After the Children of Israel passed through the Reed Sea, God closed the waters, wiping out the Egyptian army that was chasing them. The Hebrews celebrated by singing two songs; the first 18 verses of Exodus 15 make up the Song of the Sea, while the second song, consisting of one long verse (verse 21), is the Song of Miriam. These songs characterize the Shabbat on which the Torah portion of Beshalach is read, giving it the name Shabbat Shira, or the Sabbath of Song.
The song is presented in a graphically different manner in the Torah scroll, arranged as “half bricks” (Talmud Megilla 16b). Each line of the song is divided into a half line of offset text that is then separated by a blank space. Each half-line of text appears above a half link of blank space.
According to Jewish tradition, the 21st of Nissan, corresponding to the 7th day of Passover, is the day on the Jewish calendar on which Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Sea of Reeds and the Hebrews sang the Song of the Sea.
The Song of the Sea, or Shirat Hayam, is a record of events that occurred when the Israelites had full faith in God and trust in Moses, their leader. The experience at the sea was transcendent, raising up the Jews spiritually. Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael states that the revelation experienced by the average Hebrew at the sea was more intense than the prophetic visions of the greatest prophets. “A maidservant saw on the sea what Isaiah and Ezekiel never saw,” Mechilta states.
The Song of the Sea is included in Jewish prayers, recited daily as part of the morning shacharit services.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:8) states that when Israel emerged from the sea, the angels came to sing to God first, but He stopped them, declaring, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?” God said, “Let my children sing first because they are of flesh and blood. They must sing now before they die. But you, as long as you desire, you remain alive and can sing.” It was at that point that Miriam burst into song.
This contradiction of reactions to the suffering of an enemy is expressed by Solomon in Proverbs, who first declares, “When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy” (11:10). Later, Proverbs teaches, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice” (24:17).
Miriam’s song is short, composed of one line. Despite the Hebrews’ hasty departure, the women, led by Miriam, were prepared (Exodus 15:20):
Then Miriam the Neviah, Aharon‘s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.
Rashi explains how the women had taken these tambourines with them when they left Egypt. “The righteous women of that generation were confident that the Holy One, Blessed be He, would make miracles for them, so they prepared tambourines and dances.” As such, the women of the Chabad Hasidut movement prepare tambourines, decorating them in preparation for the final Redemption.
The Talmud states that “in the merit of the righteous women our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.”