Shabbat Shirah: Song Takes Wing
On Shabbat Shirah (the "Sabbath of Song"), we read the Torah account of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites. The climax of the reading is the "song at the sea," with its lofty, rolling musical melody. The Rabbis believed that the shirah was sung responsively, first by Moses and the men, then by Miriam and the women. Today, in keeping with this tradition, the congregation sings a number of the verses before the Torah reader chants them, as an expression of the spontaneous enthusiasm of the people.
Nahum Sarna tells us that the shirah in this Torah reading—unlike Greek epic poetry, which focuses on a historical event—is a spontaneous lyrical outpouring of emotion in response to a miracle, employing poetic imagery rather than heroic narrative. Thus, the narrative description in Exodus recounts, in simple, concrete language, the way in which God drives back the sea with a "strong east wind all that night . . . turning the sea into dry ground." In the shirah, by contrast, the same event is described in striking visual imagery:
At the blast of Your nostrils, the waters piled up,
The floods stood straight like a wall,
The depths froze in the heart of the sea.
In witnessing the miracle at the sea, Israel found a new voice and a new language: the language of poetic imagery. Here we see the people draw close to the divine through poetry, metaphorically experiencing the blast of God's very "human" nostrils.
To celebrate Shabbat Shirah, the Rabbis suggested, in addition to the customs connected with the synagogue Torah reading, a home-based ritual: on Shabbat Shirah we feed the birds. Some have suggested that we do so to acknowledge the birds’ singing in praise of God and his great miracle at the sea. Others have linked feeding birds with their role in the biblical story of the double portion of manna that miraculously appeared on Friday so that the Israelites would not have to gather manna on Shabbat. A midrash tells us that two trouble-makers, Dathan and Aviram, put out manna Friday evening so that the people would discover it on the morning of Shabbat and Moses and God would be discredited. But the birds gobbled up all the manna before the people awoke, preserving the miracle of the double portion of manna on Friday and its absence on Shabbat and, thus, confirming the leadership of Moses.
The teaching that we should feed birds on Shabbat presented a halakhic challenge for the Rabbis. On Shabbat, we are generally permitted to feed only domesticated animals, not wild ones. An individual might technically circumvent the halakhic prohibition by shaking bread crumbs from a napkin or tablecloth onto the grass, but I doubt this is what the Rabbis had in mind. How curious that they should have creatively invoked the midrash concerning Dathan and Aviram to give legitimacy to a custom that was otherwise halakhically forbidden!
I strongly suspect that Israelites were feeding birds at this time of the year long before the customs, halakhah, and midrashim of rabbinic Judaism emerged. I believe the practice originated during the Israelites' journey through the desert, where they would have witnessed a striking annual natural phenomenon. Each spring, 500 million birds migrate up the rift valley in Africa, along the Red Sea, across the Sinai Peninsula, north through the Arava and Jordan Valley, dispersing at last in the birds' summer homes throughout Asia Minor and Europe. The Israelites would have witnessed flocks of raptors seeking the warm morning updrafts to traverse the mountains, great flocks of storks and cranes darkening the sky and creating a din with their beating wings. They would have seen the tiny vulnerable songbirds, the warblers and finches with their beautiful colors and melodic songs. And of course there were the flocks of quail on which they feasted.
This annual migration of hundreds of millions of birds, heading in exactly the same direction as the Israelites, must have made a tremendous impression on these wandering nomads and fostered an intimate connection. Throughout the 40-year journey in the desert, the appearance of these flocks of birds each spring must have captured the imagination and lifted the spirits of their human companions. Many of the birds would have alighted at the Israelite campsites to feed and eventually to be fed.
Once the nation was settled in Eretz Yisrael, this annual migration would have continued to be a powerful reminder to the Israelites of their ancestors' 40-year journey through the desert. Feeding the birds would become a way of celebrating their connection to the great spring migration that was witnessed during that first spring of liberation at the sea and annually for 40 years.
The Rabbis, writing in the first century, were likely dealing with a well established popular custom. They seemed to go to great lengths to put it into a religiously sanctioned framework, using various imaginative midrashim. Undoubtedly they feared an implied worship of birds, such as existed throughout the ancient world. Contemporary Egyptians expressed their death-and-rebirth symbolism through the image of a godlike phoenix rising from the ashes. In the Greco-Roman world, bird flight, birdsong, and the entrails of sacrificed birds were used to augur the future. In later centuries, birds were to figure prominently in Christian iconography, as momentous events were commonly accompanied by white doves.
The Rabbis need not have worried. Although the people continued to remember the miracle at the sea and their desert relationship to the birds, they never worshiped them. Our people knew the difference between poetic imagination and worship, and God Himself had no hesitation about using bird imagery to express His relationship to His people. As the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai before receiving the covenant, God responded to their fear and trembling at the momentous event and their apprehension about their journey into the unknown by comforting them with these tender words: "I will carry you on wings of eagles, And bring you near to me."
Jerry Friedman is a psychiatrist practicing in Toronto. This article reflects his interests in birding, Torah texts, and the topography and wildlife of ancient and modern Israel. Those interested in more information about these bird migrations may visit the following sites: www.kibbutzlotan.com (click "birding Israel"), www.eilatbirdsfestival.com, www.jbo.org.il (Jerusalem Bird Observatory), www.hulabirdfestival.org, and www.birdwatching.org.il.