when it is connected to its divine source. Thus, they are described as “those who hold fast to My covenant” (Yeshayahu 56:4).[10]

From the lives and deeds of Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, we can learn that sometimes it is precisely the infertile who can use their faith to connect to the essence of life. For most people, the here and now is riddled with worry about family and children, but the infertile can focus on pure unconditional faith in God. This allows them to dedicate their lives to giving expression to the covenant between God and the Jewish people. This sustains the entire world and allows the Jews to return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. As it says, “I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish” (Yeshayahu 56:5).


[9]. There is a disagreement about this in Sanhedrin 93b. “Rav says: ‘They were actual sarisim.’ R. Ḥanina says: ‘Idolatry was emasculated during their lifetime.’” The Talmud then explains that R. Ḥanina maintains that Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya had children who predeceased them, so they needed the consolation of an everlasting name, better than sons and daughters According to Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 51, Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya were actual eunuchs, whom the king presumably had castrated to ensure their loyalty to him. Otzar Midrashim (Eisenstein) tells a more complicated story:

“Esther summoned Hatakh” (Esther 4:5). Hatakh is Daniel. Why was he called Hatakh? Because he had cut off (Hebrew, ḥatakh) his manhood during the reign of the evil Nebuchadnezzar. Jew-haters told Nebuchadnezzar, “The Jews you brought are having illicit relations with your maidservants and the wives of the ministers!” Upon hearing this, Daniel and his friends Ḥananya, Mishael and Azarya immediately emasculated themselves. As it says: “For thus said the Lord: ‘As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths …’” Nebuchadnezzar was immediately filled with rage against them and commanded that they be brought to him and killed. They said to him, “Our lord, the king! We would never do these things, for Jewish law prohibits adultery and sexual immorality. As the Torah says, ‘Do not commit adultery.”’ They showed him that they were eunuchs. Nebuchadnezzar was immediately overjoyed. (Midrash Megilla, in Otzar Midrashim, p. 60)

Toward the end of his life, Daniel/Hatakh helped Esther and Mordechai save the Jewish people. Esther, like Daniel and his friends, sacrificed herself to save the Jewish people.

[10]. Shabbat, too, is mentioned as a merit of the sarisim, for Shabbat connects weekday life to its source and perfects it. The prophet says that the sarisim “keep My Sabbaths.” The use of the plural hints at two aspects of Shabbat. First, Shabbat sanctifies the previous workweek. Second, it infuses the upcoming workweek with holiness and blessing.

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Editor: Nechama Unterman