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The Son She Gave Away

The Son She Gave Away


“And Elkanah dwelt in the hills of Ephraim with his wife, Hannah, and she was childless.”

“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 She sat silently and withdrawn at the table, tears welling in her eyes, observing the lively tumult about her and the obvious pleasure Peninah took in tending to her children, and Hannah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 plate.

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 children?”

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 myself.”

“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 You.”

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 sacrifice.

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.

Chana Silberstein is a developmental psychologist and educational director of the Chabad House in Ithaca, New York
Image by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms. Brombacher’s art, click here.
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Anonymous Brooklyn September 28, 2016

thank you beautifully written! thank you for sharing the details of this heartwarming story! Reply

Anonymous a wandering Jew September 18, 2013

Chana: Thank you so very much. I was born Jewish, was an atheist (or thought I was) for over 50 years, and pushed away Judaism until last month when my father died at 94. It was then I met a Hassidic Rabbi, and my life changed. Chabad is now my main resource for Judaism and I thank HASHEM for bringing you into my life. Thank you more than words can express. This story gave me so very many lessons, not the least of which is the understanding that I must be kind to a person in my life who is not "good" (think loshon hare) but who is like Peninah in my life. Reply

johnwesley coimbatore, India October 17, 2011

penninah let me know how many childrens does penninah had? Reply

Chaya Greensboro, NC/USA August 23, 2010

Deeply moving, eye-opening, and awestruck! This was so meaningful. And enlightening. I never knew the story of Chana and it was amazing to see. It was amazing to read all of the information period about prayer today. I was always envious of those women who could have children and give birth all my life, since I could not. I had to have an emergency hysterectomy at age 26. I had to have everything removed. I was angry for a very long time. At myself, at Hashem, at every woman who could and did have children. Especially those women who abused their bodies while having them. Or abused the children themselves. I now see at age 33 after a few years of growing up and prayer and growth and acceptance of Hashem fully in my life knowing that - He - knows what He is doing, I have finally come to a place to learn that Hashem has roles for everyone in their lives. Mine so far has been to take care of people when they are sick and dying. I am accepting of that. Do I wonder if there is more? Of course. But, I do now know, it is enough! B'H. Reply

Don Bridgeman Murray, KY October 22, 2006

Our Children Believing that Hannah's pure intentions in relation to G-d, for the image presests our children are not ours, but a blessing that G-d bestows to us only for a short while. But like Hannah, do our hearts see the true place where childrens fit into our lives? From the time they are born, parents should console a child's heart with G-dly character instead of attempts of grief the world emanates; thus, a child remains a recorded image of G-d's goodness bestowed not only to parents but as a G-dly influential member among the world. Only then parents can truly boast about the goodness of G-d and the children bestowed to us as one of many blessings He grants those whom truly have a heart to serve G-d daily. Secondly, for those whose troubles have not disminished and desire a son, Hannah's story manifests hope beyond the reaities of the world, and waiting patiencely upon G-d's hand to move in your behalf which will truly happen one day. Reply

Bhavya Sheth Jamanagar, India September 23, 2006

It is gift for me. Reply

Yosef Austin, Texas September 22, 2006

All 'TRUE' prayer come from the 'HEART' I know that in my own personal life, the prayers that truly have a true release of myself (my life) has been in those moments when I poured out my heart to G-d and in complete surrender to His will for me and for my life... Reply

Anonymous September 22, 2006

I was deeply moved when i heard this story.
It tought me more than prayer that comes from ones heart, it taught me that no matter how cruel, or how terrible things may seem, there is always a reason for it that He up in heaven has done it for your good. Reply

Anonymous via September 21, 2006

Beautifully written. I cried. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous September 21, 2006

happy!!!. Thank U-". Reply

LindaT.Bellamy Channelview, Texas September 20, 2006

hannah I was very moved when I read the storry about how she prayed for a child, I too prayed for a son, I have two daughters, but I wanted a Son, I prayed for 8yrs. i prayed,my oldest daughter was 8 when Aaron was born, he is a very hasome young man now, I don't see him at all he is in prison and has been for 8 yrs. I pray he will come home soon.
Thank you for your site you help me more then you will ever know. Reply

Anonymous September 18, 2006

I have known the story of Chana for many years, have learned it, heard lectures on it and have had the priviledge of hearing the Rebbe chanting it emotionally on Rosh Hashanas past.
I cried throughout the article.
May all Jewish women's prayers be answered positively on this Rosh Hashana. Reply

mother of one son Lakewood, NJ via September 18, 2006

Pain of loss Thank you for this amazing story of Hannah. My son is totally removed from me, by his choice, and the pain in my heart is constant and unconsolable. Your beautiful writing has helped free me from the loss of my son. Reply

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