Miriam’s Song and the Persistence of Music in Dark Times

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Rebecca Cypess


The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15) offers an opportunity to reflect on the role of music within the lives of Bnei Yisrael during their enslavement in Egypt. Various commentators have addressed topics such as the structure of the song, its relationship to the broader biblical art of poetics, and musical performance in the ancient world. I argue that a wider historical perspective on the use of musical instruments by enslaved peoples—in particular, enslaved Africans at the height of the international slave trade in the eighteenth century—sheds light on important themes of the Exodus in Jewish tradition.

The Torah relates that Miriam complemented the singing of the general population—or perhaps only of the men—by leading music-making among the women:

And Miriam, the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took the tof in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tupim and meholot. And Miriam answered them: “Sing to Hashem, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown in the sea” (Exodus 15:20–21).[1]

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael asks why the Jews had these instruments in the desert in the first place. After all, they had escaped Egypt in extreme haste, under cover of darkness. Why would they take the time to pack such seemingly unnecessary items as musical instruments? The answer lies in their faith in Hashem’s redemption:

Why did [Bnei] Yisrael (m.) have tupim and meholot in the desert? They were righteous people, certain in the knowledge that the Holy One, Blessed is He, would perform miracles and triumphs. At the time when they left Egypt, they prepared their tupim and meholot (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael 15:20).

Rashi paraphrases this source, but he attributes the righteousness and steadfast faith exhibited here specifically to the women. This seems warranted, given that the Torah only mentions the accompaniment of musical instruments when describing the song of the women; the men apparently sang without instruments:

So certain were the righteous women (f.) of that generation that the Holy One, Blessed is He, would perform miracles for them, that they brought tupim out of Egypt (Rashi on Exodus 15:20).

Both Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael and Rashi seem to recognize an incongruity between the situation of slavery and the possession and use of musical instruments. Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport underscore this question and ask an even more basic one: how did the Jewish women come to possess these instruments in the first place?

An inquiring reader might wonder that they even possessed drums and timbrels with which to dance and sing on the shore of the Red Sea. At the unexpected midnight signal to leave Egypt did the women actually pause to pack their tambourines along with the riches of Egypt and their personal effects?[2]

Tuchman and Rapoport emphasize that the book of Exodus repeatedly enumerates the items that the women took from Egypt (3:22, 11:2, and 12:35), which included klei kesef u-khlei zahav u-semalot (implements of silver, implements of gold, and garments). These lists do not include musical instruments.

I propose that an analogous case from more recent history, the enslavement of Black peoples in the early modern Atlantic world, suggests that it is perfectly reasonable and understandable for enslaved people to use musical instruments, both during slavery and upon their escape. The continued use of such instruments, along with traditions of song, serves as a means of maintaining resilience and a sense of national identity in the face of great adversity. The Black peoples who were kidnapped from Africa in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries and forced into slavery had their own traditions of song and instrumental performance. Forcibly separated from their homes, and very often from their families, they fused the individual musical traditions of their original nations with those of other enslaved Black peoples, keeping those traditions alive as a means of building and maintaining a sense of community and human dignity. While there were many differences between the Jews’ slavery in Egypt and the slavery of Black Africans and their descendants in Europe and the European colonies,[3] consideration of this elliptical episode from the Torah in light of the more recent history of the enslaved Black peoples in the Atlantic world is instructive. Indeed, as I will discuss below, some of them understood themselves as heirs to the biblical tradition of music made during enslavement.

Among the most shocking and poignant sources that attest to the presence of musical instruments in the lives of enslaved Black people in the eighteenth century are the many advertisements placed in newspapers that demand the return of runaway slaves who could be recognized by their possession and skilled usage of musical instruments. Examples from English newspapers abound. They include, for instance, a 1768 advertisement in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser seeking the return of “John Chalk, but who has lately gone by the name of JOHN SMART: He is about five feet five or six inches high, pretty lusty and fat, about 35 years of age, woolly head, but often wears false curls; stutters much in his speech at times; plays upon the French horn and violin; had on when he went away a silver laced hat, blue coat and red waistcoat.”[4] In 1762, the Public Advertiser called for the return of a “black BOY, named King, about sixteen Years of Age, took with him when he went away, a black Velvet Jockey Cap, a blue Frock and Waistcoat, Leather Breeches, four Shirts, three Pair of new worsted Stockings, and a new Pair of Shoes; he has also taken with him a good Violin.” A Black man named Prince could be recognized by the facts that he “speaks pretty good English, and blows the French horn tolerably well.” When the enslaved man Joseph Williams ran away from his captivity, he “stole out of the House . . . a French Horn, a new Silver laced Hat; two Fustian Suits of Cloaths, a new Pair of Leather Breeches, two Pair of Shoes both lined; a blue Surtout much too big for him, four Shirts, six Pair of Stockings, some fine printed Linen Handkerchiefs, which he carried away with him.” The cruelty to which these men were subjected is alluded to in the advertisement seeking the capture of William Suza, a “Negro Boy about seventeen Years of Age, short and stout made, marked on one or both of his Temples with Scars, also on the Forehead; wears a white Coat, reddish Waistcoat, black Breeches and Stockings, the coat rather too large, blows the French Horn, and plays a little on the German Flute.” (Emphasis in these passages has been added.)

Even in their terrifying and pressured moment of escape, these enslaved people paused to take their musical instruments with them. This act should be understood as signifying defiance of their captors and resistance to the dehumanization that had been imposed upon them.

In the Caribbean and North America, too, enslaved Blacks took their musical traditions with them and kept them alive. Thomas Jefferson, who enslaved and abused numerous Black men and women, wrote about their arts in dismissive terms, but in doing so, he attested to the fact that they did engage in the arts. Regarding poetry, Jefferson disparagingly noted that “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.”[5] He claimed that Black people may “astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.” He acknowledged that Black people had some talent for music: “In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch [i.e., a song or round].” However, in the next breath, he claims that their talent for music is limited to the sensory realm, not to the intellectual: “Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.”[6] This comment shows how firmly Jefferson privileges the supposedly white, European art of composition above the oral tradition of music that enslaved Blacks brought with them from Africa.

In the course of this discussion, Jefferson provides a footnote explaining that enslaved Black people had brought an instrumental tradition with them from Africa: “The instrument proper to them is the Banjar [i.e., banjo], which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar.” For Jefferson, this instrument seems to be a curiosity, yet the influence of the African banjo would soon become inseparable from the larger traditions of musical creation and performance in the United States and beyond.[7] And, again, it offers a case of enslaved peoples persisting in the use of an instrument and its performance traditions in the harshest circumstances.

I further propose that considering why enslaved Blacks maintained these musical traditions in their captivity sheds light on the women’s musicianship in Egypt and on the shores of the Red Sea.

Perhaps no one captured the why of Black musicianship more eloquently than W. E. B. Du Bois in his monumental volume The Souls of Black Folk:

They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days—Sorrow Songs—for they were weary at heart. . . . Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past. . . .

What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. They tell us in these eager days [i.e. non-Black interpreters after the Civil War] that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy. I can easily believe this of some, of many. But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart-touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.[8]

As Du Bois explained, the precise meanings of the words of the songs of Black slaves may have been lost over time, and the music, as an oral tradition, may have changed. But the living tradition of Black music bears witness to both the suffering and intractable hope of his brothers and sisters—his ancestors held in bondage.

Moreover, it is perhaps significant that some enslaved Black people in the Atlantic world understood themselves as heirs to the ancient Jews.[9] They sometimes related their own slavery to that of the Jews in Egypt, and, as Kenneth Chelst explains, they understood their own song and dance as “symboliz[ing] critical events in the Israelite journey to freedom and the Promised Land. First and foremost, [their] late night dances symbolized the Israelite march through the Sea of Reeds with their former masters in pursuit rushing unknowingly to their deaths.”[10] This analogy echoes themes in Jewish tradition.

Just as the music of enslaved Black peoples in the Atlantic world allowed their hope to persist, the music of Miriam and the other women might have served a similar purpose. Jewish tradition insists that the women in Egypt remained steadfast in their faith that their people would be redeemed. Not only, as noted above, did Rashi claim that the Jewish women took their instruments out of Egypt because they were confident that God would perform miracles for them, but many midrashim describe how the women insisted on having relations with their husbands and giving birth despite Pharaoh’s decree to cast all the Jewish boys in the Nile. Rashi, following the Talmud (Megillah 14a), also relates that Miriam is called a prophetess because she had foreseen that her mother would give birth to the redeemer of the nation, thus prompting her parents to reunite. And famously, on Exodus 38:8–“He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting”–Rashi cites Midrash Tanhuma to explain why the copper laver of the Tabernacle was made out of the copper mirrors of the Jewish women:

The Israelite women had copper mirrors into which they would look when they were beautifying themselves, and they did not hesitate to bring even these as a contribution to the Tabernacle. Moses was about to reject them since they appealed to the yetzer hara, but the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to him, “Accept them; for these are dearer to Me than all else, for through them the women gave birth to hosts of people in Egypt.” When their husbands were worn out from labor, the women would bring them food and drink and feed them. Then they would take the mirrors, and each one would gaze at herself in her mirror with her husband, and would say endearingly to him, “See, I am more lovely than you!” Through this, they awakened their husbands’ desire, and they subsequently gave birth, at it is said, (Song of Songs 8:5) “I awakened your love under the apple tree” [i.e. in the fields where the men worked]. This is what it refers to when it states mar’ot ha-tzov’ot, “the mirrors of the women who reared the hosts (ha-tzeva’ot).”

Rashi’s citation of this midrash underscores his position that the Jewish women should be given credit for maintaining hope for the future. Through their hope, the nation of Israel survived. By insisting on the continuation of family life, the women perpetuated the Jewish people when the men were too exhausted to think of anything but their day-to-day labor.

Music was another means for the women to perpetuate both their sense of nationhood and their hope for a brighter future. The commentary of Amos Hakham in the Da’at Mikra edition of Exodus 15:20 makes clear that the Jewish women made music with instruments even during their captivity. The women heard Miriam beating her tof and maḥol and immediately understood it as their cue to sing, and to do so in a particular responsive pattern. This action demonstrates that they were accustomed to performing in this manner, as Hakham explains:

The tof – It says here “the tof,” with a definite article, and the meaning is “the tof that was ready by her side and that she used regularly.”
In her hand – Miriam took the tof in her hand and hit it. And when the women heard the sound of the tof, they gathered around her, as the Torah goes on to explain: “All the women went out after her.”[11]

While the Jews who went into the Babylonian exile centuries later refused to sing “songs of joy” for their captors (Psalm 137) as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish women in Egypt must have made music in captivity, as signaled by the definite article attached to Miriam’s tof. As Hakham notes, the instrument “was ready by her side,” and she “used it regularly.” Miriam’s tof encapsulated the Jewish women’s hope for the future and their insistence on the national identity and perpetuation of the Jewish people. Hakham’s commentary underscores that Miriam did not take up just any instrument—“a tof”—but rather the instrument, her instrument, the one that she was accustomed to using and which the other women instantly recognized.

The Africans who were captured in the early modern era and forced into slavery in Europe and the Americas used music both to express their sorrows and to keep their hope alive, forging a foundation in the new world for their descendents. Du Bois heard echoes of their sorrows and their hope when he heard the music of Black Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. This case sheds light on the role that music played for the Jewish people in their captivity long ago. The Jewish women who sang at the Sea were seasoned musicians, and they, too, had kept their traditions alive in the darkest times. Thus, Miriam’s tof was an instrument of solidarity and hope. At the moment of their salvation, she and the other women performed the music that they had practiced through generations of slavery.

[1] This essay quotes from historical sources on slavery that are troubling for their content and language as well as for the inhumane realities that they represent. It also quotes racist views of Thomas Jefferson as well as the eloquent writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, who used terminology that is considered inappropriate today.
Throughout this essay, I refer to tupim and meholot using their Hebrew terms. Their precise identity has been a subject of debate over the centuries; a full review of the sources must be left for another essay. In brief, I understand the tof as a frame drum made of wood and animal skin. Some commentators understand mahol as related to halil, commonly understood as a flute. Others understand it as a circle dance; if this is correct, the usage here suggests that it was both the name of a circle dance and an instrument used to accompany them.

[2] Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport, Moses’ Women (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2008), 158.

[3] For a thorough comparison, see Kenneth Chelst, Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery (Jerusalem: Urim Publication, 2009).

[4] All these sources may be read in the searchable database Runaway Slaves in Britain: Bondage, Freedom, and Race in the Eighteenth Century.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Prichard and Hall, 1788), electronic edition.

[6] In fact, eighteenth-century Black musicians did sometimes compose. Further on this topic, see Rebecca Cypess, “Notation, Performance, and the Significance of Print in the Music of Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729–1780),” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2022):1-27. On composition as a racialized category of artistic creation, see, e.g., Mary Caton Lingold, “In Search of Mr Baptiste: On Early Caribbean Music, Race, and a Colonial Composer,” Early Music 49, no. 1 (2021): 49–65.

[7] See the essays in Robert B. Winans, ed., Banjo Roots and Branches (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

[8] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903), ch. 14, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” electronic edition.

[9] For an example of a Black writer who compared the slavery of Africans in the Atlantic world to the slavery of the ancient Jews in Egypt, see Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, ed. Robert J. Allison, 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2016), 46 and passim.

[10] Chelst, Exodus and Emancipation, 137.

[11] Hamishah Humshei Torah im peirush Rashi ve-im Da’at Mikra: Sefer Shemot, with commentary by Amos Hakham (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook), 280–281.

Musicologist and harpsichordist Rebecca Cypess is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Music at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. She holds a PhD in music from Yale, an MMus from the Royal College of Music (London), and a BA from Cornell, as well as an MA in Bible from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. Her recent publications include Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment and the edited collection Music and Jewish Culture in Early Modern Italy, which received the Ruth A. Solie Award from the American Musicological Society for an outstanding collection of musicological essays.