“I am a very unhappy woman. I am not drunk, but I have been pouring my heart out to God. Do not mistake me for someone worthless. I am praying out of my great anguish and distress.” These words, spoken by Hannah to Eli the priest, are part of the haftarah that we will read tomorrow, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Hannah, who is one of the two wives of a Jewish man named Elkana, longs desperately for a child. Every year, when Elkana brings the family to Shiloh to offer sacrifices to God, Hannah is cruelly taunted by her husband’s more fecund wife Penina. Distraught, Hannah weeps and prays and refuses to eat. One year her prayer is overheard by Eli the priest, who mistakenly thinks she is drunk. But it is not just Eli who hears Hannah’s prayer; the rabbis of the Talmud, too, listen closely to Hannah’s words and to the Bible’s description of her prayer. In the fifth chapter of the tractate Berakhot, the rabbis look to Hannah as an ideal model of how to pray. I’d like to study this passage with you this evening in the hope of coming to a better understanding of what is so remarkable about Hannah’s prayer. After all, we’re all going to be spending a lot of hours praying over the course of this holiday season; and if Hannah is indeed the rabbis’ model for how to pray, then perhaps she can teach us something as well.
20 MINUTES CHEVRUTA – SOURCESHEETS WITH DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (SEE BELOW)
I want to start by asking a question: What is the relationship between the Mishna that appears at the top of your page, and the Talmudic sugya that follows? Does the extended discussion in the Talmud illustrate the principle articulated in the Mishna, as we might expect?
The Mishna seems to articulate two major principles: First, the person who is engaged in prayer should be in a reverent frame of mind. And second, this person should countenance no interruption of his or her prayer. And yet surprisingly, Hannah, who is cited as a model of ideal prayer by the rabbis, satisfies neither of these criteria. She does not seem particularly reverent. On the contrary, she speaks to God with the utmost chutzpah: She tells God that He is like a stingy king who refuses to share one morsel from His lavish banquet with his poor servant. Then she threatens God to make herself into a Sotah so that God will have no choice but to grant her wish for a child. And finally, she rebukes God for giving her breasts but no child to suckle. This hardly seems like reverent, pious behavior! Likewise, Hannah fails to live up to the rabbinic dictum to pray without interruption. In the middle of her prayer, Eli interrupts to ask if she is drunk. Hannah, still standing before God, defends herself to Eli before continuing her prayer. She allows herself to be interrupted, and she remains nonetheless the rabbis’ model of ideal prayer. Why?
I want to suggest that there is something remarkable about Hannah’s prayer nonetheless. Hannah describes herself as אשה קשת רוח, an unhappy woman; literally a woman of tough spirit. She has been hardened by her pain; her spirit itself has been hardened by the agony of her years of childlessness. Year after year she has endured the taunts of her rival Penina, and the carrion comfort of her husband, whose insistence that he is more devoted to her than ten sons strikes Hannah as unfeeling if not downright patronizing. Hannah’s grief has made her מרת נפש, “bitter of heart,” as Rabbi Elazar quotes in the Talmud’s opening words. Yet the very same Biblical verse that describes her bitterness also tells us about how she cried to God: “Hannah was bitter of heart, and she prayed to God, weeping all the while” (10). In spite of her bitterness, Hannah has not become hardened past the point of tears. She does not break off all communication with God. She does not insist that she wants no relationship with a God who can cause her so much pain. Nor does she (anachronistically) deny the existence of any God who could create a world with so much suffering. Rather, she continues to live her life in dialogue with God. Even if all she can do is rebuke, threaten, and yell at God, she continues to engage Him. The alternative for Hannah would be to allow the gates of prayer to swing shut, and to close herself off completely from all contact with the divine. Perhaps Hannah knows, as the rabbis go on to say later in this same sugya in Berakhot, that even when the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears remain open. We might say that tears oil the hinges of the gates of prayer, causing them to open for the broken-hearted. And while they may open just a very tiny bit, miraculously that proves to be enough: God opens Hannah’s womb and she conceives and bears a son.
Hannah’s prayer is also remarkable because it consists of not just the verses we have discussed thus far. When the Talmud discusses Hannah’s prayer, it refers exclusively to her words in chapter one of I Samuel, where she prays to God to give her a child. While this prayer may be impassioned, it is nonetheless prosaic; it is only in chapter two, once Hannah is granted her beloved son, that her spirit bursts forth in poetry. Hannah’s petitionary prayers are far outmatched by her prayers of thanksgiving. In fact, when we think of תפילת חנה, it is generally not her bitter wailing in chapter one that comes to mind, but rather her lyrical exultation in chapter two:
Hannah does not just pray out of sadness and need, but out of joy and gratitude – and it is this latter prayer that is quoted in full, in ten verses of poetic text. Once her heart is no longer hardened, she can compose herself and compose her thoughts in more measured form. Once she is no longer overflowing with tears, she can hold back from line to line, which is what poetry demands of us; poetry is written with line breaks, unlike prose, where one line simply spills into the next. אין צור כאלוהינו, Hannah declares in her poetic prayer – there is no rock like God. For all that she was hardened, she knows that God is the true rock and the true redeemer. In Midrash Shmuel, a collection of midrashim on the book of Samuel, the rabbis read this line as אין צייר כאלוהינו, there is no artist like God. There is no one who can create and craft and shape a human being like God. Only God can create life and give it form. וכל מאמינים שהוא יוצרם בבטן, as we say in the piyut of Musaf. God shapes us while still in the womb, and we are like clay in the hands of the divine potter.
Not all of us can merit to pray like Hannah. Our bitterness may turn us off from prayer, or our pain may prevent us from being able to express ourselves as poetically as we might like. Perhaps the closing words of the sugya we studied above, which are also the closing words of the psalm recited throughout Elul and Tishrei, can serve as a guide and an inspiration as we navigate this season of intense and intensive prayer: Hope in the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, hope in the Lord. May our hearts be strengthened rather than hardened by our pain; and may we follow Hannah’s example and learn, in spite of our sorrow, to continue to engage and to hope in God. Shana tovah.
5 thoughts on “My Heart Exults in God: Hannah’s Exemplary Prayer (Berakhot 30b-33a)”
Thank you for helping me to better understand my favorite haftarah! Miss you guys. Shana tovah. Won't be the same w/o you.
Your post is really beautiful. What I still don't quite understand though is how Hannah has fulfilled the requirements of the Mishna? I understand that we can learn something very special from Hannah's prayer that engaging with Hashem and keeping the gates of dialogue open is something extremely desirable, but are you saying that Hannah didn't keep the requirements of the Mishnah but nevertheless she is the perfect exmaple of prayer? Or are you saying that our understanding of reverence and interruption needs to be refined and interpreted differently so that Hannah is considered to have complied with those requirements.