Shemos 15:21:

וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם שִׁירוּ לַיהֹוָה כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם

And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea

Who was Miriam talking to? It sounds like she was instructing the women to sing, but להם is masculine.

My father just posed this question on the family chat. Does anyone have anything on this?


3 Answers 3


Torah Shelemah to Shemos 15:21 (note 240) cites the Midrash Sechel Tov (see also, Tanhuma Beshalach, 13) which says that the malachim complained about having to wait for women's song before they did. Therefore, Miriam was actually responding to them and called out the women to praise Hashem.

R. Zvi HaKohen Kaplan brings it differently, instead malachim, Miriam was responding to the men: "We will only play the music, and you men will be the ones to sing."


Rav Hirsch writes that the root "ענה" carries one of two meanings. The usual meaning is replying/rejoining -- if this is the sense of the word used here, then "להם" refers to Moshe and Israel, who sang first.

However, there is a second meaning to the word, used "at the beginning of speeches, where it can not mean reply or respond," because there is nothing to respond to, eg "וענית ואמרת" (Devarim 26:5), "ויען איוב" (Job 3:2). He writes that although this is not a response in the sense of a verbal reply to an earlier statement, it is still something said "provoked by, or in response to, what has happened." If this is the case here, Rav Hirsch is uncertain as to the meaning of this verse. I don't fully understand his answer, so here is what he said:

If it is to be taken in this sense here, then the להם would refer to the women, and we then have to find out why the masculine form is employed. Perhaps it would tell us that although the women followed the men in their inspired song, they were fully their equals in expressing the whole deep meaning of the Song, and in realising the high mission of the nation which is expressed thererein.

Excerpted from the Judaica Press translation, second edition (Gateshead 1999)

Given the difficulty in explaining the verse if ענה is used in the second, less common sense (besides Rav Hirsch's uncertainty), I think that the verse should be interpreted along the lines of Rav Hirsch's first explanation (especially since this verse directly follows the song of Moshe and Israel).

  • The previous verse, says that Miriam took the drum and the women went after her to dance (and I assume, sing). On a simpler (pshat) level, why not assume that the women were singing a chorus and Miriam answered or repeated the chorus?
    – DanF
    Feb 9, 2017 at 17:56
  • 2
    Consider the root ענה used in עֱנוּ-לָהּ mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0421.htm#17 Note also the Arabic 3 letter root for song is ע'נה with a Ghayin, which may indicate a proto-semitic root which merged with 'ענה to answer'. In other words, ותען literally means she sang.
    – Double AA
    Feb 9, 2017 at 18:11
  • @DoubleAA If the word means "she sang" what does the word להם really add here? It means "to them" (the women, maybe)? But, in fact she is not singing to them; she is singing along with everyone else. Why not just state וַתַּעַן מִרְיָם?
    – DanF
    Feb 10, 2017 at 2:46

According to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of the Jewish historian Josephus, and who both lived in the First Century and who both commented extensively on the history of the Jews, the understanding was that Miriam's chorus of women had simultaneously complemented the chorus of men, and so Miriam responded to them, that is, as the leader of the chorus of women, she responded to them [the chorus of the men led by Moses] while they [the men] were still singing. Philo writes the following in regard to the passage in question.

For this mercy Moses very naturally honoured his Benefactor with hymns of gratitude. For having divided the host into two choruses, one of men and one of women, he himself became the leader of that of the men, and appointed his sister to be the chief of that of the women, that they might sing hymns to their father and Creator, joining in harmonies responsive to one another, by a combination of dispositions and melody, the former being eager to offer the same requital for the mercies which they had received, and the latter consisting of a symphony of the deep male with the high female voices, for the tones of men are deep and those of women are high; and when there is a perfect and harmonious combination of the two a most delightful and thoroughly harmonious melody is effected. And he persuaded all those myriads of men and women to be of one mind, and to sing in concert the same hymn at the same time in praise of those marvellous and mighty works which they had beheld, and which I have been just now relating. At which the prophet rejoicing, and seeing also the exceeding joy of his nation, and being himself too unable to contain his delight, began the song. And they who heard him being divided into two choruses, sang with him, taking the words which he uttered. (emphases added)

What is remarkable is that Philo's commentary was not addressing the variant readings or ambiguous understandings of this passage, which is what we are trying to do today. Instead, his flowing narrative addresses this portion of the Torah with glib commentary that the male and female choruses had sung one with the other in complementary unison.

Finally, while Targum Onkelos (its variant reading), the Septuagint, and even the Latin Vulgate read that Miriam answered them (feminine plural), the earliest extant record of this passage known to exist in the world comes the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment from 4Q14 (Plate 1074, Frag 1, B-295437), which indicates that the Miriam answered them (masculine plural). In other words, this earliest witness from the Dead Sea Scrolls lends credibility that Miriam responded to them [masculine plural].

This image is an enlarged view of the relevant passage from 4Q14, Plate 1074, Frag 1 (B-295437)


Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1855). The works of Philo (Vol III). London: Bohn, 129.

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