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How Miriam the Prophetess Became a Powerful Symbol for Jewish Feminists: Parashat Hukkat

Miriam the Prophet has become a symbol for modern Jewish feminists. Dr. Etka Liebowitz explores how how biblical Miriam is a source empowering Jewish women today.  

The first of our double weekly Torah reading, Hukkat, begins with a description of the laws for purification using the ashes of a red heifer. Following this account, Miriam dies, as is written in the Book of Numbers:

“And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there” (Num 20:1).

According to the Talmud, the juxtaposition of passages concerning Miriam’s death and that of the law of the red heifer infers that just as the red heifer atones, so too does Miriam’s death atone for the sins of Israel (Babylonian Talmud Mo’ed Katan 28a).

The verse telling about her death provides us with an opportunity to investigate Miriam’s life and personality in the Bible.

The first two times that Miriam appears in the Bible, in chapter 2 of the Book of Exodus, she is anonymous; she is merely termed “the sister of Moses.” This phenomenon of the “nameless woman” is quite prevalent in the Bible. For example, we do not know the name of Noah’s wife, Lot’s wife or daughters, Potiphar’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, etc. It is not surprising that women are nameless in the Bible since it was written from a male viewpoint and for men, who were uninterested in women’s undertakings. According to Prof. Carol L. Meyers, from over 1,000 names in the Bible only 10% are women’s names!

In her book, Silencing the Queen, Prof. Tal Ilan notes that this phenomenon of erasing women’s names is prevalent in rabbinic literature as well as in ancient Greek and Roman historical texts. The end result of this silencing is the elimination of women’s role in history.

Still, Miriam did merit a name in the Bible, and the first time that her name is mentioned is in the “Song at the Sea” (Shirat HaYam), where she is called “Miriam the prophet”:

“Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them…” (Exod 15:20-21).

Based upon the poetic style genre, as well as a Dead Sea Scroll fragment from Shirat HaYam not found in the Bible (4Q365/4QRPc), several biblical scholars (Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman, among them) have argued that the entire hymn in Exodus 15 should be designated “The Song of Miriam” and that only later was this hymn reattributed to Moses!

Indeed, the fact that Miriam led the Israelite women in song indicates her high status and leadership in antiquity, as noted by two Jewish philosophers separated by 2,000 years – Philo of Alexandria in the first century CE and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in the 20th century. Rabbis and scholars have pointed out that another indication of Miriam’s high status is the fact that she is the first woman in the Bible to be termed a prophet.

Let us now return to the story of Miriam’s death in Hukkat:

“And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there” (Num 20:1).

Where was Miriam buried? According to this verse – in Kadesh. And where was biblical Kadesh or Kadesh Barnea located? According to some scholars, Kadesh Barnea was located in the Sinai Peninsula. Still, other scholars, based upon Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (3:6), believe that Kadesh was located at Petra, present-day Jordan, as related by Josephus:

“Then it was that Miriam, the sister of Moses, came to her end…She was buried upon a certain mountain, which they call Sin…when he came to a place which the Arabians esteem their metropolis, which was formerly called Arce, but has now the name of Petra.”

Ze’ev Vilna’i, the well-known Land of Israel scholar, cites another tradition for Miriam’s burial place – Jewish pilgrims have identified it with the tomb of the biblical matriarchs, Yocheved, Tziporah and Elisheva, located today on the northern slopes of modern Tiberias.

No matter where she is buried, today, Miriam has become a Jewish feminist symbol.

A cup filled with water – Miriam’s cup, representing Miriam’s well, is used for feminist Rosh Hodesh rituals and placed on the Passover Seder table; some women fast on the day of her death, which according to rabbinic tradition is the 10th of Nissan. Thus, biblical Miriam has become a source for empowering Jewish women today.




Etka Liebowitz is the Director of the Research Authority and a Coordinator of Development, including matters pertaining to Schechter’s activities in Ukraine. She received her PhD in Jewish History in 2012 (specializing in women in the Second Temple period) and has published several academic articles in her field. Dr. Liebowitz is fluent in English, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish.

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