Reciting Ready-Made Prayers in Biblical Times and Today
Like festivals in other religions, Rosh Hashanah has evolved and changed over time. Its description in Leviticus 23:23-25 and Numbers 29:1-6 suggests that it was not a new year festival, which from a logical perspective cannot be commemorated on the first day of the seventh month. The biblical festival, mentioned only in Priestly and related calendars, is characterized by תרועה, the loud noise produced by “shouting” or “blowing.”
This biblical festival developed into the rabbinic two day Rosh Hashanah (New Year), which would be characterized by long prayers—specifically, an extra-long musaf (additional festival) service, and many beautiful piyyutim (liturgical poems) supplementing the regular festival service. Though now fossilized, these poems reflect the creative genius of various poets who did not find the standard liturgy sufficient; they reflect an era of creativity, when it was possible to personalize the prayers, and if not change them, at least add to them—an option that few contemporary worshippers take up.
Remembrance and Prayer as Themes of the Haftarot (Prophetic Readings)
Prayer, and its efficacy, are highlighted in both of Rosh Hashanah’s haftarot (prophetic readings), described in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 31a) as “Channah” (1 Sam 1:1-2:10) and “Ephraim is dear to me” (Jer 31:2-20).
These two readings were likely chosen because they both allude to YHWH remembering (1 Sam 1:19; Jer 31:20), and divine remembrance (from the root z-ch-r) is a major theme of the Rosh Hashanah festival, as seen in the obligation to recite a section of the musaf (additional/supplementary) prayer called zichronot, “remembrances,” already attested in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5. It is a useful coincidence that both haftarot have prayer as their central theme.
The haftarah for the second day speaks of God hearing Ephraim’s “lamenting” (אֶפְרַיִם מִתְנוֹדֵד—v. 18) and of God hearing Rachel weeping (v. 15), most likely while praying. Prayer is much more significant in the haftarah for the first day—where Channah prays twice, and the Hebrew for prayer (פלל in the hitpa‘el) is used five times (1:10, 12, 26, 27; 2:1); in rabbinic tradition, Channah’s first prayer—the prayer of a woman—is so important that it become the model for rabbinic prayer. The emphasis on prayer in the haftarah follows a theme of that day’s Torah reading, where וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר , “God heard the cry [namely the entreaty] of the boy [Ishmael]” (Gen 21:17).
Channah’s First Prayer
Channah’s first prayer is introduced in 1:10: וְהִיא מָרַת נָפֶשׁ וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל עַל יְ־הוָה וּבָכֹה תִבְכֶּה׃, “In her wretchedness, she prayed to YHWH, weeping all the while.” Although expressed in terms of a vow, what follows in v. 11 is a prayer:
וַתִּדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר וַתֹּאמַ֗ר יְ־הוָ֨ה צְבָא֜וֹת אִם־רָאֹ֥ה תִרְאֶ֣ה ׀ בָּעֳנִ֣י אֲמָתֶ֗ךָ וּזְכַרְתַּ֙נִי֙ וְלֹֽא־תִשְׁכַּ֣ח אֶת־אֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְנָתַתָּ֥ה לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ זֶ֣רַע אֲנָשִׁ֑ים וּנְתַתִּ֤יו לַֽי־הוָה֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו וּמוֹרָ֖ה לֹא־יַעֲלֶ֥ה עַל־רֹאשֽׁוֹ׃
And she made this vow: “O YHWH of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to YHWH for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.”
Her prayer is in clear biblical prose; it lacks the binariness, the parallelism or seconding that characterizes biblical poetry.
Biblical Prose Prayers and Their Structure
The title of Moshe Greenberg’s Biblical Prose Prayer as a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel is important: We have many psalms—namely poetic prayers—representing high-brow, official religion; these are mostly preserved in the Book of Psalms. But we also have approximately 100 prose prayers embedded elsewhere in the Bible.
These are typically petitionary, i.e., they by definition contain a request. The shortest are in Genesis 17:18, where Abraham petitions YHWH: לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ׃, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” and Numbers 12:13, where Moses petitions the deity concerning Miriam: אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ, “O God, pray heal her!” 1 Samuel 1:11 is a longer such petitionary prayer, in the case of Channah, a request for the birth of child. But they often have a much more complex, logical structure.
The Structure of Channah’s First Prayer
Channah’s prayer, following Greenberg’s general analysis, may be divided up into the following elements:
O YHWH of Hosts
The presence of such invocations in ancient Israelite prayers may seem surprising: To whom else, other than YHWH, might such prayers be addressed? Three answers present themselves.
First, we must remember that most people in ancient Israel were not monotheists, and prayers opening “O Baal” must have been recited often there. Second, ancient Israel is here, as elsewhere, following a typical ancient Near Eastern pattern, where deities needed to be invoked at the beginning, so the prayer would be directed at the appropriate deity (e.g. in Mesopotamia, Marduk, or Shamash, or Ishtar). Third, the purpose of the invocation is to capture the deity’s attention.
אִם רָאֹה תִרְאֶה בָּעֳנִי אֲמָתֶךָ וּזְכַרְתַּנִי וְלֹא־תִשְׁכַּח אֶת אֲמָתֶךָ וְנָתַתָּה לַאֲמָתְךָ זֶרַע אֲנָשִׁים
If You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child,
Petitions are typically presented in the imperative, as seen in the example above concerning Miriam: רְפָא, “heal.” (In contrast to Modern Hebrew, the following word נָא does not mean “please.”) Petitions may also contain self-deprecations: In this petition, Channah three times calls herself YHWH’s אמה, “maidservant,” a terms of subservience, and she refers to her עֳנִי, “suffering.” Such petitions contain some motivation as well—the phraseology is meant to make YHWH feel sorry for her.
וּנְתַתִּיו לַי־הוָה כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ׃
I will dedicate him to YHWH for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.
According to the Bible, YHWH can be motivated in a variety of ways. For example, He cares about what other people will say about Him, as in the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, when Moses entreats YHWH with the following argument:
שמות לב:יב לָמָּה֩ יֹאמְר֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם לֵאמֹ֗ר בְּרָעָ֤ה הֽוֹצִיאָם֙ לַהֲרֹ֤ג אֹתָם֙ בֶּֽהָרִ֔ים וּ֨לְכַלֹּתָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה
Exod 32:12 Let not the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.”
1 Samuel 1 assumes that YHWH would like a (nazirite as a) temple servant. All of these motivations assume that God cares in one way or another, and offer different views of what YHWH cares about—views that often fit the biblical world much better than ours, where many people are uncomfortable with the idea that God is swayed by threats, flattery, or promises of better service.
In this prayer, Channah suggests a tit for tat exchange with YHWH that is evident in the Hebrew but obscured by most translations: if YHWH gives (נתן—“grant” in the NJPS translation) a child, she will give it back (נתן—“dedicate” in the translation) to YHWH. In other words, such giving of a child would really not be giving at all by YHWH, who will get back what He gave. This too is part of the motivation.
Social Analogy in Prose Prayers
Greenberg uses the phrase “social analogy” while describing prose prayers: YHWH is spoken to and cajoled in the way that a less powerful person might implore or persuade one who is more powerful. In terms of structure, Channah’s prayer is no different than a student who might email me:
“Professor Brettler (invocation), if you do not fail me on this assignment (petition), I, a humble undergrad (self-deprecation) will try doubly hard on the next assignment and will bake you chocolate chip cookies each week (double motivation).”
The Bible often suggests that YHWH is successfully convinced by such entreaties that can involve bribes or assume that YHWH cares about His image. In the case of Channah (1 Samuel 1:19b-20):
וַיִּֽזְכְּרֶ֖הָ יְ־הוָֽה׃ וַיְהִי֙ לִתְקֻפ֣וֹת הַיָּמִ֔ים וַתַּ֥הַר חַנָּ֖ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמוֹ֙ שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל כִּ֥י מֵיְ־הוָ֖ה שְׁאִלְתִּֽיו׃
YHWH remembered her. Channah conceived, and at the turn of the year bore a son. She named him Samuel, meaning, “I asked YHWH for him.”
The Poetic Prayer in 1 Samuel 2
Channah’s poetic hymn in ch. 2 contrasts sharply with the petitionary prayer of ch. 1, which we might imagine her reciting spontaneously—its language is simple, and its content directly reflects their particular situation. The prayer in this second chapter is a poetic hymn, similar to those found in the Psalter.
This poem is typified by the main feature of biblical poetry: parallelism, in which most lines are binary, namely can be divided into two parts, “a” and “b,” and the b part seconds the first part in a variety of ways, often rephrasing it (“synonymous parallelism”), or saying the opposite (“antithetical parallelism”). Often the syntax of the first part of the poetic line is mirrored in the second, though one word from the first part may be missing, and as result the second part will parallel with two words one word in the first part, so that the verse parts remain equal in terms of length of both parts.
All of these features are clearly illustrated in 1 Samuel 2:6:
יְ־הוָ֖ה מֵמִ֣ית וּמְחַיֶּ֑ה
מוֹרִ֥יד שְׁא֖וֹל וַיָּֽעַל
YHWH deals death and gives life,
Casts down into Sheol and raises up.
The second part of the verse essentially rephrases the first and has a similar grammatical structure. The subject, YHWH, is stated in the first part only, and elided in the second, but to compensate for this lost word, מֵמִית (“deals death”), a single word, is paralleled with מוֹרִיד שְׁאוֹל, “casts down to Sheol [the underworld],” two words. This structure, which typifies biblical verse, continues in some post-biblical prayers as well, even in those recited on the high holidays.
In fact, 1 Samuel 2:1–10 could have made its way into the Book of Psalms. As we now know from the Dead Sea Scroll evidence, our Book of Psalms was one of many different collections of ancient Israelite liturgical poetry, and we do not know why certain psalms made it into the Psalter, whereas others that could have in terms of content and style, such as 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (or Habakkuk 3), did not.
A Military Royal Poem out of Context
Channah’s second prayer is not directly related to the situation it addresses. It is recited by her after she deposits her son Samuel with Eli at the Shiloh sanctuary, fulfilling her vow. We would expect a deeply personal prayer of thanksgiving to God for alleviating her barrenness and her accompanying shame and disappointment. But we get nothing of the kind.
The theme of the psalm in 1 Samuel 2 is YHWH’s great power—He is in full control of life and death (v. 6). As such, He can swiftly and completely overturn any situation, for example, breaking the bows of the mighty (v. 5) or changing the fate of the poor, so they sit with nobles (v. 8). In a word, He is a God of ישׁועה, “deliverance” (v. 1), in contradistinction to people (v. 9):
כִּֽי־לֹ֥א בְכֹ֖חַ יִגְבַּר־אִֽישׁ
For not by strength shall man prevail.
But the subject of the psalm is more specific, it focuses on the king, as its conclusion (v. 10b) makes clear:
וְיִתֶּן־עֹז לְמַלְכּוֹ וְיָרֵם קֶרֶן מְשִׁיחוֹ
He will give power to His king, And triumph to His anointed one.
More specifically, it is related to the king’s victory of his enemies, as the opening verse makes clear:
רָחַב פִּי עַל אוֹיְבַי
I gloat over my enemies.
Other military language peppers this psalm, which speaks of enemies already from its first verse. The mention of a king defeating enemies is especially problematic in this context, for the very young Samuel has yet to anoint Saul as Israel’s first king.
It is striking that a royal psalm can be reconceived or repackaged as a thanksgiving psalm for a woman after giving birth. But clearly Channah, if she indeed existed, would not have recited this psalm.
Choosing a Pre-existing Psalm for a Woman
Why did an author or an editor put this pre-existent royal psalm here, in Channah’s mouth? I suggest it has to do with Channah’s gender.
To explain, Levites, or perhaps other cultic functionaries, knew set prayers that they would use. A person would come to the Temple or a local shine, and ask for a prayer, and the Levite would look one up, or know one from memory, and the Levite would either recite it for the worshipper, or the worshipper would recite it alongside, or more likely after, the Levite.
But—these prayers were generally written by men and thus, dealt with situations that men would typically encounter, excluding prayers reflecting a woman’s deep frustration and disappointment and even anger at being childless. When a woman like Channah wanted to thank God for bearing children, the Levite would have to find among the psalms that he knew one that would be most suitable for such a situation, even if it did not address the situation directly.
This same challenge was faced by the author or editor of 1 Samuel, who chose a psalm that has several features that make it, at least, somewhat suitable for a woman like Channah. Verse 5b explicitly mentions barrenness and bearing children:
עַד־עֲקָרָה֙ יָלְדָ֣ה שִׁבְעָ֔ה
וְרַבַּ֥ת בָּנִ֖ים אֻמְלָֽלָה
While the barren woman bears seven,
The mother of many is forlorn.
Moreover, its main theme is victory over enemies, which can be read—despite v. 4, קֶ֥שֶׁת גִּבֹּרִ֖ים חַתִּ֑ים וְנִכְשָׁלִ֖ים אָ֥זְרוּ חָֽיִל׃, “The bows of the mighty are broken, and the faltering are girded with strength”—not in a military sense, but in relation to the conflict between Channah and Penina, Elkanah’s other wife. But this is clearly a post-facto interpretation. The text does not directly relate to Channah’s situation, and given its references to kingship, could not have been recited by her.
We see from this that when ancient Israelites wanted to offer a formal, poetic, tried and tested prayer at a sacred place for a sacred occasion, they used ready-made prayers, and made them fit their particular situation. In other words, someone in Channah’s situation may have recited the psalm now found in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, at the prompting of a Levite, paying attention to the verses about thanking YHWH, about competition, and especially about childlessness; indeed one could easily imagine someone who has been barren weeping with joy while reciting v. 5b. That same person would have mumbled through many of the other verses, including those about the king.
Formal Pre-Written Prayers Are Appropriate for the Temple and God: Then and Now
The formal context of the Temple or sanctuary would have encouraged the recitation of a formal prayer, as the person praying believed that it is appropriate to pray to a great God in His own House in poetry—and that is why poetic prayers are found in the Psalter, and indeed throughout the ancient Near East. Just as some occasions demand (or used to demand) a formal thank you note written on stationary, even if the language is stereotypical and stilted, some prayer occasions demand special, fancy language, namely poetry.
And so it is, I would suggest, with most of us these days with prayers, whenever we pray from a prayer book or use a standard prayer. Not every prayer that we recite, or every part of every prayer, touches us equally at the moment. Some parts are more relevant on particular occasions—e.g., a prayer for healing when one close to us is ill, or for Jerusalem after a terror event has struck the city, while other parts are less relevant, and we may mumble through them.
Such ready-made prayers often do not fit our exact situation: no biblical prayer, for example, says something like (a situation of mine from years ago):
O God, may the surgery to remove my daughter’s gall-bladder go well, may her excruciating pain be relieved, and may she be up and about quickly.
The fit of any ready-made prayer will, by definition, be less than perfect. But it will use heightened vocabulary and will be time-tested. And that will make it feel appropriate. That is why despite our own deeply personal needs and thank yous that we might want to offer on Rosh Hashanah, we, like Channah in 1 Samuel 2 (but not 1 Samuel 1), use ready-made prayers.
The image of God that we imagine on Rosh Hashanah is downright scary, making it difficult to pray spontaneously. Who can compose appropriate prayers when confronting a deity presiding over a heavenly court, as (the unetaneh tokef prayer says) “a great shofar” is “sounded,” and God “open[s] the book of memories,” angels “recoil” and are “gripped by shaking and trembling” as they say, “This is the day of judgment,” “and all who enter the world will pass before You [God] like sheep”? And thus, like Channah in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, we rely on ready-made prayers.
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September 25, 2019
January 2, 2021
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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