A ritual in recognition of the author's miscarriage emerged from a year of studying about the infertile Hannah, who eventually had a child.

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This was intolerable to me. I had to find a way to mark this death or I would be grieving for the rest of my life. In the works of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross I discovered the notion that one's own experience with Death is the instructor to follow. I would look into my tradition to find what to do. I remembered the story of Hannah and Peninnah in the First Book of Samuel.

Studying the Story of Hannah

Hannah was the favorite wife of Elkanah, but she was unable to bear him any children. Peninnah, her co-wife, less favored, bore one healthy child after the other. Through much suffering, deliberation, humiliation, and prayer, Hannah was finally blessed with a son whom she named Samuel.

Here was my model. Hannah had lost hope and self-esteem. She even displayed symptoms of severe depression: She stopped eating and wept constantly (I Samuel 1:7-8). This indicated how deeply she was mourning for the child she might never have.

Like Hannah I was paralyzed-by infertility and by my recent pregnancy loss. The rabbis considered Hannah the paradigm of heartfelt prayer and unceasing faith. Therefore, I would consider her story to be a kind of prayer, an inspiration to survive this overwhelming period of loss and despair that was facing me. Accordingly, in the year following my pregnancy loss, I sat down daily with the story of Hannah and studied it from every possible angle. Each day I read another verse and pondered it. Then I read commentaries on the story, mostly in Pesikta Rabbati, to see what the rabbis thought about Hannah and her rival, Peninnah. Finally I wrote a new version of the story, a synthesis of the original text, its commentaries, and my identification with Hannah through the experience of infertility.

The ritual of studying Hannah's story became a Kaddish [prayer in praise of God recited daily by mourners] that I said each day for my dead child. In this way I was able to live through the loss instead of being consumed by it. Incidentally, my husband's response was quite different. Whereas I turned inward to find strength and renewed faith by studying texts, he used activity to overcome the loss and became a Jewish Big Brother. One year after the death, we created a joint ritual. [This ritual is described in Penina V. Adelman, "Playing House: The Birth of a Ritual," Reconstructionist, January-February 1989.] Before this could happen, however, we needed to do some individual preparation.

The more I studied, the more convinced I became that there was a ritual hidden there if I could only see it. However, this ritual lived between the lines of Hebrew text. No older wise woman was going to teach the ritual to me. Thus, part of the interpretive process would be uncovering this ritual for infertility.

My need to look into the sacred texts of my tradition in search of solace and hope echoed my desire to look life straight in the eye again after losing my baby and to find meaning in the experience. Magical thinking led me to believe that by studying Hannah intensely I would ingest some of her strength and that this strength was contained in the very letters of her story. Similar reasoning often lies behind the activity of Torah study. The wachnact, or "night of watching" before a brit milah [circumcision] when there is communal study all night long to protect the newborn from the Angel of Death, is a folk custom that illustrates the notion of study as a form of Jewish worship--just as Torah readings in the synagogue during the week, on the Sabbath and [on] holidays do.

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Penina Adelman

Penina Adelman is a writer and folklorist. She is the author of Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year (Biblio, 1986) and The Bible from Alef to Tav, a book for families. A book for Jewish pre-teen girls is forthcoming. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.