Pesach Seventh and Eighth Day

Shabbat, Seventh and Eighth Days of Pesach April 22-23, 2022 | 22-23 Nisan 5782

Torah: Seventh Day Exodus 13:17-15:26;
Maftir: Number 28:19-25
Eighth Day Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17
Haftarah: Seventh Day II Samuel 22:1-51
Eighth Day Isaiah 10:32-12:6

Singing at the Sea and Beyond

Ilana Kurshan

On the final days of Pesach, we read Shirat Hayam, a lengthy song of thanksgiving dramatizing the splitting of the sea, the drowning of Pharaoh and his chariots, and the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites. Shirat Hayam, though most commonly associated with Pesach, is also recited every morning as part of the daily liturgy, where it appears between Pesukei d’Zimra—the verses of praise recited as preparation for prayer—and Shacharit, the morning service. When considered in each of these liturgical contexts, Shirat Hayam marks the transition from the individual to the collective, giving voice to both the miracle of national deliverance and the power of communal prayer.

When the Song of the Sea was first recited—after the Israelites passed through the Sea of Reeds on dry land—it brought the people together after a moment of panicked divisiveness. Just before the sea split, the Israelites argued with one another about how to proceed. According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir, the various tribes competed with one another about who would first set foot in the sea: “When the Jewish people stood at the Sea of Reeds, the tribes argued with one another. This one said: I am going into the sea first, and that one said: I am going into the sea first” (Sotah 36b). The tribe of Benjamin jumped in first, and the tribe of Judah—who felt they ought to be first—began pelting them with stones. According to Rabbi Meir, then, everyone wanted to go first. But Rabbi Yehuda argues that in fact the tribes were arguing not about who would get to jump in first, but who would have to, with each tribe insisting that they would not be the first to take the plunge. Then suddenly Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah, jumped in, and the other members of his tribe followed. According to both of these opinions, the Israelites were divided in rival tribal factions before the sea split, unable to act collectively as a people.

In contrast, immediately after they passed through the sea, the people joined together in communal singing. According to one Talmudic opinion, the song was recited in unison by the entire people; according to another opinion, it was initiated by Moshe and then chanted by the people in a call-and-response. Either way, Shirat Hayam was a communal experience of the people coming together to give thanks to God for the miracle they all experienced. The Talmud (Sotah 30b) emphasizes that everyone participated in the singing — even babies lying on their mother’s laps joined in, and even infants nursing from their mothers’ breasts would straighten their necks, drop the breast from their mouths, and join in singing, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2). Rabbi Tanhum adds that the bellies of pregnant women were transformed into glass spheres so that even fetuses in the womb could witness the miracle at the sea and sing of God’s glory. As proof, the Talmud quotes a verse from Psalms: “In full assemblies, bless God, the Lord, you that are from the source of Israel” (Psalms 68:27). The “full assemblies” refers to the people singing as a community, including even the “source of Israel” – the womb where children originate. Perhaps this emphasis on fetuses and babies serves to teach that the splitting of the sea marked the birth of the Israelites as a people, after leaving the narrow birth canal of Mitzrayim. In joining together in song, they are forged as a nation.

In the liturgy of the morning prayer service, too, the Song of the Sea signifies the transition from individual to collective. Morning prayers begin with Pesukei d’Zimra, a series of prayers and psalms which do not require the presence of a minyan but may be recited by lone individuals. The core of the liturgy of this part of the service consists of a series of psalms (145-150) attributed to King David; in reciting these psalms, we ventriloquize another individual’s words of praise to God. These psalms are followed by Vayevarech David, which is considered part of David’s prayer of thanksgiving at the end of his life. Following these passages attributed to King David, Psukei d’Zimra culminates in a song originally sung by the entire Jewish people – Shirat Hayam. Immediately after the conclusion of Shirat HaYam, the prayer leader for Shacharit takes over, and the presence of a minyan is required for the Kaddish and for the Barchu, in which the prayer leader exhorts the congregation in the plural: “Bless the Lord, the blessed One.” Like Moshe leading the people in the Song of the Sea, the prayer leader for Shacharit leads the people in the responsive recitation of the Barchu, the call to bless God.

The daily recitation of Shirat HaYam in the morning liturgy is one of the ways we remember the Exodus from Egypt on a regular basis. The recitation of this song is also a reminder of the power of coming together in song and prayer. When the Israelites first prepare for the Exodus, God’s instructions focus on the unit of the family and of the household – each household is supposed to take an unblemished lamb to sacrifice and eat at home. Each year at the Seder, when we gather around the table with our families, we memorialize this household ritual. But if the focus of the opening days of Pesach is on the family unit, the recitation of Shirat HaYam at the end of the holiday focuses us on the community and the nation. In our Torah reading for the last days of Pesach, we chant the first words sung in unison by the entire Jewish people, no longer divided into families and factions but united in bearing witness to the miracle of God’s deliverance.

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