What kind of prayer does God want to hear? This fundamental spiritual question
occupied the biblical soul and was at the focus of much debate in the Talmud.
Through this question many other questions emerged as the rabbis sought to
regulate fixed prayer in the post-biblical period, while at the same time
attempting to allow room for spontaneous and personal prayer as well. In the
Mishna (Brachot 5:1) the sages made a blanket statement about how one should
approach the Amida – the central prayer of any service: One should pray only
with seriousness of intent. But what does this mean? What if we aren’t focused?
What if we are angry at God? Can we still pray? As the rabbis understood her,
Hannah in the Book of Samuel embodied all of these basic spiritual questions. In
the Talmud (Brachot 31a) Hannah is depicted both as incredibly problematic and
wonderfully exemplary at the same time. In the biblical text, Hannah’s emotional
prayer for a child (I Samuel 1:10) is immediately critiqued by the priest Eli,
who watches her long and silent prayer near the entrance to the
Eli accuses Hannah of being drunk. She was, he erroneously
thought, praying the wrong way, at the wrong place and at the wrong time. It
isn’t until Hannah explains to him “I a woman of sorrowful spirit, I have had no
wine or liquor, but I have poured out my soul before the Lord.” Her radical act
was that she had turned to God with great emotion and the deep pain of her
infertility and made a vow to God to give over her son – should she be blessed
to have one – to the service of the Temple. Only then does Eli say to her: “Go
in peace, and the God of Israel will grant that which you have asked of him.” (I
In the talmudic text, however, Hannah becomes a test case for
the most fundamental questions about the nature of prayer: How? When? What? And
what are the limits? From Hannah’s model the sages teach – among many things –
several core aspects of the Halacha (Jewish law) of the Amida: (1) one should
stand and face Jerusalem; (2) one should pray with a serious or focused mind;
(3) one should pray silently.
But the rabbis also imagine and give voice
to the deeper questions behind the intensity of Hannah’s prayer. In the talmudic
version of Hannah’s debate with God she insists that because she was created
with the power to nurse a child God must give her a child to nurse otherwise he
has created a part of her in vain.
“These breasts that you have placed
upon my heart – what are they for? Did You not create me this way so that I
could nurse?” (Brachot 31b). In another place the sages turn Hannah into a
character who even threatens God should she fail to conceive: She will use the
Torah against God to force him to give her a child. She expresses enormous
sorrow and anger. Hannah expresses frustration with God and she questions God
and she questions faith. She is entirely inappropriate in some ways, and yet it
is so powerful and profoundly true to call out to God out of a place of such
All of this might be understood to be irreverent or even
heretical approaches to God in prayer. Some ancient rabbinic voices in the text
insist that her prayer is unacceptable, but others insist that it is precisely
Hannah’s kind of prayer, modeled in other contexts by Moses and by Elijah, that
is the prayer that is answered.
Something of Hannah’s spiritual and
theological truth and courage convinces the sages that her prayer is also
Is Hannah the ideal model or is it heresy? Is her
“throwing words at God” so inappropriate that in fact her prayer is not prayer?
The sages employ Hannah as both the character that defines and defies the limits
of what prayer should be. The talmudic sages’ ambivalence about Hannah and about
women in prayer and the limits of what can bring to prayer continues to
challenge us today. The issue today is not just about who decides but it’s about
whether or not there is room in the public sphere even for the one who seems as
Hannah first did to Eli – inappropriate and unwelcome. And how, if at all, can
human beings really know what God wants to hear? Our world might be much better
if all women and all human beings had Hannah’s spiritual honesty and depth, and
could offer such powerful prayer. Would that all women had Hannah’s courage to
speak their human truths in the most public and important ways. Hannah is both
modest and bold, but above all she is honest about her relationship with God. It
is that honesty from the depths of her pain that ultimately gains God’s
attention. Her irreverence was only in the eyes of human beings. In God’s eyes,
and in God’s ears, there seems to be a much greater capacity to see and to hear.
Therefore perhaps the sages were trying to signal to their students for the
generations to come that we should be very careful in judging the efficacy and
appropriateness of another’s prayer. That which may seem to be irreverent might
be precisely the prayer that God needs most.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath
Beit-Halachmi, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and
teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.
Her column appears monthly.