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Torah Sparks

February 7, 2004 – 15 Sh’vat 5764

Annual: Ex. 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 14:26 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim p. 405; Hertz p. 269)
Haftarah (a) Judges 4:4 – 5:31 (s) Judges 5:1-31

Prepared by, Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


13:17-22 – The beginning of the Exodus, and the route through the desert. Moses takes Joseph’s bones. The people are led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

14:1-14 – As the heart of Pharaoh changes, the Egyptians pursue the Israelites and catch up to them at the Re(e)d Sea. The Israelites panic and Moses reassures them.

14:15-18 – God tells Moses that He will save Israel; they will cross the sea on dry land.

14:19-25 – The splitting of the sea. The Israelites pass through safely. The Egyptians pursue them into the sea.

14:26-31 – At God's command, Moses stretches his hand forth over the sea; its waters close up again, and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned.

15:1-21 – The "Song at the Sea" in praise and thanksgiving to God.

15:22-26 – The "bitter waters" at Marah.

15:27-16:36 – The encampment at Elim; God feeds the Israelites with manna and quail.

17:1-7 – The miracle of the water from the rock.

17:8-16 – The war against Amalek, the archetype enemy of Israel.

Selected Text

Then Moses sang with the Bnei Yisrael this song to the Lord and said: I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously the horse and its rider He hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:1)

Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand and all the women went out with her with drums and dances. Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and its rider He hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

Discussion – Time for a Tune Up, Make a Note

There are few songs – text in poetic form, with a notable meter and rhyme – set forth in the Torah. Even the word shir (in either its noun or verb form) is found quite infrequently in the Torah – see for example Exodus 15, Numbers 21:17-20, Deuteronomy 31:19 – 32:47. Our Selected Text is excerpted from Shirat HaYam, Song of the Sea (Ex. 15:1-21), among the earliest – if not the first – communal spontaneous prayers by the Jewish people recorded in our Torah. Shirat Ha’Yam’s importance (historically and theologically) is highlighted by its inclusion in the siddur, in the liturgy we recite every morning, and by the fact that we stand when this portion is recited -- whether in our prayers or during the Torah reading. The theological importance is based, in part, upon the inclusion of one of the Torah’s few explicit statements of God’s monarchy: haShem yimlokh l’olam va’ed, the Lord will reign forever. (15:18) The historical importance of the Shirat HaYam is premised upon the song’s being the spontaneous prayer that our ancestors sang some 3000 years ago at the most important single event in the birth of the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shirah is called the Sabbath of Song because we read Shirat HaYam in the Torah and the song of Deborah (Judges 5) in the haftarah. What is the importance of song in Jewish tradition?

A Midrash Halakhah relates: “Ten songs are mentioned in the Bible: The first was sung in Egypt … (Isaiah 30:29); the second was sung at the Re(e)d Sea … (Exodus 15:1); the third was chanted at the well … (Numbers 21:17); the fourth Moses sang near the end of his life … (Deut. 31:22); the fifth was recited by Joshua … (Joshua 10:12); the sixth was that of Deborah and Barak … (Judges 5:1); the seventh was that of David … (II Samuel 22:1); the eighth was Solomon’s … (II Chronicles 6:1); the ninth was uttered by Jehoshaphat … (II Chronicles 20:21). The tenth song [referred to not as a shirah (feminine form) but as a shir (masculine form) hadash], a new song, will be the song we sing in olam ha’ba, the messianic age (Isaiah 42:10).” (Mekhilta on B’Shalah, 15:1)

While instrumental music may be rare in the modern synagogue (and, according to many authorities, prohibited on Shabbat), such was not always the case. This can be seen in Psalm 150, the last of the psalms which is included in our daily morning service and which refers to no less than seven instruments (including wind, string and percussion instruments) and dance as a component of worship. The following excerpt from the Mishnah also evidences the rabbinic sensitivity to music as a form of service to the divine:

“There are no less than twenty-one tekiot (blasts) in the Temple and there are no more than forty-eight. There are not less than two lyres and not more than six. There are not less than two flutes and not more than twelve. On twelve days during the year, the flute is played before the altar: (i) when the first Pesah offering is slaughtered, (ii) when the second Pesah offering is slaughtered, (iii) on the first festival day of Pesah, (iv) on the festival of Shavuot, (v) on the eight days of the Hag (Sukkot). They did not play on a brass flute but on a reed flute because its sound is pleasant. They would only conclude with one flute because it concludes (the music) beautifully.” (Arakhin 2:3)

A midrash relates: “The Holy One said: ‘I will open the mouth of mankind that they may sing praises before Me every day and proclaim Me King throughout the world. I would not have created My world except for the shirah, song, and zimrah, music, presented for Me each day.” (Bet haMidrash 3:12-13, Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva, as recorded in Sefer haAgadah, III, 8:118)

Another story: “Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi noticed an old man among his listeners who obviously did not comprehend the meaning of his discourse. He summoned him to his side and said: ‘I perceive that my sermon is unclear to you. Listen to this melody, and it will teach you how to cleave unto the Lord.’ Rabbi Shneur Zalman began to sing a niggun (a song without words). It was a song of Torah, of trust in God, of longing for the Lord, and of love for the Holy One. ‘I understand now what you wish to teach,’ exclaimed the old man. ‘I feel an intense longing to be united with the Holy One.’ The rebbe’s niggun became part of every discourse he gave.” (B’Ohalei Habad as related in Hasidic Anthology by Louis Newman)

Sparks for Further Discussion

  1. In our Selected Text we find the song of Moses and the song of Miriam, together comprising shirat ha’yam, the Song of the Sea. When Moses leads the people (B’nei Yisrael – does it mean “men only” here?), the grammar is in the masculine singular [Az yashir Moshe – “then Moses sang,” followed by the first person Ashirah – I will sing. (Ex. 15:1)] When Miriam leads the women, we find the plural form shiru, “they sang,” after their cooperative effort in each taking a drum. (Ex. 15:20-21) How might we account for the different approaches of Moses and Miriam?
  2. Take a TaNaKh (a Bible) and review the ten songs that are enumerated in the Mekhilta, above. What events and emotions result in song? What expressions and manner of praise are expressed through song and melody that a narrative cannot adequately relate?
  3. How can a melody add to or modify the meaning of a text? How do different forms of nusah, melodic themes, enhance our prayers?

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