Cooperative Singing – at the Yam Suf and Today by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Why is Moshe Rabbeinu Singled Out?

The opening Pasuk of Shirat HaYam (the song we sang on the heels of the splitting of the Red Sea) states, “Moshe and Bnei Yisrael sang this song to Hashem.” One may ask why Moshe Rabbeinu is mentioned separately from the rest of the nation if it appears from the Pasuk that the song was sung in unison. The Gemara (Sotah 30b) presents three Tannaitic opinions on how to resolve this problem.

Three Tannaitic Opinions

Rabi Nechemiah believes that Moshe Rabbeinu began the Shirah, and the rest of the nation joined and sang it simultaneously with him. This is similar to the practice in many contemporary Shuls of the Chazzan choosing a tune for Lechah Dodi or Keil Adon and everyone subsequently joining and singing it together. The question is, though, how did the Jews at the Yam Suf know the words? Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. KeSofer) explains that Rabi Nechemia believes that Ruach HaKodesh, the spirit of Hashem, rested upon the entire nation which enabled them to sing the entire song together. Moshe Rabbeinu is mentioned distinctly in the Pasuk simply because he began the Shirah.

Rabi Eliezer the son of Rabi Yosi HaGalili believes that Moshe Rabbeinu recited a small piece of the Shirah, and the nation responded by repeating that small piece, Moshe and the nation continued in this manner until the completion of the entire Shirah. This style of song is familiar from the responsive reading of “Anah Hashem Hoshi’ah Na” and “Anah Hashem Hatzlichah Na” in Hallel, the responsive recitation of Tehillim such as Shir Hama’alot after Yishtabach during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and the responsive pleas Ashkenazi Jews utter when the Aron (ark) is opened during the Selichot service. According to this approach, Moshe is mentioned apart from everyone else since he and the nation did not recite the Shirah simultaneously. Moshe Rabbeinu is mentioned first because he started the singing.

Rabi Akiva argues that Moshe Rabbeinu recited a small section, and we responded with the chorus of “Ashirah LaShem” (I shall sing to Hashem) and we continued this way throughout the Shirah. Moshe Rabbeinu recited the Shirah piece by piece, and to each piece we answered “Ashirah LaShem.” This style of recitation is familiar to Sephardic Jews, who, on Shabbat and Yom Tov mornings, have one person recite Tehillim Perek 136 during which the leader recites the first half of each Pasuk, and everyone responds “Ki Leolam Chasdo.” Many Piyutim (liturgical poems) are meant to be recited in this manner such as Dayeinu at the Seder, Alelai Li during Tisha BeAv, Salachti on Yom Kippur, and Mipi Keil on Simchat Torah. According to Rabi Akiva, Moshe Rabbeinu is mentioned separately because he was the primary singer of Shirat HaYam while the rest of the nation played merely a supporting role of responding “Ashirah LaShem”.

Interestingly, in the time of the Gemara (ad. loc.), this was the style in which Hallel was recited. The Chazzan read a small section, and the congregation responded “Hallelukah” at each pause. Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 3:12) describes this process at some length and notes that there are 123 pauses. Yemenite Jews continue this practice until this very day.

Analyzing the Three Opinions

The three opinions argue as to the extent of the participation of Am Yisrael in the Shirah. Rabi Nechemiah maximizes the nation’s role, Rabi Akiva minimizes it, and Rabi Eliezer the son of Rabi Yosi HaGalili falls somewhere in between the opinions of the other two Tannaim. Perhaps this argument emerges from different perspectives regarding the spiritual level of the Jewish People after Yetziat Mitzrayim and Keriyat Yam Suf. Rabi Akiva seems not to accept the notion that we were all worthy of Ruach HaKodesh at that stage.

This dispute might also hinge on the differing perspectives regarding minimizing or maximizing miracles. We noted in a series of articles (entitled “Rabi Akiva as a role model for Religious Zionism” archived at that Rabi Akiva tends to minimize miracles as opposed to others who prefer to maximize them. For instance, Rabi Akiva (Sukkah 11b) believes that we lived in actual huts during our forty year sojourn in the desert as opposed to Rabi Eliezer who believes that each family was enveloped by Hashem’s clouds, Ananei Kavod. In our discussion, Rabi Akiva avoids Rabi Nechemiah’s approach, which maximizes the miracle of the Shirat HaYam, arguing that miraculously, we all uttered the song simultaneously. Rabi Akiva, on the other hand, minimizes the miracle and argues that all we sang was the refrain of “Ashirah LaShem.”

Interactive Tefillah

Some of our Tefillot are chanted responsively, such as Kaddish and Zimmun. The Gemara (Berachot 45a) presents sources for this practice – “Ki Sheim Ekrah, Havu Godel L’Elokeinu,” “When I call out the name of Hashem, attribute greatness to our God” (Devarim 32:2), and “Gadlu LaShem Iti UNeromemah Shemo Yachdav,” “Declare the greatness of Hashem with me and let us exalt his name together” (Tehillim 34:4). In both of these Pesukim, which we recite in our Tefillah, the leader calls out to others to join him in interactive praising of Hashem. Most interestingly, Malachim (angels) also call out to each other to praise Hashem in an interactive manner (Yeshayahu 6:3), as we state in our introduction to Kedushah, “VeKara Zeh El Zeh VeAmar.”

We engage in interactive Tefillah to involve everyone because Torah is not a “spectator sport.” For this reason, some in the congregation sing along with the Chazzan “Bnei Beitcha” on Yom Tov or “Tiferet Gedulah” on Shabbat afternoons in Ashkenzic congregations (although Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, cited in the Orthodox Union’s Rav Soloveitchik Yom Kippur Machzor number 62, did not approve when such singing overlaps with the Chazzan’s recital). In Sephardic congregations, participation is even more pronounced with the congregation participating at many points, such as responding “LiVracha” when the Chazzan chants Morid HaTal or Mashiv HaRuach.

Another reason for interactive Tefillah is for Jews to support each other in our reaching out to Hashem. When we cooperatively praise Hashem, we draw strength and inspiration from each other. It is analogous, LeHavdil Bein HaKodesh UVein HaChol, to one who seeks to habituate himself to an exercise regimen and joins a health club to draw inspiration from those exercising along with him. The Gemara (Makkot 10a) strongly encourages studying Torah with a partner and harshly criticizes those who study alone. A successful Shiur (Torah class) may be characterized by interaction between the instructor and the audience, and a successful Beit Midrash (study hall) is marked by a synergy of a group of devoted students energizing each other in its pursuit of Torah knowledge.

Postscript – Rav Soloveitchik’s Stress on Interactive Tefillah

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik champions interactive Tefillah, following the example of the Malachim, wherever possible. For example, the Biur Halachah (125:1 s.v. Ela) expresses his uncertainty as to whether the Sheliach Tzibbur (cantor) should recite Kedushah along with the congregation or after the congregation. On the one hand, one could argue that he should recite it along with the assembled because Kedushah is a Davar SheBeKedushah (holy practice) that cannot be recited except with a Minyan (Megillah 4:3). On the other hand, the Sheliach Tzibbur is responsible to facilitate the fulfillment (Motzi) of the Mitzvah to recite Kedushah for those unable to recite Kedushah, such as those who are still reciting the silent Shemoneh Esrei (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 104:6). This is difficult to accomplish if the Sheliach Tzibbur recites Kedushah along with the congregation.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (as reported by Rav Hershel Schachter) suggests that the Chazzan recite the Kedushah very loudly along with the Tzibbur in order to fulfill both sides of the argument. In this manner, the Sheliach Tzibbur can recite Kedushah along with the rest of the congregation and at the same time facilitate fulfillment of Kedushah for others. This suggestion is followed in some circles.

Rav Soloveitchik, however, felt that the Chazzan should recite the Kedushah only after the congregation has finished its recital. In this manner, the Kedushah is recited in an interactive manner. This is certainly desirable in the context of Kedushah during which we follow the pattern of the Malachim who recite Kedushah responsively.

In addition, Rav Soloveitchik (cited in Rav Hershel Schachter’s Nefesh HaRav p. 162) objected to those who deviated from the traditional practice and recited Lecha Dodi, Keil Adon, and Anim Zemirot together. The Rav believed that the original practice of reciting these Tefillot responsively should be maintained. Moreover, he explained (ad. loc. p.163) that we stand for some of the responsive Piyutim on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur not because, as commonly thought, the ark is opened. Rather, we stand because the Piyutim themselves are classified as Devarim SheBeKedushah, since they are recited responsively.

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