The biblical traditions of Miriam the prophetess have captured the imaginations of Bible-readers throughout the ages. Miriam, Moses’ sister, watches over Moses in his cradle (Exodus 2), and leads the Hebrew women in dance at the shore of the Sea of Reeds to celebrate redemption (Exodus 15). Rabbinic lore identifies Miriam with Puah, the midwife who saved Hebrew babies from Pharaoh, and depicts her as the herald of Moses’ birth (Exodus Rabbah 1:13; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a). Contemporary Jewish feminists have established traditions of singing to Miriam the prophetess on Saturday night, parallel to the tradition of singing to Elijah the prophet at that time. It has also become popular among some feminist/egalitarian Jews to place a cup of Miriam on the seder table at the time of Passover. This cup is usually filled with water in order to recall the ancient legend that a well of water followed Miriam through the wilderness, quenching the thirst of the wandering people (cf: Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a). It was even said that healing herbs grew near this well, so that Miriam’s prophetic power became a source of healing.
The veneration of Miriam is especially deep in Sephardic Jewish traditions—those Jewish traditions stemming from the Spanish Jewish diaspora, which may be found everywhere from North Africa to Holland to Greece and Bulgaria. Sephardic women used incantations along with various rituals involving salt, herbs, and other substances, as healing for various ailments and troubles; women skilled in these practices were called precanteras or precantadoras. Some of their healing incantations invoke Miriam as the ancestress of all women healers, as in the following prayer:
Viene para sanarte milesinarte
Como Miriam a Levy
Qui sinava y milseinava
Yo todo mal se lo quitava
Y a la mar lo echava
This comes to heal you and bring you medicine
like Miriam the Levite
who would bring medicine and heal
and take all the illness away
and throw it to the bottom of the sea.
(Source: Derya F. Agis, “Beliefs of the American Sephardic Woman Related to the Evil Eye,” 2010).
This prayer is written in Ladino, a Jewish language that is a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish. The woman who chants the prayer identifies herself as acting in the tradition of Miriam, healing with water (as Miriam did by means of her sacred well). The healer invokes Miriam as a healer who would cure the people with her medicine. The healer then uses salt water to draw out the illness, and then pours out the salt water into the sea or another body of water, casting the illness away into the watery depths. The word “yam” in Miriam’s name, which means “sea”, may further identify Miriam with the salt water that the healer uses to cure the illness of the sick person.
In addition to her role as the mythic founder of the guild of women healers, Miriam is also invoked as a protector at bedtime. Several bedtime prayers invoke Miriam as one who watches over the sleeper. This excerpt is from an 18th century Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) prayer from Rhodes:
Me echo en mi cama I lie down in my bed
de Miriam hanebi’ah the bed of Miriam the prophetess (who protects it)
me covijo con colcha I am covered with the quilt
de rey selomo of Solomon the king
entrego mi alma I give up my soul
en poder de Criador to the power of the Creator…
(Source: Samuel Armstead, “Oral Literature of the Sephardic Jews.”
http://www.sephardifolklit.org/flsj/OLSJ Also see: Armistead, Samuel G., and Joseph H. Silverman, “A Judeo-Spanish Prayer,” La Corónica, 19:1
In this prayer, Miriam and Solomon are twin watchers over sleeping people. Miriam is particularly associated with the bed, as she is the one who watches over the ark of the baby Moses. Solomon is invoked because of a verse in the Song of Songs (3:7) in which Solomon’s bed is guarded by mighty warriors. Solomon is also considered a great magician who could summon spirits, and this also adds to his power as a protector. In this incantation, Miriam and Solomon appear as mythic ancestors of equal power. The sleeper now can send the dreaming soul on its journey, for these two powerful guardians are in place.
Another similar prayer, recalled by Allegra ben-Melekh of Netanya (in Israel), a Jewish woman born in Turkey, includes the words: “I lie down to sleep. I lock my doors with the keys of Miriam the prophetess, and of King Solomon, peace be upon him.” In this prayer, Miriam and Solomon are again invoked as female and male guardians and magicians, keepers of the spirit. Their keys are the ones that lock and seal the house so people can sleep safely. In both prayers, Miriam is mentioned first. This association between Miriam and protection also exists in other traditions: While Muslims call the hamsa (the five-fingered protection amulet) a Hand of Fatima, Jews have sometimes called it a Hand of Miriam.
Finally, the Shulchan Aruch, a Jewish law code written by Joseph Caro, records the custom of going out on Saturday night to draw water from wells, because of the belief that Miriam’s well roves through the world at that time, dispensing healing to all it touches (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 299:10). I had known of this tradition for a long time via my ritual work, but I had not known that there were prayers for such a ritual. Here is one of them, again from the tradition of Sephardic women’s healing incantations:
Yo bibo ista agua
Del pozo de la senora
Di Miriam la neviah
Ki sana mi milezina
Y todos los males los kora
I shall drink this water
From the well of the lady,
of Miriam the prophetess
Who heals from all affliction
And from all evil that may befall us…
(Source: Naime and Yehoshua Salti Center for Ladino Studies, Bar Ilan University)
Miriam has always been a beloved character of mine, and two of the stories in Sisters at Sinai, my book of midrash on biblical women, deal with Miriam. Recently, at a gathering of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, we studied the incantations of the prekantadoras and heard a modern Sephardic woman chant one of the incantations as a prayer for healing and full presence. It was such a powerful experience to hear a Ladino prayer invoke Miriam the prophetess. It gave my contemporary imaginings about Miriam a rich and deep legacy.
The feminist seders I have attended, with prayers and poems honoring Miriam the prophetess, have not included these Sephardic sources. I think they are not widely known—I did not learn of them until recently. Yet the healing and protective incantations of Sephardic women lend strength to the portrait of Miriam the prophetess as a woman to be reckoned with: a healer, protector, and magic-maker. It is my hope that these prayer-poems will begin to be included in contemporary Jewish feminist ritual.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).