One of the things I look forward to during Rosh Hashanah is the communal reading of the story of Hannah, which begins First Samuel, the tale of the birth of the founder of the Israelite monarchy— to a long-childless, depressed woman. I was fortunate to conceive and bear children easily. I was jolted into sharp awareness of my luck when a long-childless co-worker confronted me angrily when I was backed into announcing my first pregnancy at an office party. Since that afternoon more than thirty years ago, I’ve encountered many women close to me who have struggled through difficulties conceiving, carrying and bearing healthy children. Each time, I am reminded of the human realism of this tale, which may well have indeed been first recorded by Hannah’s famous eldest son. Some years ago, I sank myself into the preparation of an illuminated manuscript of Hannah’s story, published in my 2012 book, Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah, which was my own therapy for my grief following the early death of my first husband, David.
Hannah’s tale is personal, yet it embodies essential national values and behavior for the nascent Israel. The Hellenistic and Byzantine era midrash on the story promotes these moral and religious qualities as models for the community of Israel for ever after. Jewish tradition has thus granted Hannah’s story a prominent niche in Jewish liturgy as the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, paralleling the prescribed Torah reading that recounts the birth of Isaac. In the Hannah story, personal emotion takes on national significance.
Hannah’s tale begins in abject depression. Deeply loved by her husband, mocked by the second wife he took in the face of her childlessness, Hannah has withdrawn into an impenetrable bubble of grief and humiliation. Why was Hannah’s childlessness so noteworthy that it begins the story of the man who established the Israelite monarchy? Why must this great leader be born of a long-childless woman? Samuel is hardly the first of Israel’s leaders born to a woman who bore children with difficulty; Sarah bore Isaac at the laughable age of ninety only after angelic prophecy, Rachel was long barren before giving birth to Elkanah’s ancestor Joseph and died giving birth to her younger son, Benjamin. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, was one of the Israelite women in Egypt who had to coax her husband into marital relations so that she might conceive a child, contrary to that enslaved and husband’s reluctance. In each of these cases Israel’s providential God needed to tweak normal human affairs to create the necessary leader.
As first wife, Hannah had a role to fill within her family even without children. As archeologist Carol Meyers, in her Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, observes, iron-age Israelite tribal communities consisted of households that combined complex mixes of generations and familial relationships. Within these households a spectrum of economic and familial activities took place— including farming, live-stock management, household crafts and management and of course, child-raising— bent on achieving self-sufficiency for the extended family. We cannot know exactly what tasks were specifically apportioned to women, but scholarship suggests that women were integrated into every aspect of household life. Yet childbearing was essential to producing the sons necessary for the proper inheritance and care for the family’s all-important land portion. In Israel, as in the ancient Mesopotamia of Hammurabi’s Code, if his wife did not produce an heir, a man might take concubines or additional wives. Not only might the childless wife suffer the emotional pain and humiliation described for Hannah, but she could well be at material risk upon the death of her husband.
The early rabbis of the midrash were fully sensitive to the plight of the childless woman. Exploring Sarah’s gift of Hagar to Abraham, in Genesis Rabbah the rabbis note that children often only appear after “pain and toil,” and ask “why were the matriarchs barren?” The answer, they suggest, is that “the Holy One, Blessed be He, yearns for their prayers and supplications.” And, as we know, it was through that yearned-for prayer —by the very invention of silent prayer in Israelite history—that Hannah’s own yearning found fulfillment.
In a focus unusual in the Hebrew Bible, the storyteller presents us with not only Hannah’s deeds, but also her emotions, and secondarily her husband’s. Already in the fifth verse we learn that Elkanah’s other wife is her “rival,” with the power to “make her miserable” about her lack of children. Far from neglecting his beautiful, graceful but evidently barren wife, Elkanah fully senses Hannah’s pain and does all he can to comfort her, playfully nudging her – we can almost see him chucking her under the chin – “don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” The storyteller shares with us the romantic love that draws Hannah and Elkanah together despite the pain of her childlessness.
Hannah accompanies Elkanah on his seasonal pilgrimage to the Israelite shrine at Shiloh. The sources praise Elkanah and his whole family for setting a model of observance and devotion to God for their whole farming community. Yet, beyond the family pilgrimage, this despairing wife unknowingly, spontaneously, revolutionizes Jewish life. Insert Hannah Illum 6 She enters the shrine, sinks down onto a bench, and starts to plead. “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…” The High Priest, Eli—never having seen such a spectacle—first assumes the woman is drunk, and orders her out of the shrine….until she explains. As her husband offers the fruits of their lands in the altar, Hannah offers her silent prayer. Hannah has offered the Almighty the prayer for which he yearns.
Hannah is fulfilled. God quickly grants her a completed pregnancy, a first son, whom she joyfully names Samuel, “I asked the Lord for him.”
Hannah voices her joy in a wild shout of victory after battle, of uplift from obscurity. As any woman who has borne children (or any man who has accompanied her) knows, childbirth is battle—the moment when she rests with her long-desired baby in her arms, triumph.
I present Hannah’s victory song with a birth canal of sorts, its muscular walls lined with cervical cells, pulsating and twisting with birth contractions, imagery of crowning infants and symbolic plants and animals emerging from her tissues…and an eagle, alluding to God’s parenting of Israel, flies over the scene.
But Hannah’s emotional trials have not ended. The new mother has pledged this first, most remarkable son to the priests at Shiloh to raise for divine service—upon weaning they must part. We can imagine the strain Hannah must have felt at keeping that pledge (and it’s not a stretch to imagine her anxiety about Eli’s parental competence when she beheld his own sons), and later, when we read of her five later children, we intuit her joy and fulfillment at finally being able to raise children, and watch them flourish. Private emotion—indeed that of a woman in a patriarchal society—the author tells us, can take on national significance.
Determined to mother her son despite the separation, Hannah “would make a little robe for him and bring it up to him every year when she made the pilgrimage with her husband.” Now, clothing does more than simply cover flesh in biblical tales; especially in a priestly context, clothing and the passing on of clothing conveys authority.
For instance, Numbers 20:26 tells how, after forfeiting the right to entering the Land of Israel by disobeying God’s orders concerning the waters of Meribah, Aaron’s priestly garb was stripped from him and placed on his son Eleazar—the son literally “assumed the mantle” of his father’s authority. I Samuel tells of how Hannah brought a “little robe” for her young son each year immediately after recounting the corruption of Eli’s sons, who stole families’ sacrificial meals right from the cooking forks. This contrast of Hannah’s devoted nurturing with Eli’s failed parenting—which in my book I compare to Shakespeare’s contrast of the valiant Harry Hotspur with the dissolute young Henry V—throws Hannah’s and Elkanah’s admirable behavior, a model for all Israel into high relief. It would be their values of leadership of their community, of devoted parenting, even from afar, that would produce the great prophet, Samuel, the leader who would establish the Davidic kingdom. Private emotion can take on national significance. And we relive Hannah’s trials and fulfillment each Rosh HaShanah.
If you’d like to see the original illuminated paintings pictured here —luscious creations of ink, paint and gold on the finest calfskin vellum—they are on exhibit at American Jewish University in Los Angeles this autumn.
Follow me in this blog for further adventures exploring the Jewish spirit through visual midrash! This discussion is based on my book, Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah, that I published in late 2012, and includes my illuminated paintings and commentary on each of these three biblical women’s tales, along with literary commentaries by the renowned scholar of Hebrew literature, Arnold Band. The book, in hardback and all e-book formats, may be purchased at your favorite book source, or by clicking here. You can find out more about my Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and book-talks at www.dbandart.com.
I have just published my fourth illuminated book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, which appeared on September 6, the 3rd of Elul. Joanne Palmer recently published an interview with me, and review of Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification in the Teaneck, New Jersey Jewish Standard-Times of Israel. It was such a pleasure to speak with her!
L’shana tova u’metuka!