“Mi Chamocha” “on one foot”:
”Mi Chamocha” is a prayer that thanks G-d for redeeming us from Egypt. We say it in the morning and evening service, and it comes from the Book of Exodus after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds.
The Text of Mi Chamocha
Context: This text comes from the Biblical Book of Exodus, after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds. It is a prayer that we say every morning and evening.
What questions does this text raise for you?
Context: This is the morning prayer during which we say "Mi Chamocha".
1. What does it mean to be redeemed?
2. Why are we asking for deliverance now, after singing about how G-d already delivered our ancestors?
3. Who, Jewish or not, needs to be redeemed in our world today?
4. According to Pirkei Avot 6:6, "Whoever reports a saying in the name of one who said it brings redemption to the world". Why?
5. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a), it says that we should emulate G-d's positive actions. How does that inform your reading of this prayer?
6. What are some actions you can work into your current routine based on this text from the siddur?
The Context of the Prayer
Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Sanhedrin, which is about criminal justice. The text is commenting on the same mishnah which says "One who saves a life saves an entire world" (4:5); this is the warning given to the witnesses in capital cases. The witnesses are told that there words could condemn an innocent person, but they could also punish the wicked and that this is OK. A Biblical verse is brought to prove that this is OK, talking about the singing that happens at the punishment of the wicked (Proverbs 11:10), but the rabbis seem to be uncomfortable with this because in the Gemara they say that while the Israelites sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds, G-d forbade the Egyptians to sing (see https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/why-did-we-sing-when-the-egyptians-drowned-1.54039 for more on this topic). This is similar to the idea that we remove drops from our cup during the Seder when we say each of the Plagues - a full cup is a full cup of joy, and we reduce our joy at the suffering of others.
How do we balance gratitude for our salvation with an awareness that the other side also has humans on it?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of First Kings. Elijah is a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The king at that time, Ahab, has married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel. She brings to Israel the worship of the Phoenician god, Ba'al. Elijah challenges the 450 priests of Ba'al to a showdown. The whole nation gathered on Mt. Carmel, and everybody watched while first Team Ba'al got a chance to have Ba'al send down fire for a sacrifice, and then Team G-d got a chance. Ba'al doesn't respond to the priests' entreaties; mid-morning, Elijah suggests that perhaps Ba'al is on a trip or in a conversation and perhaps the priests need to get his attention. The priests respond by gashing themselves and screaming louder, but still nothing from Ba'al. By afternoon, Elijah takes over. He wets the wood and then asks G-d to prove that G-d is the one to be worshipped. G-d sends down lightening, causing not just the sacrifice but even the wood to burst into flame. Everybody responds by saying "The Lord is G-d!" (This line is now at the end of the Yom Kippur service right before the shofar.)
The ancient Israelites were monolatrous (or henotheistic), acknowledging that there were other things that were worshipped by others (and occasionally doing so themselves - see this sheet if you're interested: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/86030?lang=bi). What sorts of things do people "worship" today, rather than worshipping G-d?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds and the Egyptians drowned.
How does seeing the context change the way you think about Mi Chamocha?
Tunes for Mi Chamocha
In Western European countries it was customary to adapt a melody associated with the holiday of the season to Mi Chamocha. For example, on Chanukkah the representative theme used for Mi Chamocha was Maoz Tzur, commemorating the truimph of the Maccabees whose name, it is believed, was composed of the initials of Mi Chamocha Be'eilim Hashem. Other melodies used on the various holidays were: for Pesach - Adir Hu; for Shavuot - Akdamut; for Sukkot - the Lulav chant in Hallel; for the Shabbatot between the fasts of Tammuz and Av - Eli Tziyon.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer - Macy Nulman
Context: Mi Chamocha is a good example of the way nusach (liturgical chant) works. There are different words for the evening and morning versions (at least for the parts surrounding the actual Torah quotes), which causes problems when tunes are written for the evening words and then people try to apply them to the morning words. There are also different ways of chanting Mi Chamocha depending on whether it's a morning or evening, a weekday or Shabbat, or a Pilgrimage Festival (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) or High Holiday (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur).
Mi Chamocha also is a good example of the way trope (Biblical cantillation) works. While one could chant it with regular Torah trope, one ought to use the special trope for the verses of The Song of the Sea that contain G-d's name. Moreover, there are different versions depending on whether one is using the Ashkenazi or Sephardi tradition, and perhaps there are other ways of chanting it as well.
Context: This is from the 1998 Dreamworks movie "The Prince of Egypt". That movie is a cinematic midrash of the story of the Exodus.
In the movie, the song is placed after leaving Egypt but before crossing the sea (instead of after crossing the sea, like in the Bible). How does that affect the meaning of the words?
Context: This is "Mi Chamocha", set to "Miriam's Song" by Debbie Friedman (here's a link to the tune that Debbie Friedman actually wrote for "Mi Chamocha" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkMznuGuj8k). After "Mi Chamocha" in the Torah, Miriam led the women in additional singing (Ex. 15:20-21), and Debbie Friedman wrote a song about it.
How does it change your experience of the prayer to have it set to this tune?
Context: This is from Nefesh Mountain, a Jewish bluegrass band (very much still active as of 2021) - http://www.nefeshmountain.com/.
What does this version make you think of? How does it make you feel?
Context: This recording in May 2020 was set to Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" (1980).
How does it change your experience of this prayer to have it set to this tune?
When Do We Say Mi Chamocha?
Context: This comes from the Mishnah, from Tractate Brachot, which is about blessings and prayers. "Emet veyatziv" and "emet ve'emunah" are the prayers that contain "Mi Chamocha".
Why would it be helpful to delineate the order of the prayers?
Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, commenting on the very first mishnah in the Talmud. That mishnah discusses when one can say that evening Shema. In order to make sure that people don’t forget to say the evening Shema, Rabbi Yochanan says that if somebody says the evening Shema during their evening prayers, and then says the “blessing of redemption” (Mi Chamocha), and then says the Amidah, they get a spot in the World-to-Come. In our source, Mar son of Ravina points out that Hashkiveinu seems to be getting the way of this plan.
What would be the connection between Hashkiveinu and redemption?
Context: This is from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, in this case the section on Prayer, where he summarizes all of the rules in the Talmud without any of the discussion. It should look familiar from what we’ve seen already.
Context: The Beit Yosef was written by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the 1500s (written between 1522 and 1542). It is his attempt to summarize and recategorize all rabbinic writings in the preceding 1300 years (starting with the Mishnah). It was a long and detailed text, and later he wrote the Cliffnotes version which he called the Shulchan Aruch. Orach Chayim is the section (of both of them) about prayers and holidays. In this part, Rabbi Caro is trying to explain why “Hashkiveinu” counts as part of the “Redemption” prayer.
There are different ways to view a prayer, all of which can co-exist simultaneously. Does this angle on the prayer resonate for you?
With appreciation to Sarah Fox-Long, Adam Bellows, and Cantor Neil Schwartz
Appendix: Thoughts about Mi Chamocha, found by Leo Fuchs in his source sheet "Layers of Meaning in Mi Chamocha"
Marc Brettler, My People's Prayer Book, (Vol. 1, pgs. 130-131)
[In this prayer,] grammatical tenses [are] used in a particularly significant way. [The prayer recalls God's past actions and contains commands in the present.] The climactic hope for a new Exodus, however, is given in the future ("Adonai will reign forever and ever"). This alternation of tenses reinforces the theme...that the promised new redemption will mimic the past one. Indeed, it will occur not in the distant future, but in the near present as all time periods - past, present and future - converge.
Lawrence Hoffman, My People's Prayer Book (Vol. 1, pg. 133)
...the Rabbis insist on a moral God who enters history to right wrongs and bring about a better age...[and] ruled that the righteous of all nations receive a share in the world to come.
Rachel Barenblat, How Can We Keep From Singing (https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2019/01/how-can-i-keep-from-singing.html)
מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהֹוָ֔’’ה? מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ, נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת, עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃
Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh!
Who is like You, God -- majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, Worker of Wonders?
...when we sing these words each day, we're called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember and you get re/member -- to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamocha is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.
Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and Festivals, pg. 158
The Babylonian Talmud links this last b'rakhah of the recitation of the Sh'ma, mentioning God's redeeming the people Israel from Egypt, to the personal prayers that now follow in the Amidah, and recommends that there be no verbal interruption at this point (Berakhot 9b). It is as if to say that the possibility of prayer flows out of our experience of God's love as exhibited in freeing us from slavery.
Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen, My People's Prayer Book, (Vol. 1, pg. 134)
And just this is the real meaning of Mi kamokha, “Who is like You among the gods, Adonai!” For the Kabbalists, the word mi is not an interrogative “who,” but another name for God. And ba’elim “among the gods” can also be read as bet ilan “two trees.” So now the Mi kamokha reads not as a question but as a statement: “‘Who’ [i.e., God] is two trees,” the tree of life which is Ayin, “Nothingness,” and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which is yesh, “something,” ne’dar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh fele, “adorned in holiness, revered in praise, worker of miracles.” And when we balance our power to act, our self-assertion, our yesh, our something, with the humility of being selfless, Ayin, Nothing, then we too can perform wonders. And this is redemption.
Perhaps in the Mi Chamocha, just before we transition to our personal prayers of request in the Amidah, we are meant not just to be grateful that we are free and that God freed us, but also to think hard about what we will do with our freedom. What will we make of the precious gift of our lives and freedom to make choices? What will we request of God during the Amidah? How do our personal prayers for ourselves and our families link to our prayers for our communities?