In the haftorah of Rosh Hashanah we read of Chana, an apparently barren woman who would come miraculously to conceive and give birth to Samuel the prophet. The reading concerns Chana’s plea before God in the temple that she might come to be blessed with a child—a prayer so strange and intense that it provokes the concern of Eli, high priest of Shiloh. At the climax of the reading Eli confronts Chana and demands of her: “Until when will you be drunk? Throw off the wine from yourself.” Chana answers him: אנכי ויין ושכר לא שתיתי ואשפך את־נפשי לפני יהוה (Shmuel I 1:15).
“Neither new wine or old wine have I drunk, but I pour my soul before the Lord.”
The poetic manipulation of Chana’s response is obvious, but still bears elaboration. She is sober, contrary to Eli’s misreading of her silent prayer (1:13)—that is: she has not poured for herself any wine. Rather, Eli has found her pouring her soul at the altar. This is a different type of libation offering than the priest is be used to but it remains, Chana suggests, a variety of libation nonetheless. The activity of prayer is thus presented by Chana (poetess; prophet-bearer) as a kind of pouring: to pour is the psychic gesture or “posture” of prayer; in praying, I pour something of myself before God.
“To pour” is a conjugation of “to pray,” translating the activity into its highest degree. Indeed: as the Lubavitcher Rebbe notes in a discourse on this haftorah, שפיכת הנפש [the pouring-out of the soul] should be understand not as drunkenness but as נעלית בתפלה—“the height of prayer.”
The verb שׁפך is defined by Jastrow as “to pour,” “to empty,”and “to shed.” Per Englishman’s concordance שׁפך earns 115 occurrences in in the Hebrew bible, most often in reference to matters of sacrifice. The blood of an offering is shed on an altar, its ashes are poured. Countless gallons of blood—often דָם־ נָקִ֖יא, innocent blood—are “shed” in the bible outside of the temple context. In the collected Writings, particularly Job and Psalms, the verb is favored as an expression of abstract distribution or the meting-out of judgement. Contempt, for example, is something that can be poured.
Three times in these later texts, likewise, is there mention of the pouring out of one’s soul. Job describes his affliction in these terms (30:16), as does the Psalmist (using only a slight formal variation) in describing his joy (42:4). Lamentations, in a particularly disturbing image, uses the verb to imagine the spilling of an infant’s soul onto his mother’s bosom in death (2:12). Woe unto Jerusalem.
Most striking of all, for me, is the occurrence of שׁפך in Psalm 22:14. The Psalmist here describes in despair the apparent formlessness of his material body: “my heart is like wax, my bones are disjointed”—and כמים נשפכתי: like water, I am poured out.
You pour me out like water. My God, before you I pour myself out. Is this notion not at the essence of religious life?—not merely as an image of prayer, but as the reality of repentance? Per Hasidic philosophy, a key prerequisite for both of these events is bittul, self-nullification (or, maybe: self-emptying). In recognizing and affirming our own emptiness, we invite God to see our sins too as null. Furthermore, only in emptying oneself of personal will can one transform their existence into a vehicle of divine will. It is in this spirit that Paul (ever the chossid) describes himself as being “poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice” in Philipppians 2:17. Kenosis itself (that is: Christ’s own self-emptying) can be described as a “romanization” of bittul, with some scholars going as far to suggest the Hasidic tsaddik as a “kenotic figure” on a par with Christ himself (see Shaul Magid’s Hasidism Incarnate, pp. 109–111). Both concepts in their essence, however, cast the highest culmination of religious life as an emptying of self, and both do so—as we have seen—using the imagery of pouring.
Elaborating on the Hasidic understanding of prayer as a kind of sacrifice of the self—an offering of one’s soul in place of the goat on the temple altar—the presence of Chana’s response in the haftorah should suggest retroactively that the prayer and repentance required of us in this month anticipating Rosh Hashana must take on the character of a libation. What this means beyond the mashal, exactly, I’m not sure. But it feels like there’s something worthwhile in shifting my imagination around prayer from a holocaust of the ego to a pouring-out of the soul. Nothing is quite as empty as a vessel.
Judaism has a thing about running water, it’s no coincidence. We pour water over our hands in the morning before rising. We immerse ourselves in living water, like wells and rainwater collections, for the sake of ritual purity. More importantly, remember that kings were traditionally anointed—in the case of Saul and David, anointed by Samuel son of Chana—only next to a river, a body of running water. The anointing itself, of course, was performed through the pouring of holy oil on the head of the new king. Perhaps in preparation for Rosh Hashana—wherein we affirm the Kingship of God—we should see the pouring of our own souls as a coronation rite.
I’ll end with a few more proofs from philology. Aeschylus, we know, uses the verb χέουσα, “pouring,” to describe the speaking of prayer in Oreisteia, and in Agamemnon notes the “pouring out” of Cassandra’s soul next to the body of the king. Certain hymns in the Rg Veda (see XVIII; 8.52.9) likewise describe the “pouring out” (asṛkṣata) of prayer. The English word “God” itself may derive ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *ǵʰeu̯-, meaning: to pour, to libate. I look into the water and see my reflection—“face to face.”
Adorno wrote of aesthetic expression as a message in a bottle. Prayer, too, reveals itself as a liquid sort of communication.