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Elkana and Chana

Rosh Hashanah (Day 1: Genesis 21; Day 2: Genesis 22 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Elkana and Chanah (1)

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the Torah(2) section describing the birth of Yitzchak, or more precisely, how God "remembered" Sarah. This reading fits in with one of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah: Zichronot, God's attribute of actively "remembering" his people.

The Haftarah for this day describes how God remembered Chana. According to tradition, both Sarah and Chana were "remembered" on Rosh Hashanah,(3) and the common thread that connects the Parsha and Haftarah is the suffering of infertile women who are miraculously visited and redeemed from their plight. An analysis of both sections will reveal many more connections between this Parsha and its Haftarah, both in the literal reading and certainly in the Rabbinic understanding of these passages.

At first glance, aside from barren women who are remembered after many years, there seem to be no connections whatsoever. While Chana prays and cries out in pain, we never hear Sarah speaking out. Sarah laughs, at times out of joy and at times out of disbelief, but we never sense a tear running down her cheek.(4) Perhaps Sarah, as Avraham's partner and equal (or perhaps superior), feels more confident: She is too busy, being a great religious leader in her own right,(5) to feel her own pain. Perhaps she has sublimated her own maternal instincts into caring for their many guests. Chana, on the other hand, feels that her existence is incredibly deficient. For her, childlessness constitutes a full-blown existential crisis:

"Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart." (I Shmuel 1:13) R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Jose b. Zimra: She spoke concerning her heart. She said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things that You have created in a woman, You have not created one without a purpose: eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to do work, legs to walk with, breasts to nurse. These breasts that You have put on my heart, are they not to nurse? Give me a son, so that I may nurse with them. (Brachot 31b)

Despite such obvious differences, there is a point of similarity between the two stories which should not be overlooked: Both Sarah and Chana have intrigue with their husbands' other wives, who belittle and torment the favored wife:

"And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was belittled in her eyes." (Bereishit 16:4)

"And her adversary also provoked her bitterly, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb." (6) (I Shmuel 1:5)

The textual similarities may end with these passages, but the Midrashic parallels and connections continue: While the text does not record any instance of Sarah praying for an end to her personal torment, we do find Chana at prayer; in fact, Chana is credited with teaching all Jews from that day forth how to pray. Many of the laws of Jewish prayer are derived from Chana's supplication, as it is recorded in the book of Shmuel. On the other hand, it is Avraham who is credited with "inventing" prayer;(7) Avraham, then, introduces the concept or possibility of prayer, while Chana teaches the form and method of prayer.

Of course, there is another important character in the story whom we have not yet mentioned: Elkana, Chana's husband. While the text presents him as a positive character, the Midrash tells us why he is special.

The Book of Shmuel begins thus:

"And there was one man of Ramataim-Zophim, of Mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Yeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite."

He is described as one man - a unique man, "ish echad." The Midrash tell us that the verse (Kohelet 7:28) "Which yet my soul seeks, but I find not; one man among a thousand have I found" applies to Elkana. He is special - "one in a thousand." This unique character-type describes the righteous man who is the "foundation of the world" (Mishlei 10:25); his task is to elevate the entire generation through his own actions. Such a man is Elkanah. The Midrash mentions another individual who possessed this quality: Avraham.(8) In fact, Rabbenu Bachaya suggests that the name Efraim, Elkana's tribal forefather, is derived from "afar" - meaning dust: Avraham refers to himself as "I who am but dust and ashes" (Bereishit 18:27).

While Avraham's greatness is the stuff of legend, what was it that Elkana did to be compared to Avraham? The only hint we have in the text is Elakana's pilgrimage to Shiloh, the site of the holy Mishkan.

The Midrash (Eliyahu Rabbah chapter 9) tells us that Elkana made his pilgrimage four times a year, rather than the required(9) three. But it is not just the number of times he headed for Shiloh, it was the way he went that was unique: The Yerushalmi (Brachot 9:15 page 14c) says that he guided Israel to the holy places. This idea is expounded in the Midrash:

"For God answers him in the joy of his heart": this alludes to Elkana who used to lead Israel and bring them up to (Jerusalem) [Shiloh] every year by a different route. For that reason Scripture praises him: "And this man went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice unto the Lord of hosts in [Shiloh]" (I Shmuel 1:3)] (Midrash Rabbah - Kohelet 5:25)

Not only did he travel to Shiloh regularly to fulfill his religious duty, but he would take a different route each time in order to involve as many people as possible. Another individual who situated himself in such a way as to get as many people involved as possible was, of course, Avraham. The Torah states that Avraham planted a grove (Aishel), and called on God:

"And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheva, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God." (Bereishit 21:33)

The Midrash explains the association between his planting/building and calling on God:

According to R. Nehemiah's view that it [the Aishel] was an inn, Avraham used to receive wayfarers, and after they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, 'Now say Grace.' When they asked what to say, he would reply, 'Blessed be the Everlasting God, of whose bounty we have eaten.' (Bereishit Rabbah 54:6)

Avraham pitched his tent on a major trade route: People traveling north, exhausted from the journey through the desert, were welcomed by Avraham, who would be waiting with food and drink. Avraham's hospitality is well known from the Torah itself, but the Midrash reveals the additional motive that fueled Avraham's acts of kindness: He wanted mankind to discover the source of all kindness, to find God. The only condition for a free meal in Avraham's tent was making a bracha. Elkana used the trade routes in a slightly different fashion, each time choosing a different route to teach more people about God.

Interestingly, the Talmud credits Avraham as being the first to make a pilgrimage:(10)

What is the implication of what was written, "How beautiful are thy steps in sandals, O prince's daughter"? (Shir Hashirim 7:2) How beautiful are the steps of Israel when they go up [to Jerusalem] to celebrate a festival. "O prince's daughter" means, daughter of our father Abraham, who is called prince (Nadiv), as it is said, 'The princes of the peoples are gathered together, the people of the God of Avraham.' 'The God of Avraham'! And not the God of Yitzchak and Ya'akkov? But the meaning is, The God of Abraham who was the first of proselytes. (Sukkah 49b)

We now appreciate that the parallels are not only between Sara and Chana, but also between Avraham and Elkana.

There may be one more level to the connection between the Parsha and the Haftarah: when Chana prays for a child, she suggests that the child, her much-anticipated, long awaited offspring be separated for the service of God. The Midrash explains that her motivation for praying for a child was neither personal nor narcissistic; she wanted to bring a child into the world in order to serve God (Midrash Shmuel, Buber edition 2:7). When born, she separated her son and dedicated him to Divine service. Similarly, Yitzchak was a child separated for Divine service. In the aftermath of the Akaida, Yitzchak actually achieved the status of Kodshim, an offering dedicated to the Temple.

It now seems that the visitation, or God's "remembering" these two women, is just the starting point(11) of the connection:(12) Both had exceptional husbands who spread the idea of God in the world, and both had children dedicated and separated for holiness.

May this Rosh Hashanah be a day when all women who are awaiting a child be remembered, and may this year be a year when we all bring a bit more holiness into the world. May God give us the insight to pray for the proper things. May the New Year bring new understanding, new fear and love of God, new recognition of our mission on this planet. May God bless us with wisdom and a spirit of peace. May we have patience with our children and students. May the people we love always be aware of how we feel about them. May this year be a year of prosperity, happiness and success.

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life together with all of Israel.

There is a new Website for women experiencing the challenges of infertility and/or pregnancy loss. Please see for anonymous, free-of charge support.


1. Many of the ideas in this essay were culled from a book called Be'er Moshe by Moshe Yechiel Epstein, who collected a great deal of Rabbinic material. (return to text)

2. See Talmud Megilah 31a. (return to text)

3. Talmud Brachot 29a, Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a. (return to text)

4. See Yalkut Shimoni Shmuel section 77. (return to text)

5. "Avraham inspired the men while Sarah inspired the women." See Rashi on Bereishit, 12:5. (return to text)

6. The Talmud insists that despite her outwardly obnoxious behavior, Peninah actually had Chana's best interests in mind: Penina hoped her goading would provoke Chana to prayer. Baba Batra 16a: R. Levi said: Both Satan and Peninah had a pious purpose [in acting as adversaries]. Satan, when he saw God inclined to favor Iyov, said, 'Far be it that God should forget the love of Abraham.' Of Peninah it is written, 'And her rival provoked her sore for to make her fret.' When R. Aha b. Jacob gave this exposition in Papunia, Satan came and kissed his feet.
     For this Peninah was punished severely, apparently praying for Chana herself would have been a far more decent mode of behavior. See Pesikta Rabbati section 43 which reports that as Chana gave birth to children, Peninah buried hers. (return to text)

7. See Brachot 26b. (return to text)

8. Avraham's uniqueness is probably best expressed by the appellation "Ivri": R. Judah said: "Ha'Ivri signifies that the whole world was on one side ('ever) while he was on the other side ('ever)." (Bereishit Rabbah 42:8. See Rashi on Bereishit 39:14) (return to text)

9. Whether or not the Mitzvah of 'aliya l'regel' was required prior to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem is a point debated among the halachic authorities. For a review of the literature see Rabbi Yisrael M. Lau in Responsa Yachel Yisrael section 15. (return to text)

10. Avraham's pilgrimage to Jerusalem is most likely a reference to the Akaida. (return to text)

11. There is another connection alluded to by the Or Hachaim, (Berishit 12:13): According to the Talmud (Brachot 31b), when Chanah remained childless, she threatened to have herself secluded, in the hope that she would be accused of being a Sotah. Traditionally, the reward for the falsely charged woman is progeny. Similarly, The Or Hachaim says that this was Avraham's intention when they traveled to Egypt. He instructed Sarah to "say that you are my sister": Avraham knew that she would be seized, and, according to the Or Hachaim, Avraham hoped that this would bring the reward of children. For more on this theme see my article on Parshat Lech Lecha in M'oray HaAish 5761.
     Significantly the Talmud teaches that the rite of the Sotah was a reward for Avraham when he states that he is as the dust of the earth. (Sotah 17a) (return to text)

12. The Midrash actually draws many more connections between Elkanah and Avraham, and Chana and Sara. (return to text)

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