Red Sea splits
Red Sea splitsצילום: ISTOCK

This Torah Reading this coming Shabbat contains the Shirah, a song of triumph. Marking Pharoah’s defeat, it is one of the Biblical war songs which were in the now lost Book of the Wars of the Lord and the Book of the Upright (Num. 21:14, Josh. 10:12-13).

Warriors were welcomed home with song and ceremony. It is unlikely that this was spontaneous and on the spur of the moment. The women and children must have planned the celebrations in advance; ritual singing was a womanly activity. The women automatically employed words, ideas and phrases from their own experience.

The Shirah is a nation’s echo of women having babies, an allegory of national birth, with birth pangs, breaking of waters, and entry into a new world.

The poem might have had a female author since the details of childbirth are not likely to be known by the men.

The women’s jubilation had a leader (Miriam) and female musicians, musical instruments, and melodic dancing.

There is Miriam-centred material in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with poetic fragments about Miriam which may have originated in the Biblical text in order to enhance the primacy of Moses.

Women’s welcomes to their men include the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), the celebration that turned bitter because of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:32-34) and the celebration of David’s victory over Goliath (I Sam. 18:6-7).

At the Red Sea, the struggle did not involve professional warriors. Both men and women were there, but apparently without personal involvement. The fighting was by God – "The Lord, the Warrior: Lord is His name" (Ex. 15:3); "Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power, Your right hand shatters the foe!" (verse 6).


The Talmud (Sanh. 111a) declares rather strangely that very few Israelites left Egypt but most stayed there.

The Torah says that those who did leave were "chamushim". In the Mechilta the explanation is given that "chamushim" is connected with "chamesh", five. Thus one person in five left Egypt - i.e. out of the six hundred thousand Israelites, only 120,000 left. There are other views – e.g. one in fifty and one in five hundred.

These small numbers suggest that very few had the moral courage to seek freedom and a new life. Or possibly quite a number died in the final scramble after the plague of darkness.

An alternative view – also found in the Mechilta - is that "chamushim" does not reflect numbers but equipment and the word means "armed". Knowing that the king and his forces would chase them, the Israelites took with them whatever weapons they could find and they were thus ready and able to defend themselves.