Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Rosh Hashanah 5760/ 30 September 2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Rosh Hashanah 5760/ 30 September 2000

“A Prayer for Rising above the Routine”

Dr. Gabriel H. Cohn
Department of Bible

Why were specific passages from the Prophets and not others selected for the haftarah readings on Sabbaths and holidays? Much can be said on this subject beyond what has already been noted. Below we shall address the question, why was the account of Hannah’s prayer and the birth of Samuel selected for the haftarah passage on the first day of the New Year. This question is implicit in the gemara’s comment (Rosh Hashanah 11a): “On the New Year Sarah, Rachel and Hannah received annunciations,” announcements that they were to give birth. This remark actually explains all the readings in the Torah and the Prophets during Rosh Hashanah.

Nevertheless, we can supplement this response with an explanation related to the nature of the High Holydays: one can view the story of Hannah as the classic expression of the correct approach to prayer. It is for this reason that the Talmud (Berakhot 31a) remarks on the vast number of halakhot that can be derived from Hannah’s prayer. Inter alia we learn that the person praying must pronounce the words with his or her mouth (“only her lips moved”), not read them silently, yet one should not raise one’s voice (“but her voice could not be heard”).

If we read Hannah’s words from a literary-midrashic point of view, we discover additional fundamentals of prayer. In the beginning of her prayer “she prayed to [Heb. al] the Lord,” (I Sam. 1:10). R. Eliezer comments [on the unusual choice of preposition in Hebrew] that Hannah addressed accusatory words to Heaven (loc. sit. 31b). Indeed, being a very unhappy woman, Hannah poured out her misery before her Creator. After she had unburdened herself of her anguish, a different preposition is used in describing her prayer: “As she kept on praying before the Lord” (1:12). And several years later, when Hannah brings Samuel to Shiloh, she reminds Eli of her prayer, emphasizing that her supplication had indeed been favorably received: “I am the woman who stood here beside you and prayed to [Heb. el, the usual preposition] the Lord” (1:26). From this we may conclude that in true prayer the person praying must express what is troubling him with honesty and integrity.

But a prayer lodging a complaint against Heaven must be accompanied by a suitably humble attitude. R. Eliezer said, “From the day that the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world, no human being addressed Him as Lord of Hosts until Hannah came and did so” (loc. sit.). However, before the Lord of Hosts, Hannah feels herself but a maidservant. She repeats the word “maidservant” three times, making it a key word in her prayer; her boldness was coupled with humility. We saw the same combination in Abraham when he said accusingly to the Lord, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25), while at the same time acknowledging his limitations in the words, “I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).

The Sages also note the intensity of Hannah’s prayer: “Everything concerning Hannah was twofold: she received a double portion, she was angry twice, she wept twice, she came before the Lord twice, and she vowed twice” (Midrash Samuel 1.9). Constant repetition of the verbs bears witness to Hannah’s intense devotion and concentration as she prayed. The Sages also deduce that Hannah prayed intently from the verse, “Now Hannah was praying in her heart” (Sam. 1:13). From this it is concluded that when a person prays he “must direct his heart” to prayer (Berakhot 31a).

Jewish exegesis over the centuries has laid special emphasis on the fact that Hannah not only made requests, but was also prepared to give. Her giving was reciprocal: “If You will grant [Heb. ve-natata] Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate [Heb. u-netativ] him to the Lord for all the days of his life” (1:11). Yet it would be mistaken to view this as some sort of barter or give-and-take: Jewish prayer as a whole does not focus on requesting things of the Lord, rather it is like a process of self-judgment (the Hebrew word for praying, le-hitpalel, being the reflexive stem of the root p-l-l, meaning to accuse of wrongdoing), in which a person gives thanks for/acknowledges what he has received from G-d and further clarifies before the Lord what he can ask and what he must demand of himself.

What we have seen until now is a catalogue of rules based on Rabbinic remarks and on a close reading of the text as well as some reflections on the nature of prayer. Going beyond this, Hannah’s particular circumstances and her prayer which arose from them has great significance for Rosh Hashanah above and beyond the classic mold.

Hannah had been childless for many years. Both Elkanah and Peninnah viewed her barrenness as an immutable decree from G-d: “for the Lord had closed her womb”, “that the Lord had closed her womb” (1:5-6). Hannah, however, was not willing to accept her fate complacently: she “rose up” and took initiative, rose above the usual routine of worshipping the Lord at Shiloh and fought to bring about a change in her life. She refused to worship the Lord in the classic mold, according to the repetitive routine: “This man used to go up from his town every year”, “This happened year after year.” She turned her back on the time-honored custom of regular prayer, and created a prayer of supplication, imbued with faith and hope. Her prayer was accepted and her life was destined to change.

As if to stress the magnitude of the change, Scripture inform us at the beginning of the story that Eli’s two sons were priests of the Lord when Elkanah and his family came to Shiloh (1:3). Hophni and Phinehas wielded great power and control and were destined to succeed to their father’s office. Facing them in our story stood Hannah, a barren woman without hope or future. In the course of the telling, however, everything is reversed. Eli’s sons, sinners, are removed from the stage of history, and Samuel, the son of Hannah, succeeds to the office of Hophni and Phinehas’ father. The sons of Eli are “scoundrels; they paid no heed to the Lord” (2:12), whereas Hannah trusts in Him, making the Lord the focus of her life, as expressed in her prayer.

The magnitude of the change in Hannah’s existence provides the foundation for the song of praise and thanksgiving which she sings in the wake of the birth of her son (2:1-10). This song expresses Hannah’s emotions as a woman who has undergone a tremendous reversal, from the misery and frustration felt by a barren woman to the rejoicing in new life experienced by a mother who has just given birth. It is a song of praise about reversals, a turn for the better taking place in the life of the oppressed and the suffering.

Hannah’s prayer is an exemplar to all those who want to rise above the routine and stand before the Holy One, blessed be He, in prayer, trying through rigorous self-examination (“le-hitpalel” – self-accusation) to change or renew their way through life in the coming years; a way of life they will try to realize through perseverance and the help of G-d, the Lord of History.
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