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Symbolism of the Miriam's Cup

Miriam's Cup - A New Tradition that Brings Women into the Heart of Judaism

by Risa Borsykowsky

Giving Miriam a special place at the Passover table is a new concept in Judaism. Like most religions, Judaism developed within a male-dominated society and there are few pages dedicated to women in the Bible. Honoring and celebrating Miriam at Passover is a great opportunity to introduce Miriam, and the role she played in the Jews' exodus from Egypt.

The introduction of the Miriam’s Cup in a Passover Seder originated in a Boston Rosh Chodesh group in the late 1980’s. Stephanie Loo Ritari created this new ritual, which is based on the Legend of Miriam’s Well. The women were inspired by the Mayim Chayyim - Living Waters - of Miriam’s well, and the group drank from a special kiddush cup called Kos Miriam - The Cup of Miriam.

INTRODUCTION TO MIRIAM’S CUP

Miriam's Cup by Emily RosenfeldEmily Rosenfeld, one of the talented artists at Jewish Gift Place, makes one of our very favorite Miriam’s Cups. She sums it up eloquently in a card that she encloses with each of her Miriam’s Cups:

“The Miriam’s Cup is part of a new tradition, which brings the story of Miriam into the Passover Seder and women into the heart of Judaism. It is filled with water instead of wine and is used in addition to the Elijah’s cup. Miriam helped sustain her people during the exodus from Israel; first by discovering a miraculous and continuous well, and then with her joyous dancing. It can also be used weekly at Shabbat, instead of a Kiddush cup, with the same idea of bringing women more centrally into Jewish ritual.”

Including a Miriam's Cup at the Passover table is a pioneering tradition that gives a women of the Bible notable esteem at one of the most important Jewish celebrations of the year. By discussing her role as a prophet and a heroine, while noting her admirable qualities of strength, determination, and optimism, it will enlighten all who partiicpate in a Passover Seder and empower women everywhere.

At the end of the article you will find the most beautiful pictures and paintings, as well as words to the song, "Miriam's Song," by Debbie Friedman with a link to her YouTube video.

ABOUT MIRIAM

Miriam (her name has many meanings including prophet, waters of strength, beloved, rebellious) is celebrated as a heroine and a prophet. (A prophet is someone who speaks by divine inspiration; someone who is an interpreter of the will of God.) She was the older sister of Aaron and Moses. She is believed to be 7 years older than Moses and 3 years older than Aaron.

A passage in Micah (one of the books of the Hebrew Bible) suggests why Miriam had significant regard among later prophets, and why God chose her, along with Moses and Aaron, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In Micah 6:4 it says,

“And I brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage. I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam.”

WHERE IT BEGAN - MOSES' BIRTH

When Miriam's mother was pregnant, Miriam prophesied that her parents, Amram and Jocheved, would give birth to the child who would be the Israelite leader. He would bring about the Hebrew's redemption from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land after 10 generations.

When the Pharaoh, Ramses II, became disconcerted by the growing number of the Hebrews in Egypt, he ordered that all male children of Hebrew slaves be drowned in the Nile River. Jocheved had two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who did not cooperate with Pharaoh's order. This is considered the first occurance of civil disobedience in the Bible and was the first seed of the Exodus.

Moses was born on 7 Adar 2368 (around 1400 BCE - 3,410 years ago) and Jocheved was able to hide her baby for 3 months. During this time, she instilled his Jewish heritage in him and compassion for his people. However, after 3 months, she couldn't hide him any longer. In a desperate attempt to save her baby's life against Pharaoh's decree, she wove a papyrus basket for him and and put baby Moses in it. Miriam, only 7 years old, placed Moses in the Nile river, and promised to watch over her brother. She followed the floating basket down the river and hid in the bulrushes to make sure he was alright, until he was was found by the Pharaoh's daughter.

With trepidation and boldness, Miriam approached the Pharaoh's daughter and offered to find a nursemaid for the baby. She told her that she knew of a Hebrew woman who had just lost a baby and her newfound child might allow her to feed him. The Egyptian princess asked that the Hebrew woman be brought to her, and so Moses continued to be nursed by his own mother. The Pharoah's daughter raised Moses as her own.

Even at such a very young age, it was clear why God chose Miriam, along with her brothers, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Miriam's role as a leader of the Hebrew women was demonstrated with her boldness, courage, strength, and ingenuity.

MIRIAM, THE PROPHETESS

The first mention of Miriam being a prophetess in the Bible was after Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, led the Hebrews across the Red Sea. Miriam was so certain of her prophesy that Moses would lead the Hebrews to freedom, that she brought her tambourine with her during the Exodus from Egypt so that she could lead the women in singing and dancing.

After the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, a song led by Miriam appears in Exodus 15:20-21:

"And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (tambourine) in her hand, and all of the women followed her, with timbrels and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea."

MIRIAM, HER HUSBAND, AND CHILDREN

Miriam was married to Hur, of the tribe of Judah. Unlike other cultures at that time, Jewish women enjoyed many freedoms including talking with men in public, appearing without a veil, and travelling alone. For this reason, Miriam was present when Moses, Aaron, and Hur discussed Israel's problems and was intregral in devising the solutions. As a prophetess and the first lady of Israel, her opinion was highly regarded.

Miriam, Moses, and Aaron, led the Hebrew people through the desert for 40 years. In Miriam's honor and because of her righteousness, God created a miraculous well of clear spring water that followed her and nurtured the Israelites throughout their journey in the Sinai desert. Miriam did not live to see the Promised Land. She died before Aaron, shortly before the end of the Israelites' journey and was buried in the wilderness. The well remained with the Jews until Miriam's death.

The “Cup of Miriam” is filled with water and is placed beside the customary “Cup of Elijah,” which is filled with wine during the Passover Seder. It is symbolic for several reasons: Miriam saved her brother's life in the water of the Nile River, she led a victory song and dance after walking through the waters of the Red Sea, and she was followed by a continuous well of spring water that sustained the Israelites in the desert.

A "Miriam's Cup" brings honor to a heroic woman of the Bible. It was her faith, confidence, and wisdom that gave comfort to the Hebrews and helped them overcome the hardships of the desert during their Exodus from Egypt. She stood side by side with Moses and Aaron as they passed through the Red Sea, and she is heralded for her strength. The "Miriam's Cup" is symbolic because it is the first time a women is so honored at one of the most important Jewish celebrations of the year. It serves as a reminder that there were many unheralded women of the Bible whose contributions helped define and nourish Jewish culture.

HONORING MIRIAM AT THE PASSOVER SEDER

Since the Miriam's cup is a new tradition, there is no right or wrong way for incorporating it into the Passover Seder. I, personally, am going to start off my Passover Seder by explaining the symbolism of the six items on the Passover plate, the matzah, the Elijah's cup, and the Miriam's cup (which will be empty). Everyone at the table will have a glass of water and a glass of wine. I will explain that the water in Miriam's Cup symbolizes the miraculous well that followed Miriam and the Israelites for 40 years in the desert. The waters of Miriam's well were said to be healing and sustaining. Miriam's Cup is a symbol of all that sustains us through our own journeys. Miriam's Cup emphasizes the importance of Miriam and the other women of the Exodus.

Miriam's Cup will be passed around and everyone will add some of their own water to this cup. We will say the following prayer:

Zot Kos Miryam, kos mayim chayim. Zeicher l'tzi-at Mitztrayim.

This is the Cup of Miriam, the cup of living waters. Let us remember the Exodus from Egypt. These are the living waters, God's gift to Miriam, which gave new life to Israel as we struggled with ourselves in the wilderness.

["Miriam's Cup Blessing" Copyright 1996. Matia Rania Angelou, Janet Berkenfield, Stephanie Loo]

At each occurance of Miriam in the hagaddah, I will emphasize her importance and will give honor to her at the following parts of the Passover story:

  1. Her prophesy that Moses would free the Israelites from bondage.
  2. Her watchful eye as Moses floated down the Nile River into the Egyptian Princess' arms.
  3. Her victory song and dance after the Hebrews passed through the Red Sea.
  4. Her miraculous well that followed her as the Israelites wandered through the desert for 40 years.

I found a very beautiful song by Debbie Friedman called, "Miriam's Song." The words and a link to the Youtube video are below. I will distribute tambourines to the kids at the table and will play this song after the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea.

I will end the Seder with everyone taking a sip from Miriam's Cup, symbolizing the freedom of the Jews after passing through the Red Sea, the sustaining properties of water, the strength of Miriam, and her optimistic prophesy of hope and redemption.

SUGGESTED RITUALS FOR INCORPORATING MIRIAM INTO THE PASSOVER SEDER

Below are three different rituals from various websites with suggestions on how you can honor Miriam at your Passover Seder.

RITUALS SUGGESTED BY WWW.CARYN.COM

Below are suggestions from www.caryn.com on using Miriam's Cup in the Passover Seder:

  • Fill Miriam's Cup at the very beginning of the Seder, to symbolize inclusion of men AND women at the Seder. Miriam also appears at the beginning of the Exodus story.
  • Hold up Miriam's Cup after the recitation of the Ten Plagues and before Dayyenu, which tells the story of the Exodus across the Red Sea and into the wilderness. This is when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years and Miriam's miraculous well played an important role.
  • Or fill Miriam's Cup towards the close of the Seder and place it next to Elijah's Cup, with Elijah representing the future coming of the messiah, and Miriam representing the spiritual connection to bring about redemption needed in the present lifetime.

RITUALS SUGGESTED BY RABBI HAMMER OF TEL SHEMESH

The rituals below are written by Rabbi Hammer, the founder of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

  • At the beginning of the Seder, before kiddush, ask a guest to fill the cup of Miriam with water and say:

    “Zot be’er Miriam,
    kos mayim chayim.
    Kumi be’er enu lah.

  • This is the well of Miriam,
    the cup of living waters.
    Rise up O well! Sing to her!”

  • Near the end of the Seder, before we open the door to welcome in Elijah, everyone takes a drop of water from Miriam's cup while saying a wish for what he or she needs in the coming year. Then everyone adds a drop of wine to Elijah's cup, while saying what he or she can give in the coming year.

  • At the end of the Seder, the leader says:

    "Miriam is beginning; Elijah is end. Miriam is present, Elijah is future. Miriam is place; Elijah is time. Elijah is the mountain, Miriam is the sea. The water of Miriam rises from the earth, the fire of Elijah descends from the sky. Together they are the circle of sunlight and rain, not separate or dissimilar, for both are needed for growth. We must have consciousness of both in order to be free."

  • To conclude the ritual, mix a little of the water from Miriam's Cup with a little wine from Elijah's cup to mix the spirits of Elijah and Miriam and say:

    "Mah lemaalah kach lemata. Kein yehi ratzon.
    As above, so below. May this be the Divine will."


RITUALS SUGGESTED BY MIRIAMSCUP.COM

Below are suggestions for incorporating Miriam's Cup in your Passover Seder from www.miriamscup.com.

  • Fill Miriam's Cup following the second cup of wine and before washing the hands. Raise the empty goblet and say:
  • "Miriam's cup is filled with water, rather than wine. I invite women of all generations at our seder table to fill Miriam's cup with water from their own glasses."

  • Pass Miriam's cup around the table. Explain the significance of filling Miriam's cup with water and say:
  • "Miriam's words of comfort gave the Hebrews faith and confidence to overcome the hardships of the Exodus. We fill Miriam's cup with water to honor her role in ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Like Miriam, Jewish women in all generations have been essential for the continuity of our people. As keepers of traditions in the home, women passed down songs and stories, rituals and recipes, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. Let us each fill the cup of Miriam with water from our own glasses, so that our daughters may continue to draw from the strength and wisdom of our heritage."

  • When Miriam's cup is filled, raise the goblet and say:

    "We place Miriam's cup on our Seder table to honor the important role of Jewish women in our tradition and history, whose stories have been too sparingly told."

  • Recite a prayer from Susan Schnur:
  • "You abound in blessings, God, creator of the universe, Who sustains us with living water. May we, like the children of Israel leaving Egypt, be guarded and nurtured and kept alive in the wilderness, and may You give us wisdom to understand that the journey itself holds the promise of redemption. Amen."

  • Tell the story of a Jewish woman you admire and who is a role model for future generations.
  • Dancing in honor of the prophetess Miriam follows the rituals for the prophet Elijah after the meal. Lift Miriam's cup and say:

    "Miriam's life is a contrast to the life of Elijah, and both teach us important lessons. Elijah spent part of his life alone in the desert. He was a visionary and prophet, often very critical of the Jewish people, and focused on the messianic era. On the other hand, Miriam lived among her people in the desert, following the path of hesed, or loving kindness. She constantly comforted the Israelites throughout their long journey, encouraging them when they lost faith. Therefore, Elijah's cup is a symbol of future messianic redemption, while Miriam's cup is a symbol of hope and renewal in the present life. We must achieve balance in our own lives, not only preparing our souls for redemption, but rejuvenating our souls in the present. Thus, we need both Elijah's cup and Miriam's cup at our seder table."

  • Sing and dance with tambourines. First hold up a tambourine and say (from Exodus 15:20-21):

    "And Miriam the prophetess, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her, with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang unto them, Sing ye to God, for God is highly exalted; The horse and his rider hath God thrown into the sea."

    "As Miriam once led the women of Israel in song and dance to praise God for the miracle of splitting the Red Sea, so we now rejoice and celebrate the freedom of the Jewish people today."

A CHILDREN'S STORY - MIRIAM'S CUP

If you're looking for a beautifully illustrated story of Miriam's Cup, this is a book that I read a few years ago at my sister-in-law's house.

WORDS TO ‘MIRIAM’S SONG’ BY DEBBIE FRIEDMAN

I think you will really enjoy this song by Debbie Friedman. I’m trying to figure out how to use this song in my Passover Seder. I don’t think I’ll be able to remember the tune in the next 2 weeks, so I’m thinking of recording it and playing it after the Israelites pass through the Red Sea, which is a great time to play this very joyous song. I think by the end of the song, my lively family will be singing along. Listen to it here.

CHORUS
And the women dancing with their timbrels,
followed Miriam as she sang her song,
sing a song to the One whom we've exalted,
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long

VERSE 1
And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety
the tapestry she wove was one which sang our history.
With every strand and every thread she crafted her delight!
A woman touched with spirit, she dances toward the light

CHORUS

VERSE 2
When Miriam stood upon the shores and gazed across the sea
the wonder of this miracle she soon came to believe.
Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand
and we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land!

CHORUS

VERSE 3
And Miriam the prophet took her timbrel in her hand,
and all the women followed her just as she had planned,
and Miriam raised her voice in song-
She sang with praise and might
We've just lived through a miracle:We're going to dance tonight!!

CHORUS

Pictures of Miriam, Moses, and the Exodus From Egypt

All of the pictures below are from the beautiful clip art collection of Bible Picture Gallery.

PICTURES WITH MIRIAM

Miram ventured to come closer

Moses exposed on the Nile (an outline by Dickenson)

Pharaoh's daughter finds baby Moses

The finding of Moses (an engraving based on a picture)

The finding of Moses by Sebatien Bourdon

The finding of Moses

 

The finding of the infant Moses

Miriam the prophetess

PICTURES OF MOSES

Moses and the burning bush (a portrait by Guy Ro)

Moses and the burning bush

Moses' rod turned into a serpent

Fear grew in Moses' heart

MOSES AND AARON APPEAR BEFORE PHARAOH


Moses appearing before Pharaoh by James Tissots

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh

Moses' rod changed into a serpent

Egyptian taskmasters

THE PLAGUES

The plague of hail and the plague of frogs

The plague of locusts

The Passover

Death of the firstborn of Egypt

The death of the firstborn by Bernardino Luini

EXODUS FROM EGYPT AND CROSSING THE RED SEA

The departure of the Israelites

Pharaoh and his army in pursuit of the Israelites

A painting by German artist Lucas Cranach

Crossing the Red Sea

The passage through the Red Sea

Pharaoh and his army drown in the Red Sea


Read all of the articles in our Jewish Passover Traditions series: