Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be- Shalah 5769/ February 7, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Music and The Song at the Sea

Dr. Rachel Kolander

Department of Music

The Hebrew word shirah has three meanings:  1) poetic writing, often incorporating rhyme and having a specific, known meter; 2) musical vocal production, combining acoustic parameters and textual meaning; 3) instrumental musical production.  When the Red Sea was parted it appears that all three meanings of the word –words, voice, and instruments – came together as one, to express the inner joy, spiritual elation, and divine revelation experienced by each and every person who came out of Egypt.   Indeed, the Israelites at that moment were undoubtedly on a lofty spiritual level, unlike anything experienced by their predecessors (Exodus Rabbah 23.4):

From the day the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world until the day the Israelites stood on the shore of the Red Sea, no human being had sung a song to the Holy One, blessed be He, save for the Israelites…    When the Israelites arrived at the sea and it was split for them, they immediately sang a song before the Holy One, blessed be He, as it says, “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song.”

In sum, the Song on the Sea included words, written in the arrangement called "a tile over a brick,” that can be seen in the traditional calligraphy of this poem in Torah scrolls; its rendition in song under the leadership of Moses; and the incorporation of musical instruments held by the women and led by Miriam.   Many interpretations have been given through the centuries as to the musical rendition of the Song on the Sea.   Although we do not know the melody or the rhythm of this song, it was clearly a responsory, that is, a rendition involving a solo and a chorus.

A responsory can be executed in any one of several ways, some of which are mentioned in the gemara [1] and in Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez: [2]

1)   According to one view, Moses recited one verse and the Israelites responded with a refrain consisting of the first part of the verse:  Moses:   “I will sing to the Lord,” Israel:  “I will sing to the Lord”; Moses: “for He has triumphed gloriously,” Israel:   “I will sing to the Lord,” etc.   This type of rendition is called, “ ke-gadol ha-makri et he-Hallel,” a response to a solo voice reciting a song of praise.

2)   According to another view, Moses recited a line, and the people repeated the same words:  Moses:  “For He has triumphed gloriously,” Israel:   “For He has triumphed gloriously,” etc.   In this manner everyone would have recited the entire song.

In both of the above methods, there is an immediate interplay between the leader and the assembly, with a soloist leading the progress in the text.

3)   Another possible rendition is completion of the verses, with Moses beginning the first few words and the Israelites answering with the rest of the verse, throughout the entire song:   Moses (in Ex.15:3):   “The Lord, the warrior”, Israel (idem):   “Lord is His name!.”   Obviously in such a rendition the assembly of Israelites must have been familiar with the text; therefore it is clear that the song was sung in a state of spiritual elation, with divine inspiration being shared by all, since they knew the words of the song and did not need to follow Moses’ lead.

4)   Another possibility is that everyone reached a prophetic state, and according to this view first Moses sang the entire song, and then everyone answered, singing the entire song together, as if it were coming out of a single mouth, the people remembering both the words and the melody.  Of course this in itself is miraculous, aside from the miraculous event of the splitting of the Red Sea.

In all four possible renditions of the Song on the Sea the women joined in, playing instruments and dancing. The Zohar describes Moses’ mother Jochebed singing the Song on the Sea, day in and day out, in one of the chambers of the Garden of Eden, along with other righteous women who were there with her, and all the righteous men listening to the song. [3]   In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer [4] Miriam is portrayed adopting the rendition that she saw Moses giving:   “Miriam saw and began to chant and sing before the Holy One, blessed be He, and all the women followed her lead.”   At the splitting of the Red Sea and in the Song on the Sea that followed, however, the women not only sang the words responsively to Miriam’s singing, but also played musical instruments in order to augment the singing.   The women had taken these instruments along with them as provisions for the way, since they had seen through divine inspiration that they would have need of them. [5]   The instruments mentioned in the reading are timbrels (tuppim) and dance (meholot, see below).   Tof is a general term for several types of drums that apparently were used in ancient Egypt, also among the Israelites. [6]   One of these became known in our day as Tof Miriam, a sort of tambourine which in Scripture is often associated with women and dance. [7]   Meholot (rendered as “dance”), however, has two meanings:   it is synonymous with rikkud = dance, but it is also a type of musical instrument. [8]   The author of Shiltei ha-Gibborim [9] is of the opinion that the mahol was a percussion instrument, whereas Ibn Ezra [10] claims that it was a sort of flute, one of four kinds (along with halil, mahlat, and nehilot), used on various occasions, such as days of rejoicing, as in our reading, and days of mourning and eulogy.

So we see that song, the melody that is considered loftier than the words or the poem, [11] combined with instrumental accompaniment and dance [12] in order to enhance the praise of the Creator for His miracles. All who are fortunate to raise their voice in song in this world, are blessed with the good fortune of singing also in the World to Come.         

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 30b.

[2] With regard to Parashat be-Shalah and also with regard to the Song of Deborah, Judges, ch. 5.

[3] Zohar on Parashat B-Shalah.

[4] Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Higger ed., p. 223.

[5] According to the commentaries on Rokeah’s prayer book, Herschler Edition, 1992 (Part I.37, p. 213), not only the women brought musical instruments along:   “Before leaving Egypt Moses instructed the people to prepare instruments for song, and said:   Realize that you are destined to sing a song of praise, so prepare instruments of song to take out with you.”

[6] Y. Kihan, Ha-Musica be- Kitvei ha-Kodesh, ba-Talmud u-va- Kabbalah, Vienna 1929, pp. 4-63.

[7] As in the stories of Jepthah, Samuel, Saul and David.

[8] Y. Kihan, ibid., pp. 65-67; Y. Shalita, Ha-Musica ha-Yehudit ve-Yotzreha, Tel Aviv 1960, pp. 9-27.

[9] D. Sandler, Pirkei ha-Musica be-Sefer Shiltei ha- Gibborim le-Avraham Misha'ar Arye, Doctoral Dissertaion, Tel Aviv University 1980, p. 35.

[10] In his commentary on Daniel 3:5.  Also in several places in his commentary on Psalms.

[11] Malbim’s commentary on Judges 5:3.

[12] Y. Hutner, Maamarei Pahad Yitzhak:  Sukkot, Jerusalem 2002, p. 37, article 16:   “The idea of dancing is to coordinate bodily motions with the voice."