The Torah refers to her as "Miriam the Prophetess" and the Talmud names her as one of the seven major female prophets of Israel. Scripture describes her alongside of Moses and Aaron as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam”. According to the Midrash, just as Moses led the men out of Egypt and taught them Torah, so too Miriam led the women and taught them Torah.
Regarding the death of Miriam, the Torah states, “The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there”.
Interpretations and elaborations
The Midrash explains the entire story as follows: It became known to Miriam and Aaron that Moses had separated from intimacy with Tzipora. They disapproved of this separation because they considered her to be outstandingly righteous, much as a dark-skinned person stands out among light-skinned people - hence the reference to Tzipora as a “Cushite”. This usage of the word Cushite is non-pejorative and is often used in Jewish sources as a term for someone unique and outstanding. In fact, King Saul and even the Jewish People are referred to by the term “Cushite”. Their complaint, therefore, was not about the union between Moses and Tzipora, but about their separation. The only justification they could find for Moses’ celibacy was in order to maintain his prophetic state. This explains their claim that God spoke not only to Moses but also to them, yet they had not separated from their spouses.
But God rebuked them by calling them all out “suddenly”, causing Miriam and Aaron a great burning sensation since they lacked immersion in a mikva after marital relations. God thus demonstrated to them Moses’ unique level of prophecy for which he had to be prepared at all times, thereby justifying his separation from Tzipora. Afterwards, “God’s wrath flared against them.” Rabbi Louis Ginzberg wrote the anger of God to them.
"...I Myself ordered him to abstain from conjugal life, and the word he received was revealed to him clearly and not in dark speeches, he saw the Divine presence from behind when It passed by him. Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against a man like Moses, who is, moreover, My servant? Your censure is directed to Me, rather than to him, for 'the receiver is no better than the thief,' and if Moses is not worthy of his calling, I, his Master, deserve censure."— Legends of the Jews vol. III
Afterward, Miriam is left with bodily tzara’at, which according to Jewish sources is a divine punishment for slander. This was because she, not Aaron, was the one who initiated the complaint against Moses. Despite Miriam's intent to help Tzipora, she should have judged Moses favorably and approached Moses on Tzipora's behalf privately. Aaron asks Moses to intercede for Miriam, Moses prays to God to heal her, and God concedes after requiring a quarantine of seven days.
Both Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, but only Miriam contracted tzara'at. It has been suggested that since according to the Hebrew Bible anyone with tzara’at was tamei (Leviticus 13-14), Aaron was spared this punishment in order not to interrupt his duties as High Priest. However, noting the wording of the verse, “God’s wrath flared against them [i.e. both Aaron and Miriam]”, the Talmud appears to conclude that Aaron was also smitten with tzara’at initially, but was then immediately cured.
It has been suggested that Josephus and Irenaeus (who merely cites Josephus) identify the Cushite woman as Tharbis, “the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians”. However, while Josephus does describe a legend (which is not written in the Torah) wherein Moses marries this princess during a military campaign he leads in Ethiopia, according to Josephus this marriage occurs while Moses is still a royal prince of Egypt long before he re-discovers his oppressed Jewish brethren. After which time, upon fleeing as a solitary fugitive from Egypt, the only marriage of Moses that the Torah records is with Tzipora the daughter of Yitro the Midianite. In fact, Josephus himself later records Moses’ marriage to Tzipora as separate and subsequent to his earlier marriage to Tharbis. Furthermore, according to the conclusion of the Tharbis legend, Moses fashioned a miraculous ring which caused her to forget her love for him, and he then returned to Egypt alone. Therefore, even according to Josephus, Moses’ first marriage to Tharbis as military leader of Egypt terminated long before his later marriage to Tzipora as fugitive from Egypt, such that the Cushite wife of Moses mentioned in the Torah after the Exodus appears to be Tzipora, as explained above.
Richard E. Friedman writes that since Cush is generally understood to mean “Ethiopia”, it is possible that the “Cushite woman” is not Tzipora. But he adds that since there is a place called Cushan which is a region of Midian, and Moses’ wife Tzipora has already been identified as a Midianite, it is possible that the term “Cushite” relates to Tzipora’s being from Cushan. However, Friedman’s primary interest is not in the identity of the Cushite woman, but rather in the outcome of this story which establishes Moses’ superiority over Aaron as an example of his claim that rival priesthoods created or publicized tales in order to legitimize their respective claims to privilege and power. He describes the Aaronid priesthood in the Kingdom of Judah, which claimed descent from Aaron and which controlled the Temple in Jerusalem, as opposed to a priesthood which claimed allegiance to Moses and was based at Shiloh in the Kingdom of Israel. Using interpretations from the documentary hypothesis, he notes that this story, which he calls “Snow-White Miriam”, was authored by the Elohist who he claims was from, or supported, the Shiloh priesthood, and thus promoted this tale to assert Moses’ superiority over Aaron and thereby belittle the Aaronid priesthood in Judah. However, the identity of the Cushite woman referred to in this story is tangential to Friedman and his opinion remains inconclusive.
The Well of Miriam
Miriam's death is described in Numbers 20:1 and in the next verse, the Israelites are described as complaining of the lack of water at Meribah; in Jewish tradition this abrupt transition was explained by imagining a "well of Miriam" that dried up when she died. Further elaboration identified the rock that Moses struck to bring forth water in Exodus 17:5-6 with this well, and said that the rock travelled with the people until Miriam's death.:217-228
The Talmud says, “Three great leaders led Israel: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. In their merit they received three great gifts: the Well [Miriam], the Clouds of Glory [Aaron] and the Manna [Moses].” When Miriam died, the well was removed as is evidenced by the fact that immediately after the verse “And Miriam died”,
Rashi says that this well was the same rock from which Moses brought forth water after Miriam’s death. The Midrash states that when they encamped, the leader of each Tribe took his staff to the well and drew a line in the sand toward his Tribe’s encampment. The waters of the well were drawn after the mark and thus supplied water for each of the Tribes.
Symbolism in modern practice
Miriam is a popular figure among some Jewish feminists. Thus, in addition to the traditional cup of wine that is set for the Prophet Elijah, some feminist-inspired Seders set a cup of water for Miriam which is sometimes also accompanied by a ritual in her honor. Miriam’s cup originated in the 1980s in a Boston Rosh Chodesh group; it was invented by Stephanie Loo, who filled it with what she referred to as mayim chayim (living waters) and used it in a feminist ceremony of guided meditation. Miriam’s cup is linked to the midrash of Miriam’s well, which “is a rabbinic legend that tells of a miraculous well that accompanied the Israelites during their forty years in the desert at the Exodus from Egypt”.
Some Modern Orthodox Jews have revived an ancient custom of adding a piece of fish to the Seder plate in honor of Miriam who is associated with water, based on the teaching in the Talmud that God gave manna (on the ground) in the merit of Moses, clouds of glory (in the sky) in the merit of Aaron and a well (of water) in the merit of Miriam. Accordingly, the lamb (earth), egg (air) and fish (water) in the Seder symbolize the three prophets Moses, Aaron and Miriam, respectively, whom God chose to redeem the Jews from Egypt. Similarly, the lamb, egg and fish also allude to the three mythical creatures in Jewish tradition - the land beast Behemoth, the bird Ziz, and the sea-creature Leviathan, respectively. According to the Midrash, the Leviathan and Behemoth, as well as the Ziz, are to be served at the Seudat Techiyat HaMetim (the feast for the righteous following the Resurrection of the Dead), to which the Passover Seder alludes, insofar as it commemorates the past Redemption together with the Cup of Elijah’s heralding the future, Final Redemption.
In the Qur’an, as in the Hebrew Bible, Miriam obeys her mother’s request to follow the baby Moses as he floats down the river in a basket, their mother having set him afloat so he would not be killed by Pharaoh’s servants and soldiers (28:11). Later on, Asiya, wife of Pharaoh, finds Moses at the river and adopts him as her own, but Moses refuses to be suckled by her. Miriam asks Pharaoh’s wife and her handmaidens to have his own mother act as nursemaid to Moses, the mother’s identity not being known to Pharaoh’s wife (28:12–13).
- Ex. 15:20.
- Megilla 14a.
- Micha 6:4.
- Targum Micha 6:4.
- Numbers 26:59
- Ackerman, Susan (2002). "Why Is Miriam Also among the Prophets? (And Is Zipporah among the Priests?)". Journal of Biblical Literature. 121 (1): 47–80. doi:10.2307/3268330. JSTOR 3268330.
- Nu. 20:1.
- Tanchuma, Tzav 13. See Rashi’s commentary on Nu. 12:1-15 throughout.
- see Moed Katan 16b.
- Psalms 7:1.
- Amos 9:7.
- Nu. 12:9.
- Ginzberg, Louis (1909). The Legends of the Jews vol. III (Translated by Henrietta Szold) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
- Shabbat 97a; Rambam, Tzara'at 15:10.
- Maharsha, Shabbat 97a.
- Shabbat 97a. This concurs with the opinion of R’ Akiva, although R’ Yehuda ben Beteira argues that since the verse mentions tzara’at explicitly only regarding Miriam, God’s wrath toward Aaron was limited to rebuke alone without tzara’at.
- Antiq. 2:10:2.
- "Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, XXXII".
- Ex. 1:15.
- Ex. 1:21.
- Antiquities 2:11:2.
- Raleigh, Sir Walter. The History of the World: Section IV, ‘Of Moses Flying out of Egypt’, 1829 edition.
- Richard E. Friedman (May 1997). Who Wrote the Bible. San Francisco: Harper. p. 78. ISBN 0-06-063035-3.
- Tervanotko, Hanna K. (2016). Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. p. 257. ISBN 9783647551050.
- van den Bosch, Jan Williem (2016). "Chapter 13 The Well of Miriam and its Mythological Forbears". In Houtman, Alberdina; Kadari, Tamar; Poorthuis, Marcel; Tohar, Vered. Religious Stories in Transformation: Conflict, Revision and Reception. BRILL. ISBN 9789004334816.
- Ta’anit 9a.
- Nu. 20:1.
- Pesachim 54a.
- Tanchuma, Chukat 21.
- Miriam’s Cup: Miriam’s Cup rituals for the family Passover seder. Miriamscup.com. Retrieved on 18 October 2011.
- "Why Miriam's Cup? Because Without Miriam, Jewish Life Would Not Exist | The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California". Jweekly.com. 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-04-13.
- Esserman, Rachel (1 September 2006). "Defrosting Judaism: A Look at the Ritualwell Website" (Print). The Reporter. Binghamton, NY. Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton. p. 5. Retrieved 29 January 2014.
- "Miriam's Cup". My Jewish Learning. 2014-01-22. Retrieved 2015-04-13.
- Rav Sherira Gaon on the Seder night, cited by R’ Elazar of Worms (c. 1176 – 1238) in "Ma'aseh Rokeach (סאניק, תרע"ב, עמ' י"ז, סי' י"ט)". (from Dr. Yael Levine).
- Ta’anit 9a.
- Micah 6:4 - "For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam".
- Ps. 50:10; Baba Batra 74b.
- Ps. 50:11, 80:13-14; Baba Batra 73b.
- Gen. 1:21, see Rashi; Is. 27:1; Baba Batra 74b. Dr. Yael Levine cites R’ Chaim Palaggi (1788-1869), "Mo'ed l'Khol Chai, Izmir, 1861, Chapter 4, sec. 23, p. 24b". who also mentions placing fish on the Seder table and reciting, “May it be Your will that You merit us to eat from the banquet of Leviathan”.
- Baba Batra 74b.
- Yalkut Shimoni 1:94. See also Maharal, Gur Aryeh 21:1.
- Pesachim 119b and Eitz Yosef there.
- Dr. Yael Levine. Where is Miriam on the Seder plate?.
- Dr. Yael Levine. “Placing a Cooked Food on the Seder Table in Commemoration of Miriam”, All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & The Women of Exodus, edited by Rebecca Schwartz, Mountain View, California, 2001, pp. 235-251.