Every Saturday night, my husband, my toddler, and I gather around our dining room table for havdallah. We sing the standard prayers to mark the end of Shabbat: verses of psalms that assure us protection and redemption; blessings over grape juice, sweet spices and the flame of a candle to help us bring joy, sweetness and light into the coming week; and the final blessing that praises God for making distinctions between the holy and the mundane. We sing Shavua Tov, and Eliyahu Hanavi, classic songs for the end of Shabbat that help us wish each other a good week and invoke the presence of Elijah, in the hope that he might bring redemption in the coming week. We sing an additional song, identical in melody and purpose to Eliyahu Hanavi, but instead of invoking the prophet Elijah, we invoke another prophet of redemption, the prophetess Miriam.
Miriam, one of only seven women in the Bible who is identified as a prophetess, plays a key role in the redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. It is Miriam who watches guard as her baby brother Moses floats down the Nile. It is Miriam who has the courage to speak to the daughter of Pharaoh, who has just found baby Moses, and encourages the princess to hire a Hebrew nurse for the infant, thus ensuring that Moses will be raised to know who he is and where he comes from. And decades later, it is Miriam who leads the women in song and dance after crossing the Sea of Reeds, finally safe from Egyptian slavery.
There is another way in which Miriam plays an essential role in this story of redemption, one that is not explicitly discussed in the Torah but rather alluded to by this week’s parashah.
The first verse of Numbers, chapter 20, states simply “All of the community of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and they stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.” Nothing else is stated about her death. Unlike her brothers, her passing is not marked by any fanfare. We do not even read that she was mourned. She simply dies, and is buried, and the story moves on. The next verse is already concerned with other matters: “The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 20:2). Another day in the desert, another complaint. Miriam is already forgotten.
Or is she?
The rabbis of the Talmud saw these two verses not as separate episodes but as part of one narrative. Maybe they were troubled that Miriam’s death was not more significant, or maybe they wanted to explain why, after so many years of wandering in the desert (39 years, to be precise), it was only now that the people complained of having no water. Whatever the reason, the rabbis saw that the people only complained about a lack of water immediately after Miriam died. They held this up as proof that Miriam had a miraculous well that followed her wherever she went. Why a well? Miriam helped bring redemption at the waters of the Nile, and she celebrated redemption at the waters of the Sea of Reeds. It was only proper, then, that Miriam would merit a well of water that followed her throughout the desert, providing yet another form of redemption for the people of Israel. But when Miriam died, the well disappeared. That is why Miriam’s death is followed not by mourning but by the people complaining of a lack of water.
And what does all of this have to do with havdallah? The end of Shabbat has long been considered an auspicious time for redemption. Shabbat itself is thought of as a taste of the redeemed world to come. Just as havdallah symbolically brings the joy, sweetness and light of Shabbat into the work week, so too are we encouraged to bring the taste of redemption of Shabbat into the rest of the week as well. For these reasons, many people sing Eliyahu Hanavi during havdallah, since tradition holds that Elijah will herald the era of redemption.
In the mid-1990s, out of a desire to elevate the voices of women in Jewish text and tradition, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner wrote a companion song to Eliyahu Hanavi, with new words to the same familiar tune. Her song focused on the female prophet who is most closely associated with redemption, Miryam Hanevi’ah, Miriam the Prophetess. These words celebrate the song and dance that Miriam brought into the lives of those around her and look forward to a day when Miriam will bring us to the waters of ultimate redemption.
A few years after learning this song, I learned about another connection between Miriam and havdallah. In the mid-1500s in the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Mosheh Isserles records a fascinating tradition that had arisen in some Ashkenazi communities. He wrote: “There are those who say that one should draw water after Shabbat every week, because Miriam’s well travels around on Saturday nights to every other well, and whoever runs into her well and drinks of its waters will be healed from all illnesses.” How beautiful and how powerful that the legend of Miriam’s well is not only part of our past and future redemption but perhaps is also part of our own taste of redemption in the present day.
Having learned about the healing waters of Miriam’s well that are available to us at the departure of Shabbat, my family and I developed a new custom. Each week, we sing the song that Rabbi Berner wrote about Miriam the Prophetess.
But we make one small modification to include this tradition of Miriam’s waters of healing. I share these words with you, in the hope that maybe you, too, will incorporate this song into havdallah or your Passover seder or any other time when you sing Eliyahu Hanavi.
Perhaps by elevating these traditions surrounding one of our prophetesses, we will bring our world a little closer to the redemption we all seek.
Oz v’zimrah b’yadah
Miryam tirkod itanu l’hagdil zimrat olam
Miryam tirkod itanu l’takkein et ha-olam
Bimheirah v’yameinu hi t’vi-einu
El mei harefu’ah
El mei hayeshua
Miryam the prophetess
Strength and song in her hand
Miryam, dance with us to increase song in the world
Miryam, dance with us to repair the world
Soon, in our day, she shall bring us to the waters of healing; to the waters of redemption
RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.