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Miriam’s Song

Women’s Hidden Voice

When the Israelites left Egypt, and God split the sea for them, the angels wanted to praise Him. He told them, let Moshe and Israelites sing first. And so it was, the Israelite men sang first, the angels sang last, and in between them, the women were singing.

This beautiful scene is Midrash Rabbah’s commentary on Exodus 15:21: Miriam the prophetess took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, dancing with tambourines. She chanted with them… 

In the Geonic commentary Pitron Torah, on Parashat Haazinu, we find a different order: 

התחילה מרים ונשים בשירה, ואחר כך אמרו ישראל, ואחר כך מלאכי השרת עמהן

Miriam and the women started to sing, then the men, and then the angels joined.

Perhaps the author felt that because of the important role women played in saving, raising, and educating Moshe, they deserve to be those who initiate the grateful praise to God following the Exodus. Indeed, Rashi relates their singing to the famous statement “in the merit of righteous women the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt”, and explains that the women had musical instruments with them because:

מובטחות היו צדקניות שבדור שהקדוש ברוך הוא עושה להם נסים והוציאו תופים ממצרים

The righteous women were confident that God will perform miracles for them, so they brought with them tambourines from Egypt.

But Rashi also adds that Moshe was singing with the men in a responsive mode, in which he chanted and they responded, while Miriam chanted for the women, who seemed to remain passive:  

ותען להם מרים – משה אמר שירה לאנשים, הוא אומר והם עונין אחריו, ומרים אמרה שירה לנשים

Rashi’s commentary served as a basis for a later debate on the permissibility of Miriam’s singing in front of men. R. Yohanan Lurie of Alsace-Lorraine (1440-1514) asks in his commentary Meshivat Nefesh why the women did not sing the Song of the Sea as the men did. He answers that because they were singing loudly in front of men they were not allowed to sing for a long time, and had to limit themselves to what was considered necessary as praise and gratitude for God’s miracles. 

מאחר שהוא שיר ויאמר בקול רם צריכות לקצר לפני האנשים, כי קול באשה ערוה, על כן לא שרו רק לפי המחוייב כדי להזכיר הנס

Rabbi Lurie quotes the Talmudic statement according to which hearing women’s voice is immodest, and which was originally limited just to a case of a man reading the Shema while his wife is singing. It is interesting to note, though, that he does not say that singing is totally forbidden, only that it must be curtailed. He compares it to a practice prevalent in his time, of women singing at weddings, and says that this should only be allowed to unmarried women to attract potential suitors. 

ומזה הטעם ראוי למחות לנשים המשוררות לכלות לפני האנשים רק הבתולות שמותרים בזה כדי לחבב הבחורים לקפוץ עליהם לשם אישות

Upon reading these words, one understands why orthodox circles reject the study of history. Here is a prominent rabbi at a tightknit orthodox community in 15th century Germany, saying that women were singing with men at weddings, and that though that should be stopped, unmarried women should be encouraged to do so. How can that be reconciled with the total prohibition in orthodox circles on hearing a woman singing, and with the practice of some sects to allow only men to the wedding hall and to relegate the women to a separate location, from where they can watch the ceremony on a (Kosher) screen? 

R. Avraham Abele Gombiner, aka the Magen Avraham (Poland, 1633-1683), in his commentary Zayit Raanan on the Midrash, agrees with R. Lurie and finds a creative way to interpret Rashi’s words that Miriam was singing to the women:

She obviously did not address the men when she said: “praise God,” because it is immodest, and also one is not allowed to hear a woman’s voice. We could also say that the original Midrash read לשנים instead of לנשים, meaning that she called out to two women and they responded. 

R. Gombiner suggests that since the Talmudic prohibition was meant to prevent attraction to the singing woman, it applies only when one women is singing, but when they are two their voices are indistinguishable. R. Moshe Sternbuch (b. London, 1926) attests that there was such a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews, and that it was relied on to allow singing around the Shabbat table (Teshuvot VeHanhagot, 5:74). 

Another famous rabbi who was disturbed by the prospect of Miriam singing in front of men was R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz (Poland, 1690 – Germany, 1764). In his commentary on the Torah, Tiphereth Yehonatan, he writes: 

גם יש לפרש דלכך לקחו דוקא הנשים תופים בידם ולא האנשים דאיכא קול באשה ערוה והם היו שוררים ומנגנים ולכך לבל להכשיל אנשים לקחו בידם תפים לבל ישמע קולם

We can also say that the women, and not the men, used tambourines… to cover their voices so they will not be an obstacle for the men…

R. Haim Yosef David Azulay (Jerusalem, 1724 – Italy, 1806), in his Homat Anakh of the Torah, disagrees with the attempts to discuss Miriam’s song in the context of immodesty or impure thoughts, as well as with the claim that Miriam curtailed her singing: 

הרא”ם ז”ל כתב בפירוש מאמר המכילתא דמרים אמרה כל השירה וכן מטים דברי רבינו בחיי ז”ל… ומ”ש הרב זית רענן דקול באשה ערוה לא שייך הכא דאיכא אימתא דשכינתא

R. Eliyahu Mizrahi explicitly says that Miriam chanted the whole song, and that seems to be Rabbenu Bahya’s opinion… the argument of the author of Zayit Raanan that there is a problem of immodesty is not applicable here, because the men were at a state of reverence of the divine…

The idea of God’s reverence, mentioned elsewhere in R. Azulay’s writings, is that when one is engaged in prayer or Torah learning, he is in control of his evil inclination because he feels the presence of the divine. The Israelites were in a state of spiritual elevation and there were not susceptible to sexual attraction or impure thoughts stemming from hearing the women’s voices.

To summarize, it is obvious that the Talmudic prohibition was created to offer men boundaries for their personal prayers, a space from which women were excluded. The idea kept evolving to take a life of its own and to attribute to women powers of temptation and control of men, which in turn led to men controlling women and not letting them express themselves musically, thus depriving them of one of the most essential needs of mankind. Throughout the ages, exceptions were made and tight boundaries were breached, and rabbis had to find ways to either stop women from singing or rationalize the state of affairs. We have seen here some of the exceptions made, such as women singing together, singing with musical instruments, singing to praise God, singing to foster love and to find a soulmate, and singing in front of men when the men are engaged in spiritual activity which elevates them above their mundane desires.

It is worthwhile to conclude with this beautiful passage from the Zohar (Vol. III, 167:2), where the author describes the heavenly palaces of righteous women: 

בכל יומא ויומא אודת ומשבחת למארי עלמא איהי וכל אינון נשין די בהדה ושירתא דימא מזמרין בכל יומא ואיהי בלחודהא אמרת מהכא ותקח מרים הנביאה וגו’ את התוף בידה וגו’ וכל אינון צדיקייא די בגן עדן צייתין לקל נעימו דילה, וכמה מלאכין קדישין אודאן ומשבחן עמה לשמא קדישא, בהיכלא אחרא אית דבורה אוף הכי וכל שאר נשין בהדה אודן ומזמרן בההיא שירתא דאיהי אמרת בהאי עלמא, אי רבי אי רבי מאן חמי חדוה דצדיקייא ודנשין זכיין דעבדין לגבי קודשא בריך הוא, 

Three times a day she sings the song of the Sea of Reeds, she and all the women who are with her. And she alone says the verse “Miriam took the tambourine” … all the righteous men listen to her pleasant song, and all the holy angels praise God with her… 

Though the author speaks of heaven, it is apparent from the context that this is how he envisions the perfect state of affairs here in this world, in which women sing songs of praise and gratitude to God, while men listen.

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