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The Prayer of Hannah

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Tishrei 5765/Sept 2004

In his second talk, Rav Duvdevani interrupted the strict sequence of halachic topics on the commandments of the Torah as they relate to women. Since he was speaking two days before Rosh HaShana, the Rav chose to examine the Haphtara read on the first day of the Festival, the opening chapters of the Book of Samuel, the prayers of Hannah. This really does have a place in the series, since it teaches us much about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a woman speaking to the Almighty.

What are the teachings in Hanna’s prayer?

Before dealing with this aspect, Rav Duvdevani emphasised the beauty and sophistication of the text. Our alertness to the echoes of the language in related texts of the Bible enhances our appreciation. Unusual phrases stand out. For instance, Elkanah, the husband of Hannah - and Penina – comes to Shilo to bring his sacrifices with great regularity meyamim yamima. This is an expression that does not occur frequently. We find it in Ex13,10, where Moses enjoins the Children of Israel to keep the Passover regularly, every year; it is used in the Book of Judges (11,40) to convey the regularity of the women’s remembrance of the daughter of Jephtah. Its resonance is one of commitment. Another example is the phrase Hannah uses to reject the High Priest Eli’s accusation that she is drunk. ‘Do not see in me a bat Belial, a Belial maid, (1 Sam.1,16). The phrase reappears a little later (ch 2, 12) clarifying the meaning, ‘And the sons of Eli were benei Belial; they knew not the Lord’. Hannah is defending herself against an insinuation of idol worshipping drunkenness.

This leads us into an analysis of the characters in the story: Elkanah, the small-minded, correct worshipper, incapable of understanding Hannah’s distress at having no children; Penina, the wife who is blessed with children; her seeming contempt for Hannah who cannot bring herself to partake of the sacrifice, may reflect a view that Hannah’s barrenness is a punishment for that refusal to eat – is the refusal perhaps a sign of rebellion? And Eli, who lacks the insight he might be expected to have as High Priest. The attitude of all three characters highlights the special personality of Hannah.

Hannah prays twice. The circumstances are very different and her prayers reflect this. We first see Hannah, unhappy and bitter, marat nefesh, bitter in soul, praying that her barren condition be ended. Most of her prayer is silent, ‘she spake in her heart; only her lips moved’ (1,13), except for the vow that she makes ‘O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your handmaid and remember me and wilt give your handmaid a man child, then will I give him to the Lord all the days of his life and there shall no razor come upon his head’ (1,11). Clearly, she is not asking for a son for per personal fulfilment. Whereas the attitude of her husband and of Penina is to accept Hannah’s condition and judge her accordingly, Hannah’s faith convinces her that the Almighty can change whatever is wrong.

Very different is the second prayer (Ch1 end, ch 2), once Samuel is weaned and Hannah has brought him to Eli, to serve in Shilo. We see an exultant Hannah, proclaiming the Almighty’s greatness, ‘The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich…The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth. This prayer is both fluent and articulate. Rav Duvdevani suggests that it may have been an existing, formal prayer, which Hannah found to be wholly suited to what she wished to express. We learn that a formal prayer can be a valuable channel.

But Private prayer is essential. The Gemara (Berakhot 31 A,B) cites a number of rulings based on Hannah’s prayer, surprisingly based on her private prayer, such as that one’s prayer should be clear or that one should not raise one’s voice. Hannah’s manifestly sincere relationship with the Almighty inspired our Sages to see in this text an important liturgical model.