Thursday, 02 Feb 2023

Written by Andrea Kulikovsky

A Shabbat of Songs

יְהַלְל֣וּ שְׁמ֣וֹ בְמָח֑וֹל בְּתֹ֥ף וְ֝כִנּ֗וֹר יְזַמְּרוּ־לֽוֹ׃

“Let them praise His name in dance; with timbrel and lyre let them chant His praises.”[1]

It was a cold Friday evening in Jerusalem, but we were in a sacred space, guided by the group Nava Tehila. It was a bright, happy, warm Kabbalat Shabbat Service, very participative, with dancing and music. The room was packed! What created that sacred feeling was the engagement of those present: singing, dancing, playing instruments, completely devoted to the sacred act of receiving shabbat. It was a transformative moment for me. There I understood the importance of music and movement for my prayers.

I brought that feeling with me back home, searching for the root of that experience, which I found in Miriam. Women in the Bible dance, sing and play instruments. It appears several times in our texts, as thanksgiving for winning a battle. Nevertheless, according to Professor Aaron Koller, “The Hebrew Bible contains only two narrative battle poems: The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5).” Both are read during this next shabbat, called Shabbat Shirah.

Although it may be difficult to read these texts in a time when war threatens the world, there are many other aspects that connect these two poems. For instance, both are considered to be among the oldest texts within the Bible, due to their structure and wording. The Song of Deborah is attributed to the only woman that is a judge for the people of Israel, who is also considered to be a prophetess. The Song of the Sea is attributed to Moses, with Miriam’s Song as an addition or response, nonetheless, manuscripts from the Dead Sea show that there were additional parts of Miriam’s song, that are missing from the canonized text. However, the power of Miriam’s song is not in its size, but in the change that she brings. Miriam initiates celebration, the use of song and dance to celebrate the gift of life.

“Only a single verse of my Song at the Sea is recorded in the Torah, the fain echo of my brother’s song” declares Miriam the Prophet in Dr. Ellen Frankel’s book The Five Books of Miriam[2]. “Still, my song, though so much briefer, today stirs the hearts of Jewish women, inspiring them to create new songs, poems, stories, meditations, interpretative commentaries, and prayers.” It is true. This single moment of Miriam pulling out her hand drum and leading the women across the sea with dance and song is a strong empowering image that still inspires us today.

And while the Song of the Sea, or specifically saying, the Song of Miriam, focuses on God’s actions, the Song of Deborah is focused on human actions, especially those of women, as Deborah and Yael. Although the description of battles and all its violence may be too strong for our days, both texts are inspiring. While Miriam inspires new generations of women to produce liturgical and intellectual materials, Deborah should be an inspiration for women to be everything that they want to be. Also, the Song of Deborah recognizes other women and their accomplishments, as Deborah does with Yael, who killed Sisera and allows the victory of the Israelites; but also recognizing their pain, as with Sisera’s mother, who waits for her son to come back from the battle by the window.

Both Miriam and Deborah are prophetesses, both are leaders of their people. One leads the women in dance, song, and prayers, after crossing the sea with her hand-drum; the other leads the Israelite army to a battle that will be won by another woman. They are very different characters. Miriam was more vibrant; Deborah seems more circumspect. Nevertheless, both have in common the ability to sing, to dance, and play their instruments as they offer their thanksgiving to God for the victories of their people.

We got to the other side, and yes, there were terrible things along the way, losses of lives to diminish our happiness. But still, there is the unique wonder that our people felt when they finished crossing the sea, the happiness to be alive and free. A feeling that we relive every day when we chant Mi Chamocha, that is part of Shirat Hayam, every day in our services. A marvellous joy that was perfectly expressed by the liturgist Debbie Friedman in her famous Miriam’s Song:

“And Miriam the prophet took her timbrel in her hand and all the women followed her just as she had planned. And Miriam raised her voice in song, she sang with praise and might: “We’ve just lived through a miracle, we’re going to dance tonight!” And the women dancing with their timbrels, followed Miriam as she sang her song: “Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted”. Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.”[3]

This shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, a shabbat to show our gratitude to birds for their music during the whole year, giving them food, as taught by the polish Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov. A shabbat to sing beautiful songs composed to make prayers joyful again. A time for women and men to play instruments, dance, and sing, thanking and celebrating together the blessings of our lives.


Shabbat Shalom.


Andrea Kulikovsky LBC rabbinic student

[1] Psalm 149:3

[2] Frankel, Ellen. 1998. The Five Books of Miriam : A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah. San Francisco: Harper Sanfrancisco.


[3] Friedman, Debbie. Miriam’s Song.


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.