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Beshalach. The Sound of Music

This Shabbat is known around the Jewish world as “Shabbat Shira – the Shabbat of Song”. It is given this name because our Torah Reading contains the “Song of the Sea – Shirat Hayam” sung by the Children of Israel after the waters of the Red Sea miraculously parted.

So, let’s take this opportunity to talk about music and song.

  • Why do we sing?

  • What does music do for us?

  • Why is music so emotive for most people? Music can sooth and relax, inspire and energize, give voice to our feelings, activate our emotions. How does music affect you?

  • Does music play a role in your religious life?

I. A Midrash:

From the day that God created the world up until Israel stood at the sea we do not find anyone who sang a song to God.

He created Adam, and he did not sing a song.

He saved Abraham from the furnace and from the kings, and he did not sing a song.

He saved Isaac from the knife [at the Akeida,] and he did not sing a song.

He saved Jacob from the angel [who struggled with him in the night], from Esau and from the people of Shechem, and he did not sing a song.

When Israel came to the sea and it split before them, at once they sang a song to God. (Shemot Rabbah)

The Midrash notes that notwithstanding moments of relief and salvation in the lives of our patriarchs, none of them is recorded as having been brought to song!

  • What specifically might have made Israel sing at the Red Sea? Why did the Patriarchs not sing?

  • Was it about the relief and elation felt by the Israelites as they realized they had been saved, and as they saw their oppressors drowned, that brought them to sing and dance, praising God for their survival?

  • Was there something here about it being a mass-event, a collective, national moment, rather than a moment of individual salvation?

  • What is the difference between singing alone (in the car or shower!) or in a group – such as in communal prayer? At a wedding?

II. Study: When we chant the Torah, we sing it with a trope, with cantillation; we don’t just read it in a speaking voice. In many Yeshivot, Talmud is studied in a singsong.

When we chant the Torah, we sing it; we don’t just read it in a speaking voice. In many Yeshivot, Talmud is studied in a singsong. Why do we sing our holy books?

The Talmud tells us:

“Anyone who reads the Torah without a melody or studies the Mishna without a song, the verse states: “So too I gave them statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live” (Ezekiel 20:25)

  • In what way is a verse which is spoken rather than sung “not good”?

Rabbi Steinsaltz suggests two explanations for this law:

1. that words associated with song add joy, they have the effect of endearing the text to the student;

2. That a tune with words serve as a memory aid.

  • Do you remember words of songs more than words of prose? If yes, why is that?

  • Do you ever read/chant the Torah? Do you find it a different experience than just reading the Torah without the cantillation? How so?

III. Music in prayer:

Psalms – religious poetry - were composed by King David, famous for his musical ability. “It is good to thank God and to make music for Your supreme name” says King David in Psalm 92. Even the heavenly angels are said to sing God’s praises “in a clear and tuneful language – be-safa berura u-b’neima” (morning daily prayers). Prayer is meant to be melodious. Here is the advice of the 12th Century scholar, Rabbi Yehudah “the Pious”.

Seek out melodies, and when you pray, say [the prayers] with whichever melody you find pleasant and sweet, with that melody say your prayer, then pray with great kavannah (intent), and your heart will follow that which comes from your mouth. Plead to God in a melody that makes the heart weep; Praise God in a melody that makes the heart glad. (Sefer Hassidim 11)

  • Which is your favourite tune that is sung in tefilla/prayer? Why?

  • Can you think of a moment (maybe on Rosh Hashannah or Yom Kippur) when a tune evoked particularly powerful emotions? Please share that experience.

IV. Shabbat Songs/Zemirot

If I may add one last point, it is the tradition of singing special Shabbat songs at Shabbat meals. These songs or “zemirot”, many of them composed by the greatest poets such as Rabbi Yehudah Halevy and Ibn Ezra, bring a certain spirituality to our Shabbat table, adding another layer to the other Shabbat rituals: to the food, special Shabbat clothing, and words of Torah.

Some tunes are slow and filled with yearning, others are fast and jolly, but the mix of music and holy words infuses a spiritual dimension to Shabbat meals.

What will you sing at your Shabbat table this week?

Shabbat Shalom!

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