In the fifth haftarah Isaiah (54:1-10) – Roni Aqarah, the prophet likens Zion to a barren woman who becomes a mother of many children:  “Rejoice, O barren one, you that did not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you that did not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, said the Lord” (Isa. 54:1).  The Rabbis explain this powerful analogy :

  1. Levi taught: Whenever it is said that “she has no…[‘ayn lah]”, it implies that she will have. Thus it says, “Sarai was barren; she had no child [‘ayn lah velad]” (Gen. 11:30); afterwards she did: “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!” (Gen. 21:7). Likewise, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children [ule’Hannah ‘ayn yeladim]” (1 Sam. 1:2); afterwards Hannah did have children: “And the Lord took note of Hannah, and she conceived, and bore three sons and two daughters” (1 Sam. 2:21). Finally, “She is Zion, there is no one that cares for her [doresh ‘ayn lah]” ( Jer. 30:17); but then one will come who does care: “And a redeemer will come to Zion” (Isa. 59:20). (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana18:3)

From her state of having nothing [‘ayn lah], of emptiness, these women are granted children. The masters of midrash  go on to list seven biblical women who suffered barrenness and were ultimately blessed with children:  Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Manoach’s wife, Hannah, and Zion. Let us spotlight Hannah to appreciate the impact and significance of the portrait of Zion as a barren woman ultimately consoled and gladdened with children.


We read the story of Hannah on the first day of Rosh Hashannah. In fact, the Rabbis posit that on Rosh Hashanah, God took account of three of the great women of Israel – Sarah, Rachel and Hannah (B. Yebamot 64b), by blessing them with children. Their stories therefore are woven into the fabric of the holiday.

The stories about Sarah, Rachel and Hannah are tales of birth, life and renewal. Rosh Hashanah is the day the world was born—Hayom harat olam, says the mahzor, and the day we are remembered for life. This vital theme reverberates throughout the liturgy.

What could be more appropriate than to include the joyful stories of women who suffered childlessness for so many long years only to be rewarded for their faith and forbearing with the gift of life? The long road from barrenness to motherhood is truly a form of redemption, a reawakening of dreams long put to rest. These profound accounts of longing and fulfillment strike responsive chords in our own lives.

Moreover, Rosh Hashanah is the day we lift our voices in prayer. These stories are sterling examples of passionate pleas to God that were answered.


The second woman’s voice immortalized in the scriptural readings of Rosh Hashanah is that of Hannah. In the haftarah for the first day of the holiday, we are introduced to Hannah, a barren woman living in the town of Ramatayim Zofim . She is married to Elkanah, who was blessed with children from his second wife Peninah. Hannah’s unendurable pain and emptiness were underscored time and again during the family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh.

There, Elkanah and Peninah gathered their children around them, leaving Hannah engulfed by loneliness. Hannah’s distress was augmented by the taunting of her rival Peninah, who was jealous of Elkanah’s greater love for Hannah. Initially Hannah was silent, her pain expressed only through tears.

When we first hear her voice, it is in prayer, beseeching God sotto voce to see her pain, remember her, and grant her children. Hannah is confronted by Eli the High Priest. He accuses her of drunkenly profaning the sanctuary. This is a surprising allegation; why would Eli suspect Hannah, a woman praying, of being inebriated? The answer may lie in the observation of the Rabbis (B. Ber. 32a-b) that Hannah was a revolutionary innovator in the world of prayer. They provide a long list of the liturgical precedents set by Hannah that serve as a model of tefillah for all generations, and many later sages and interpreters have amplified those observations.

Hannah brought personal petitional prayer into the House of the Lord. Motivated by her own deep maternal need and by a strong belief in God’s mercy, Hannah initiated a paradigm shift that would reverberate through the ages. Hushed, sincere words of supplication—the service of the heart, avodah she-balev—had not been heard in the temple precincts before Hannah drew courage to plead her case quietly, calmly, with a strength drawn from her innermost being. It was that unique prayer that merited God’s response; the following year she was blessed with a child.

In the words of Rabbi Judah the son of Simon:

“Between the earth and the heavens there are 500 (light) years – very far yet very close! How so? Man stands in prayer, searches his heart and God draws close to hear his prayer as it says,’ You who answer our prayers, all people come close to You.’(Ps 65:3)” (Devarim Rabbah 2:10)


Hannah’s story, though, does not end there. In the second section of the haftarah, she becomes fully voiced in buoyant song, the barren one rejoices! She praises the Almighty as the source of all blessing. Hannah extols Him and describes His incomparability. He alone has the power to transform and intervene on the part of the powerless. Hannah does not refer exclusively to her own reversal of fortune from barrenness to fertility. She expands the scope of her psalm to include the hungry that are sated, the poor who become rich, and the vanquished who reign victorious. As arbiter of life and death, God’s cosmic power is mobilized for all those who are weak and hopeless.

It is therefore singularly appropriate that Hannah’s voice is heard in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. She champions the cause of people whose hopes have ebbed, and reassures them that God is capable of reversing their fortunes.  Hannah becomes a the epitome of the barren woman who rejoices and breaks forth in song as described by Isaiah. The Rabbis conclude :

“ He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (Ps 113:9) refers to Hannah as it says, “Penina had children and Hannah had no children” (ISam1:2) “The joyous mother of children” [refers to Hannah as it says] “And she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters (ISam2:21). Similarly, “He gives the barren woman a home” refers to Zion – Rejoice O barren one who has not given birth (Is 54:1) – “The joyous mother of children [refers to Zion] as it says, “And you shall say in your heart – [behold] who has given me all of these!” (Isaiah 49:21). (Pesikta Rabbati 32:4)