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Hol Hamoed Pesah

April 12, 2017

Miriam the Healer

Rabbi Jill Hammer

As we approach the seventh day of Pesach, when we read the narrative of crossing of the Sea, I am thinking of the prophetess Miriam, who dances and sings to celebrate the crossing and the victory of YHWH.  At my own seder, I have long had a cup of Miriam, filled with fresh water to represent the well of water that followed Miriam through the wilderness, quenching the thirst of the wandering people (cf: Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a).  This custom, invented by contemporary Jewish women, gives me great pleasure, as Miriam is a role model of mine.  Yet I did not know how intimately Miriam is associated with protection and healing, and with the salt water of the sea.

Recently, as I have read about Sephardic Jewish women’s prayers and rituals, I have learned that the veneration of Miriam is especially deep in Sephardic Jewish traditions of incantation.  Sephardic women from Greece to Bulgaria to Israel, have used incantations combined with various rituals involving salt, herbs, and other substances, in order to heal various ailments and troubles.  Women skilled in these practices are called precanteras or precantadoras.  Some of their healing incantations invoke Miriam as the ancestor of all 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).

The woman who chants the Ladino prayer identifies herself as acting in the tradition of Miriam.  The healer invokes Miriam as a healer who would cure the people with her medicine, her sacred water.  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.  Miriam’s dance at the sea, combined with her name, may be what inspired Sephardic women to see her as a healer whose primary healing tool is salt water.

Miriam is also associated with protection due to her role as the watcher over the baby Moses.  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

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 (1990-1991), 22-31.)

Miriam is associated with watching over the bed because she is the one who watches over the little ark where baby Moses sleeps.  Solomon is invoked because of a verse in the Song of Songs (3:7) in which Solomon’s bed is guarded by mighty warriors—and, Solomon is also imagined as a great magician who could summon spirits.  In this incantation, Miriam and Solomon appear as mythic ancestors of equal power.  They protect sleepers and keep them safe on their night dream journeys.

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, keepers of the spirit.  Their keys are the ones that lock and seal the house so people can sleep safely.

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 prayer for the drawing of water on Saturday night, 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)

The seders I have attended, those that included prayers and poems honoring Miriam the prophetess, have not included these Sephardic sources.  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 could be acknowledged as we continue to create contemporary Jewish ritual. Perhaps as we read the crossing of the Sea this Passover, we can understand Miriam as a healer of soul and body, a reminder of our own gifts of healing and transformation.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR.  She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.

This d’var Torah was adapted from an article shared on feminismandreligion.com, entitled “Miriam the Prophetess as Guardian and Healer.”