Songs of our tradition
Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16
Most of Exodus chapter 15 in this week’s Torah portion is devoted to
shirat hayam (the song at the sea). Upon their miraculous deliverance from pursuit by Pharaoh’s army, Moses and the Israelites sang God’s praises with this ecstatic poem.
We echo this song at every evening and morning service: Mi chamocha baelim (who is like You among gods?) … hayimloch l’olam va’ed (he will rule forever and ever).
This is far from being the only poem that we recite or sing in our prayers. The siddur is studded with entire psalms. More than that, in the prayerbook there are frequent quotations from the psalms and other poetry, especially from the biblical prophets, most of whose writing is also in verse.
The Hebrew word shir is used to denote both “song” and “poem.” In ancient times, all poetry was sung, and today readers and critics still look for “music” in contemporary verse.
The siddur also provides us with poetry more recent than scripture. For example, Nishmat kol chai, recited on Shabbat and Yom Tov, is a glorious spiritual journey. Un’taneh tokef on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a fearsome reminder of our mortality as the sins we have committed confront us. Although they appear as prose in our prayer books, acquaintance with their language and structure shows that they are poems.
Some of our liturgical poetry appears as such. With the beloved L’cha dodi we welcome Shabbat, and our tradition includes a good many piyyutim (poems), intricate medieval compositions. Indeed, the writing of prayer in verse is deeply embedded in our tradition. It has never ceased; may it always continue to give us inspiration and moments of beauty.
Olga Marx, writing last century, paraphrased a beautiful shir by the incomparable Yehuda Halevi (11-12th cent.), concluding:
Source of my life, Your praise shall sound as long
As I can breathe my fervor into song!
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)