“Chana” Women in the Bible

Women Reading Book

Women are not often named in the Bible. In fact the only ones we read about are ones crucial to the story line. What would the Story of Creation be without Eve by Adam’s side yet we do not know the names of Cain and Abel’s wives. Where would Abraham be without Sarah or Isaac without Rebecca? Jacob is married to sisters Leah and Rachel, and even though we learn the names of their handmaidens, no names are recorded of their sisters. Moses’ sister Miriam the prophetess and his foreign born wife Zipporah are mentioned because they have their own story to tell. That is why we learn about Dina and Judith and some others. Women throughout time have wondered if the only reason for these omissions is our patriarchal society where men not only rule but write the books as well. Or was it something else? Like maybe women have in fact been protected because of their environment. So as not to come to any extra harm.

Even though few women are spoken of it is rather strange that there is only one Sarah, one Ruth, one Naomi. Yet there are two women named “Chana”. What is even stranger is that often their stories get confused which is ridiculous because they lived in different periods under different rulers. The dynasties that ruled ancient Israel were not kind to Jews often forcing them to convert. Circumcision was not permitted and keeping kosher often near impossible. Women were enslaved and tortured. Not something that the ancient, religious Rabbis of the Sanhedrin wanted to write about. So maybe it is possible that rather than identifying them by name, perchance they read about it and were further embarrassed, one more generic name was given.

But why “Chana”. Rav Isaiah Horovitz known as the Shelah ha-Kodesh was a well known Levite and Mystic. He was born in Prague in 1565 and served many European communities before settling in Israel. He died in 1630 and is buried in Tiberius. The Shelah notes that the name “Chana” is more of a symbolic acronym than a actual name. Women are not required to keep time bound mitzvot because it was common for home and family to be their priority. However women do have three time bound mitzvot: Challah, Niddah (the laws of family purity) and Hadlikat Nerot (lighting candles). Hence Ch-N-aH. These three commandments, which were so difficult to keep during Roman and Greek rule, are so important and they are for women. These women deserved to have some of their humility left intact so if they were given another name it seems rational. Nonetheless they deserve to be honored as much now as then.

The first Chana we meet is the wife of Elkanah. His other wife Peninah has children but this pains the childless Chana even more. She is so devastated that she journeys to Jerusalem to pray at the Holy Temple. Eli, the Kohen Gadol, High Priest, sees a woman swaying and mouthing words and believes she is drunk. He goes over to tell her to move a bit away from the Temple walls. She then tells him her woes. Eli is so impressed by her eloquence and intelligence that he blesses her. As much as she wants a child she promises that she will give him her son to serve in the Temple. Eli tells her that she will have a “man among men”.

The other Chana we hear about especially at Chanukah time. She was blessed with seven sons. (In fact there is a saying that a woman with seven sons gets into Gan Eden/Heaven and since my own maternal Bubby had seven sons I want to believe it is true). This story mentions the mother and her sons but no husband or father so maybe she is widowed. It was the time that Antiochus appointed Philip Governor of the region. Philip was extremely cruel to the Jews and loved to torture them. One day he arrested Chana and her boys. While mother and sons were tied and forced to watch Philip took brutality to new heights. First he took the eldest son and asked him to give up his Jewish beliefs. When the boy refused he was tortured in the most inhumane ways. This action was repeated for each son as they refused to give up their strong beliefs.Each boy remembered the sufferings of their forefathers and knew that one day they would be reunited in the Hashem’s Heavenly Court.

Chana was forced to watch these horrors. It is said that after it all she jumped off a balcony and died. Suicide is forbidden in Judaism but after witnessing the senseless murder of her children one couldn’t blame her for choosing death over life. What did she have to live for? This story alone could be why the Sages did not want to write the poor woman’s name for all eternity to know her suffering.

Some references say that the first Chana, who gave her son Samuel to serve under Eli, had 7 sons. Chances are this is one story being confused with the other. Having two “Chana” tales makes more sense. Both these women show remarkable strength and faith. The first Chana who birthed Samuel who would become not only a prophet but a Kohen Gadol. The Midrash even elevates Chana to the status of a prophetess which is quite amazing. This Chana, who is the first person mentioned who prayed with moving lips, was truly unique. From her we learn that Jews pray directly to our one G-d, not to idols like the ancient Romans and Greeks. We don’t confess to a Rabbi because we are linked to Hashem. We acknowledge that our Rabbis are human beings and not above G-d. Another lesson we learn from this story is that if inebriated we should not pray, that we owe Hashem proper respect. Both these women exemplified the positive characteristics, middot, we should try to emulate.

These three time bound mitzvot of Challah, Nidah, and Lighting Candles are joined by others. Since we hear the story about Chana and her Seven Sons Chanukah is a story for us all. When we light the candles we are supposed to watch them glow. Not to use them for any purpose but to enjoy their brilliance. Women, light the Chanukiah and remember the miracles of the story, and how lucky we are to be surrounded by our healthy, happy children.

Chag Chanukah Sameach.

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