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Chana's Prayer and Rosh HaShana

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

Translated by Kaeren Fish

A. In Remembrance of Whom are the Nine Berakhot of Rosh Ha-shana?
            On Rosh Ha-shana, there are nine berakhot (blessings) in the Amida (silent prayer) of Mussaf, while on all other holidays there are seven.  The gemara in Berakhot (29a) questions the source of this anomaly: "In remembrance of whom are the nine [berakhot] of Rosh Ha-shana?  R. Yitzchak of Kartignin said: In remembrance of the nine mentions [of God's name] made by Chana in her prayer (I Shemuel 2:1-10)."  The gemara goes on to provide a reason for remembering Chana's prayer in our Rosh Ha-shana prayers: "Mar said, On Rosh Ha-shana Sarah, Rachel and Chana were remembered [by God and finally conceived]."  Some Rishonim (e.g. the Ritva) did not have this reason in their text of the gemara, but they mentioned it on their own, while others (e.g. Tosafot Rav Yehuda Ha-chassid) quote the Yerushalmi (Berakhot ch. 4): "For she (Chana) said in her supplication, 'God will judge the lowly of the earth'" - on Rosh Ha-shana God judges the world.  From this it would appear that Chazal chose to remember Chana's prayer either because it was on Rosh Ha-shana that she finally conceived, or because of the judgment of the world which is alluded to in her prayer.  And the nine berakhot of the Mussaf Amida correspond to her nine mentionings of God's name.
            However, in truth, neither of the above reasons is satisfactory.  Firstly, let us remember that not only Chana conceived on Rosh Ha-shana.  This being the case, why should the number of berakhot then not correspond to the number of times that God's name is mentioned in the parasha where "God remembered Sarah?"  The second explanation, based on the Yerushalmi, is equally problematic: could Chazal not have found somewhere in the whole of Tanakh some excerpt more appropriate to the theme of judgment?  Why did they see fit to choose this episode of seemingly marginal significance, where the issue of judgment appears secondary, as the parasha representative of the theme of Divine justice?  Let us take a closer look at the verses of Chana's prayer and see if we are able to detect some deeper connection between it and the Rosh Ha-shana prayers.
B. "And Chana Prayed..."
            Chana's prayer comes in the wake of the birth of her son Shemuel, and its principal theme would therefore logically be thanks to God for His mercies towards her.  But Chana's prayer is not introduced as being "hoda'a" (thanksgiving), "hallel" (praise) or "shira" (song), but rather "tefilla" (prayer), apparently in light of the nature of the last verse: "God's opponents will be broken, He shall thunder upon them in the heavens.  God shall judge the ends of the earth and He shall give strength to His king, and shall raise up the horn of His anointed one" (I Shemuel 2:10).  Accordingly, it would seem that this verse is actually the crux of the prayer, and Chana's main message.  A closer look reveals the fact that Chana is speaking simultaneously on two levels:
a. She is speaking of the personal salvation which she merited - the birth of her son: "the barren woman has borne seven..."
b. She also has a broader perspective of the needs of Am Yisrael: "He shall give strength to His king and shall raise up the horn of His anointed one."
            Chana sees herself not only as the barren woman in need of Divine mercy who then merits this mercy and becomes "the jubilant mother of the children," but also sees herself to some degree as the collective mother of Knesset Yisrael.  She is filled with concern for the nation at the last stages of the period of the judges - a period which exhausted the nation's spiritual as well as material resources, a period which would end with the destruction of Shilo and the Mishkan which resided there.  It is against this background that Chana expresses her prayer, as someone who feels the pain of the nation, and prays that God raise the horn of His anointed.  In the heading which Chana gives her prayer, she puts the honor and needs of the nation before her private salvation. What we have here is "tefilla" - alongside thanksgiving and praise, admittedly, but the crux of the outpouring of Chana's heart exists in the sphere of tefilla: "As You have saved me, please, O God, save Your nation."
C. "He Makes the Barren Woman to Keep House, and become a Jubilant Mother of Children"
            The two basic themes of Chana's prayer mentioned above find expression in two other chapters of Tanakh, which are similar to this prayer both in structure and in content and hence have a strong connection to it.  The one source is Tehillim 113, where the thanks of the "mother of children" is mentioned, and the other is in II Shemuel 22 and the psalm which corresponds to it - Tehillim 18: "He makes great the salvation of His king and performs kindness with His anointed one, with David and his descendants, forever."
            If we look at Tehillim 113 (familiar to us as the beginning of Hallel), we see that it is structured thus: the opening is a call to praise and thanks to God - "Praise the name of God..."  The background to this call to praise is not entirely clear, but from the continuation of this psalm it becomes clear that the key lies in the last pasuk: "He makes the barren woman ... into a jubilant mother of children."  The psalmist, in his usual fashion, explains and develops on the process which must be undergone by the person wishing to offer praise.  First, he must see the King of the Universe as possessing transcendent power - "From the rising of the sun to the setting, the Lord's name is to be praised ... who is like the Lord our God, Who is enthroned on High?" (3-5).  Nevertheless, God does not remain in the lofty heavenly realms but rather watches over all His creations: "And looks down to see (what takes place) in the heaven and on the earth.  He raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the destitute from the out of the ashheap" (6).  Following this realization, the psalmist is led straight to praise: God, Who is the King of the world and watches over all His creations, makes the barren woman to keep house, and become a jubilant mother of children.  And for this - "halleluya."
D. "He Makes Great the Salvation of His King and Performs Kindness with His Anointed One"
            We find a similar structure, if slightly expanded, in the song of King David (II Shemuel 22), which is not the song of an individual who has merited God's salvation but rather the song of the king and representative of Israel, acting in his capacity as messenger of the nation, who comes to thank God for the great mercy which He has shown towards himself as well as toward the nation.  David - who merited having God make him a "great name like the name of the great ones in the land" (II Shemuel 7:9), and the nation - which merited that "I have made a place for MY NATION ISRAEL and I have planted them, that they may dwell there..." (ibid. 10), both offer praise to God.  David's song opens with a description of the salvation which came to him and the nation and brought David to "an open place" (II Shemuel 22:1-20); thereafter he moves to the subject of the foundations of Divine Providence and of reward and punishment: "God will reward me according to my righteousness ... You will show mercy to the merciful ... He is a shield to all those who trust in Him."  Finally David describes God's Kingship, "For who is God other than the Lord, and who is a rock other than our God?" (32), and returns to a description of the salvation.  It would appear that the change in structure comes in the wake of the psalmist's burning emotions, such that the song bursts from his lips and includes the elements of thanks which have been mentioned: God's Kingship - His Providence - His salvation, and the obvious conclusion, "Therefore I shall give thanks to You, O God, among the nations, and shall sing to Your name" (50), and a hope for the future: "He is a tower of salvation to His king and performs kindness to His anointed, to David and to his descendants, FOREVER."
E. "And He Will Raise the Horn of His Anointed"
            The two forms of thanks mentioned in the two chapters discussed above correspond to Chana's thanks on one hand and her "tefilla" on the other.  Chana has merited giving birth to a son - and for this she must give thanks, but Knesset Yisrael has not yet merited the long-awaited salvation, and for this Chana prays as the "mother" of Israel: "If you will give Your handmaid a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life..." (I Shemuel 1:11).  This is not a prayer merely for personal descendants but also, according to Chazal, a prayer for a child who will eventually anoint two people - Shaul and David - through whom salvation will come to Israel.  Chana's offspring - Shemuel - indeed makes Chana into the "mother of children," but Chana also wants him to make Israel into the nation saved by God: "He shall give strength to His king and lift the horn of His anointed."
            Close scrutiny of the verses of this chapter reveals the many parallels between this chapter and the two mentioned above.  We shall not expand on this here but shall suffice with pointing out the foundations which we have mentioned:
            a. Kingship of God - "There is none as holy as God for there is none other than You and no rock like our Lord." (ibid. 2:2)
            b. His Providence - "He lifts up the poor from the dust and the destitute out of the ashheap." (8)
            c. Prayer for Salvation - "God's opponents shall be broken, in the heavens shall He thunder..." (ibid 10.  Compare this pasuk to David's song.)
"And lift the horn of His anointed" - parallel to "And perform kindness to His anointed, to David and his descendants, forever."
F. Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, Shofarot
            The central focus of the Rosh Ha-shana prayers is, obviously, the middle berakhot of the Mussaf prayer - known as malkhuyot, zikhronot and shofarot.
            A. Malkhuyot - a description of God's Kingship in the world: "And you shall know today... that God is the Lord in the heavens above... and God shall be King over all the earth."
            B. Zikhronot - God's providence in the world: "You remember the deeds of the world... for You shall bring a law of remembrance to account for every living thing... for the remembrance of all of Creation comes before You."
            C. Shofarot: Two aspects of the shofar are alluded to: firstly, that which hearkens back to the giving of the Torah: "And the sound of the shofar was very loud...," and secondly the shofar of the final redemption: "And it shall be on that day that there shall be a great blast on the shofar..."  The common denominator is that in both cases the shofar serves as an expression of God's revelation in the world - both in His descent onto Har Sinai at the time of matan Torah and in the shofar blast of redemption.  This phenomenon heralds the giving of the Torah, which was to serve as the basis for the world and for the building of a perfect society, and also heralds the appearance of God to cut off the wicked, to gather in the lost and the dispersed and to lift the horn of His anointed one.
            Hence we have seen that the Rosh Ha-shana prayers recited by all of Am Yisrael were in fact established by Chana, mother of Shemuel, who perceived not only her own personal sorrow but also the trials and troubles of the nation as a whole.  She merited to have her personal salvation serve also as the salvation of the nation - her son anointed the people who came to save the nation.  The Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola followed Chana's example and structured our prayer along similar lines, with the hope and prayer that God would listen to the sound of the shofar blast of His people with mercy, and that the shofar of our ultimate freedom would be sounded.
            Indeed, Sarah and Rachel also merited their personal salvation on Rosh Ha-shana.  But only in Chana's case did this signal the salvation of the nation.  She left us a legacy of prayer full of awe for Divine majesty, comprising the malkhuyot, zikhronot and shofarot of redemption.  May we merit to witness that redemption speedily.