This week’s parasha is Chukat, in which we read of the passing of Miriam, the older sister of Moses. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) lists Miriam as one of the seven major female prophetesses of Israel, and also states that she was so righteous that the Israelites had water for forty years in the Wilderness in her merit (Taanit 9a). Who was Miriam, why was she so great, and what exactly did she prophesy?
Bitterness in Egypt
The Israelites spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. This duration was prophetically hinted to by Jacob himself when he told his children to descend to Egypt (Genesis 42:2), where the numerical value of the word “descend” (רדו) is 210. While the sons of Jacob were still alive, the extended family was treated well by the Egyptians. After their passing, and as the family multiplied to ever greater numbers, persecution of the Jews began. These decrees started 94 years after the Israelites arrived in Egypt (or 116 years before the Exodus). Thirty years later, the Israelites were officially enslaved. That year – 86 years before the Exodus – was when Miriam, the firstborn daughter of Amram and Yocheved, was born. Not surprisingly, her parents named her Miriam, which literally means “double bitterness”, or “very bitter”.
It is important to point out that people often mistakenly think the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The correct number is 86 years. This, too, has a numerical hint in that we drink four cups of wine on Pesach, and the gematria of “cup” (כוס) is 86. At the end, we pour a fifth cup that is not drunk, and altogether the five cups (5 × 86) make 430, which is the time elapsed since God decreed the Israelite sojourn in Egypt.
Birth of a Prophet
Six years after the slavery began, the Egyptians noted that the Israelite population continued to miraculously flourish. It was then that Pharaoh decreed the male-born be drowned in the Nile. Amram and Yocheved, along with many other couples, decided to separate to prevent bringing more children into the world, lest they be murdered. At this point, Miriam stepped in and told her parents: “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. Whereas Pharaoh decreed against the males, you have done so against the females as well” (Rashi on Exodus 2:1). It was then that Miriam had her first prophecy, aged just six years: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel” (Megillah 14a). And so, Amram remarried Yocheved and she had Moses, who did indeed go on to save Israel.
The Talmud further explains that this is why Exodus 15:20 describes her as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.” Why did the Torah not say “the sister of Moses” or “the sister of Aaron and Moses”? This is because when she had made her first prophecy, and received the status of a prophet, she was only the sister of Aaron, since Moses had yet to be born!
Prophecy for the Distant Future
Exodus 15:20 is the only place in all of scripture where Miriam is described directly as a prophetess. The Kli Yakar comments here that Miriam prophesied once more during the “Song of the Sea” following the Exodus. The Torah describes how she called out to the other women to continue singing, after the men had finished doing so. Miriam used the masculine term “lahem” in place of the feminine “lahen”.
The Kli Yakar explains that in this current world women have often been oppressed, disadvantaged, and generally treated as second-class citizens compared to their male counterparts (this was especially true in his day, having lived 1550-1619 CE). What Miriam prophesied is that a time would come when women would finally be equal to men in all ways, hence the use of the masculine lahem. (For a more in-depth analysis of this, read The Moon’s Lost Light, by Devorah Heshelis.)
Mother of Royalty
The Torah writes how two midwives delivered the Israelite babies in Egypt, and refused to follow Pharaoh’s decree of killing the male-born. The midwives’ names were Shifrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15). The Sages state that they were none other than Yocheved and her daughter Miriam, who were called Shifrah and Puah because they beautified (meshaper) the newborns and soothed (po’ah) them. Amazingly, archaeologists discovered an ancient Egyptian papyrus that mentions a woman named Shifrah among a list of slaves during the time of Pharaoh Sobekhotep III, who reigned not too long before the estimated time of the Exodus. (The papyrus is currently at the Brooklyn Museum.)
In addition to Puah, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:17) records the many names with which Miriam was called. One of these names – based on I Chronicles 2:19 – is Efrat, because she made the Israelites be fruitful and multiply (Efrat shares a root with pru u’rvu – God’s command to procreate). For doing such a huge mitzvah, the Midrash says that Miriam merited to be the mother of royalty, with King David being her direct descendent.
Miriam’s husband was Caleb ben Hetzron (not to be confused with the good spy Caleb ben Yefuneh), who was a great-grandson of Judah. (Hetzron was the son of Peretz, who was Judah’s son with Tamar.) Although it is actually Hetzron’s son Ram, and not Caleb, who is the forefather of King David (I Chronicles 2:10-16), the Midrash insists that David descended from Caleb and Miriam, and this is why I Samuel 17:12 describes him as “David, the son of an Efrati”, Efrat being Miriam. It is quite possible that Caleb and Ram are one and the same person, and this seems to be the suggestion of this Midrash.
Miriam at the Seder
It was once customary to place an additional item on the Passover seder plate that does not officially appear there today. The haggadah of Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006 CE) suggested placing a piece of fish next to the shank bone and the egg, and this custom was also cited by the Ma’aseh Rokeach (c. 1665-1742 CE). The shank, egg, and fish were meant to symbolize the three prophets of redemption: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, as described in Micah 6:4.
This ties into the Talmudic dictum (Taanit 9a) that in the merit of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam the Israelites in the wilderness had manna, the protective clouds of glory, and water. They further parallel the midrashic beasts said to come at the End of Days: Behemoth, the land beast; Ziz, the great bird; and Leviathan, the sea dragon. These creatures will be slaughtered and served in the so-called “Feast of Resurrection” or “Feast of Mashiach” (Pesachim 119b).
By eating an egg, fish, and meat at the Passover seder, one is not only commemorating the role of the three great prophets Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and the three miracles in the Wilderness that existed in their merit, but also having a mini-Mashiach feast. After all, the Exodus was only the First Redemption, and we are eagerly awaiting the Final Redemption. May we merit to see it soon.