Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Shalah 5764/February 7, 2004


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“And Miriam chanted for them” – Kol Isha?

Dr. Admiel Kosman

Department of Talmud


From the plain sense of the text we can deduce that women used to sing in the presence of men and occasionally even along with them, as is evident from Scripture’s account of the Song of Miriam in this week’s reading:  “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.   And Miriam chanted for them (masculine suffix):  Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Ex. 15:20-21.

 Also Deborah sang a victory song with Barak for vanquishing Sisera and his army:  “On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang: …” (Judges 5:1). [1]   Likewise we find that women sang and danced before King Saul after David slew Goliath:  “the women of all the towns of Israel came out singing and dancing to greet King Saul with timbrels, shouting and sistrums” (I Sam. 18:6).  Ecclesiastes describes choral groups of “male and female singers” (Eccles. 2:6), [2] and the song of men and women is mentioned also in the farewell words of Barzillai the Gileadite to David (II Sam. 19:36).  In the book of Ezra, as well, the list of those who returned to the land of Israel in the first immigration, following the license given by Cyrus, includes “200 male and female singers” (Ezra 4:65).

The picture presented by the Talmud, as we know, is quite different.  There we find the statement, attributed to Samuel, that “a woman’s voice is indecent” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 24a).  Indeed, not all communities have always interpreted this as a total prohibition against hearing female singing, but in actual practice, following various developments which we can not go into here at length, [3] later rabbinic rulings viewed this as a comprehensive proscription against hearing a woman’s voice raised in song. [4]   In this context one should bear in mind that also joint singing of men and women was not viewed with favor, following the words of Rav Joseph bar Hiyya, in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48a, who stated:

If men sing and women respond [in song to the singing of the men], this is licentiousness; and if women sing and men respond [in song to the singing of the women], this is like setting fire to chaff, for it kindles desire like a flame set to linen.

Clearly the discrepancy between the implication of the biblical sources and the view cited above requires explanation.  An attempt to cope with this discrepancy can be traced back as far as tannaitic literature, in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Be-Shalah (Horowitz-Rabin ed., p. 152):  “‘And Miriam chanted for them:  Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’   Scripture tells that just as Moses recited the song for the men, so Miriam recited the song for the women, for it says, ‘Sing to the Lord …’”

This homily apparently takes the stand that Miriam sang only for the women, so her singing was not for the men, neither in itself nor as a choir of women singing with Moses’ choir. [5]

Among traditional commentaries one can find other opinions which assert that in certain circumstances, one may hear in a woman’s voice spirituality and that these circumstances pertained on the occasion of Miriam’s song.   For example, the Zohar, Numbers (Shelah 167b), says:

“Then Miriam the prophetess ... took a timbrel in her hand ...”  All the righteous in the Garden of Eden listen to her [6] sweet voice, and several holy angels give thanks and praise along with her to the Holy Name.

These commentaries, according to the thesis I shall present below, have in common what we might call a spiritual-utopian bent.  Halakhically these commentators had no choice but to express the spiritual potential of the female voice in utopian terms.  In other words, those commentators who sensed great spiritual potential in the female voice assumed that this could be shown only under conditions that would pertain in time to come, when there would no longer be any evil inclination; at present the yetzer hara throws up a smokescreen of physical attraction that makes it impossible to sense the powerful spiritual vitality of the female voice.

For example, Rabbi Menahem Azaria of Pano [7] (1548-1620), having assumed that Miriam and the women who sang in chorus did indeed sing before men, [8] claimed: 

Song was her intention, and one should not be strict [forbidding this] in any event, since the evil inclination does not exist in that world. [9]

In other words, Rabbi Menahem Azaria assumed that the moment of spiritual elation in which Miriam and the women sang before the men on the shore of the Red Sea was an exceptional moment in which the quality of the World to Come penetrated into this world, making it possible to deviate from the general rule forbidding women to sing before men.   Hence the female voice at that special moment was both prophetic and divine, enabling the men to attain special spiritual elation. [10]   This is apparently what he meant in saying “Song was her intention,” namely song in the sense of the spiritual revelation that enabled this singing.  Moreover, it should be noted that Rabbi Menahem Azariah was not referring here to a quality of song which was specific to women, rather to the general prophetic quality of song, which could be male or female.  In fact, in such song the distinction between male and female disappears altogether, since it is altogether divine.

Another possibility suggested by Rabbi Menahem Azariah is that only Miriam sang before the men, the rest of the women joining her only with musical accompaniment of various instruments but not with their voices raised in song.  Why was Miriam’s singing here considered permissible?  His explanation is that the other women were ordinary people, incapable of “directing their minds to the atika,” [11] whereas Miriam was a prophetess and as hence could know that at this precise moment it was the will of G-d that a woman [she, herself] should sing before the men, even though the halakhah generally forbade this.

The last possibility, the most remarkable of those offered by Rabbi Menahem Azariah, is that behind every single woman stood an “angel” to whom Miriam turned when she requested to be joined in song, and it was these angels who sang along with Miriam, not the rest of the women.   Perhaps this can be viewed as an interesting reflection of the notion that when an “angel” stands behind a “woman” then her song is inspired singing, so that even men can become spiritually elated by it.

A different approach to this problem was taken by Rabbi Ephraim of Luntshitz, author of Kli Yakar on the Torah (d. 1619).  He maintained that the status of women’s singing changed in this week’s Torah portion because the women themselves changed for a brief moment, climbing to the spiritual level of men in their “receptiveness of prophecy,” and in any event at this specific moment the men were presumably in no danger of becoming excited by the women’s voices.  Rabbi Ephraim’s interpretation is based on a grammatical “error” which he found in the scriptural text:  Miriam turned to the women, asking them to join her in song, in the following words, “And Miriam chanted for them (Heb. la-hem, masc.):  Sing to the Lord...” (Ex. 15:21), but the text ought to have read, “Miriam chanted for them (Heb. la-hen), using the feminine form, since she was addressing the women.   Hence Rabbi Ephraim concluded, “At the Red Sea the women attained the level of men in their receptiveness of prophecy, therefore Scriptures says la-hem, as if talking to men; and indeed of the end of days it is said, ‘A woman shall court a man’ [12] ( Jer. 31:22).” [13]

The principle difference between the approaches of these two rabbis regarding a woman’s voice can be summarized as follows:  Rabbi Menahem Azariah emphasized the change that occurred at this specific, miraculous moment in the inner world of the men, rising to a level of spirituality at which they could sense the spirituality of the female voice; whereas Rabbi Ephraim of Luntshits viewed the change as having occurred within the women themselves, rising to greater spiritual heights (which, as he said explicitly, was the level of men), and in any event the element in their voices which could entice men into sinful thoughts would disappear. [14]


[1] Ralbag wrote on Judges 4:25:  “Over the miracle that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrought for Israel through the hand of Deborah, she sang; and the mention of Barak does not mean that he assisted her in making the song, for she herself composed it; rather, Barak is mentioned along with her the same as ‘Then Moses sang’.”  In other words, in Ralbag’s opinion, the prophetess Deborah composed the song herself and was assisted by Barak only in the performance of the song, just as in our parshah it says, “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song,” which, here too, should be understood as Moses having composed the song and the Israelites only assisting him in singing it (see Yehezkel Kaufmann, , Jerusalem 1962, p. 133, commentary on v. 1).

[2] The Zohar compares this chorus with Miriam’s chorus of women at the Red Sea:   “Rabbi Jose said:   For it is written, ‘singing [fem.],’ as it is said , ‘And Miriam chanted for them’ (Ex. 15:20)” (Zohar, Exodus, 19a).

[3] Saul J. Berman, “ Kol Isha” in: Leo Landman (ed.), Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume, New York 1980, pp. 45-66.

[4] See the summary of opinions presented in Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein’s Arukh ha-Shulhan, Hilkhot Ishut, Even ha- Ezer 21.3.  It should be noted that several later posekim took a more lenient stand, some permitting mixed  singing of sacred songs by men and women together in certain circumstances.  For example, see the ruling by Rabbi Yehiel Jacob Weinberg, Resp. Seridei Esh, Part II, par. 8.   Also cf. Joel B. Wolowelsky, “Modern Orthodoxy and Women’s Self-Perception,” Tradition 22 (1986), 65-81.

[5] According to Philo’s understanding in Life of Moses, II.256 (Susan Daniel-Nataf ed., II, Mossad Bialik, Jerusalem 1991, p. 321).  It should also be noted that Zayit Ra’anan on the Mekhilta gives a gloss on the Mekhilta, maintaining that the reading should be that Miriam sang the “song for two [li-shnayim]” instead of “song for women [le-nashim],” in other words, that Miriam sang with two women who responded in chorus after her.  Other commentators attempted to explain this difficulty by claiming that Miriam took the timbrel in her hand not so it could serve as an accompaniment to the pleasing song of the women, but on the contrary, so it would spoil this beauty, the sound of the timbrel interfering in the men’s hearing the women’s voices.  On this subject, cf. Rabbi Issachar Eilenburg, , comments on Ex. 15:20 (Jerusalem:   Hadrat Yerushalayim, 1998), p. 82; Rabbi Jacob Kuli, , Exodus, Be-Shalah (Jerusalem: 1967), p. 360.  Rabbi Joseph Rosen held that Miriam and the women who accompanied her only played instruments but did not sing.  See Menahem M. Kasher (ed.), Jerusalem 1961, p. 10.

[6] Apparently Jochebed’s.  Cf. loc. sit.

[7] Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Pano, Lemberg 1884, Part IV, par. 36.99b.   These remarks by Rabbi Menahem Azariah are better known from the other source in which they are cited: Yalkut Hareuveni on Exodus, Warsaw 1884, Parshat Be-Shalah, p. 78, on the verse, “And Miriam chanted for them.”   This anthology was redacted by Rabbi Abraham Reuben Ha-Cohen Sofer, who lived in Poland in the 17th century.  It should be noted that in his citation Rabbi Sofer distorted the original reason given by Rabbi Menahem, preferring this explanation over the one which preceded it.   In the original source, Rabbi Menahem argued that the former explanation was preferable since the Torah says Miriam addressed the women, commanding them, “Sing,” and it does not appear that the women were merely a passive chorus responding to the men, rather they were a central vocal ensemble that sang before the men. 

[8] As a second possibility.   The first one, he maintained, was that the women who joined Miriam did so only as a secondary voice, responding to the central male voice sung by Moses and his fellows.  According to the words of Rabbi Joseph, Babylonian Talmud, Sotah, cited above, this is not strictly forbidden but is merely viewed as “licentious” behavior (of which they were not extremely wary).

[9] Meaning the spiritual world.  Compare with the remarks attributed to Abraham’s servant Eliezer in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 58a:  “It is well-known that desire does not exist in that world [the World to Come].”

[10] A similar interpretation to the verse at hand was given by Rabbi Issachar Eilenburg in Tzedah la- Derekh.

[11] Atika Kadisha is the epithet given in mysticism for the One G-d, Himself alone.  See Judah Liebes, Torat ha- Yetzira shel Sefer Yetzira, Jerusalem 2001, p. 51.

[12] Rabbi Ephraim assumes this verse to be saying that in time to come women will rise to the level of men.  This position is evidenced repeatedly by Rabbi Hayyim Joseph David Azulai, in various places in his works.   For example, cf. “Nahal Kedumim le-Parashat Be- Shalah,” par. 21 (Jerusalem 1976).

[13] In this connection, it is worth noting Rabbenu Bahya’s comment on the verse at hand:  “One ought not to wonder that prophecy should come to a woman, for she is of human kind, and is called man, as it is said: ‘He … called them Man’ (Gen. 5:2).”   Rabbenu Bahya proceeded to list quite a number of women who, according to tradition, received prophecy, and several tenets of the faith that according to the midrash were revealed by women.  He concluded, “All this indicates that womankind is not totally vapid, but has substance” (Rabbenu Bahya, Be’ur al ha-Torah, ed Rabbi Hayyim Dov Chavel, II, Jerusalem 1994, p. 135.)

[14] Also cf. Tovah Cohen, “Yihudah shel Miriam ke-Manhigah,” , Bar-Ilan Parasha page Beshalah 5760.