Today is July 10, 2020 -

Shabbat Shira – A New Melody
for our Ancient Texts

By Hazzan Michael Krausman

One of the most exciting readings of our annual cycle of Torah portions is the joyous Song of the Sea or Shirat Ha Yam. Contained within the weekly portion of B’Shalach, which recounts the movements of the newly freed Israelites as they begin to make their way to the promised land, the Shirat Ha Yam, was exclaimed immediately following the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea. The Song of the Sea concludes with an account of how Miriam, Moses’ sister, leads the people in dance celebrating the successful crossing and the vanquishing of Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Overflowing with ecstasy and gratitude, the children of Israel instinctively turn to song to express their deepest emotions.

The power of this hymn struck the framers of our liturgy so much that this ancient prayer is repeated each day in our morning service and portions of it, such as Mi Chamocha: “Who is like unto thee O Lord?”, are found in both the evening and morning prayers. Shirat Ha Yam is often alluded to when the liturgy references God’s role as a mighty savior and deliverer.

The Shabbat on which the weekly portion of B’Shalach is read is known as Shabbat Shira — the Sabbath of Song. This year, Shabbat Shira will occur on January 19, 2019. Shirat Ha Yam is chanted by interspersing the regular Torah cantillation melody (trope) with the beautifully melodic cantillation of the Song of Songs. The text of the Song is formatted in a uniquely spaced poetic style in the Torah scroll that is unlike any other portion. Furthermore, Shirat Ha Yam is not the only special song recited on Shabbat Shira. The Haftara for B’Shalach contains the song of the great Jewish leader Deborah. This florid text includes a description of how the heroine Yael saves the Hebrews by slaying the mighty despot Sisera with a tent pin (you’ll have to come to the synagogue to get the whole story).

Shabbat Shira has become a time to reflect on the important role that song plays in our lives as Jews. Not only is music the best mechanism for expressing our deepest emotions, but it is the vehicle which transports prayers from our hearts to the gates of heaven. From Yiddish Lullabies to Ladino Love Songs to the modern sounds of Israeli Rock and Roll, Jewish music is the language of the Jewish soul. Thus it is fitting that Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat on which we read one of the earliest and most striking incidents of musical expression, be dedicated to Jewish music.

Please come and pray with us on Shabbat Shira, January 19, 2019. Together with some wonderful and talented singers who will be joining me, we will explore some of the transcendent and moving music of the Jewish renewal movement, independent Minyanim and other new avenues of Jewish musical expression. Perhaps the psalmist put it best in the prayer that we read every Friday evening, Shiru L’Ashem Shir Hadash – sing unto the Lord a new Song (psalm 96).