With recent media discussion of the prohibition for men to listen to women sing, we would do well to closely examine the story of Miriam publicly singing after the splitting of the sea. We certainly cannot decide matters of Jewish law from simply a verse without taking into account the Oral Torah. However, the Taz’s famous dictum that the Sages are unable to forbid something the Bible explicitly permits reflects the discomfort of such textual dissonance — the Talmud cannot contradict the Bible. The difficulty Miriam’s singing poses to the law forbidding listening to women sing shrinks when we note that the Torah never actually says that she sang. The word used, “va-ta’an,” and a few other textual cues have spawned commentarial debate throughout the ages. What follows is my attempt to organize the discussion by genre and era, with a conclusion discussing the intersection with practical halakhah.
I. The Text
ותען להם מרים שירו לה׳ כי גאה גאה סוס ורכבו רמה בים.
And Miriam sang (va-ta’an) unto them: Sing ye to the Lord, for He is highly exalted: The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea. (JPS)
A number of questions arise from this passage:
- Regarding Moshe, the text says that he sang (yashir; Ex. 15:1). The wording changes for Miriam to va-ta’an. Does this mean that she didn’t sing?
- Moshe begins his song by saying that he will sing to God. Miriam, in contrast, begins by calling others to sing. Does this mean that she did not sing herself?
- The word “unto them” is in the masculine form (lahem) rather than the feminine (lahen). Was Miriam singing with the men?
- Why is Miriam’s song so short (1 verse) compared to Moshe’s (18 verses)?
As we go through the generations, different answers to these questions will be provided by many commentators.
II. Ancient Translations
Targum Onkelos consistently translates any word in the Torah related to song as either “shabachu” (praise) or “shabachu ve-odu (praise and thank). This includes the Hebrew words shir (e.g. Ex. 15:1, Deut. 31:30), zemer (Ex. 15:2) and anah (Num. 21:17). Our verse seems to be the only, at least that I could find, exception. Targum Onkelos renders va-ta’an literally, as “u-me’anya, and she answered.”
I am not sure why Targum Onkelos generally renders song as praise (and thanks) rather than literally. However, the exclusion of our verse from this trend, especially considering the similar word in Num. 21:17 which is translated as praise, implies that Miriam was not singing. She was chanting the words, repeating them without tune.
The Peshitta, a translation of the Bible into the Aramaic dialect of Syriac, follows Targum Onkelos on this issue. Targum pseudo-Yonasan also generally translates song as praise and sometimes also thanks, except for va-ta’an. However, Targum pseudo-Yonasan render va-ta’an as “ve-zamras, and she sang.”
It seems that the ancient translations differed over whether Miriam sang these words or merely chanted them. We see among midrashim a similar difference of opinion whether Miriam and the women sang the song of praise or recited it.
The Mekhilta implies that Miriam sang this: “Just like Moshe said a song for the men, Miriam said a song for the women.” While we could infer that they only “said a song” and did not actually sing it, the Mekhilta seems to raise Miriam’s va-ta’an to the level of Moshe’s yashir rather than vice versa. However, Miriam sang for the women and (perhaps while) Moshe sang for the men. R. Aryeh Kaplan in a footnote to The Living Torah quotes Philo in The Life of Moses as saying that the women sang at the same time as the men. Similar to the Mekhilta, the Yalkut Shimoni (Hos. 2 no. 518) says that va-ta’an refers to actual singing, implying that Miriam sang the song.
The Midrash Sekhel Tov (quoted in Torah Shelemah on Ex. 15:21 n. 240) says that the angels wanted to sing praises to God before the women but Miriam answered them and called for the women to sing. This explains the language of va-ta’an as meaning that she answered the angels, and gives significance to her calling the women to sing. The implication is that the women said the song on their own, after the men. However, the Midrash Sekhel Tov (ibid., n. 241) also explains the word va-ta’an as meaning calling out (ein aniyah ela amirah), which means that Miriam did not sing but rather called out (i.e. spoke) the song for the women to repeat it.
IV. Early Grammarians
Three interpretations of va-ta’an arose among the grammarians of the tenth century. R. Sa’adia Gaon, in his Arabic translation of the Bible, renders the word as “repetition,” like Targum Onkelos. R. Donash ben Livrat, in his critiques of R. Sa’adia’s translation (no. 117), insists it means “praise,” like the Targumim generally translated such words, and not repetition or song. R. Menachem ben Saruk (Machberes Menachem, a-n), however, says the word means singing with a tune. Only according to R. Menachem among the grammarians did Miriam sing.
V. Early Commentators
Like the divergence among the Targumim, midrashim and grammarians, the Rishonim disagreed whether Miriam actually sang. Rashi quotes the Mekhilta but changes it somewhat, as he often does. He states that “just like Moshe said the song to the men, he said they repeated after him, so too Miriam said the song to the women.” Unlike our understanding above of the Mekhilta, that it raises Miriam to Moshe’s level of singing, Rashi’s interpretation seems to lower Moshe to Miriam’s level of saying and repeating. According to Rashi, neither Moshe nor Miriam sang their songs. They chanted them as poetry of praise.
Bekhor Shor and Chizkuni say that Miriam actually recited the entire song that Moshe said. However, to avoid repetition, the Torah only provides the headlines of the second time. Ralbag (ad loc. and in the tenth to’eles) disagrees and suggests that the women said a much shorter song.
R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam states that earlier commentators debated whether Miriam sang. According to R. Sa’adia Gaon, Miriam and the women recited — spoke — in alternation Moshe’s entire song. Targum Onkelos, on the other hand, contends that the women sang the song. However, as explained above, I am not sure where he sees that in Targum Onkelos.
Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim, sv. a-n-h) translates va-ta’an in a unique way. He suggests that it means “testify,” which implies that Miriam did not sing the song in contrast to Moshe, who sang.
VI. Later Commentators
Commentators of the past few centuries were more explicitly sensitive to the halakhic dissonance. I quote here some approaches that correspond to a simple (peshat) reading of the text.
R. Ya’akov Culi, in his Me-Am Lo’ez, notes that Miriam and the women used musical instruments while Moshe and the men did not. He explains that the instruments were intended to drown out the sound of song so the men would not hear. The Tzeidah La-Derekh and Tzofnas Panei’akh explain similarly. The Chida (Devash Le-Fi, ma’arekhes kuf, no. 19) disagrees. He suggests that the men and women sang together and the men heard the women. However, because the Divine Presence rested on them, there was no prohibition for the men to listen to the singing.
Talelei Oros quotes the Vilna Gaon as suggesting that the reason the Torah says va-ta’an is that Miriam and the women would not sing because the men would not be allowed to hear them. In other words, the women did not sing. They intentionally refrained from singing because the men are prohibited from hearing it.
From other commentators, including those who do not generally incorporate halakhic considerations, we find interpretations that alleviate the difficulties. Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur explains that Miriam did not sing her own song. Rather, she and the women merely responded with a brief refrain to Moshe’s song. Cassutto interprets the verse in the same way. R. Zalman Sorotzkin (Oznaim La-Torah) similarly explains that Miriam only indicated her and the women’s approval to Moshe and the men’s song. She/they answered the men, in agreement to the men’s song.
However, other commentators, including some who were certainly concerned about any halakhic disconnect from the Bible, upheld Miriam and the women’s singing. Shadal explains the verse as meaning that Miriam sang for the women. Similarly, Malbim explains that the women sang their own song because the entire Exodus was due to the merit of the righteous women. Da’as Mikra also interprets the verse as meaning that Miriam and the women sang their own song together. Netziv suggests that the women composed their own song and Miriam concluded each stanza with the refrain recorded in the Torah.
VII. Modern Translations
Among both Jewish and, le-havdil, Christian translations, we find some that interpret Miriam as singing and some that don’t. Note, in particular, the New JPS translation:
- KJV – “And Miriam answered them”
- NIV – “Miriam sang to them”
- RSV – “And Miriam sang to them”
- JPS – “And Miriam sang unto them”
- NJPS – “And Miriam chanted for them”
- The Living Torah – “Miriam led them in the response”
- Artscroll Stone Tanach – “Miriam spoke to them”
After all is said and done, it is not clear that Miriam and the women sang. And if they did, they may very well have sung among themselves, possibly even while the men sang among themselves. The text is ambiguous and even commentators unconcerned with halakhic issues read the episode differently. And even if Miriam and the women sang and the men listened, the Chida explained that the moment of a divine revelation is an exception.
More interesting, it seems to me, are the threads of interpretation that weave their way through different genres and eras. Commentators with different agendas and sensibilities ask different questions but end up in the same places as their predecessors, often unknowingly.
(Let me add that I put this together rather hastily so I welcome corrections and additions)