Rabbi Baruch Frydman-kohl
Every year, the Torah reading of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds coincides with Tu b’shvat, the onset of the blossoming of trees in Israel. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, because the Torah reading includes the Song by the Sea, sung by the people of Israel in celebration of their redemption from the pursuing army of the Pharaoh.
Others also sing. We have a custom to feed birds just prior to Shabbat Shirah because they also offered praise of God for the miracle of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Since the chirp of song is the special talent of birds, we acknowledge this gift by providing them with food.
Another tradition links the feeding of the birds to the description of the manna mentioned in this week’s Torah selection. Moses had said there would be a double portion of manna on Friday, but none on Shabbat. Two agitators, Datan and Aviram, scattered some manna late on Friday and told the Israelites that they would find manna in the fields on Shabbat. But the birds consumed the manna. Moses’ leadership was confirmed and the birds are rewarded on Shabbat Shirah.
I imagine that this custom originated with the annual migration of millions of songbirds and cranes, warblers and raptors from Africa along the Red Sea and up the Sinai. They fly north through the Arava desert and Jordan Valley to Turkey and Europe. Witnessing these birds would have impressed generations of Jews who might have associated this migration with the Exodus from Egypt.
On the wilderness trek and later in the Land of Promise, the migration of birds may have inspired a memory of that first crossing from Egypt and Africa. Then Miriam and Moses, the Israelites and the birds sang together.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-kohl is senior rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto.