Chana, Eli, and Shmuel part III; A reading of Brachot 31b

You can see the first two parts of this installment here and here. I really like the story that appears at the beginning of Sefer Shmuel (Chapters 1-3), and I am currently teaching it. Since the first part is the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana, it’s inyana de-yoma.

My basic approach to the story remains the same. Eli represents entrenched religious establishment. Chana represents those for whom the establishment does not work, and who actively or passively rebels. Shmuel represents the synthesis between the two.

When teaching this, I found the following question very useful in getting my students to really think in terms of the human drama of the story: Who did Elkanah marry first, Chana or Peninah? Depending on the answer, totally different pictures emerge.

Elkanah himself is a ‘typology’ as well – he’s the wealthy balabus. He’s got a big family, money, and yiches. There’s a midrash that lists Elkanah as one of four blameless people who ever lived (I believe the other three are Yishai, Binyamin, and Mephiboshet). That’s exactly who he was. A really good guy. No enemies. The good life. Thus, he’s totally down with the religious establishment, because it’s good for him. The real test of any social system, including a socio-religious system, is not how it deals with the average or above-average, but how it deals with those on the margins, like childless women.

So lets say, as the psukim seem to indicate, that Chana was Elkanah’s first wife. After however many childless years, Elkanah wanted to start a family so he married another woman, Peninah, who proceeds to bear him many children. How would Chana feel? Superfluous, replaced, alone, inadequate – these are some of the words you might use to describe her situation.

Now imagine the other scenario. Elkanah marries Peninah and raises a large family. After a while, the wealthy Elkanah marries a second woman, who never has any kids. How does Chana feel? It might depend on what everyone else thinks. Did people think she was sugar-daddy Elkanah’s trophy wife? Did people look at her like she was the Anna-Nicole Smith of Ancient Samaria? In such a scenario, she would have a completely different set of feelings to motivate her – shame, invalidation as anything more than eye-candy, objectification.

Just asking the question generated a fantastic discussion.

I also noticed another point about Eli. He and his sons run the show at Shilo. That much is clear. But there’s one image of Eli sitting at the doorpost of the Sanctuary which really sums it all up. He is acting as God’s gatekeeper. He (and his sons) is trying to control access to God. This comes out in several other ways as well (see the earlier posts) – including Rashi on the words ‘lo adoni’, where he has Chana saying that Eli is ‘not her master’ – and that she can approach God without him. And, finally, in the following Gemara in Brachot 31b:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לא עמוד ב

אל הנער הזה התפללתי, - אמר רבי אלעזר: שמואל מורה הלכה לפני רבו היה, שנאמר: וישחטו את הפר ויביאו את הנער אל עלי, משום דוישחטו את הפר הביאו הנער אל עלי? אלא, אמר להן עלי: קראו כהן, ליתי ולשחוט. חזנהו שמואל דהוו מהדרי בתר כהן למישחט, אמר להו: למה לכו לאהדורי בתר כהן למישחט? שחיטה בזר כשרה! אייתוהו לקמיה דעלי, אמר ליה: מנא לך הא? אמר ליה: מי כתיב ושחט הכהן? והקריבו הכהנים כתיב! מקבלה ואילך מצות כהונה; מכאן לשחיטה שכשרה בזר. אמר ליה: מימר שפיר קא אמרת, מיהו, מורה הלכה בפני רבך את - וכל המורה הלכה בפני רבו חייב מיתה. אתיא חנה וקא צוחה קמיה: אני האשה הנצבת עמכה בזה וגו'. אמר לה: שבקי לי דאענשיה, ובעינא רחמי ויהיב לך רבא מיניה. אמרה ליה: אל הנער הזה התפללתי.

“I prayed for this child”: Rabbi Elazar said: Shmuel made a halakhic ruling before his master, as it says, “And they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the lad in front of Eli.” Did they bring the lad to Eli because they slaughtered a bull? Rather, Eli had said to them, ‘Let a Kohein come and slaughter the bull.’ Shmuel saw that they were scrambling around for a Kohein to do the slaughtering. He said to them, “Why are you looking for a Kohein to do the slaughtering? A non-Kohein is authorized to slaughter!” They brought him before Eli. He [Eli] said to him [Shmuel]: “How do you know this?” He replied: “Does it says ‘and the Kohein shall slaughter?’ It says, ‘and the Kohein will offer’. From the acceptance [of the blood] on, it is the mitzvah of the Kohanim. This teaches that a non-Kohein is authorized to slaughter.” He [Eli] said, “What you say is good. However, you have made a halakhic ruling before your master, and anyone who makes a halakhic ruling before his master is punishable by death.” Chana came and cried before him, “I am the woman who stood before you here…” He said to her, “Leave him, so that I may punish him, and I will pray, and He will give you a greater child than this one.” She said to him, “I prayed for this child.”

I thank Ace from Talpiot for calling my attention to this Gemara in a comment he left a few years ago (I wonder if he remembers).

The whole thing works right into the theme we’ve been developing. The Kohanim are monopolizing access to God. Even that which is permitted to non-Kohanim is being usurped – perhaps not even intentionally. The Kohein’s role as the middle-man between God and Israel does not mean that Israel cannot get to God but through them – that would be the Catholic Church. But perhaps Eli is indeed practicing a proto-Catholic type of Israelite religion, where the priesthood sees itself not as providing access to God, but as providing exclusive access. That is precisely the issue which Chaza”l have Shmuel calling him on. Just as his mother defied Eli by insisting on paving her own way to God, Shmuel defies him by limiting the cultic control of the Kohanim.

Eli’s response makes a number of assumptions. The halakha is that a student must distance himself from his master’s place in order to pasken without committing a capital crime. Eli’s accusation thus rests on two assumptions: a. Eli is Shmuel’s ‘master’ even though they had just met; b. the Mishkan at Shilo was Eli’s ‘place’. Neither assumption is obvious, yet by making both, Eli is telegraphing his attitude toward the Mishkan and his role within it. It should also be noted that Shmuel’s offense is not considered punishable by human courts. As we noted in an earlier post, Eli seems to have blurred the lines between himself and God.

The last line of the sugya, which is a quote from the verse itself, can be read in two ways. What is Chana’s contention when Eli (again, playing God) promises to give her another child? She says, “I prayed for this child.” I think that at first glace, the emphasized word should be ‘this’. “I prayed for THIS child, not another. You can’t take him away from me.” But perhaps is should be read thus: “I prayed for this child. It’s very nice that YOU can promise me another one, but I want the one that I prayed for myself. This is the child of my prayer – and nobody else’s (despite Eli’s ‘addition’ that Chana’s prayer would be heeded).” This reading is reinforced by the very name she gives her son – Shmuel, ‘because I asked God for him.’

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