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Beshalach, Beshallach, or Beshalah (בשלח — Hebrew for “when [he] let go,” the second word and first distinctive word in the parshah) is the sixteenth weekly Torah portion (parshah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the fourth in the Book of Exodus. It constitutes Exodus 13:17–17:16. Jews in the Diaspora read it the sixteenth Sabbath after Simchat Torah, generally in January or February. Jews also read the verses at the beginning of the parshah, Exodus 13:17–15:26, as one of the Torah readings on the seventh day of Passover. The parshah is particularly notable for the “Song of the Sea,” which is traditionally chanted using a different melody and is written by the scribe using a distinctive "brick-like" pattern in the Torah scroll. The Sabbath when it is read is known as Shabbos Shirah, and some communities have various customs for this day, including feeding birds and reciting the "Song of the Sea" out loud in the regular prayer service.

Sinai Peninsula from Southeastern Mediterranean panorama STS040-152-180

Sinai Peninsula

Summary

Pötting Kirchenfenster 13 Moses am roten Meer

Moses at the sea (stained glass window at the Pötting, Austria, parish church of the Holy Cross)

When Pharaoh let the Israelites go, God led the people roundabout by way of the Sea of Reeds. (Ex. 13:17–18.) Moses took the bones of Joseph with them. (Ex. 13:19.) God went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. (Ex. 13:21.)

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Pharaoh’s army drowns in the sea (illustration from the Paris Psalter)

Parting the Sea of Reeds

When Pharaoh learned that the people had fled, he had a change of heart, and he chased the Israelites with chariots, overtaking them by the sea. (Ex. 14:5–9.) Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to God and complained to Moses. (Ex. 14:10–12.) God told Moses to lift up his rod, hold out his arm, and split the sea. (Ex. 14:15–16.) Moses did so, and God drove back the sea with a strong east wind, and the Israelites marched through on dry ground, the waters forming walls on their right and left. (Ex. 14:21–22.) The Egyptians pursued, but God slowed them by locking their chariot wheels. (Ex. 14:23–25.) On God’s instruction, Moses held out his arm, and the waters covered the chariots, the horsemen, and all the Egyptians. (Ex. 14:26–28.) Moses and the Israelites – and then Miriam – sang a song to God, celebrating how God hurled horse and driver into the sea. (Ex. 15.)

Bitter water turned sweet

The Israelites went three days into the wilderness and found no water. (Ex. 15:22.) When they came to Marah, they could not drink the bitter water, so they grumbled against Moses. (Ex. 15:23–24.) God showed Moses a piece of wood to throw into the water, and the water became sweet. (Ex. 15:25.)

The Gathering of Manna-1540 1555-Bacchiacca

The Gathering of Manna (painting by Bacchiacca)

Manna in the wilderness

The Israelites came to the wilderness of Sin and grumbled in hunger against Moses and Aaron. (Ex. 16:1–3.) God heard their grumbling, and in the evening quail covered the camp, and in the morning fine flaky manna covered the ground like frost. (Ex. 16:4–14.) The Israelites gathered as much of it as they required; those who gathered much had no excess, and those who gathered little had no deficiency. (Ex. 16:15–18.) Moses instructed none to leave any of it over until morning, but some did, and it became infested with maggots and stank. (Ex. 16:19–20.) On the sixth day they gathered double the food, Moses instructed them to put aside the excess until morning, and it did not turn foul the next day, the Sabbath. (Ex. 16:22–24.) Moses told them that on the Sabbath, they would not find any manna on the plain, yet some went out to gather and found nothing. (Ex. 16:25–27.) Moses ordered that a jar of the manna be kept throughout the ages. (Ex. 16:32–33.) The Israelites ate manna 40 years. (Ex. 16:35.)

Jacopo Tintoretto 024

Moses strikes the rock (painting by Tintoretto)

Water from a stone

When the Israelites encamped at Rephidim, there was no water and the people quarreled with Moses. (Ex. 17:1–2.) God told Moses to strike the rock at Horeb to produce water, and they called the place Massah (trial) and Meribah (quarrel). (Ex. 17:5–7.)

Amalek’s attack

Amalek attacked Israel at Rephidim. (Ex. 17:8.) Moses stationed himself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in his hand, and whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. (Ex. 17:9–11.) When Moses grew weary, he sat on a stone, while Aaron and Hur supported his hands, and Joshua overwhelmed Amalek in battle. (Ex. 17:12–13.) God instructed Moses to inscribe a document as a reminder that God would utterly blot out the memory of Amalek. (Ex. 17:14.)

In classical rabbinic interpretation

Exodus chapter 13

The Mishnah cited Exodus 13:19 for the proposition that Providence treats a person measure for measure as that person treats others. And so because, as Genesis 50:7–9 relates, Joseph had the merit to bury his father Jacob and none of his brothers were greater than he was, so Joseph merited the greatest of Jews, Moses, to attend to his bones, as reported in Exodus 13:19. And Moses, in turn, was so great that none but God attended him, as Deuteronomy 34:6 reports that God buried Moses. (Mishnah Sotah 1:7–9.)

Angelo Bronzino 022

the Israelites crossing the sea (fresco by Angelo Bronzino)

Songofthesea

The Song of the sea as it is written in a Sefer Torah

Exodus chapter 14

Rabbi Meir taught that when the Israelites stood by the sea, the tribes competed with each other over who would go into the sea first. The tribe of Benjamin went first, as Psalm 68:28 says: “There is Benjamin, the youngest, ruling them (rodem),” and Rabbi Meir read rodem, “ruling them,” as rad yam, “descended into the sea.” Then the princes of Judah threw stones at them, as Psalm 68:28 says: “the princes of Judah their council (rigmatam),” and Rabbi Meir read rigmatam as “stoned them.” For that reason, Benjamin merited hosting the site of God’s Temple, as Deuteronomy 33:12 says: “He dwells between his shoulders.” Rabbi Judah answered Rabbi Meir that in reality, no tribe was willing to be the first to go into the sea. Then Nahshon ben Aminadab stepped forward and went into the sea first, praying in the words of Psalm 69:2–16, “Save me O God, for the waters come into my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing . . . . Let not the water overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up.” Moses was then praying, so God prompted Moses, in words parallel those of Exodus 14:15, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea, and you prolong prayer before Me!” Moses asked God, “Lord of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?” God replied in the words of Exodus 14:15–16, “Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward. And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground.” Because of Nahshon’s actions, Judah merited becoming the ruling power in Israel, as Psalm 114:2 says, “Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion,” and that happened because, as Psalm 114:3 says, “The sea saw [him], and fled.” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 36b–37a.)

Angelo Bronzino 024

Pharaoh’s army drowns in the sea (fresco by Angelo Bronzino)

Rabbi Johanan taught that God does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. Rabbi Johanan interpreted the words zeh el zeh in the phrase “And one did not come near the other all the night” in Exodus 14:20 to teach that when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels wanted to sing a song of rejoicing, as Isaiah 6:3 associates the words zeh el zeh with angelic singing. But God rebuked them: “The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?” Rabbi Eleazar replied that a close reading of Deuteronomy 28:63 shows that God does not rejoice personally, but does make others rejoice. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b.)

Exodus and Crossing of Red Sea

crossing of sea (synagogue interior wood panel, Dura-Europos, Syria)

Rabbi Hama ben Hanina deduced from Exodus 1:10 that Pharaoh meant: “Come, let us outwit the Savior of Israel.” Pharaoh concluded that the Egyptians should afflict the Israelites with water, because as indicated by Isaiah 54:9, God had sworn not to bring another flood to punish the world. The Egyptians failed to note that while God had sworn not to bring another flood on the whole world, God could still bring a flood on only one people. Alternatively, the Egyptians failed to note that they could fall into the waters, as indicated by the words of Exodus 14:27, “the Egyptians fled towards it.” This all bore out what Rabbi Eleazar said: In the pot in which they cooked, they were themselves cooked — that is, with the punishment that the Egyptians intended for the Israelites, the Egyptians were themselves punished. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11a.)

Rabbi Jose the Galilean reasoned that as the phrase “the finger of God” in Exodus 8:15 referred to 10 plagues, “the great hand” (translated “the great work”) in Exodus 14:31 (in connection with the miracle of the Reed Sea) must refer to 50 plagues upon the Egyptians, and thus to a variety of cruel and strange deaths. (Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael Beshallah 7; Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon 26:6; see also Exodus Rabbah 5:14, 23:9.)

Exodus chapter 15

The Tosefta deduced from Exodus 1:22 that the Egyptians took pride before God only on account of the water of the Nile, and thus God exacted punishment from them only by water when in Exodus 15:4 God cast Pharaoh’s chariots and army into the Reed Sea. (Tosefta Sotah 3:13.)

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crossing the sea (illustration from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)

Rabbi Akiva said that he who whispered Exodus 15:26 as an incantation over a wound to heal it would have no place in the world to come. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1.)

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The Harvest of God's Blessing (painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

Exodus chapter 16

The Gemara asked how one could reconcile Exodus 16:4, which reported that manna fell as “bread from heaven”; with Numbers 11:8, which reported that people “made cakes of it,” implying that it required baking; and with Numbers 11:8, which reported that people “ground it in mills,” implying that it required grinding. The Gemara concluded that the manna fell in different forms for different classes of people: For the righteous, it fell as bread; for average folk, it fell as cakes that required baking; and for the wicked, it fell as kernels that required grinding. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 75a.) The Gemara asked how one could reconcile Exodus 16:31, which reported that “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey,” with Numbers 11:8, which reported that “the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil.” Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said that the manna tasted differently for different classes of people: It tasted like honey for infants, bread for youths, and oil for the aged. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 75b.)

The Mishnah taught that the manna that Exodus 16:14–15 reports came down to the Israelites was among 10 miraculous things that God created on Sabbath eve at twilight on the first Friday at the completion of the Creation of the world. (Mishnah Avot 5:6.)

Tractate Eruvin in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Jerusalem Talmud, and Babylonian Talmud interpreted the laws of not walking beyond permitted limits in Exodus 16:29. (Mishnah Eruvin 1:1–10:15; Tosefta Eruvin 1:1–8:24; Jerusalem Talmud Eruvin 1a–; Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 2a–105a.)

Exodus chapter 17

The Mishnah reported that in synagogues at Purim, Jews read Exodus 17:8–16. (Mishnah Megillah 3:6.)

The Mishnah quoted Exodus 17:11, which described how when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and asked whether Moses’ hands really made war or stopped it. Rather, the Mishnah read the verse to teach that as long as the Israelites looked upward and submitted their hearts to God, they would grow stronger, but when they did not, they would fall. The Mishnah taught that the fiery serpent placed on a pole in Numbers 21:8 worked much the same way, by directing the Israelites to look upward to God. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8.)

Commandments

According to Maimonides and Sefer ha-Chinuch, there is one negative commandment in the parshah:

  • Not to walk outside permitted limits on the Sabbath (Ex.  16:29.)

(Maimonides. Mishneh Torah, Negative Commandment 321. Cairo, Egypt, 1170–1180. Reprinted in Maimonides. The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides. Translated by Charles B. Chavel, 2:296. London: Soncino Press, 1967. ISBN 0-900689-71-4. Sefer HaHinnuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education. Translated by Charles Wengrov, 1:137–41. Jerusalem: Feldheim Pub., 1991. ISBN 0-87306-179-9.)

Haftarah

Deborah

Deborah (illustration by Gustave Doré)

The haftarah for the parshah is:

Both the parshah and the haftarah contain songs that celebrate the victory of God’s people, the parshah in the “Song of the Sea” about God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh (Ex. 15:1–18), and the haftarah in the “Song of Deborah” about the Israelites’ victory over the Canaanite general Sisera. (Judg. 5.) Both the parshah and the haftarah report how the leaders of Israel’s enemies assembled hundreds of chariots. (Ex. 14:6–7; Judg. 4:13.) Both the parshah and the haftarah report how God “threw . . . into panic” (va-yaham) Israel’s enemies. (Ex. 14:24; Judg. 4:15.) Both the parshah and the haftarah report waters sweeping away Israel’s enemies (Ex. 14:27–28; Judg. 5:21.) Both the parshah and the haftarah report singing by women to celebrate, the parshah by Miriam (Ex. 15:21), and the haftarah by Deborah (Judg. 5.). Finally, both the parshah and the haftarah mention Amalek. (Ex. 17:8–16; Judg. 5:14.)

The Gemara tied together God’s actions in the parshah and the haftarah. To reassure Israelites concerned that their enemies still lived, God had the Reed Sea spit out the dead Egyptians. (See Ex. 14:30.) To repay the seas, God committed the Kishon River to deliver one-and-a-half times as many bodies. To pay the debt, when Sisera came to attack the Israelites, God had the Kishon wash the Canaanites away. (See Judg. 5:21.) The Gemara calculated one-and-a-half times as many bodies from the numbers of chariots reported in Exodus 14:7 and Judges 4:13. (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 118b.)

For Ashkenazi Jews, the haftarah is the longest of the year.

In the liturgy

The Song of the Sea, Exodus 15:1–18, appears in its entirety in the P’sukei D’zimra section of the morning service for Shabbat (Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, 102–03. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2003. ISBN 0916219208.)

The references to God’s mighty hand and arm in Exodus 15:6, 12, and 16 are reflected in Psalm 98:1, which is also one of the six Psalms recited at the beginning of the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service. (Hammer, at 18.)

The statement of God’s eternal sovereignty in Exodus 15:18, “God will reign for ever and ever!” may have found paraphrase in Psalm 146:10, “Adonai shall reign throughout all generations,” which in turn appears in the Kedushah section of the Amidah prayer in each of the three prayer services. And the statement of God’s eternal sovereignty in Exodus 15:18 also appears verbatim in the Kedushah D’Sidra section of the Minchah service for Shabbat. (Hammer, at 4, 227.)

The people’s murmuring at Massah and Meribah, and perhaps the rock that yielded water, of Exodus 17:2–7 are reflected in Psalm 95, which is in turn the first of the six Psalms recited at the beginning of the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service. (Hammer, at 15.)

The Weekly Maqam

In the Weekly Maqam, Sephardi Jews each week base the songs of the services on the content of that week's parshah. For Parshah Beshalach, Sephardi Jews apply Maqam Ajam, the maqam that expresses happiness, to commemorating the joy and song of the Israelites as they crossed the sea.

Further reading

The parshah has parallels or is discussed in these sources:

Biblical

Early nonrabbinic

Josephus

Josephus

Classical rabbinic

  • Mishnah: Eruvin 1:1–10:15; Rosh Hashanah 3:8; Megillah 3:6; Sotah 1:7–9; Sanhedrin 10:1; Avot 5:6. 3rd Century. Reprinted in, e.g., The Mishnah: A New Translation. Translated by Jacob Neusner, 208–29; 304, 321, 449, 604, 686. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-300-05022-4.
  • Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael: 19:1–46:2. Land of Israel, late 4th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Mekhilta According to Rabbi Ishmael. Translated by Jacob Neusner, 1:125–72; 2:1–36. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988. ISBN 1-55540-237-2.
  • Jerusalem Talmud: Berakhot 4b, 24a, 43b, 51a, 94b; Peah 5a, 9b; Eruvin 1a–; Sukkah 28b. Land of Israel, circa 400 C.E. Reprinted in, e.g., Talmud Yerushalmi. Edited by Chaim Malinowitz, Yisroel Simcha Schorr, and Mordechai Marcus, vols. 1–3, 22. Brooklyn: Mesorah Pubs., 2005–2009.
  • Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon 2:2; 11:1; 15:4; 19:4–45:1; 48:2; 49:2; 50:2; 54:2; 61:2; 81:1. Land of Israel, 5th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Translated by W. David Nelson, 7, 33, 50, 79–195, 214, 217, 228, 249, 279, 370. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006. ISBN 0-8276-0799-7.
First page of the first tractate of the Talmud (Daf Beis of Maseches Brachos)

Talmud

  • Babylonian Talmud: Berakhot 4a, 5a, 20b, 27a, 33a, 39b–40a, 54a–b, 58a; Shabbat 2a, 23b, 28a, 87b, 103b, 114b, 118b, 133b; Eruvin 2a–105a; Pesachim 47b, 67a, 85b, 87b, 117a, 118b; Yoma 4b, 52b, 70a, 75a–b; Sukkah 11b, 25a, 33a; Beitzah 2b, 15b; Rosh Hashanah 29a, 31a, 32b; Taanit 9a, 11a; Megillah 7a, 10b, 14a, 18a, 30b–31a; Moed Katan 25b; Chagigah 5b, 13b–14a; Yevamot 13b, 72a; Ketubot 5a, 7b, 62b; Nedarim 2b; Nazir 2b, 45a; Sotah 9b, 11a–b, 13b, 20b, 27b, 30b, 37a, 42b, 48a; Gittin 20a, 56b; Kiddushin 32a, 38a; Bava Kamma 82a, 92a–b; Bava Metzia 86b; Bava Batra 16b, 98a; Sanhedrin 11a–b, 17a, 20b, 39b, 42a, 56b, 90a, 91b–92a, 93a, 95b, 96b, 98b, 99b, 101a, 106a, 110a; Makkot 8b; Shevuot 15a; Avodah Zarah 2b, 4a, 11a, 24b; Horayot 8b, 12a; Menachot 27a, 31b, 32b, 53a–b, 95a; Chullin 14a, 89a, 135b; Arakhin 15a–b; Keritot 5b. Babylonia, 6th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Talmud Bavli. Edited by Yisroel Simcha Schorr, Chaim Malinowitz, and Mordechai Marcus, 72 vols. Brooklyn: Mesorah Pubs., 2006.

Medieval

Rashi woodcut

Rashi

  • Exodus Rabbah 20:1–26:3. 10th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Midrash Rabbah: Exodus. Translated by S. M. Lehrman, vol. 3. London: Soncino Press, 1939. ISBN 0-900689-38-2.
  • Rashi. Commentary. Exodus 13–17. Troyes, France, late 11th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Rashi. The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated. Translated and annotated by Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg, 2:143–204. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1994. ISBN 0-89906-027-7.
  • Judah Halevi. Kuzari. 1:85–86; 3:35; 4:3. Toledo, Spain, 1130–1140. Reprinted in, e.g., Jehuda Halevi. Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel. Intro. by Henry Slonimsky, 60, 167, 202–03. New York: Schocken, 1964. ISBN 0-8052-0075-4.
  • Zohar 2:44a–67a. Spain, late 13th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., The Zohar. Translated by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon. 5 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1934.

Modern

Moses Mendelson P7160073

Mendelssohn

Thomas Mann 1937

Mann

  • Thomas Mann. Joseph and His Brothers. Translated by John E. Woods, 577, 788. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-4001-9. Originally published as Joseph und seine Brüder. Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer Verlag, 1943.
  • Harvey Arden. “In Search of Moses.” National Geographic. (Jan. 1976): 2–37.
  • Harvey Arden. “Eternal Sinai.” National Geographic. 161 (4) (Apr. 1982): 420–61.
  • Trude Dothan. “Gaza Sands Yield Lost Outpost of the Egyptian Empire.” National Geographic. 162 (6) (Dec. 1982): 739–69.
  • Marc A. Gellman. “A Tent of Dolphin Skins.” In Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern Jewish Tales. Edited by Howard Schwartz. New York: Avon, 1983. ISBN 0-380-81091-3. Reissue ed. Jason Aronson, 1991. ISBN 0876688490.
  • Hershel Shanks. “The Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea, According to Hans Goedicke.” Biblical Archaeology Review 7 (5) (Sept./Oct. 1981).
  • Charles R. Krahmalkov. “A Critique of Professor Goedicke’s Exodus Theories.” Biblical Archaeology Review 7 (5) (Sept./Oct. 1981).
  • Bernard F. Batto. “Red Sea or Reed Sea? How the Mistake Was Made and What Yam Sûp Really Means.” Biblical Archaeology Review 10 (4) (July/Aug. 1984).
  • Aaron Wildavsky. Assimilation versus Separation: Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel, 8. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1993. ISBN 1-56000-081-3.
  • William H.C. Propp. Exodus 1–18, 2:461–622. New York: Anchor Bible, 1998. ISBN 0-385-14804-6.
  • David Einhorn. “War with Amalek.” In American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Michael Warner, 665–73. New York: Library of America, 1999. ISBN 1-883011-65-5.
  • Lawrence Kushner. Kabbalah: A Love Story, 112. New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006. ISBN 0-7679-2412-6.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, 293. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03760-5.

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