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Jewish Food for Thought-Parshat Beshalach/Shabbat Shira  January 15, 2022 - 13 Shevat 5782

01/14/2022 09:15:44 AM

Jan14

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to a brand new season of a YouTube series we are calling Kosher Food For Thought, that will include fresh takes on topics of Jewish interest, reflections on the weekly Torah portion, factoids from Jewish history, and conversation starters to use around the Shabbat dinner table.  That brand new opening sequence is in honour of this week being Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, so named because this week’s parsha contains the Song of the Sea.  A beautiful piece of ancient Hebrew prose in the Torah which is the song that the children of Israel sang when the walls of the Sea of Reeds came crashing down behind them, destroying the Egyptian army.  Free at last after 200 years of slavery, the Torah records how the Israelites, overcome with emotion, burst into spontaneous song.

While the words of the song can be found in the Torah, we honestly don’t have any idea what the song actually sounded like.  The text tells us, “vatikach Miriam hanevi’ah achot aharon et hataf b’yadah vatetzenah kol hanashim achareha batupim uvamachalot”, - “And Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Aharon, took a timbral into her hand and led the women in drumming and dancing” – the timbral was an ancient drum.  The text paints us a bit of a picture, but still, what did the song SOUND like?  The truth is… we don’t know!  Most of the traditional synagogue music that stands out in our minds today was written during the last couple of centuries.  There are some melodies that are older such as the prayer modes, but we really can’t much trace their usage further back than a few more hundred years.  Even the melodies we use to read Torah are only relatively modern interpretations of trope symbols that have only been around a thousand years.  It’s weird… a thousand years doesn’t get you too far back when you’re Jewish.  Except though, when we read the Song of the Sea in shul, it is customary for the Torah reader to switch into a different melody, just for that section.  “Ashira L’adonai, ki ga’o ga’ah, soos verochvo rama vayam”.  We have no idea where that melody came from or how long we’ve been using it.  But the melody is actually quite interesting because while Western music is based on a 12 tone series – that’s all the letter-named notes and sharps and flats that make up pretty much all the music we know and love, the melody we use for this spot in the Torah, known as the Shira melody, only has 5 tones.  The 5 note scale, also called a pentatonic scale is the oldest known musical mode that we know about, a musical mode that ancient musical instruments were often built in a number of civilizations around the world, including the middle east.  In fact, it is reasonably likely that whatever the original Song of the Sea sounded like, there’s a good chance it was sung in a pentatonic mode.  So who knows?  Perhaps the melody you hear in shul this Shabbat really is the very same song the Israelites once sang three and a half thousand years ago, on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. 

Just some kosher food for thought.  
                                                             Shabbat Shalom!
                                                                                           Chaz J

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782