Once earphones playing his favorite music were placed on him, the elderly, near-comatose man came to life. Resurrected, as if from Ezekiel’s vision. He became responsive, eyes wide open, humming and moving his body in sync with the tune.
In treating patients with severe advanced dementia, Dr. Oliver Sacks showed the almost magical ability of music to reach and awaken a person’s psyche, connecting the body and soul.
While Sacks’s observations were novel and significant, he was not the first to identify the power of music. The Soviets censored jazz claiming it was subversive. Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant described music as “the quickening art.” Pied Pipers have charmed children since the Middle Ages. And Plato advocated regulating the kind of music Athenian youth should listen to “because more than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it.”[i]
So it is not surprising, as we read in parashat Haazinu, that Moses’s last oration before his death was a song. Moses meant for his final message to be heard, internalized, and always remembered by the Children of Israel. Moshe Rabeinu – Moses, our teacher – wanted to inspire a successive chain of generational teaching of the revelation at Sinai, of learning and living Torah, that would span time and space. To ensure success, it was necessary for Moses to rely not only on speech but also to invoke song.
The word used for song in Ha’azinu is shira. It is one of two nearly identical Hebrew words that mean song, the other being shir. The only difference in how they are spelled is that shira ends with the additional letter hei. But are there any other noteworthy distinctions between these two words?
The contexts in which these words appear may provide an answer.
Shir is found seventy-seven times throughout the Bible as a noun but only once in the Five Books of Moses. This was when Laban berated Jacob for fleeing from him in stealth and claimed, implausibly, that he would have sent Jacob and his family off “with gladness, with songs (u’ve’shirim, the plural form of shir), with timbrel, and with lyre” (Gen. 31:27).
In contrast, shira appears only thirteen times in the Bible, eight of which are found in three places in the Five Books of Moses. The first time is in Exodus at the crossing of the Red Sea (Shirat HaYam), next in Numbers when the Hebrews were saved from being ambushed by the Amorites (Shirat HaBe’er), and last in Deuteronomy with Moses’s parting song (Shirat Ha’azinu). Outside of the Five Books of Moses, shira appears as the description of the majestic song that David sang at the end of his life thanking God for deliverance from his enemies. This song actually appears twice, once in 2 Samuel 22 and the second time, a nearly verbatim rendition, as Psalm 18.
In their respective contexts, shir seems to be a generic term for song. Shira, however, specifically expresses gratitude and is connected to especially momentous occasions. It seems that shira is rather an elevated and special form of shir.[ii]
This is also the meaning of shira in the famous Midrashic list of “Eser Shirot,” or “Ten Songs.” Chazal, the great Jewish sages of antiquity who lived from the time of the Second Temple through the sixth century C.E., deemed these songs greater than all other songs in the Bible and indeed any other song that has appeared in the world since Creation. Even the word used for this group of songs is “shirot,” which is the plural form of shira, not shir. And of the ten songs, four use “shira” in their respective texts.[iii] For Chazal, each of the greatest songs that has ever been or will be sung is a shira.
Chazal ascribe similar meaning to shira in another Midrash:
From the day that God created the world until Israel stood at the sea, we do not find a man who uttered song (shira) to God, other than Israel. The first man, Adam, was created but he did not sing a song (shira). Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace and from the kings but he did not sing a song (shira). And so too Isaac was saved from the knife, but he did not sing a song (shira). And so too Jacob was saved from the angel, from Esau, and from the people of Shechem, but he did not sing a song (shira). But when Israel came to the sea and it was parted for them, immediately they sang to God, as it says: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel…” (Ex. 15:1).[iv]
The Midrash concludes that Shirat HaYam was the first time in the history of the world when a shira was sung. But didn’t people sing songs before the Exodus from Egypt? Laban, who preceded the Egyptian exodus in Biblical chronology, suggested as much in his confrontation with Jacob. For this Midrash to make sense, shira must instead refer to a unique kind of song, a passionate, elevated musical expression of gratitude.
Both Shirat HaYam and the word shira also figure in the Shacharit (morning) and Maariv (evening) prayer services, at the end of the blessings following the Shema and preceding the Shemoneh Esrei:
Praises to God Most High, the Blessed One who is blessed. Moses and the Children of Israel recited to You a song (shira) with great joy, and they all exclaimed: “Who is like You, Lord, among the mighty? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11)
The quote in this text comes from Shirat HaYam, which the prayer liturgy describes explicitly as a shira. In Shacharit, a second reference to shira is made, immediately following the first:
With a new song (shira), the redeemed people praised Your Name at the seashore. Together they all gave thanks, proclaimed Your kingship, and declared: “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” (Ex. 15:11)
A Talmudic discussion explains that the prayer service so situates these verses because redemption, represented by the crossing of the Red Sea, is meant to be juxtaposed to prayer, epitomized by the Shemoneh Esrei. The discussion concludes with a promise that whoever adjoins redemption to prayer will himself merit the redemption by securing a place in the World to Come.[v] In this way, Chazal add an additional dimension to shira, connecting shira with the idea of redemption.
A separate Talmudic discussion about King Hezekiah makes a similar connection. Why, the Talmud asks, was Hezekiah not anointed the Messiah? Being a Jewish book, the Talmud answers its own question with a question:
Master of the Universe! If David, King of Israel, who recited multitudes of songs (shirot) and praises before You, You did not make the Messiah, then Hezekiah, for whom You performed all these miracles [delivering him from the siege of Assyrian King Sennacherib and healing his illness] and yet he did not sing songs of gratitude (shira) before You, will You really make him the Messiah?[vi]
Here, too, Chazal understand shira to be a song of gratitude sung in response to a significant event. Moreover, the singing of shira, of expressing gratitude for salvation through song, is also a trigger that launches redemption.
What potency there is in a single letter, the hei! It transforms the ordinary melody of a shir into the awesome vehicle for heavenly redemption that is shira. Likewise, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes how the addition of a hei to the names of Abram and Sarai elevated their status and connected them to redemption. Only after God designated them as Abraham and Sarah did He specify their role to become the progenitors of the covenantal nation of Israel with the mission to bring redemption to the world.[vii] These observations help us understand how, in a Talmudic analysis of verses from the books of Isaiah and Genesis, Chazal identify the letter hei as God’s tool of creation in fashioning the heaven and the earth.[viii]
Perhaps this is also why in another place, the Talmud goes a step further. A debate about a verse in Ha’azinu ends with the conclusion that the Torah itself, the full embodiment of God’s covenant with Israel by whose laws Israel is to live, is itself a shira.[ix] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains what this assertion means:
And why call the Torah a Song? Because if we are to hand on our faith and way of life to the next generation, it must sing. Torah must be affective, not just cognitive. It must speak to our emotions… Precisely because we are creatures of emotion, music is an essential part of the vocabulary of humankind… The Torah is God’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir, the performers of His choral symphony. And though when Jews speak they often argue, when they sing, they sing in harmony, as the Israelites did at the Red Sea, because music is the language of the soul, and at the level of the soul Jews enter the unity of the Divine which transcends the oppositions of lower worlds. The Torah is God’s song, and we collectively are its singers.[x]
To express gratitude to God for His blessings through song, and to live life according to the precepts of the Torah, are transcendent acts that bring us into a duet with the Almighty. Through shira, we can entrench memory across generations, breathe life into dry bones, and quicken the coming redemption.
[i] Plato Republic. 3:401d
[ii] There are three other places where shira appears in the Bible outside of the Five Books of Moses where it doesn’t easily fit into the definition I propose. Possible justifications are given briefly below:
- Isaiah 5:1 –Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard,” an allegory for the relationship between God and man, has spiritual significance that elevates the song above the level of a regular song.
- Isaiah 23:15 – Connecting a majestic shira with the song of a harlot is a way to convey and emphasize irony.
- Amos 8:3 –Similarly, the juxtaposition of shirot with wailing conveys and emphasizes irony.
A Tosefot on Kiddushin 37b suggests another way to look at these cases. It proposes that the Five Books of Moses, the remaining Biblical books of Prophets and Writings, and rabbinic literature each have a specific way of using language. Assuming this is the case, while the use of shira in the prophetic books may not fit as neatly into the framework I proposed, it does so clearly in the Five Books of Moses and rabbinic literature.
[iii] Tanchuma, Beshalach 10
[iv] Shemot Rabbah 23:4
[v] Berachot 4b
[vi] Sanhedrin 94a
[vii] Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Parenthood: Natural and Redeemed,” in Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships, ed. David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky (New Jersey: Toras HoRav Foundation, 2000), 109.
[viii] Menachot 29b
[ix] Nedarim 38a
[x] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Torah as Song,” Vayelech 5775