“Miriam Leads the Women in Song”

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, is known as the parasha of the “Shira,” the Torah portion that includes the song that Moses sang after the Israelites triumphantly crossed through the Sea of Reeds (for interpretations of the actual song, see B’Shalach 5774-2014).

Although Moses’ sister Miriam also led the women in song, the Torah, in Exodus 15 devotes only two verses to her song, while the song that Moses sang with the people of Israel extends through 19 verses.

In Exodus 15:20-21, the Torah describes Miriam leading the women: וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם, שִׁירוּ לַהשׁם כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם , Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam responded to them (saying), “Sing to the L-rd, for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.”

Eliyahu Kitov in his comments on parashat B’shalach found in his Sefer Haparashiot, provides a succinct, but penetrating, analysis of the episode of Miriam leading the people in song.

Rabbi Kitov notes that, for the first and only time, Miriam is called a נְּבִיאָה“N’vee’ah,” Miriam the prophetess. Miriam, in fact, is one of the seven female prophetesses recognized in Jewish tradition (Megillah 14a). They include: Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail and Esther (there were 48 male prophets).

The prophecy that qualified Miriam to be recognized as a prophetess is recorded in the Talmud, in Sotah 13a, which states, that as a child, Miriam told her father, Amram, that he would have a child who would rise up and save Israel from the hands of the Egyptians.

The scriptural text, which is normally very brief, goes out of its way to describe Miriam as “Miriam the sister of Aaron,” but fails to mention that she is also the sister of Moses. The commentators explain that Moses is not mentioned, because at the time of Miriam’s prophecy, Moses was not yet born. However, now that Moses has joyously declared in his song that “G-d has redeemed Israel,” confirming the fulfillment of little Miriam’s prophetic words, it is now finally appropriate for Miriam to be recognized as “Miriam the prophetess.”

Also, since both Moses and Miriam had already been singled out in scripture by name, the Torah now specifically describes Miriam as the sister of Aaron, to include him as well.

Scripture states that Miriam took the תֹּף –“tohf,” the drum, in her hand. From this statement the rabbis learn that the virtuous and righteous women, despite the rigors of persecution and slavery that they endured, had absolute faith that there would be a redemption from Egypt. Since they readily acknowledged that G-d had performed all the miracles for them, they prepared themselves for the redemption by taking out drums with them from Egypt. The men, who did not have the intense faith of the women, did not bring musical instruments with them.

Even though scripture states, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים , that all the women went out to follow Miriam with drums and with dances, apparently, only those who were spiritually elevated followed Miriam. That is why the word, וַתֵּצֶאןָ is written without the Hebrew letter ה –“Hay,” indicating that not all of the women went with Miriam.

When the Torah states, וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם , that Miriam “responded to them,” the commentators note another grammatical anomaly. The verse uses the masculine term, לָהֶם , to them. There are those who suggest that the masculine form is used because the women actually responded to the men–-to Moses and to the 600,000 males who were gathered with him. Others say that the women sang for the (male) angels. The Midrash reports that the angels petitioned the Al-mighty saying, “Now that the men have sung, allow us to sing before the women.” Miriam, however, preempted the angels by immediately singing with the women.

A third interpretation suggests that when the women sang, they sang with an excess of strength like the men. Hence, the masculine form.

Although only a single brief line of the song that the women sang is mentioned in the Torah text, several commentators contend that the women sang the entire song that Moses and the men of Israel had sung.

The Chatam Sofer writes that the men of Israel sang only after their belief in Moses was fully confirmed. It was only after witnessing the many miracles and the plagues, that the men gained belief in G-d and in Moses, His servant. That is why, when Moses disappeared for a while, the Israelite men immediately began worshiping the Golden Calf, since to them, Moses and his miracles were irreplaceable.

The women, however, sang together with Miriam even though Miriam had never publically performed any miracles, because the women’s faith in G-d was not dependent upon a human being or G-d’s emissary. Contrary to the men, the women always maintained their faithfulness, and did not stray, even with the Golden Calf. They said: “If there is no Moses, there will be other prophets.”

Of course, one of the main issues with this celebrated episode is the question of women singing. After all, the Talmud in Kiddushin 70a declares, קוֹל בְּאִשָּׁה עֶרְוָהKohl B’isha ehr’vah,” a woman’s voice is immodest. Many commentators note that the Torah specifically says, וַתַּעַן , that Miriam responded to the men, and that the Torah text never actually states that Miriam sang.

Perhaps, rather than singing, the women proclaimed or read their lines. Others say that the sound of the men’s voices overwhelmed the women’s voices, making it impossible to hear the women sing. There is even an opinion in Jewish law that says that two simultaneous voices cannot be distinguished or heard, and therefore, as long as more than one person is singing, it is not a violation of modesty, even if both of those singing are female, since the individual voices cannot really be heard.

The May’am Lo’ez suggests that the musical instruments that the women had with them drowned out the women’s voices. The Chidah (Rabbi Chaim David Joseph Azulai, 1724-1806, great religious scholar in Israel and Europe) is of the opinion that all this happened with Divine approval. In this instance, the men and women both sang together, and the men actually heard the women. However, since the Divine Presence rested on them, there was no prohibition at this particular time for the men to hear the women singing.

The debate regarding whether there was mixed singing or not will continue to rage. But, there is no debate that the spiritual intensity of the women was far greater than that of the men, and that is why our sages boldly declare, (Yalkut Shimoni Psalms 68) that, “in the merit of the righteous women, our ancestors were saved from Egypt.”

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Shira & Tu b’shevat

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the Shira, the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

On Friday night and Saturday, February 10th and 11th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.