The Shabbat in which we read from the Torah portion of Beshalach, which includes the story of the Jews crossing the Red Sea, is commonly referred to as Shabbat Shirah (“Shabbat of Song”), since the story continues with a song of thanks and praise to G‑d.

Some have the custom to feed the birds on this Shabbat (see below for an important discussion on whether this is permissible). Here’s how this came to be:

Birds Joined in the Song of the Sea

The sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, relates that Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, known as the Maharal of Prague (15121–1609), instituted the custom to gather the children on this Shabbat and tell them the story of our ancestors crossing the sea.

The narrative would include the Midrashic tradition1 that fruit trees miraculously grew from the seabed, and the children plucked the fruits and fed them to the birds. Then the birds joined in with the singing of the Song of the Sea.

Following the storytelling, the custom was to give the children buckwheat, which they would feed the chickens and birds to commemorate their participation in the song.2

Masters of Song

Others explain that birds are “masters of song,” as no one can sing quite like the birds. Therefore, when we are going to sing G‑d’s praise, we feed the “masters of song.”3

Alternatively, the birds join together daily in singing G‑d’s praise. So on Shabbat Shirah, a Shabbat specifically dedicated to singing G‑d’s praise, we feed the birds in appreciation of their daily song.4

Sanctifying G‑d’s Name

Some explain that the custom actually relates to an episode found later in the Parshah, the miracle of the manna falling from heaven.

We read that Moses told the people that on Friday there would be a double portion of manna, one for Friday, and one for Shabbat, when none would fall. The verse then tells us that despite Moses’ warning, “It came about that on the seventh day, [some] of the people went out to gather [manna], but they did not find [any].”5

Tradition relates that upon hearing Moses’ warning, two troublemakers, Dathan and Abiram, thought this would be an opportunity to discredit Moses. On Friday evening Dathan and Aviram secretly placed manna in the field, and then on Shabbat morning, they told the people to go out and see that, unlike what Moses had forewarned, there was indeed manna in the fields.

Thus, some people “went out to gather manna.” However, they didn’t find any. For when the birds got wind of their plan, they ate up all the manna that had been placed in the field, thus sparing Moses needless shame and trouble.

When we feed the birds on this Shabbat, we reward them for their actions.6

Sustained by G‑d

G‑d commanded Moses to set aside a jug of manna and put it in the Holy of Holies as a testament for future generations, demonstrating that if they would trust in G‑d and follow the Torah and mitzvahs, G‑d would sustain them, just as He sustained the Jews in the desert through the manna.

Rabbi Moses Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer (1762–1839), explains7 that since the Jewish people are compared to a bird,8 and since we no longer have this jug of manna, we feed the birds on the Shabbat that we read about the manna. This reminds us that if we trust in G‑d with a full heart and follow his Torah and mitzvahs, then we too will easily be sustained, just as birds find their food with relative ease.

Feeding Birds on Shabbat

Many point out that, especially nowadays, it is improper to feed the birds on Shabbat itself. On Shabbat, you are generally only allowed to feed animals that you are responsible for and that are relying on you for their food.9 Although in earlier generations it was quite common for people to have chickens or domesticated fowl that fit this category, nowadays it is much rarer for this to be the case.10

Some have the custom to instead put out the food for the birds right before Shabbat.11

The Rebbe maintained that even those who could not feed the birds should still discuss the idea with their children and cite the various reasons, to teach them to show mercy to G‑d’s creations.12

Eating Wheat or Buckwheat on Shabbat Shirah

While on the topic of buckwheat and Shabbat Shirah, it is worthwhile to note a somewhat related custom that some, including Chabad, have of eating buckwheat on Shabbat Shirah (others eat wheat, see below).13

Some explain that although we cannot feed the birds on Shabbat, we eat a food that birds like, buckwheat, and thus we will be reminded to discuss the incident with the birds.14

Others give different reasons, some of which apply more to wheat than buckwheat (which is not at all the same thing). Nevertheless, since it seems to be a similar custom, we will include them here.

Remembrance of the Manna

Some explain that the reason for this custom is that the manna (which features in this week’s Torah portion) looked like kernels of grain.15

G‑d’s Promise to Satiate His People

Another reason given is based on the verse “Within your borders He makes peace; with the best of the wheat He will sate you.”16 On this Shabbat, when we read how the people crossed the sea and were finally ready to enter the spiritual boundaries of the Torah and the physical boundaries of Israel, we eat buckwheat.

Additionally, the custom to eat wheat on this Shabbat is actually hinted to in the name of this week's Torah portion. The word בשלח (beshalach) can be read as an acronym for the words "בשבת שירה לאכל חטים"—“On Shabbat Shirah to eat wheat.”17

Preparing for Passover

Another explanation is that in times gone by, in order to have enough time to prepare Passover matzah, communities would acquire the specially harvested wheat before Shabbat Shirah (which, on a regular year, is about two months before Passover). Now, some are of the opinion that, before Passover, one should endeavor to eat from the wheat that will be used for the matzah. Thus, they would eat from the wheat on Shabbat Shirah.18

Let us conclude with a prayer that the day soon come when we will once again burst out in song,19 praising G‑d for His miracles, with the arrival of Moshiach. May it be soon!