After the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea, Moses led the Jewish people in singing praises to G‑d. The Torah then describes how Miriam led the women in singing their own song of praise, while dancing and playing musical instruments:

Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, “Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.”1

This is the only instance recorded in the Torah where women sang their own song. Why is that, and why was Miriam the one to lead it?

Righteous Women

The Talmud tells us that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women.2 Many men had lost hope and chose not to procreate so as not to subject their offspring to a fate of slavery and suffering. The women kept hope alive, trusting that they would soon be redeemed. With that in mind, they enticed their husbands to procreate.

This faith is reflected in the words “a timbrel in her hand.” The Midrash explains that the righteous women were so confident that G‑d would perform miracles that when they left Egypt, they took musical instruments with them “in hand,” ready to sing praise.3

Did the Women Actually Sing?

The Torah refers to the song Moses sang as a shir, a “song.” Conversely, the words used regarding the women’s song is vata’an, “and she answered” or “called.” Some commentaries (including Targum) explain that the women didn’t actually sing.4 Apparently this is because it is generally considered immodest for a woman to sing in the presence of men who are not her relatives. Others are of the opinion that they did sing (more on that below).5 According to the Yalkut Reuveini, they played the musical tune with their instruments but didn’t sing.6

While We're on the Subject...

Following the opinion that they did sing, the Midrash explains the curious use of the word vata’an. The angels wanted to sing G‑d’s praise before the women, but Miriam “answered” them and called for the women to sing first.7

Others explain the “answering” as referring to how the song was sung: either they repeated the same song as the men, or the women repeated the stanzas after Miriam.8

Why the Need for Instruments?

Some explain that the women specifically chose to play their instruments since it is considered immodest for women to sing in front of a male audience, so the instruments drowned out their voices.9 Alternatively, as mentioned, they didn’t sing at all and only played music due to these considerations of modesty.10

Others, like Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (known as the Chida), explain that although in general it may be considered immodest for women to sing in front of men, due to the fact that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) rested upon the Jewish nation at that time, there was no prohibition for the men to listen to the singing.11 Thus, the women played instruments simply to enhance the singing.

Miriam the Prophetess, Aaron’s Sister

In the above verse, Miriam is referred to as “the prophetess, Aaron’s sister.” This is the first time Miriam is mentioned by name in Scripture. She had two brothers, Aaron and Moses. Why is she specifically referred to as a prophetess and as the sister of Aaron?

The Talmud and Midrash teach that Miriam prophesied before Moses was even born, when she was only the sister of Aaron. Miriam was about 6 years old when Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite baby boys be killed. Hearing this, Miriam’s father, Amram, divorced his wife, Yocheved, because he couldn’t bear the possibility of having a son who would be killed. Seeing the actions of Amram, one of the leaders of the generation, all of the other Israelite men followed and divorced their wives as well.12

Miriam told her father, “Your act is worse than Pharaoh’s! He decreed that only male children not be permitted to live, but you decreed the same fate for both male and female children!” She then predicted that her parents would give birth to a son who would save Israel from Egypt.13 Now that the Egyptians were completely vanquished, Miriam finally saw the fulfillment of her prophecy and burst into song.14

The Meaning of Miriam

The sages explain that the name “Miriam” is from the root word mar, “bitter.” She was thus named because the bitterness of the enslavement increased right around the time she was born. As a result, throughout her young life, people viewed her negatively, associating her with the bitter suffering.

But Miriam would respond with positivity and encouragement, comparing the suffering they were experiencing to childbirth: Just as there is more pain the closer it is to the time of birth, so too, this extra bitterness was a sign of the impending redemption.15

Indeed, the Midrash explains that G‑d intensified the harshness and bitterness of the exile so that the quota of suffering would be completed faster than originally anticipated.

Now that the Egyptians were destroyed, Miriam declared, “Now you can see that it was true that ‘from the bitterness, salvation shall emerge.’ ”16

Our sages teach us that just as the redemption from the first exile was in the merit of the faith of the righteous women, so too, redemption from the final exile will be in their merit. May it be speedily in our days!