Rosh Hashanah Edition: Silent Prayer

God Wants The Heart

What does Hannah teach us about the Jewish way to pray?

Table for Five: Rosh Hashanah edition

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Now Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk.

1 Samuel 1:13, from Rosh Hashanah haftarah


Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Did you know that there is a Biblical source for a unique – and distinctly Jewish – way to pray?

Some people shout, as if God is hard of hearing. But that is not the correct tone for talking to the Creator of the universe. In fact the central part of the traditional service is called “The Silent Prayer.” Silent – as in a whisper. Silent – as if it is the voice of the soul, not the lips or the vocal chords. Silent – as if no vocabulary exists to express our human connection with God.

It is a law: The Shemoneh Esrei must imitate the paradigm of the most powerful biblical prayer of a barren woman who would not give up her hope for a child. Hannah, praying in her heart so that only her lips moved but her voice could not be heard is the Talmudic ideal.

The truth remains that the essence of prayer transcends language; a truth so beautifully expressed in the famous lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel:

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence”

The Silent Prayer is the whisper of Hannah that needs to dominate our Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur attempt not simply to speak to the Divine but to define ourselves to ourselves. To acknowledge what is truly important in our lives. To define our values. To understand our purpose. To make a difference to our families, our friends and the world. And to do so with such enthusiasm that observers might even confuse our love for our earthly mission as though we were “drunk” with Godliness.

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Author of “Why God. Why?: How to Believe in Heaven When it Hurts Like Hell”

A central theme of Rosh Hashanah is G-d’s coronation as King of the universe. Much of the service revolves around this theme. Royalty is exalted and powerful, evoking reverence and awe ─ and detachment.

Chana’s prayer, however, introduces G-d’s feminine side, known as the Shechina. (G-d, of course, is neither male nor female, though we “borrow” human definitions as metaphors for G-d’s personas). It is only appropriate that Chana, a woman, teach us how to evoke the Shechina.

Eli, the high priest, could not relate to the barren Chana’s silent prayer for a child and thought she was drunk in her self-absorption, unseemly in this holiest of places. Eli saw this as a time and place for submission, not for beseeching G-d for one’s own needs. Chana taught Eli that prayer is the realization that “you are children to the L-rd,” (Deut. 14:1) and that G-d’s Motherly-love for Her children encompasses all their needs, be they physical or spiritual.

Chana explained: “I’m not intoxicated by my needs. I am praying for a child from my very essence that loves G-d, and ‘I have poured out my soul before G-d.’ The Shechina relates to me with Motherly-love and feels my pain, my darkness, and my distress. I need not negate myself, because my Mother, the Shechina, relates to all of me, as I am, in my pain.”

Eli’s response? “Go in peace, and may the G-d of Israel grant your request.” And so it was. Chana bore a child, Samuel, the prophet.

Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Cedars-Sinai; Knesset Israel

At this time of Hannah’s prayer for a child, the central place of Jewish worship, the Tabernacle (“Mishkan”), was not yet located in Jerusalem, but in Shilo. In order to properly dedicate this space to holiness and prayer, it was a beautiful site, as is appropriate since we are taught “this is my God, who I shall glorify.” There was much ceremony, pomp and circumstance at this site in order to help the worshipers experience the Divine presence that rested there. The grandeur of this location was not its purpose. Rather, the experience of connecting with God was supposed to be the goal.

However, the focus became so much on these externals, that it became abnormal for someone to actually have a sincere spiritual moment there.

Perhaps this is why Eli accused Hannah of being drunk: she was appropriately silent and sincere, but it had become so rare there that it seemed strange to him, in the very place where that was supposed to be the norm!

This verse may thus be criticizing Eli for finding fault in Hannah and losing sight of the primary reason for the Tabernacle. Pomp and circumstance has its place, but the central theme must remain the sincere, private, spiritual encounter. So too, as we approach the High Holidays, our synagogues should be beautiful and special, with moving melodies, warm community and wonderful ascetics, but the ultimate goal is an internal, personal, transformative experience, as it says, “God desires the heart.”

Dini Coopersmith, Educational Director, Orot haTorah Israel,

Most of our code of law for saying the “amidah”- the 19 blessings which are the main component of our prayers 3x a day, is based on Chana’s silent prayer. When Chana came to the mishkan in Shiloh, distraught about not being able to conceive a child, she turned to God and spoke “from her heart”, connecting to the Source of everything, realizing that only He could give her what she needs. This transformed the act of prayer from a ritual to a deep meaningful and personal conversation with God

Rabbi Ira Kosowsky says in “DMC- the Amidah”:

“The Amidah grants us clarity and confidence… to become the person we are meant to be. … the more we appreciate prayer, the more we realize that God has empowered us to partner with Him to answer our own prayers- through our decisions, efforts and actions.”

On Rosh haShana, we are conceiving our own lives anew. God is judging all of humanity based on who they are on this day. This is perfect time to stand before God like Chana, to speak from the heart, to reach clarity about who we really are, articulate what we want for this year: what are my aspirations and goals? What tools do I need in order to achieve them? What are my values?

On Rosh haShana we have the opportunity to come close, to pray, to partner with God, who will Judge us based on this vision and plan, and grant us a sweet new year.

Yehudit Garmaise, Freelance Writer, Teacher

The avot [patriarchs] taught us when to pray, but Chana, with her intensity and concentration, taught us how to pray.

“Even if the king inquires as to the welfare of those who are davening, they should not answer him,” says the Mishna, before the Talmud recounts the story of Chana, “and even if a snake is coiled about one’s heel, davening should not be interrupted.”

While some of us are tempted to “multi-task” as we daven, Chana approached Hashem with awe and reverence. Instead of reading through her davening silently, Chana was the first to quietly verbalize her words.

D’var means both “word” and “thing” and Hebrew, and in this way, Chana taught us that when we pray in low but audible tones, Hashem helps us to create beautiful new realities. Chana also understood that prayer is a two-way street. Instead of merely asking for a child, she promised to dedicate the life of her future son Shmuel to the service of Hashem.

Now, when we ask Hashem for so much: to help, to heal, to forgive, and to provide for ourselves and our loved ones, perhaps we might also consider what we are willing to give and do in return. For the many times we do not have such strength, we can remember to thank Hashem for another day and for everything that gives us sustenance, joy, and nachas.

Whenever we need anything from a miracle to bursts of love, calm, and comfort: all we have to do is ask.

With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Dini Coopersmith, and Yehudit Garmaise

Image: “Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli” by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c. 1665

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