Sea, Song of the

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SEA, SONG OF THE (Heb. שִׁירַת הַיָּם), the name given to the exuberant hymn of triumph and gratitude (Ex. 15:1–18) sung by "Moses and the Children of Israel" after the crossing of the Red Sea. It relates the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians when "the waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh" (ibid. 14:28).

The Song falls into two natural halves: verses 1–13a, describing the actual destruction of the Egyptian hosts; and 13b to the end, a vivid imaginary picture of the pangs and terror which seized the inhabitants of Canaan and of the neighboring countries (including, anachronistically, Philistia). It concludes with the confident assurance (mentioned already in 13b) that the Children of Israel will enter the Land of Israel and build the sanctuary and with the triumphant declaration of the eternal sovereignty of God.

This division is substantially that given by F.M. Cross and D.N. Freedman. Other modern scholars however detect a more complicated structure. Cassuto sees it divided into three strophes:

(a) verses 1b–6,
(b) verses 7–11,
(c) verses 12–16, with verses 17–18 as an epilogue; whereas Rozelaar proposes four:
(a) verses 2–5,
(b) verses 6–10,
(c) verses 11–13
(d) verses 14–17, with a prologue (verse 1b) and an epilogue (verse 18).

Critical View

Many scholars have seen in the Song of the Sea references to Ancient Near Eastern myths of the war between the ruling deity (Marduk, Baal) and the sea-god with its helpers (Leviathan, Rahab). In the Song of the Sea, however, if there are any such vestiges of the myth, they are mere clichés or figures of speech; the sea is a passive tool of God's will. Some scholars (e.g., A. Bentzen) even regard the Song as part of a hypothetical enthronement festival celebrating yhwh's victory over His primordial enemy, the sea, though there is no cogent evidence whatsoever of the existence of such a festival. Dates suggested for the Song's composition range from the 12th century b.c.e. to the end of the First Temple period. F.M. Cross and D.N. Freedman date it on orthographic and linguistic grounds from the 12th to the 10th centuries b.c.e. Yet the mention of God's sanctuary is probably a reference to Solomon's Temple, and the declaration of God's rule means His rule in Zion. The poem is probably to be dated, therefore, at the end of the united monarchy (S.E. Loewenstamm). The Song of Miriam quoted in verse 21, which is identical with the opening of the Song of the Sea, is either the original kernel of the Song or a refrain from it, indicating that the whole song was sung. The Song of the Sea is basically independent of the je and p narratives, but it may have served as the primary source of the P narrative, which took literally the phrases about the waters being heaped up like a wall (verse 8) and elaborated upon them. The Song is probably the oldest extant source for the story of the sea crossing, just as the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) antedates the prose account of the Israelite victory over the Canaanites (Judg. 4).

[Michael V. Fox]

Liturgical Usages

The Song of the Sea has special regulations both in the manner in which it is written in the Torah Scroll, and the manner in which it was chanted. It is written in 30 lines, its outward form resembling "half bricks set over whole bricks" (Meg. 16b), thus:

It was also chanted in a special fashion. In the Talmud (Sot. 30b) three different methods of rendering it are given, and each obviously reflects different local usages. R. Akiva declared that it was read in the same way as the *Hallel, i.e., the cantor declaimed it, and the congregation responded merely with "heads of chapters," i.e., they made the response "I will sing unto the Lord" after every verse. R. Eliezer the son of R. Yose the Galilean states that the congregation repeated the whole Song after him, while R. Nehemiah said that the cantor and congregation recited the verses alternately (so Elbogen; for a full discussion see his Gottesdienst).

The Song of the Sea occupies a prominent place in the liturgy. It is read in the Sabbath portion on which it occurs (Be-Shallaḥ) and that Sabbath is called Shabbat Shirah. It is the scriptural reading of the seventh day of Passover; the custom also developed among some ḥasidic sects of chanting it at a special ceremony at midnight of that evening. In Israel, large crowds assemble at the beach in Tel Aviv and Eilat on the seventh day of Passover, where it is ceremonially sung. It is included in the daily *Pesukei de-Zimra, and in some congregations when the father of a child to be circumcised that day is in synagogue, it is read antiphonally by reader and congregation.

In Jewish Tradition

The fact that Miriam took out the women to sing the Song separately was taken as the authority for the segregation of the sexes in prayer in the synagogue (Mekh. Shirah 10, 44a, Midrash Lekaḥ Tov to Ex. 15:20).

In some communities the custom was observed to distribute food specially to birds, the traditional songsters, on Shabbat Shirah, but the custom was disapproved of by some authorities (Magen Avraham to oḤ, 324, 11, subsection 7).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


M. Rozelaar, in: vt, 2 (1952), 221–8; A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1 (19522),163; F.M. Cross and D.N. Freedman, in: jnes, 14 (1955), 237–50; S.E. Loewenstamm, Masoret Yeẓi'at Miẓrayim be-Hishtalshelutah (1965), 112–20; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (1967), 173–82; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 541ff.; S.J. Zevin, Le-Or ha-Halakhah (19643), 241–50; D. Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (1959), 173ff.