For years, I’ve thought of a selection from the Hebrew Bible traditionally recited on the first day of Rosh Hashanah as “Hannah’s story.” It turns out that this reading, from the first two chapters of the first Book of Samuel, is generally characterized as his origin story. Indeed, later chapters follow the story arc of how Samuel emerges as a prophet and significant player in the transformation of the Israelites into a nation.
As featured on Rosh Hashanah morning, this story from the Prophets casts Hannah as the protagonist, a strong woman who acts to chart her own fate. Although it would be ahistorical to call Hannah a proto-feminist, I see her as just that.
The basic story goes like this: A man takes his two wives, one who has children and one who does not, on an annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Shiloh, the home of the Ark of the Covenant. He brings offerings for the attending priest, Eli, to sacrifice to God. While the extended family eats a festive meal, Hannah, the wife without offspring, barely picks at her food. Instead, she sits by the shrine, praying for a son, whose life she promises to dedicate to God’s service. Although Hannah speaks her words aloud to God, she does so without making a sound. Eli the attending priest accuses her of being drunk. Hannah rejects this accusation and Eli ultimately blesses her, wishing her well. That year, Hannah gives birth to a son and, when the boy is weaned, she takes him to Eli as promised, to be raised for the priesthood.
Hannah, like the matriarchs Sarah and Rachel of Genesis, had trouble becoming pregnant. Their stories make clear that the fertility failures lay with the wives by telling us that Sarah’s husband, Abraham, Rachel’s husband, Jacob, and Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, all have children with other wives or concubines. Nevertheless, all three of these women continue to be appreciated—probably much loved—by their husbands.
And this is where Hannah comes into her own.
First, despite her husband’s assurances — “Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (I Samuel 1:8)—Hannah knows she wants a child and takes steps to achieve that goal. She prays, vowing that the longed-for son will be brought into the priesthood. This is no whim or simple promise; rather, Biblical texts repeatedly emphasize that vows to God are inviolate.
Second, when wrongfully accused of drunkenness, Hannah speaks up, defending her honor. Previously, throughout the Hebrew Bible, God has been worshiped with sacrificial rites performed by male priests. By using her words to pray directly to God, Hannah debuted spoken, quiet, direct prayer, a tradition that we continue to this day.
In this spirit, I was taught in Hebrew school to speak the words of prayer, even if not aloud. Think about it: reading only with our eyes makes it very easy to skim over the meaning, to take shortcuts, to permit our minds to wander. Mouthing the words increases the likelihood that we will think about what we are saying, so the words don’t become rote.
Third, Hannah named the boy. Biblical conventions vary, and Hannah is not the first matriarch to choose her child’s name, but certainly she asserts that right. The sounds created by pronouncing Samuel’s Hebrew name, Shmu’el, invoke those of the shin-aleph-lamed root word sha’ela, meaning asked or lent. Thus, Shmu’el suggests the appealing although not literal meaning of sha’al me’el, or “asked of God,” reflecting Hannah’s forthright actions to have her child.
Fourth, Hannah continued to be a caring mother, even after delivering Samuel to be raised as a priest. Just a bit later in the narrative, we’re told that every year, Hannah would “make a little robe for him and bring it up to him” (I Samuel 2:19) when the family made its annual sacrificial pilgrimage. Perhaps not as significant as a growing child’s need for new clothes but reading about that “little robe” reminds me of the many Purim and Halloween costumes that I sewed for my child.
I can only speculate as to why we read this episode of Samuel on Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps it is to highlight the act of praying, which is our primary activity during the annual Days of Awe. Perhaps it is to show that God responds to righteous women or to those who keep their promises. For me, this text offers the model of a strong woman who knew her mind, spoke up for herself and acted with godliness in charting her life’s path.
Indeed, several Jewish holiday traditions celebrate the stories of strong women. Even now, we look forward to reading Queen Esther’s story next March, during Purim. Esther, whose Hebrew name was Hadassah, helped to save the Jewish people. And Hadassah became the namesake for a modern global women’s organization that inspires a passion for and commitment to the land, the people and the future of Israel. I am proud to be a life member.