"They were not slaves. They were people. Their condition was slavery."
(Julius Lester, To Be a Slave)
Depiction of the Egyptian Army drowning in the Yam Suf from the Venice Haggadah (1609)
The Israelites had been enslaved and mistreated in Egypt for 430 (or 210?) years as we arrive at the Exodus, the event through which we were freed from the Egyptian stranglehold of slavery.
R' Sa'adia ben David al-Dhamārī, Midrash haBe'ur 89a (15th century)1
Why was Israel allowed to borrow gold and silver vessels from the Egyptians? Know that this was given to them in the way of the grant that is given to the Hebrew slave when he is freed [per D'varim 15:13-14], for they were enslaved to them.
Presentation and Layout of the Shirah
In the midst of Parashat Beshalach is a song called Az Yashir (aka Shirat haYam). This song stands out from the surrounding text through the layout of the text blocks comprising it, i.e. it is one of three songs in the TaNaKh written in a special "half-brick over full-brick and full-brick over half-brick" format. The other two are Deborah's Song in Shofetim (Judges) 5 and David's Song of Praise in Shmu'el Beit (2 Samuel) 22.
This layout is quite ancient, being seen in every extant copy of Exodus 15, the oldest of which is the 7th century Ashkar-Gilson fragment (below).
The chapter actually contains two songs, but only the first is displayed with the special formatting. In the text presentation below, the Song of Moshe is in blue and the Song of Miriam (his sister) is in pink. The latter is not given the half-brick over full-brick format.
There are two primary ways in which the "half-brick over full-brick and full-brick over half-brick" layout is accomplished for Shirat haYam, both following a 30-line format. Below is the version preferred by the Rambam, as found in Sifrei Torah of the Yemenite communities and of the Keter Aram Tsova (aka Aleppo Codex). This example comes from the Bologna Torah (late-12th to early-13th century).
Notice the variety of otiyyot meshunot (specially-modified letters), 37 in total, in the above manuscript. These are the remnant of a tradition expounded in a work called Sefer Tagin.2
- 3 heys have three tagin
- 1 zayin has one taga
- 1 chet has 1 taga
- 2 chets have 3 tagin
- 1 teyt has 5 tagin
- 8 khaphs have two tagin
- 3 khaph-sofits have two tagin
- 2 mems have 2 tagin
- 2 mem-sophits have 2 tagin
- 1 nun has 1 taga
- 1 peh has 1 taga
- 1 peh has two tagin
- 1 peh-sophit has 2 tagin
- 5 pehs are written lefufah (whirled)
- 1 tsade has 5 tagin
- 1 tsade-sophit has 5 tagin
- 1 qoph has two tagin
- 1 resh has one taga
- 1 shin has seven tagin
The first word in line 30 according to the Rambam is את from את מי הים (“waters of the sea”) in Shemot 15:19, as above. This tradition is also followed in almost all medieval Eastern manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, including Keter Aram Tsova and Codex Leningradensis, as well as in some Sephardic manuscripts from the thirteenth century.
According to Massekhet Soferim, however, the first word of line 30 is מי (“waters”) from את מי הים (“waters of the sea”) in Shemot 15:19.
Note that the final line has only one space. Rabbi Meir ben Todros haLevy Abulafia opined that the final line should have two spaces, and in all but the Teimani tradition his ruling has come to be the preferred one. The example below demonstrates the more familiar Abulafia format from a 16th century Litvak Sefer Torah.
It can be seen above that the special formatting ends with the conclusion of Moshe's Song in 15:19. Miriam's Song is presented in normal narrative format.
Rashi interprets the verb ישיר of Shemot 15:1 as connoting that the song was sung out of a kavanah (intention of the heart) which flooded over Moshe, but Rabbeinu Bachya understands it as being in the prophetic voice, pointing to a future resurrection.
Following the song is a brief closing to the chapter comprised of Miriam's song and a prosaic paragraph.
Rabbi Yossi haGalili comments: "I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians (Shemot 15:26), so the more the Egyptians are smitten, the less the Jews have to fear."3 We are warned, however, not to revel in their smiting.
Midrash on Hashem's Response: "The Egyptians were My children too"
The Shirat haYam enjoys a very special status in Judaism. It is said to be the first song ever song in human history.
A portion of the song is recited daily in our shacharit (morning) prayers, i.e. the mi kamoekha section (Shemot 15:11).
The following is a musical rendition of the Az Ashira Moshe as performed by Moroccan Rabbi Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli.
- Translated by Yitzchak Tzvi Langermann in Yementie Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah - An Anthology of Writings from the Golden Age of Judaism in the Yemen (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper Collins, 1996), 104.
- In the whole of the Torah, there are 1960 such modified letters, delineated in Brian Tice, Sefer Tagin: An Ancient Sofer Manual (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Yiddishkeit 101, 2021); see also Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Sh'leimah, vol. 29 (1938).
- Heinrich Guggenheimer, The Scholar's Haggadah: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental Versions (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1998; orig. 1995), 307.