“That day, G-d saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians … The Israelites saw the great power G-d had displayed against the Egyptians, and the people were in awe of G-d. They believed in G-d and in his servant Moses. Moses and the Israelites then sang this song, saying…”
The Song at the Sea was one of the great epiphanies of history. The sages said that even the humblest of Jews saw at that moment what even the greatest of prophets didn’t. For the first time they broke into collective song – a song we recite every day. There is a fascinating discussion among the sages as to how exactly they sang. On this, there were four opinions. Three appear in the tractate of Sotah (30b):
Our rabbis taught: “On that day Rabbi Akiva expounded: ‘When the Israelites came up from the Red Sea, they wanted to sing a song. How did they sing it? Like an adult who reads the Hallel and they respond after him with the leading word.’ Moses said, ‘I will sing to the Lord, and they responded, I will sing to the Lord.’ Moses said, ‘For He has triumphed gloriously, and they responded, I will sing to the Lord.’ ”
“Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Jose the Galilean, said: ‘It was like a child who reads the Hallel and they repeat after him all that he says.’ Moses said, ‘I will sing to the Lord, and they responded, I will sing to the Lord.’ Moses said, ‘For He has triumphed gloriously, and they responded, for He has triumphed gloriously.’ ”
“Rabbi Nehemiah said: ‘It was like a schoolteacher who recites the Shema in the synagogue. He begins first and they respond after him.’ ”
According to Rabbi Akiva, Moses sang the song phrase by phrase, and after each phrase the people responded, “I will sing to the Lord – their way, as it were, of saying Amen to each line.”
According to Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Jose the Galilean, Moses recited the song phrase by phrase, and they repeated each phrase after he had said it.
According to Rabbi Nehemiah, Moses and the people sang the whole song together. Rashi explains that all the people were seized by divine inspiration and miraculously the same words came into their minds at the same time.
There is a fourth view, found in the Mechilta, Beshalach, parshah 1:
“Eliezer ben Taddai said, ‘Moses began and the Israelites repeated what he had said and then completed the verse.’ Moses began by saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, and the Israelites repeated what he had said, and then completed the verse with him, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.’ Moses began saying, ‘The Lord is my strength and my song,’ and the Israelites repeated and then completed the verse with him, saying, ‘The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation.’ Moses began saying, ‘The Lord is a warrior,’ and the Israelites repeated and then completed the verse with him, saying, ‘The Lord is a warrior, Lord is His name.’ ”
Technically, as the Talmud explains, the sages are debating the implication of the (apparently) superfluous words “vayomru leimor – they said, saying,” which they understood to mean “repeating.” What did the Israelites repeat? For Rabbi Akiva it was the first words of the song only, which they repeated as a litany. For Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Jose the Galilean, they repeated the whole song, phrase by phrase. For Rabbi Nehemiah they recited the entire song in unison. For Rabbi Eliezer ben Taddai they repeated the opening phrase of each line, but then completed the whole verse without Moses having to teach it to them.
Thus, we have before us a localized debate on the meaning of a biblical verse. There is, however, a deeper issue at stake. To understand this, we must look at another Talmudic passage, on the face of it unrelated to the passage in Sotah. It appears in the tractate of Kiddushin, and poses a fascinating question. There are various people we are commanded to honor: a parent, a teacher (i.e. a rabbi), the nasi, (religious head of the Jewish community), and a king. May any of these four types renounce the honor that is their due?
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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