Prayer - Women's Learning for Elul 8.23.21

The story of Hannah is traditionally read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. (Interesting that there is an assonance between her name and the name of our holiday, in fact! Rather than The Head of the Year, we might read, The Beginning of The Woman... Fun.)

Jewish tradition reads myriad symbols and applications into Hannah's example of prayer, including taking her story as a model for prayer itself. We will read the story, and explore some of the classical and contemporary interpretations, focusing on women rabbis and commentators from across the Jewish denominational spectrum.

As we study, consider: What is the role of prayer in our lives? What potential might a regular practice hold? Who is prayer for, anyway?

Thank you for being here to learn together. Please speak up at any time, and I especially encourage and invite you to play with the text and ideas. We are not here to have perfect answers, but to try ideas out together. Your voice and perspectives is what brings our texts and conversation alive.

Together let's say the blessing for study:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam; asher kid'shanu, b'mitzvotav ve'tzivanu, la'asok b'devrei Torah. AMEN! : )

(Blessed are you God, ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your Mitzvot, and has commanded us to "soak" in the words of your Torah.)


TEXT 1 - 1 Samuel 1-20

(1) There was a man ...whose name was Elkanah ...(2) He had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah; Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless.

(3) This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh...(4) One such day, Elkanah offered a sacrifice. He used to give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; (5) but to Hannah he would give one portion only—though Hannah was his favorite—for the LORD had closed her womb.

...(6) Moreover, her rival, to make her miserable, would taunt her that the LORD had closed her womb. (7) ...year after year: ...

(10) In her wretchedness, [Hannah] prayed to the LORD, weeping all the while. ... (12) As she kept on praying before the LORD, Eli [the High Priest] watched her mouth. (13) Now Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard.

So Eli thought she was drunk. (14) Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” (15) And Hannah replied, “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the LORD. (16) Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman [lit: "an idolator"]; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.”

(17) “Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.” (18)... The LORD remembered her. (20) Hannah conceived, and at the turn of the year bore a son. She named him Samuel, meaning, “I asked the LORD for him.”

On Holy Chutzpah, Imagination, & Naming God

TEXT 2 - Berakhot 31b (Talmud, rabbinic commentary 2-6th century BCE)

And [Hannah prayed] and said, Lord of Hosts [Tzeva’ot]. Rabbi Elazar said: From the day that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created His world, there was no person who called the Holy One, Blessed be He, "Lord of Hosts" until Hannah came and called Him Lord of Hosts.

This is the first time in the Bible that God is referred to by this name. Rabbi Elazar explains that Hannah said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, are You not the Lord of the Hosts, and of all of the hosts and hosts of creations that You created in Your world, is it difficult in Your eyes to grant me one son?

A parable: To what is this similar? It is similar to a flesh and blood king who made a feast for his servants. A poor person came and stood at the door. He said to them: Give me one slice of bread! And they paid him no attention. He pushed and entered before the king. He said to him: My lord, the King, from this entire feast that you have prepared, is it so difficult in your eyes to give me a single slice of bread?

TEXT 3 - Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (2009)

The midrash [above] celebrates Hannah's unprecedented courage in calling God the God of Hosts. Her anguished need does not impoverish her imagination: she can still vividly imagine God's plentitude.

In this sense, she straddles her own poverty and God's wealth and finds a place to stand and cry out. Her prayer creates a completely personal standing place, original, as she is original. (p.96)

(Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, 2009.)


The idea of personal and private prayer, like Hannah's, feels familiar to our modern sensibilities. Yet let's recall crucially that its form was truly revolutionary in her moment: in Hannah's day, prayer meant an animal sacrifice and shared eating of the cooked meat afterwards.

  • What are the qualities that our tradition associates with her break from the standard form of prayer?
  • Why did Hannah innovate a new form of prayer?
  • What, if anything, is significant about the fact that Hannah is a woman?

In a Woman's Voice: Teaching the Divine Feminine

TEXT 4 - Chana Weisberg (2009)


Chanah the prophetess revealed many of the basic laws of prayer and the inner dimension of prayer—the interface between the physical and spiritual realities. She also taught us how to relate to our Creator from an entirely feminine perspective. To view G‑d not only as our king and sovereign, but also as a parent.

...At the same time that G‑d as our king decrees divine law, G‑d as our mother, as the Shechinah (Divine Presence, or G‑d’s “feminine” expression) provides divine help. The Shechinah—“the One who dwells with them in their impurity” (Leviticus 16:16)—is always present, ministering to and facilitating for her child. The Shechinah comes down to be together with her children. Nothing, not the material aspect of our world, nor our physical natures, can sever the unshakable bond between [the Divine] Mother and child.

Prayer is a demonstration of how we merge the two paradigms of G‑d as king and G‑d as parent.

... Prayer is G‑d saying, “Show Me how things look from your viewpoint, from within your world.” It is allowing us not to bypass our inner emotions, wants, fears, needs and insecurities, but to focus on them, put them in perspective and validate them.

Prayer is realizing that our Creator’s motherly bond and love will shake the very fabric of our world to bring Her child fulfillment. It is realizing that on this level, physicality and spirituality do not conflict.


...Eli accuses Chanah of drunkenness, his words must be understood figuratively. He did not actually believe that Chana was intoxicated, [he] was asking Chanah, “How long will you remain intoxicated by your own desires? How long will you remain so absorbed in your own needs, drunk with your own wants?

“Prayer,” Eli was correcting Chanah, “is meant to give you a more spiritual perspective, one in which you can rise above the materialism of our world and express gratitude to your King. Instead, you have become obsessed with your personal wants ...

To this, Chanah responds: “No, I am not drunk with personal concerns. I have poured out my soul from the core of my essential being, from the depths of my soul.

“From this deep place, I see my Creator not as a foreign, faraway Being who is only concerned with the spiritual aspect of His subjects, but rather as a loving Parent who intimately relates to me, on my level and with my wants. A Mother who shares in my pain, and cries together with me, holding my hand in every time of darkness and distress.

“I do not need to transcend my wants. He yearns to hear all about them.”

Chanah, a woman, needed to teach this perspective. She taught us that prayer, the feminine archetype, is empathetic. It is a supplication from our innermost selves, from the very depths of our hearts, connecting with G‑d’s innermost desire to forge a connection with us.

(Chana Weisberg, from full article:

Prayer Practice: A Friend to God?

TEXT 5 - Alicia Jo Rabins (2016)

Alicia Jo Rabins describes Hannah’s call to prayer as “the most radical fertility technology of her time.” Rabins asks: “Is God a partner in Hannah’s transformation, or a force activated through her demands?” For Rabins the story is “a complicated interplay between Hannah’s power to change her life, and her reliance on forces beyond her control.

On one hand, Hannah’s decision to take action after years of suffering is a crucial part of changing her story. But on the other hand, Hannah cannot change her destiny alone; God needs to ‘remember’ her in order for her to conceive.”

(From full article by Judy Bolton Fasman:


  • Does Rabin's "complicated interplay" sound like a relationship? How and/or how not?
  • If so, how is it similar to a relationship with another person, and...
  • is it different if God becomes the other party to the relationship?

TEXT 6 - Tamar Kandari (1999)

Hannah arouses God’s compassion because of her deplorable state, but also because of the daring she revealed by standing directly before Him. Hannah did not ask Eli the priest to act as an intermediary; she enters the sanctuary of the Lord and she herself addresses God.

...God said: “Hannah, since the Creation, no one except you has praised Me with the words ‘Lord of Hosts.’ By your life, your son shall begin his prophecy with those words.” Samuel did, in fact, commence his prophecy (I Sam. 15:2) with the words: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts.” God said: “Hannah, you said ‘Hosts’ and increased My myriads, and I will increase your myriads [that is, your offspring].” Hannah’s offspring included Heman (I Chron. 25:5), who had fourteen sons and three daughters (Midrash Samuel 2:5).

(Kadari, Tamar. "Hannah: Midrash and Aggadah." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive.


  • Kandari points to a midrash where the sages imagine God speaking in response to Hannah's prayer.
    • What does the midrash suggest that God gets from Hannah's prayer? That is, does Hannah actually bless God?
    • As a model of prayer for us today, how can we be said to "bless God"? What could God need from us?

TEXT 7 - Martin Buber retelling a Hasidic tale (1947)

Rabbi Barukh's grandson Yehiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When he had waited for a long time, he came out of his hiding-place, but the other was nowhere to be seen. Now Yehiel realized that [his friend] had not looked for him from the very beginning. Crying, he ran to his grandfather and complained of his faithless friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Barukh's eyes and he said: "God says the same thing: 'I hide, but no one wants to seek me.'"

(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken, 1947), 97.)

Embodying Hannah

TEXT 8 - Rabbi Amy Eilberg (1997)

When I am really present to myself, when I say "no" to the noise and distractions that keep me from my innermost sense of what is true, when I slow and quiet down and listen to the still, small voice within, the voice of God can speak to me and through me.

I have learned that God is in every breath I breathe. This is precisely the biblical teaching: That humanity was created as the union of dust of the earth and the breath of God. If I am quiet enough, attuned enough, ready enough, I can find the presence of God moving through me with each breath. This is implied, too, in the teaching of the last verse of the Book of Psalms: "Kol hane-shemah tehallel yah (with every breath I praise God)."... My very breath, my every breath, can be a vehicle for awareness of God in my life at any moment.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Revelation, in Lifecycles Volume II: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights, 1997), 109.

TEXT 9 - Kotzker Rebbe, Hasidic

Where is God? Where ever you let God in.

TEXT 10 - Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (2009)

The most powerful moment of my Rosh Hashanah came about in this way: ...the rabbi got word that the congregant who usually reads the haftarah in English couldn't make it, which meant we needed a pinch-hitter. He asked if I could do it. I said sure.

...I've heard this haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah almost every year of my life. I know perfectly well that (...) we hear the story of Hannah, who was barren, and who cried out to Adonai and then bore a son. I should have known that the text I was about to read was steeped in the theme of women's bodies and women's longing. But somehow, in the flurry of the morning, I had completely forgotten what story I was about to read until I started reading it.

[When I got to the line that says, "for the Lord had closed [Hannah's] womb"] I think that's when my voice started to quiver.

Unlike Hannah, I have not known infertility... Unlike Hannah, I did not spend the first years of my marriage yearning for a child... But in the year since last Rosh Hashanah [my husband and I] have decided to try to conceive; conceived once, and lost the pregnancy; and then conceived the son who is now spending his third trimester in my womb.

These facts completely change this story for me. Before now, I resonated with the part of the story where Hannah pours out her heart silently to God. Many call this the first example of private petitionary prayer in the Jewish lexicon, and I have always loved the fact that (in our sacred story) it was a woman who invented this form of communication with God!

Now, standing in front of my community with my burgeoning belly pressed against the lectern, the story takes on a completely different cast. I understand Hannah in a new way. Given the muffled sniffs and hasty blowing of noses I'm hearing from around the sanctuary, I think that I may be transmitting some of this new understanding to everyone who is listening, too.

I make it through the haftarah without crying, but it is a near thing.

I don't know what this haftarah reading will feel like next year, when (God willing) I will have a nine-month-old in my arms. But reading it aloud this Rosh Hashanah was an incredibly powerful experience for me, an unexpected gift.

(Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, from full blog post: