Judaism: Torah Lights on B'shalach: Singing at the Sea
"Miriam led [the women] in song, 'Sing to God for He is exalted above the arrogant horse and rider He cast into the sea’" (Exodus 15:21)
The splitting of the Red (Reed) Sea was the remarkable miracle that climaxed the Ten Plagues and indisputably confirmed the Hebrews as free people. The Egyptians had chased them into the desert, hoping to force their former slaves to return; Moses extended his hand over the sea, God drove back the waters with a powerful easterly wind and the Israelites entered the sea bed on dry land.
The Egyptians pursued the Hebrews, Moses extended his hand a second time, and the waters returned with a vengeance, completely overwhelming the Egyptian cavalry and chariots. Now, the Israelites found themselves in the midst of the sea on dry land, with all of the drowned Egyptians dead on the seashore.
“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to God, expressing, ‘I will sing to God for His great victory, horse and rider He cast into the sea...’” (Exodus 15:19). With the conclusion of this male paean of praise to the Almighty for His wonders, the Bible records the activity of the women at the scene: “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a drum in her hand and all the women followed with drums and with dancing. And Miriam led them in song, ‘Sing to God for His great victory, horse and rider He cast into the sea’” (ibid. 20 21).
Apparently, Moses and Miriam sang the same lengthy song, although the Bible only repeats the first verse in its description of the women’s celebration. The great Hellenistic philosopher Philo Judaeus (20 BCE- 50 CE) suggests that the men and women sang together. Rashi (ad loc.), citing the Mechilta, interprets that “Moses sang the song to the men, he sang the song and they responded after him, and Miriam sang the song to the women (and they responded after her, as it is written ‘sing’ [shiru]).”
The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) adds that “the women claimed that all of this (the redemption from Egypt) occurred in their merit (Miriam and Princess Batya saved Moses, Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh).
Therefore, they insisted on singing separately, since they had (such) a (large) share in the miracles” (ad loc.).
And Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has them singing in tandem, with the men initiating the song and women responding by repeating it. He emphasizes that the women’s singing was of equal importance to the men’s.
What is most remarkable about the description of this biblical scene and its various commentaries is that no one seems concerned about “Kol Isha,” the prohibition against hearing a woman sing since “a woman’s voice is a sexual stimulus” (B.T. Brachot 24a). Indeed, the Israeli news was filled with debates about religious soldiers who walked out of a military ceremony when a group of women began to sing. One head of a hesder yeshiva (under whose auspices soldiers combine studies with military service) declared that one is forbidden from hearing a woman sing even under pain of death, although he later admitted that he had been exaggerating to make his point.
When we study the actual sources of Kol Isha and the commentaries of rabbinic decisors, the incident at the Reed Sea appears much more normative than the attitude of the yeshiva head. Most importantly, the Talmudic passage stating that “a woman’s voice is a sexual stimulus” is written in the context of retaining concentration when reciting the Shema prayer.
Rav Hai Gaon (cited in the Otzar Hagaonim, Interpretations to Brachot 24 and in the Mordechai to Brachot siman 80), Rabbenu Hannanel (Brachot ibid.) and the Raviyah (Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi) all limit the prohibition of a man hearing a woman sing to someone who is reciting the Shema.
Rav Yosef Karo’s Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Aruch Orah Haim 75:3) rules that, “There is reason to be careful lest one hear the voice of a woman vocalist when one is reciting the Shema.” Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Krakow, 1520-1572) adds, “Even if the vocalist is one’s wife, but a voice to which one is accustomed is not considered to be a sexual stimulus.”
To be sure, the Hatam Sofer forbids hearing a woman sing, or even speak, regardless of any connection to the recitation of the Shema and there are certainly latter-day decisors who rule likewise. I do not know of any posek who would permit listening to women who are singing sexually suggestive songs; I would even forbid listening to a man singing such songs (kol ish).
But more contemporary rulings are those of Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg (Montreux, 1884- 1966) in his Sridei Aish (Part 2 Siman 8) who permits young men and women singing together in the context of a religious youth group, the Sdei Hemed (Rav Hizkiyahu Medini, 1833-1905) who permits men to listen to a woman singing songs of sanctity even if she is a soloist, and Rabbi Shmuel Ehrenfeld, the son-in-law of the Hatam Sofer, known as the Hatan Sofer, who rules that several voices together in a kind of choir situation is always permitted, since “two voices singing together makes each individual voice unrecognizable and indistinguishable.”
Hence the women singing at the sea was perfectly permissible as it was a song of sanctity sung by many voices at the same time.