Sotah 30

The song of leadership.

It’s a truism that every generation gets the leader it deserves. But if there is truth in that truism, we can learn a lot about a generation by who its leaders are. The discussion on today’s daf sheds some light on the kind of leader Moses was — and by extension what his style of leadership tells us about the people he led.

When the Israelites reached the Red Sea and were able to walk through it to safety, they stopped and sang a song thanking God for this miracle. The rabbis of the Gemara ask what seems to be a very basic question: How did the Israelites recite the song? 

The Gemara offers three answers, each of which suggests a different type of relationship between Moses and the Israelites. First, Rabbi Akiva explains: 

And how did they recite the song? As an adult man reciting Hallel and they recite after him the chapter headings. Moses said: “I will sing unto the Lord” (Exodus 15:1), and the people said: “I will sing unto the Lord.” Moses said: “For He is highly exalted” (Exodus 15:1), and they said “I will sing unto the Lord.

We know that one who is obligated in a mitzvah can fulfill that obligation for other people. So an adult man who is obligated to recite Hallel, the psalms of praise said on certain Jewish holidays, can recite it on behalf of everyone else, who can fulfill their own obligations merely by chiming in with a repeating refrain. 

Rabbi Akiva imagines that this is how it worked by the sea: Moses recited the song of praise and the Israelites responded by repeating the same two words over and over again (In Hebrew, ashira l’Adonai) to punctuate the song. Moses does most of the work, and this nation just now led out of slavery offers what is basically punctuation to the moment.  

Here’s the second answer:

Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, says: Like a minor boy reciting Hallel and they repeat after him all that he says. Moses said: “I will sing unto the Lord” (Exodus 15:1), and they said: “I will sing to the Lord.” Moses said: “For He is highly exalted,” and they said: “For He is highly exalted.

A Jewish boy below the age of bar mitzvah is not obligated to recite Hallel, so he cannot fulfill the obligation for those who are. But if the community needs or wants such a boy to lead Hallel, he can lead the community in song so long as everyone obligated in the mitzvah says all the words themselves. So Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili imagines Moses leading as such a boy would — saying the words but then pausing so the community could repeat after him. Here Moses is less a performer than a facilitator. 

And the third answer:

Rabbi Nehemya says: Like a scribe who recites the Shema in the synagogue; he begins the first (words) and they repeat after him.

Rabbi Nehemya’s suggestion turns from Hallel, which is traditionally sung, to a more frequently recited (and often less musical) prayer: the Shema. The way this is done, the scribe (meaning the person leading services) kicks off the prayer by saying the first words, but then the entire community joins in and recites it together. Likewise with Moses: He merely started the song, but then everyone else jumped in (and evidently intuited all its words at the same time!).  

The Gemara’s three explanations are organized in order from expecting the least from Israel in terms of participation (just reciting a refrain over and over again) to the most (spontaneously co-creating an homage to the glory and power of God.). And it moves in the opposite direction with respect to Moses’ contribution, from being the song’s composer to merely being the one to signal when to start singing. 

These three answers paint very different pictures of who the Israelites were as they emerged from slavery — and very different versions of what meaningful leadership would have been in that moment. The Gemara doesn’t privilege one of these answers over the others — they all remain possibilities.

Read all of Sotah 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 28th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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