“And Elkanah dwelt in the hills of Ephraim with his wife, Hannah, and she was
“Marry another woman that you may have children,” she said. “And when G‑d
sees my pain, perhaps I too, will be given a child.”
So Elkanah took a second wife, Peninah. And she bore many children, but
Hannah had none.
With time, Hannah might have resigned herself to her state, and found solace
in her loving husband and her service of G‑d. But Peninah knew of the longing
that burned deep within Hannah and resolved that her longing not be extinguished.
And so, there was no chance of Hannah making peace with her childlessness, for
Peninah tormented her endlessly.
"Why have you given me a womb, if not to carry a child?"
In the morning, Peninah rose early to prepare her children to go study.
“Hannah,” she mocked, “Why are you not up yet? Don’t you have to wash and
dress your children?”
At noon, Peninah stood at the door, awaiting her children’s return. “Hannah,
aren’t you going to come too, to welcome your children home?”
At dinner, when Elkanah served the main course, Peninah once again called
attention to her young. “This one has not eaten yet; my daughter is still
hungry; my son is waiting for his portion.”
There was not a day that Hannah was not confronted with her barrenness. She
sat silently and withdrawn at the table, tears welling in her eyes, observing
the lively tumult about her and the obvious pleasure Peninah took in tending to
her children, and Hannah could not eat.
Elkanah, sensing her agony, lovingly served her the choicest portions but the
food remained untouched.
Each year, Elkanah and his family traveled to Shiloh. Along the way, they
stopped, and Hannah and Elkanah encouraged others to join them in their
pilgrimage. Each year they took a different route, exhorting everyone they met
to come along, until eventually entire villages from all over the land of Israel
journeyed with them to sacrifice and give thanks to G‑d at the altar in Shiloh.
It was autumn, the leaves were turning color, and it was time to go to Shiloh
again. That year, the crowds that traveled with them were large, their hearts
happy, the air thick with joyous fervor. Elkanah called his family together to
partake in the holiday offering. As always, the best portion went to Hannah. Yet
she alone took no part in the joyous celebration. She barely looked at her
Gently, Elkanah turned to her. “Hannah, why do you cry, and why is your heart
saddened today? Does my love not mean more to you than the love of ten
But the days when that love could have contented her were long past. In her
mind, she saw only Peninah. Peninah who bathed, and fed, and clothed each of her
ten children and never tired. Peninah, who made even the most mundane aspects of
motherhood seem sublime. And so, when everyone else had finished the meal, Hannah
returned to the House of G‑d, and standing before the ark, she prayed.
“G‑d, You have created everything in this world for a reason. You have given
me eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to speak. Why have you given me a womb, if
not to carry a child?”
“Look at the hundreds of people I have gathered to stand before You. Shall I
not have even one to call my own? Look at my despair, and give me a child
like all other children - a happy child, a healthy child. No more do I ask for
“But if it be Your will, then send me a child who will be a great leader, a
sage and a holy man, as were Moses and Aaron, and I will dedicate his life to
For what seemed like an eternity, she stood before the wall, her body shaking
and racked with tears, her lips moving but her voice hardly more than a whisper.
In those days, prayers and supplications were said aloud, so Eli - the high
priest - was suspicious of her behavior.
Prayer comes not from one's lips, but from one's heart
“Woman, are you drunk?” he called. “Go away from here, for it is improper to
stand before G‑d in a state of intoxication.”
“No,” she answered, “I have poured myself no wine today. It is my heart that
I have poured out before G‑d in my anguish.”
“Then go in peace,” Eli replied, “and may G‑d grant you your prayer.”
So they returned home. That year, Hannah bore a son she named Samuel. Samuel,
which means "I have asked him (borrowed him) of G‑d."
When the time came for the annual pilgrimage, Hannah did not go. “Let me stay
with my son at home until he is weaned,” she implored, “and then I will fulfill
my promise and bring him to Shiloh, to the House of G‑d.” And Elkanah told her
to do as she saw fit.
When Samuel was two, she took him with her on her journey to Shiloh. They
brought along offerings of cattle, flour and wine. She stood before Eli and
said, “I am the woman who prayed to G‑d in my sorrow. Beside me is my son, the
answer to that prayer. And now, may he be given into the service of G‑d for the
rest of his days.”
And she sang a song of thanks to G‑d, and she returned home, and Samuel
remained with Eli in the house of G‑d.
The story of Hannah, the Haftorah of Rosh Hashanah, is a tale richly woven of
many strands. It is a story of devotion and of love, of service and of
There is Elkanah, who called the people to G‑d. Elkanah, who tenderly offered
his love to an embittered wife.
There is Peninah, who knew she would always be second in Elkanah’s life.
Peninah, who needled and teased Hannah endlessly, yet in her heart, cared for
Hannah more than anyone ever knew. Peninah, the proud mother of ten, who could
not stand to see Hannah accept a life of barrenness. Peninah, who cloaked herself
in a role that made her hate herself, to do what had to be done. Peninah, who in
her deep love for Hannah, tormented her cruelly so that she might cry out to G‑d
from the depths of her soul.
There is Eli, bewildered by a woman’s passion so strong that he did not
recognize it for the prayer it was; Eli, who would later take that woman’s child
and raise him to lead the Jewish people.
But most of all, it is the story of Hannah. It is the story of the woman that
taught the world what it means to pray—that prayer comes not from one’s lips but
from one’s heart.
It is the story of a woman whose longing was excruciating, who dreamed always
of the child she would hold, a child exquisitely loved for no other reason than
that he was her own.
And yet, in the midst of her desperate need, she was able to embrace a nobler
vision, to say, “G‑d, let me have this child for You, and I will give him away
to be Your servant.” At two, she left him in Shiloh, and though she visited him
again each year, bringing him coats she had lovingly sewn for him, from that day
on he was no longer hers. Those ordinary moments of childhood, so treasured for
their commonness, could no longer be shared with him. She sacrificed her son to
G‑d as Abraham had done before her, but she sacrificed him not on an altar of
stone, but on the altar of her heart, and her sacrifice was forever.
She had other children later, two more sons and two daughters, but we know
her only as the mother of Samuel, the son she gave away.