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Hannah's Prayer: Rabbinic Ambivalence

By Leila Bronner

Our first glimpse of Hannah is of a woman distraught over her childlessness. She has come with her family to sacrifice at the shrine at Shiloh, but instead she weeps, declines to eat the sacrificial meal, and goes alone to the shrine, where she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while. And she made this vow:

"O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and there shall no razor come upon his head." (1 Sam. 1:11)

Hannah continues to pray fervently but silently, only her lips moving. Since prayer in the ancient world was almost always audible and since excessive drinking was commonly one aspect of festive occasions (Dan.6:10; Psa.3:4; 4:1; 6:9), the priest Eli, not unreasonably, takes Hannah to be drunk. He rebukes her, demanding that she sober up in the shrine. Hannah replies,

"Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress." (1 Sam. 1:14˝15)

Eli blesses her, saying, "Then go in peace" and "may the God of Israel grant what you have asked of Him." Thus reassured, Hannah goes on her way; she "did eat, and her countenance was no longer sad" (1 Sam. 1:17˝18).

Hannah's prayer is a personal petition that is at once request, expostulation, and vow. Moreover, as the only petitioner in the Bible accused of drunkenness, she answers with great eloquence and confidence, enough to elicit the blessings of the priest Eli. Altogether, Hannah is a curious combination of assertiveness and humility. On the one hand, she is single-minded in her determination to have child: she goes to the shrine alone, after making a scene, to make a request that her own husband explicitly finds unnecessary; he has said to her, "Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?" (1 Sam. 1:8). On the other hand, in her prayer and her answer to Eli, she presents herself as a person deserving attention not because she is great in virtue and power but because she is a sincere and unhappy servant of God.

Given Hannah's assertiveness, praying alone in the public shrine, and gender, it is particularly surprising and pleasing to find that Hannah's prayer provides the paradigm for the "optimal prayer experience" (Weiss, Women at Prayer) in rabbinic literature. As Hannah is the only woman whose prayer to God is recorded in the Bible, one would expect the rabbis to seize on her prayer as the definitive instance of how women but not men should pray. The rabbis do no such thing. Instead, they use her prayer to teach how all people, male and female, should pray. Despite their marked gender consciousness, the rabbis never once comment on the fact that Hannah is female when discussing her brilliant aptitude for prayer. They seem to look past Hannah's gender to her humanity to emphasize that in personal prayer there is only a human trying to communicate with God.

I chose to deal with this topic because I wish to study Hannah's prayer in several contexts, using differing approaches. First, what is the connection between barrenness and prayer in the Hebrew Bible? Does Hannah's barrenness provide insight into why her prayer is perceived as exemplary? Second, how does Hannah's prayer compare with other petitions in the Hebrew Bible? Does placing Hannah's prayer in this context allow us to see more clearly the peculiar qualities of her communication with God? Finally, what exactly do rabbinic sources say about Hannah, and how do the sages square their admiration for Hannah's prayer with their exclusion of women from the core of Judaic religious practiceˇTorah learning and communal prayer? Hannah (c. 1050 B.C.E.) is separated from the rabbinic sages by many centuries, yet the sages emphasize what they find of interest in their own timesˇa period that stretches from 200 to 600 C.E. and on into the Middle Ages.

Hannah is typical of the people of the Bible in that she turns to prayer in times of trouble, and typical of the women of the Bible in that her troubles are prompted by reproductive issues. Both in biblical times and in the time of the rabbis, the barren woman had very little social status, as she had not produced a son, and she was often perceived as cursed by God. Sarah, for example, says to Abraham, "Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing" (Gen. 16:2). The Babylonian Talmud, in fact, stresses that God is the source of life: "Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hand and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the key of Rain; the key of Childbirth; and the key of the Revival of the Dead" (Ta'an.2a). The key to having children is in God's hands, and a son was the great prize offered to women of the Bible. The pain of infertility is in the stories of the barren women in the Bible: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, and Samson's mother. Each of these women has a traumatic time until she is released from her infertility by divine intercession.

Conversations with God or God's messengers play a part in the resolution of these stories in birth narratives. Abraham reproaches God, saying "O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless" (Gen. 15:2˝3). This is not an explicit prayer for a child, like Hannah's, but it does make apparent the pain and doubt inherent in the childless state of Abraham and Sarah. God promised Abraham children over and over; even more, once Abraham is old and has Ishmael and thus is no longer childless, God promises, "I will give you a son by [Sarah]" (Gen. 17:16) and so it happens, despite the disbelief expressed by both Abraham and Sarah.

In the case of Rebecca, we read that Isaac pleads "with the Lord on behalf of his wife ... and the Lord responded to his plea." What is particularly unusual about this story is that Rebecca herself prays to the Lord after she has conceived; she asks for an explanation of why the "children struggled in her womb" (Gen. 25:21˝23), and she is answered.

Rachel complains of her infertility not to God but to Jacob, and Jacob rebukes her. "Rachel said to Jacob, ŰGive me children, or I shall die.' Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, ŰCan I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?'" (Gen. 30:1˝2). Jacob is directing her to petition God, as Hannah does later, but Rachel chooses to solve her problem otherwise. Later God "remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ŰGod has taken away my disgrace'" (Gen. 30:22˝23). No explicit prayers to God for children are recorded in connection with these events, yet clearly Rachel has asked God to intervene and clearly it is God who ends her childlessness. Interestingly, the rabbis find Jacob's reproach of Rachel harsh. When they remind Jacob that when his mother was barren, his father prayed that her barrenness be removed, they are implicitly recommending that he should pray for Rachel (Rashi, Gen.30:1).

Samson's mother is also released from barrenness by God. Even though we do not see Manoah or his wife praying for a child, an angel appears to Manoah's wife and says, "You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son" (Judg. 13:3˝5). Surprised, Manoah prays for the angel to reappear and confirm that he is to become a father: "Oh, my Lord! please let the man of God that You sent come to us again, and let him instruct us how to act with the child that is to be born" (Judges 13:8). In this case, Manoah shows little faith in his wife and in the messenger of God, while his wife places her trust in God's messenger and in God's grace.

Early in the Bible, then, a connection is forged between prayer and barrenness. Barrenness tests faith in God, shows the efficacy of prayer, and brings humans, and especially women, into contact with the messengers of God. It is a source of sorrow, but also of strength and blessings. The rabbis, pondering the mystery of barrenness, keep the connection going. They explain that the phenomenon exists "Because the Holy One, blessed be He, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous" (Gen.Rab.45:4; Cant.R.2:14; b.Yebam 64b). Mary Calloway, writing on the midrashic reinterpretation of the biblical stories of barren women in different contexts and situations, notes that the rabbis "combine the motif of barrenness with the motif of answered prayer ... for the purpose of demonstrating the efficacy of prayer" (Calloway, Sing, O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash). Thus, because Hannah is barren, her petition makes eminent sense to the rabbis. Its fervor is an appropriate response to a situation that they perceive as desperate, and the fact that Hannah becomes pregnant confirms that God answers prayers.

In both biblical and rabbinic Judaism, prayer is a central activity. It is rooted in conviction that God exists and that God hears and answers prayer. "Prayer," as Kaufmann Kohler notes, "is the expression of man's longing and yearning for God in times of dire need and of overflowing joy"(Kohler, Jewish Theology). The earliest instances of prayer in the Bible consist of situations in which an individual petitions for help or guidance, usually on behalf of the community but often on behalf of the self. Examples of prayer on behalf of the community abound in the BibleˇMoses, especially, is shown repeatedly praying to God on behalf of the sinful Israelitesˇbut I want to place Hannah's prayer alongside other individual petitions in the Bible.

Two of the heartfelt and powerful prayers from men in the Bible seem particularly close to Hannah's in form and emotion. Hannah's prayer might almost have been modeled on Moses's plea: "Oh Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon" (Deut. 3:24˝26). In response, God first tells Moses, "Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!" but then God grants part of his petition. He gives Moses directions so that he can see the Promised Land from a hilltop, even though he is denied entry into the Promised Land itself. Hezekiah's prayer is more brief and is limited to expostulation. According to Isaiah, Hezekiah is to die very soon, so "Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord. He said, ŰPlease, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you sincerely and wholeheartedly, and have done what is pleasing to You.' And he wept profusely" (2 Kings 20:2˝3). God gives Hezekiah fifteen more years of life in response to his prayer.

Despite the notable similarities between the prayer of Hannah and the prayers of Moses and Hezekiah in terms of emotion, there are notable differences as well. Hannah is the only woman and the only petitioner who prays in a shrine, of course, but she also approaches God differently. She is the only one to make a vow, and she is most humble of the three. Whereas Moses begins with praise of God's greatness and Hezekiah reminds God of his own record of faithfulness, Hannah depicts herself as a suffering "maidservant." Moses and Hezekiah are great men, a prophet and a king, respectively, and they preface their petitions, like most of the men in the Bible, by either reminding God of their own virtue or praising God for His greatness. Whether we are listening to Jacob preparing to meet Esau (Gen. 32:10˝13), Jonah after his rescue from the belly of the whale (Gen. 28:20), Moses on Miriam's leprosy (Num. 12:10), Samson blinded and shackled to the pillars in the temple of the Philistines (Judg. 17:28), or Job bemoaning his fate, there is nothing quite like Hannah's prayer in its absolute sincerity and its absolute humility.

Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud offer an interpretation of Hannah's prayer. In the Jerusalem Talmud (c. 400 C.E.), we find:

Said R. Yose bar Haninah, "From this verse [1 Sam. 13] you learn four things.

(a) Hannah was speaking in her heart: from this you learn that Prayer requires concentration.

(b) Only her lips moved: from this you learn that one must mouth the Prayer with one's lips.

(c) And her voice was not heard: from this you learn that one may not raise his voice and pray.

(d) And Eli took her to be a drunken woman: from this you learn a drunken person is forbidden to pray" (y.Ber.4:1, translated by Zahavy).

From Hannah's story they glean four characteristics of heartfelt, worthy prayer: to pray in a low voice, with lips moving, with concentration, and not when drunk. In addition, the Jerusalem Talmud uses Hannah's silence to make the point that God will hear and respond to the humblest petitioners and the quietest voices:

See how high the Holy One, blessed be He, is above his world. Yet a person can enter a synagogue, stand behind a pillar, and pray in an undertone, and the Holy One, blessed be He, hears his prayers. As it says, Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard [1 Sam 1:13]. Yet the Holy One, blessed be He, heard her prayer (y.Ber.4:1, 9:1).

One of the most interesting names for God in rabbinic parlance is Ha-Makom, "the place," often translated as "God the Omnipresent" and interpreted to mean "He is the Place of the World." The spatial motifs in this passage from the Jerusalem Talmud ("above his world," "enter a synagogue," "behind a pillar") seem to evoke this name for God, and thus to remind us of the rabbinic precept that wherever you pray, God is near. By their interpretation, the rabbis find in Hannah's prayer ideas reflecting teachings central to rabbinic Judaism (Gen.R.68:9).

The Babylonian Talmud (c. 600 C.E.) likewise celebrates Hannah's aptitude for prayer, but it elaborates additional points. For example, from Eli's words, "How long will you be drunk?" (1 Sam. 1:10ff.), the rabbis deduce that one is obligated to reprimand a neighbor observed behaving in an unseemly manner. They also attribute to Hannah the honor of first giving God the name Zeba'oth, "Lord of Hosts."

Many of the stories in the Babylonian Talmud show Hannah trying different tactics to attract the attention of God. They have her point out to God, "Of all the hosts and hosts that Thou has created in Thy world, is it so hard in Thy eyes to give me one son?" In the same vein, although much more contrived, is this supposed petition: "Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things that Thou hast created in a woman, Thou hast not created one without a purpose, eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to do work, legs to walk with, breasts to give suck. These breasts that Thou has put on my heart, are they not to give suck? Give me a son that I may suckle with them!" (b.Ber.31b). The rabbis attribute the following scheme to Hannah as well: "ŰI will go and shut myself up with someone else in the knowledge of my husband Elkanah, and as I shall have been alone they will make me drink the water of the suspected wife, and Thou canst not falsify Thy law, which says, She shall be cleared and shall conceive seed'" (b.Ber.31b). In other words, Hannah threatens to shut herself up with a strange man so that she will be a sotah, a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. An innocent woman who goes through the ordeal of the sotah is, according to the rabbis, rewarded with children. This is a particularly roundabout way of forcing God to release her from barrenness.

We also find Hannah reminding God that she has been a pious and observant woman. The rabbis correlated the fact that the word "maidservant" occurs three times in Hannah's prayer with Hannah's observance of the three ritual obligations (mitzvoth) binding Jewish women: the laws of family purity, the laws of separating bread dough, and the kindling of the Sabbath lights (M.Sabb.2:6). Because she has not been guilty of violating any law, they have her argue, she deserves to have a child.

Thus, both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud point out the qualities to emulate in Hannah's manner of prayer, but the Babylonian Talmud especially portrays her as a petitioner par excellence. She debates and pleads with God, as do the early heroes of the Bible. The Babylonian Talmud even says that, like Elijah and Moses, "Hannah spoke insolently toward heaven." All of them, Hannah included, were judged to be justified in their arguments and tone. The rabbis are willing to accuse her of insolence but, in their admiration for her abilities in prayer, they promptly excuse her. In addition, they go on to crown her with the gift of prophecy. In the Babylonian Talmud, the Tractate Megillah enumerates seven prophetesses, and Hannah is one of them (14b). Perhaps she was considered a prophetess because her song foretold, according to the rabbis, the fall of the house of Saul and the rise of the house of David (Zohar Lev.19b). Or perhaps it was because of the other qualities of this biblical woman, the qualities that shaped the stories about Hannah that appear in rabbinic sources.

In the Midrash (200˝600 C.E. and later), Hannah provides not only a paradigm of prayer but also a paradigm of kindness. The sages couple the power of Hannah's prayer with the grace and long-suffering suggested in the etymology of her name. The primary etymological meanings of the Hebrew radicals (root letters) of "Hannah" are "to show favor" or "be gracious," and the secondary meanings include "long for," "be merciful," "be favorable," "incline towards," and "seek or implore favor." Some meanings, such as "seek or implore favor," express the posture of the supplicant; others, such as "be favorable," the attitude hoped for on the part of the deity. Thus, Hannah's name in itself is about the phenomenon of prayer, and the meaning "long for" directly shows the impetus for her extraordinary act of prayerˇher longing for a child.

The midrashic stories about Hannah depict her intervening with God on the behalf of Peninnah and her children and of the company of Korah. Hannah not only forgives her rival co-wife, Peninnah (mother of ten children) but prays fervently for the survival of her rival's last two children, who are dying as punishment for their mother's mean-spirited teasing of the then-childless Hannah. This Midrash shows both Hannah's compassion and the efficacy of her prayer:

Whenever Hannah gave birth to a child, Peninnah would be burying two of her children. ... Hence when Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah was afraid that she would have to bury the two children that remained to her. ... She went and besought Hannah, saying to her: "I beseech you, humbling myself before you. I know that I have sinned against you. But be more forbearing than I deserve, so that the two children who remain to me will stay alive." Thereupon Hannah prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, saying to Him: "Be forbearing towards her in regard to her two children and let them stay alive." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: "As thou livest, they were destined to die, but since thou hast prayed in their behalf that they stay alive, I shall call them by thy name and consider them as being thine." (Pesikta Rabbati, trans.by Braude).

About the company of Korah (Num. 16), the sages say in several places, "Hannah prayed for them in this strain, saying, The Lord killeth, and maketh alive, he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up (1 Sam. 2:6)." From her song they find a way to give hope to the hopeless, to reassure those who "go down into Sheol" (namely, Korah) that they could come up again (Num.Rab.18:13).

Thus, over and over, in the Talmud and the Midrash, Hannah is warmly admired and praised by the rabbis for her power of prayer, and they suggest that she provides the central example of how to pray for all men and women. Why, then, in rabbinic times do the sages find the relationship between women and prayer rather problematic? The answer seems to have something to do with how the rabbis were defining the roles of women and men in religion and society. Rabbinic Judaism offered two chief outlets for religious expressionˇlearning and communal prayer. These outlets were open to men but not to women. For the (male) Jew in rabbinic times, communal prayer and Torah study were the cornerstones of daily religious life. He began his day with prayer and closed it with prayer, and most of his other day-to-day activities were interspersed with prayer and Torah study.

The rabbis set a different agenda for women. They excluded them from both of these modes of religious expression. The rabbis do not spend much time justifying the exclusion of women from learning; to them, serious Torah study by women was just irrelevant. Although Ben Azzai declared that a man should teach Torah to his daughter so she would know how to defend herself if her husband accused her of adultery, historically it is R. Eliezer's opinions that have counted. He states, "Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity." The social dimension of the struggle over the education of women is more apparent in his reply to a woman who asked him some questions about Torah: "There is no wisdom in women except with the distaff" (b.Sota 20a and b.Yoma 66b). Women are to keep to the domain of the domestic and leave the learning to the men. To this day, educational opportunities for women have been limited as a result of the weight accorded to R. Eliezer's opinions. Only in the last few decades has women's participation in Torah learning come under discussion and the texts related to this issue reopened for interpretation. For example, "Barring women from the study of Torah is not freeing them from an obligation (as in the case of some other mitzvoth) but rather a denial of a basic Jewish right. Women's ŰJewishness' thus becomes inferior to that of men" (Leibowitz, as cited in Biale, Women and Jewish Law). In any case, Hannah's petition is not a prayer based on learning, and thus the rabbis found in it nothing to disturb their ideas about the unimportance of learning in the lives of women.

The commandment to pray is not explained explicitly in the Bible as a time-bound commandment, but the rabbis interpret it as a commandment to be carried out at specific times of the day. By also exempting women from fulfilling time-bound commandments, the rabbis cut women off from active participation in communal prayer. Their role becomes private. Three rabbinic texts discuss which commandments women are obligated to perform and which commandments they are exempt from (and by extension, not permitted to) to perform (b. M.Ber.3:3, 20a-b; M.Kidd.1:7). These texts lay down the following principles: First, all positive commandments (Thou shall ...) tied to a specific time for performance are not binding upon women. Second, positive commandments not connected to time are binding upon women. Third, all negative commandments (Thou shall not ...), whether time-bound or not, are binding upon women.

Despite the apparent clarity of these principles, it must be said that there are instances of positive time-bound commandments from which women are not exempt: women are obligated to eat unleavened bread on the Passover, rejoice on festivals, and assemble at the Temple once every seven years; all of these must be performed only within a particular time. Moreover, there are instances of commandments that are not limited as to time but from which women are nevertheless exempt, such as the study of Torah, procreation, and the redemption of the firstborn son (Berman, The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism). Nonetheless, the rabbis continue to identify prayer as a time-bound commandment, and they apply these principles in order to exempt women from prayer to be said at fixed times. Freedom from time-bound constraints, however, eventually became an exclusion, a prohibition. Since women were not required to fulfill the thrice-daily communal prayer obligation, they could not be responsible for leading public services. Under Jewish law, only a person who is under obligation to perform a mitzvah (commandment) is qualified to perform it for others. Women missed the communal bonding in public prayer and Torah study that characterized male society. The communal prayer experience, which is privileged form of prayer in rabbinic Judaism, was virtually closed to women.

Nevertheless, the rabbis realized that women did have a need for the spiritual experience of prayer. The Talmud states: "[Women] are subject to the obligation of tefillah (prayer) because this [is supplication for Divine] mercy. You might think that because it is written in connection therewith, Evening and morning and at noonday, therefore it is like a positive precept for which there is a fixed time. Therefore we are told [that this is not so]" (b.Ber.3:3; b.Ber.20a-b). In other words, women need to pray for God's grace but they are to pray in a different fashion from the public, communal liturgy of men. The talmudic text implies that women are to fulfill their scriptural duty of prayer by making a personal address to God, a private prayer generally uttered in the privacy of the homes and away from the communal worship arena. Although women could attend the synagogue and pray there, they were only peripheral to the communal prayer group. Thus, their exclusion from communal prayer carried over, eventually, to exclusion from public participation in the synagogue. Although the story of Hannah does not reinforce this exclusion. Nonetheless, probably because she is praying privately and about "womanly" concerns, her example is edifying rather than threatening to the rabbis. Hannah's story does not provide biblical precedent for women's participation in communal prayer, and it does not endanger the rabbinic philosophy on religion.

This paper suggests that although the rabbinic sources laud Hannah's prayer, they reveal a certain tension and some outright contradictions about women's prayer. For example, the rabbis exclude women from public participation in the synagogue to prevent mingling of the sexes, but they do not criticize Hannah for venturing unaccompanied into the shrine. Can their ambivalence be explained?

The most compelling set of answers looks to the qualities of Hannah's prayer itself. Perhaps the rabbis look upon Hannah's prayer favorably because she responds to her barrenness with passionate unease and, unlike Rachel, she is directing her prayer appropriately, namely, to God. She is insisting on fulfilling her role as a member of society and on fulfilling the commandment to have children. The rabbis may argue that this directive is not given to women, but Hannah understands the directive otherwise. To have children is the essence of life in biblical and rabbinic times and Hannah not going to give up her quest easily. It is a matter of spiritual as well as social responsibility.

Perhaps the rabbis take Hannah's prayer as a model because it so clearly shows that the individual does not need an intermediary to talk to God and that the humble petitioner is entirely acceptable to God. Most of the other petitioners of the Bible are kings and prophets, heroes and sages. Thus, Hannah's story allows that rabbis to demonstrate that the commoner is as likely as the prophet to get an answer from God if the prayer is offered with a humble heart and with sincerity.

In the end, however, it may be the combination of the superb spirituality of Hannah's prayer with the fact that God answered her prayer that opens up the rabbis to charges of ambivalence. Hannah's prayer is so humble and heartfelt that their prejudices and preconceptions about women are silenced. Moreover, by answering her, God confirms Hannah as a righteous woman. If God does not object to her praying in a public place, without her husband's support, how could they? Here, God models tolerance for the rabbis, and they accept the challenge, at least in the case of Hannah. Their handling of Hannah's prayer and the prayers of other women in rabbinic literature follows a recognizable pattern: the rabbis try to confine women's activities to the private, domestic sphere, but sometimes they deviate from this agenda by praising women who do not conform. Their admiration for Hannah is an instance of this. They are able to see her as a model for private prayer and even to acknowledge this publicly, by incorporating the story of Hannah into the public reading for Rosh Hashanah, one of the most holy days of the Judaic calendar. But no matter how movingly they describe Hannah's prayer, they are not about to let women in general pray anywhere but in the private sector. At the heart of rabbinic ambivalence, then, is the fact that their abstract admiration for spirituality does not alter their vision of the actual role of women in Judaism.