World of the Sages: From the mouths of fetuses

The Jewish people were moved to sing after the splitting of the Red Sea.

After the fledgling Jewish nation crossed the Reed Sea, escaping the clutches of the pursuing Egyptians, the people were moved to sing a song of praise. Our sages discuss the manner in which this shira (song) was sung (M. Sota 5:4; B. Sota 30b-31a). Three opinions are presented. According to the first opinion, Moses sang the verses and the people responded with a refrain taken from the opening line: "I shall sing to God" (Exodus 15:1). A second opinion suggests that the people repeated the words that Moses sang, verse by verse. A third opinion explains that Moses merely prompted the people to begin the song; once he said the opening words, they joined in and continued instinctively singing (Rashi, 11th century, France). Alternatively, Moses recited the first phrase of each sentence and the people responded guilelessly in unison with the second phrase of the sentence (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Either way the divine creative spirit rested on all present and each person spontaneously composed the same words to this shira. Following on from this third opinion that saw the spirit of the Almighty rouse all those present, our sages describe who was involved in singing the shira: Not only did the adults sing, but even infants sitting in the laps of their mothers and babies suckling at their mother's breasts joined in this shira. Once they perceived the Holy Presence they picked their heads up and declared: "This is my God and I will glorify Him" (Exodus 15:2). One sage - Rabbi Meir - was wont to add that even fetuses in their mothers' wombs joined in the singing (B. Berachot 50a; B. Ketubot 7b). Rabbi Meir added a biblical verse to support his dictum: "In assemblages bless the Lord, God, from the source of Israel" (Psalms 68:27) - the "source" referring to the starting place of each person, that is, the womb; the "assemblage" referring to the gathering of Israel at the sea (Rashi). In one place the Talmud questions Rabbi Meir's assertion: From within the womb the fetuses could not see the Holy Presence, how then could they have said: "This is my God"? The Talmud explains that the mothers' abdomens became like clear glass and these fetuses were able to see through their protective cocoon, perceived the Almighty and declare: "This is my God." It appears that seeing the Holy Presence would not have been the only challenge these yet-to-be-born babies would have faced when they were moved to sing. With undeveloped faculties of speech, how could they have recited the shira? The Maharal (1525-1609, Central and Eastern Europe) acknowledges that we are clearly not talking about shira expressed through the physical mouth by modulating the vocal cords. Rather we are describing a visceral desire to transcend the physical world and cleave to the Almighty. Such silent shira is a sense of yearning for the divine that emanates from the depths of consciousness and is not bound by physical words. In the adults this yen took the form of the Song at the Sea, in the infants it remained a tacit, unspoken feeling - both expressions being termed shira. One Polish hassidic master, the Shem MiShmuel, speaking in 1913, suggested that the infants, babes and fetuses did in fact sing! How could it be that everyone present spontaneously chose the same poetic words to praise the Almighty for their salvation? It must be - says the Shem MiShmuel - that they were all animated by the spirit of prophecy: Just as the divine voice spoke through Moses and thus Moses's speech difficulties were overcome, so too the divine voice radiated from the mouth of the infants, babies and fetuses after the splitting of the Reed Sea. The approach suggested by the Shem MiShmuel raised a question in his mind: If the entire shira was really the divine voice, why is this song of praise attributed to the liberated Jewish people? The Shem MiShmuel explains that the divine voice does not coercively take over one's vocal cords. Only after the heart is spiritually ready to be a conduit for God's word, will the Almighty's voice emanate from the mouth. The Jewish people standing at the other side of the sea - adults, children, infants, babies and even fetuses - sought to acknowledge the miraculous salvation they had just experienced and to express their praises to the Almighty. That heartfelt desire opened the door for the divinely spoken shira; while it may have been God's voice, it was the people's yearning that triggered the shira and therefore it is considered their doing. Thus without quoting the Maharal, the Shem MiShmuel returns to the idea that the essential element of the shira was the yearning to express praise and thanks to the Almighty. The Jewish people were moved to sing after the splitting of the Reed Sea and again over the miraculous well that provided them with water during their desert travels (see Numbers 21:17-18). Why did the people not burst forth in song when they received the Torah? Certainly the Torah and its commandments - the lifeblood of our people - are worthy of such a wholehearted reaction? According to one commentator, the song sung over the well was in truth referring to the Torah (Or Hahayim, 18th century, Morocco-Jerusalem). Perhaps we could suggest another approach: The Torah itself is shira; indeed the instruction to write the Torah is derived from the verse "and now write for yourselves this shira" (Deuteronomy 31:19). To recite shira over shira would be a never-ending pursuit! Just as we do not recite a blessing over another blessing; so too we do not sing shira over shira. When we learn the shira of Torah, the song of our people, we seek a spiritual connection to the Almighty. But perceiving the shira and being a conduit for it are not coerced upon us; we must open our hearts, yearn to hear this song and prepare our souls so that the divine voice of Torah can speak through our mouths. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.