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Cantor’s Corner Parshat Beshallach

01/17/2019 10:49:30 AM


Shabbat Shira – The Sabbath of Song and Musical Archaeology

This Shabbat we will hear the chanting of the Shirat HaYam – The Song of the Sea.  The Shira is written in a style of Hebrew much older than the rest of the book of Shemot/Exodus. Most scholars consider it the oldest surviving text describing the Exodus from Egypt.  Additionally, the special melody used when it is chanted is considered the oldest surviving piece of Jewish music!

Wait a minute – how can a piece of music from an oral tradition be “dated” in the sense of an archaeological artifact? Ethnic musicology “dates” music by observing what cultural groups possess it and correlating that with patterns of historical migration. For example, the Shira melody appears in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions – hence we know that the melody dates from before those groups split off from each other.  The melody also occurs among the Mizrachi Jews – those whose origin goes back to the Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century B.C.E.  Thus we can ALSO infer that the song probably dates back to the First Temple period! 

This kind of “dating” is not as certain as carbon dating and other newer archaeological technology, but it is a reasonable indicator of when and how music was orally transmitted. The preservation of the melody in recognizable form also indicates the degree of holiness and importance ascribed to it.  

The melody is also USED differently by the different groups.  The poem itself contains many references to the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers and their horses, as well as the sinking of the chariots and weapons.  The other prominent feature of the text is praising God as a great military leader and the Rescuer of the people.  The earlier traditions, the Mizrachi and Sephardi, apply the melody to the entire song.  The later Ashkenazi tradition, a tradition distinguished by its deep study of text – applies the special melody ONLY to the words in the poem which praise God, and not to the words which describe the death of the Egyptians and their horses.

This reflects a more modern sensibility that we shouldn’t glorify slaughter.  This sensitivity to the Egyptian suffering is mentioned in the Haggadah for the Passover Seder.  We pour out some of our wine when we recite the 10 Plagues, in memory of the Egyptians who suffered or died in order that we could be free.  

So, COME TO SYNAGOGUE THIS SHABBAT!  When the Torah is lifted, you will be able to see the special form of the column which contains the Shira – you will hear Morah Rivkah Henning chant the special melody – AND you will be able to share in the joy and pride of the Raz family as Jacob becomes a bar mitzvah!



We are fairly certain that the Shira is also an early example of responsive chanting.  The Torah says that Moses composed the song and taught it to the Israelites.  The form of the song indicates that Moses probably sang one line and the people repeated it after him, and so on.  



The song is composed by Moses and sung by the people on the far shore of the Red Sea, after they have crossed safely on dry land, and witnessed the destruction of the Egyptian army.  It is a song of joy and exultation, but it is also a military victory ode.    

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779