Question: The weekly portion of Beshalah, which was read last Shabbat, is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, because it includes Az Yashir, The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15). There is an Ashkenazic custom to feed the birds on Shabbat Shirah. What are the sources and reasons for this custom?
Responsum: We have learned in a Mishnah in the Tractate of Shabbat (24:3 = fol. 155b):
Water may not be placed [on Shabbat] before bees and before doves in a dovecote, but it may be placed before geese and chickens and Herodian doves.
The Talmud explains (ibid.) that you are responsible on Shabbat for the food of your own geese and chickens, but not for other animals, who know how to fend for themselves.
This law was codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Shabbat 21:36) and by the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 324:11). In his commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, R. Avraham Gombiner (1637-1683) says:
Some are accustomed to give wheat to the birds on Shabbat Shirah, but this is incorrect, because you are not responsible for their sustenance.
This strict approach was adopted by some important authorities, (R. Ya’akov Emden according R. Zinger, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, R. Yehudah Ashkenazy, R. Yisrael Meir Hacohen, R. Yehoshua Neuwirth) while other rabbis defended the custom. (R. Refael Meizlish, R. Yehiel Michal Epstein, and the rabbis cited by R. Neuwirth). But most of those who discussed the halakhic issue did not try to explain the reason for the custom.
I have found five explanations for feeding the birds on Shabbat Shirah. The first three connect the custom to Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea, while the other two connect the custom to the story of the manna, which is also found in the portion of Beshalah.
1) R. Rafael Meizlish (18th century) and R. Yehiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908), in their defense of the custom, say that there is a popular saying among the masses that the birds sang at the Sea and we are therefore grateful to them. Thus, the purpose of feeding them is to remember the joy of Shirat Hayam and therefore we have no halakhic objection to feeding the birds. In other words, we feed the birds in order to thank them for singing at the Sea.
2) Another explanation says that we feed the birds kashe (buckwheat) on Shabbat Shirah because they are called ba’ale hashir (the singers). No creature can sing like a bird because they rule the air, and music is created by the flow of air (Bet Aharon quoted by Sefer Hamatamim).
3) Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov says that the birds receive their reward on Shabbat Shirah for the songs which they utter to God every day, and when we recite our Song, we remember their songs.
4) Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer (Pressburg, 1762-1839) says that this custom is based on the verse in our parashah (Exodus 16:32) “In order that they may see the bread which I fed you” i.e. that future generations should see that when you trust in God with your whole heart, he provides food as he did for the children of Israel in the desert. We feed the birds on Shabbat Shirah in order to say that if the Jewish people, who are compared to a bird, will devote themselves to Torah and mitzvot, then God will provide them food without toil.
5) The most well-known explanation is that given by Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz (quoting Ma’aseh Alfass). He reports that it says “in the Yalkut” on Exodus 16:27 “And behold on the seventh day some of the people went out to gather [manna] and did not find any”. Why does it say “and did not find any”? Because Datan and Aviram went out on Friday night outside the camp and spread some manna, in order to make Moshe a liar, since he said there would be no manna on Shabbat. They then said to the people: go out and see that there is manna in the fields! Therefore, some people went out to gather, but found nothing because the birds had eaten the manna which Datan and Aviram had strewn about. We give them their reward on Shabbat Shirah since we also read the story of the manna on that day.
So says “the Yalkut”, but as Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher points out, this midrash is not found in Yalkut Shimoni or any other collection of midrash. Indeed, in Sefer Matamim it is quoted in the name of Rabbi Bunim of Parsischa, while in Sefer Ta’amey Haminhagim it is quoted in the name of the Holy Seer of Lublin. Therefore, this midrash is really a hassidic explanation from the nineteenth century.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, a large number of explanations for a custom usually indicates that the original reason is unknown.(Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah, Vol. 3 (5748-5749), pp. 40-44. That responsum deals with the custom of avoiding kitniyot (legumes) on Pesah). Both sets of explanations above have a certain logic: Feeding song birds on the Shabbat of Song makes good sense. On the other hand, feeding bread/wheat/buckwheat to birds when we read about the manna also makes good sense. In any case, this is a beautiful Ashkenazic custom worth reviving.
Finally, if people are worried about the halakhic objection voiced by the Magen Avraham and his followers, they can follow the compromise suggested by Rabbi Neuwirth. He says that you can shake out your tablecloth, provided there is an eruv, and thereby allow the birds to share your Shabbat feast!
R. Yehudah Ashkenazi, Ba’er Hetev to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 8.
R. Yehudah David Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, pp. 402-403.
R. Yehiel Michal Epstein, Arukh Hashulhan, Orah Hayyim 324:3.
R. Avraham Gombiner, Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 7.
R. Yisrael Meir Hacohen, Mishnah Berurah to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 31.
R. Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz, Otzar Kol Minhagey Yeshurun, Lvov, 1930, p. 288, par. 37.
R. Menahem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shleimah, Vol. 14, pp. 226-227, note 143.
R. Eliyahu Ki Tov, Sefer Hatoda’ah, Jerusalem, 1966, p. 211.
R. Refael Meizlish, Tosefet Shabbat, Frankfurt d’Oder, 1767, to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 17.
R. Yehoshua Neuwirth, Shmirat Shabba Kehilkhatah, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1979, pp. 340-341.
R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Shulhan Arukh Harav, Orah Hayyim 324:8.
R. Moshe Sofer, Or Pnay Moshe L’hamishah Humshey Torah, Shmot, fol. 16b.
R. Avraham Yitzhak Sperling, Ta’amey Haminhagim, Jerusalem, 1957, p. 531.
R. Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz, Sefer Hamatamim, Warsaw, 1889, p. 108.
R. Yehudah Dov Zinger, Ziv Haminhagim, 1977, pp. 267-268.
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Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: email@example.com. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.