The Significance of the Story of Hannah

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah has several names and themes. One of them is Yom Hazikaron, “the day of remembrance.” On this day the existence of every living being comes up before G‑d, and He decides their fate for the coming year.

The Torah readings and haftarot for both days of Rosh Hashanah are all defined by this theme of “remembrance.” On the first day of the holiday the Torah reading begins “G‑d remembered Sarah.” It is the story of the birth of Isaac after his mother, Sarah, had been childless for most of her life.

As the haftarah we read the famous and highly moving story of Chanah (Hannah), the mother of the great prophet Samuel. Like Sarah, Chanah was also childless for many years. Our sages tell us that the blessing of a child for both Sarah and Chanah was granted on Rosh Hashanah, when the “remembrance” of their plight came up before G‑d.1

Hannah and Elkanah

Elkanah was a righteous and important Israelite. He was from the tribe of Levi, and lived in one of the Levite cities in the territory of Ephraim. His wife was called Chanah.

Elkanah excelled in the Mitzvah of aliyah l’regel, the obligation for every Jew to visit the Temple on the three holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Before the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, G‑d’s dwelling place was in the Tabernacle constructed under Moses’ direction, and throughout most of the period after the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, the Tabernacle was situated in Shiloh. Elkanah would lead the pilgrimage to Shiloh, bringing his entire family and many other Israelites who joined him at his request and encouragement.

Elkanah’s wife, Chanah, was childless. Following in the footsteps of our matriarchs Sarah, Leah and Rachel, all of whom had difficulty having children, Chanah arranged for her husband to marry a second wife, Peninah. This was obviously a difficult step for Chanah, but she hoped that, in the reward of allowing her husband and a fellow Jewish woman to marry and have children, she too would be blessed with a child. Peninah gave birth to several children, but Chanah still remained childless.

It was on one particular Shavuot holiday, and Elkanah was on his usual pilgrimage in Shiloh. He brought offerings in the Tabernacle and celebrated the holiday with festive family meals. Being ever-conscious of Chanah’s feelings, and loving her dearly, Elkanah ensured that a lavish portion of food be given to her at the holiday meal.

It was particularly at these occasions that Chanah’s lack of children was most apparent. As the family sat to eat, Peninah had many children around her, and Chanah—none. To add to her anguish, Peninah would often make insensitive remarks about Chanah’s lack of children, something that hurt Chanah terribly. Our sages tell us that Peninah had good intentions in doing this, for she wanted to bring Chanah to a point where she would implore G‑d for a child, as she in fact did. But this was nevertheless a grave sin, and, as our sages conclude, Peninah was punished for this.

Chanah’s loving but pragmatic husband tried to comfort her. Not everything is possible in life, he contended, and the fact that the love between them was so strong could truly be viewed as a blessing even greater than children. In addition, Chanah was a holy and righteous woman of a lofty caliber indeed. “Your creator is your lot,” said Elkanah. But Chanah was not to be consoled.

Hannah's Prayer

It was a quiet holiday afternoon. The service in the Tabernacle took place in the morning and towards the evening, but now, after the meal, there were few people around the Tabernacle precincts. The newly appointed high priest, Eli, was sitting at the entrance of the courtyard, and a tranquil holiday atmosphere prevailed all around. Chanah decided to act.

The brokenhearted woman walked into the Sanctuary and, facing the Holy of Holies, broke into sobs. Though speaking in a whisper, she spared no words and spoke straight from her stirring heart. She took an oath that if G‑d would only heed her pain and grant her a child, she would consecrate him to G‑d all the days of his life.

What transpired next is one of the most famous ironies in all of Scripture. Observing this unusual scene, Eli the high priest concluded that the woman showing such extraordinary emotion and fervor must be under the influence of alcohol!

What brought Eli to such an assumption is the subject of much discussion among the commentaries. Some say that it was not the norm until then to pray in a whisper. (Chanah’s prayer is in fact the source for our primary prayer—the Amidah—being said in a whisper.) This, say some commentaries, together with her intense outpouring of emotion, led Eli to his conclusion.2

Chanah denied having consumed any intoxicating beverage, and went as far as hinting to the high priest that he had no authority to accuse her of such egregious conduct. She explained to him how bitter she was over her situation, and that “I have poured out my soul before G‑d.”

Upon hearing this, Eli immediately retracted his position. Not only did he change his tone and appease Chanah, but he blessed her—almost promising her—that G‑d would accept her prayer and give her a child. Our sages learn from this that “if one suspects his fellow of something of which he is not guilty, he must not only appease him, but must also bless him.”3

The Birth of Samuel

Chanah left the Tabernacle full of strength and trust that her prayer and the blessing of Eli would come true. Sure enough, upon their return home after the pilgrimage, Chanah conceived. She eventually gave birth to a son, and she named him Shmuel, short for shaul me-El, “requested from G‑d.”

In due time Elkanah was again preparing for another visit to Shiloh. This time, however, Chanah stayed behind with her child, wanting to make sure he received the best of her motherly attention for as long as he was still nursing. Indeed, after the child reached his second birthday and was weaned, Elkanah, Chanah and little Shmuel traveled together to Shiloh.

Chanah brought a thanksgiving offering, which included three bulls. The Talmud4 tells us that as she entered the Sanctuary and presented her sacrifice, there was no kohen present who was able to properly perform the shechitah (ritual slaughter) of the bulls. As they were searching for a kohen, Shmuel pointed out that there was actually no need to do so, for “shechitah can be performed by a non-kohen.” This, continued the two-year-old boy, could be deduced from the fact that the Torah states that “he shall slaughter the bull, and the sons of Aaron shall offer it…,” implying that the slaughtering need not be performed by “the sons of Aaron.”

The narrative continues: “They slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli.” Although Eli was quite impressed with such an idea coming from a mere toddler, he nevertheless did not see this as a good sign. Our sages tell us that “one who rules on Torah law in front of his teacher is liable to death,” and so Eli didn’t like how this boy seemed to take a position of authority at a young age, when it was not his place…

Hearing this, Chanah jumped to her feet and exclaimed: “I am the woman who was standing with you here… It was for this child that I prayed.” This was a special child, destined for only great things. She pleaded with Eli that, despite Shmuel’s young age, he should take the boy under his wing as a helper and a student. Eli obliged.

The Song of Hannah

At this point the verses turn to what has become known as the “Song of Chanah”—the beautiful and mystical song of elation, thanksgiving and prophecy of this mother and prophetess in Israel. The song is multileveled in meaning, with many ways of understanding its simple explanation, plus its Kabbalistic and mystical meanings.

Chanah began by expressing her exultation and joy in G‑d and His salvation. G‑d is holy in a way unparalleled by any other form of holiness. Mortals, or even heavenly beings, that are holy are aloof, and lowering themselves to deal with physical and mundane matters is hard, or even impossible, for them. G‑d, on the other hand, is truly holy, for to Him all are equal. Looking upon the plight of a single woman is not a lowering act for Him; on the contrary, it is precisely in this that His greatness is seen.

A mortal can only manipulate created matter, and will never be able to imbue it with a living soul. Yet G‑d creates the world ex nihilo, and puts a soul into lifeless matter to make it live.

Chanah next addresses the torment she endured from Peninah: “The L‑rd is a G‑d of thoughts, and to Him are deeds counted.” No one in this world should be arrogant or presumptuous. At G‑d’s will, the mighty can stumble and the rich can become impoverished; the barren woman can give birth to many children, and the woman with many children can be bereaved.

Finally, Chanah prophetically prayed for the future of her great son. “Those who strive with the L‑rd will be broken; upon him will He thunder in heaven.” This referred to an event when Shmuel led the struggle against the Philistines: G‑d assisted him by sending a great thunderstorm, causing confusion and chaos in the Philistine camp.5

“The L‑rd will judge the ends of the earth”—a reference to Shmuel as the great judge of Israel, who traveled up and down the country on the quest of helping and guiding his people. “And He will grant strength to His king, and raise the horn of His anointed one.” Shmuel indeed appointed the first Jewish king, Saul, and later anointed King David, the patriarch of Jewish royalty for all time to come.