The Hebrew Name Hannah

Click here to hear Channah pronounced

Hannah’s story opens the First Book of Samuel. The beloved wife of Elkanah, Hannah longed to have a child. After ten years of childlessness, she told her husband to marry another woman so that he might have children. Over the next eight years, according to the Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, Penina, Elkanah’s second wife, bore him ten sons. Watching her husband’s family grow was a painful challenge for Hannah, especially since Elkanah believed that the extreme love he had for Hannah should have been sufficient to make her happy.

Finally, after 18 years of barrenness, when the family made one of its regular pilgrimages to Shilo (where the Tabernacle stood, before the Temple was built in Jerusalem), Hannah made her way to the sanctuary and poured out her soul to God. The prayer, as described by the Midrash, was a heart-wrenching plea questioning the purpose of her own existence (ex: "Master of the Universe...nothing which You created in woman is superfluous. For what are these breasts that You placed on my chest if not to nurse with?"–Berachot 31b). Indeed, it is noted that “Hannah spoke demandingly toward God” (ibid), even chastising Him (ex: “Of all the hosts that You created in Your world, is it hard for You to give me one son?").

Since her prayer was recited quietly so that only she could hear, Eli, the High Priest, assumed that Hannah was drunk.

“How long will you be drunk?” he demanded. However, when Eli was informed that she was praying for a child, he bestowed a blessing on her that her prayers should be answered. Within a year, Hannah bore a son, whom she named Shmuel (Samuel the Prophet), for God had heard her prayers (the root of Shmuel is lish'moa to hear).

The sages understood from Hannah’s prayers that quiet prayer is truly powerful. It is for this reason that the silent Amidah (central prayer) is recited just loud enough for the praying person to hear. Additionally, because Hannah revealed the proper way of communicating with God, she is one of seven women identified as a prophetesses (Megillah 14a).

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