How Hannah Inspired Rabbinic Tefilla
There are a few biblical role models whose narratives serve as the basis for the structure and laws of tefilla in the Talmud. According to one position in the Gemara, the three daily times for tefilla are derived from the avot, as discussed in part I of this Shayla blog series on tefilla. Other significant biblical figures for learning about tefilla in the Talmud include Moshe, David, Eliyahu and one female character – Hannah. Why is Hannah singled out as a source of guidance and inspiration in tefilla and what in particular is learned from her?
The context of this discussion is chapter four of tractate Brachot, which deals mainly with the laws of the Amidah prayer. There are various opinions on when the Amidah was composed, ranging from the early Second Temple period to Mishnaic times.
The sugya about Hannah opens with noting the impressive number of halakhot which we learn from her with regard to the Amidah prayer:
Rav Hamnuna said: How many significant halakhot can be derived from these verses of Hannah?!
It then derives numerous essential halakhot from the narrative of Hannah, including the requirement to pray with intention and to enunciate the words as well as the prohibition to raise one’s voice during the silent Amidah prayer and not to pray while intoxicated:
“And Hannah spoke in her heart” – the halakha that one who prays must focus his heart on his prayer is derived.
“Only her lips moved” – the halakha that one who prays must enunciate the words with his lips, not only contemplate them in his heart, is derived.
“And her voice could not be heard” – the halakha that one is forbidden to raise his voice in his Amida prayer as it must be recited silently.
“So Eli thought her to be drunk” – the halakha that a drunk person is forbidden to pray. That is why he rebuked her.
All of these statements are codified l’halakha by the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. Hannah’s prayer is a deep, heartfelt plea for God to redeem her and give her a child. She is not alone in this experience. The Talmud teaches elsewhere that barrenness can lead to the most powerful prayer as the avot were initially infertile because God desired to hear their tefillot. Similarly, Shir Hashirim Rabbah says the same thing about the imahot. The Rabbis saw Hannah’s heartfelt prayers for children as a continuation of the model of the avot and imahot, who were eventually answered and blessed with children. Hannah too, is an archetype for effective tefilla and therefore a positive example for Chazal to draw from.
However, there are deeper layers and innovations in Hannah’s prayer which the Talmudic Sages may have identified with, in particular as it relates to the Amidah prayer. In addition to presenting Hannah’s prayer as respectful and heartfelt, Hannah is characterized as having a dose of “chutzpah” in her tefilla. For example, with regard to the verse “And she prayed onto the Lord,” the Gemara comments on the odd language of “onto” and interprets it as “she spoke impertinently toward on High.” Her impertinence comes from a place of deep faith yet also strong pleading. In addition, the Gemara highlights Hannah’s innovation:
Rabbi Elazar said: From the day that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created His world, there was no person who called Hashem “Lord of Hosts” [Tzeva’ot] until Hannah came and called Him Lord of Hosts.
Hannah emphasizes the aspect of God as Creator of hosts and hosts, questioning why God won’t grant her just one son. Hannah is also credited with being the first to refer to Hashem by this name in tefilla. Hannah’s tefilla in this section allows for pleading and innovation. Perhaps, the men of the Knesset Hagdolah and Chazal identified with Hannah in this regard in composing the Amidah with innovation and allowing for pleading (bakasha) alongside praise (shevah) and gratitude (hoda’ah).
Chazal found in Hannah a model of inspiration for tefilla from a place of desperation and yearning, which is ultimately answered. In their great composition of the Amidah prayer, Chazal understood the need for people at times to plead with God, even with slight impertinence. They also perhaps saw in Hannah a biblical model of their effort to innovate in composing tefillat Amidah. May Hannah continue to be a source of inspiration and bracha and may our tefillot be answered l’tova.