There are so many traditional teachings that emphasize the greatness of the women in the time of Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) that the Talmud asserts, “It was in the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt.”
On the second days of Pesach, we retell the story of how G-d miraculously propelled the newly freed Hebrew slaves across the Yam Suf (Reed Sea) by sending a wind that parted the waters and dried the seabed. This scene is one of the most powerful and enduring images of women in the Bible. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. (Ex. 15:20)
Once the immediate danger had passed and all had crossed the Yam Suf safely, Moshe (Moses) led the men in songs of praise to G-d for their salvation and Miriam led the women. Can you picture this famous visual image? Women with clothing flowing in the breeze, dancing feet and tambourines held high above their heads, led by Miriam.
Although Moshe was the greatest prophet Judaism will ever have, Miriam’s prophecy is equated with that of Aaron. Miriam is such a strong leader that she is often grouped with her brothers Moshe and Aaron. For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)
A ritual example of this is found in a lost custom of Seder night. The foods on the Seder plate are said to remind us of numerous things. Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (12th century) teaches that the shank bone and the egg remind us of Moshe and Aaron. He further teaches that some people add a portion of fish to the Seder plate, to honor Miriam in addition to Moshe and Aaron.
Fish on the Seder table is also associated with the women of the generation of the Exodus. It was the women who saw a future for the Jewish people and who wanted to continue to have children. The Egyptians decreed that the men should sleep out in the fields and the women sleep at home to reduce the opportunities for them to be together. Nevertheless, the women believed in Redemption. They groomed themselves in copper mirrors so that they would look attractive and their husbands would want to be with them. When going out to see their husbands in the field, they brought jars of hot water in which little fish appeared. By eating the cooked fish and drinking water, the men were refreshed. On these visits, the women would encourage their husbands by reminding them that Redemption was certainly coming.
Water, in addition to being used by women to rejuvenate their husbands in the fields, is associated with other Biblical women. Rivka came and drew water for Eliezer and his flock of camels and this proves to be the test of her worthiness. Rachel is first met at the well where she has come to water her father’s flocks. Even Moshe meets his future wife, Tzipora, at a well and she later sustains him with food and water during his 10 years in her father’s prison.
Miriam herself has multiple connections with water. Her first appearance is near water, when she is sent to look after her brother Moshe as he is placed in the Nile River. As mentioned, she is associated with the Song of Miriam that she led at the Yam Suf and also with the Well of Miriam that, until her death, supplied the Hebrews with water in the wilderness.
We evoke these associations by placing the Kos shel Miriam (Miriam’s Cup) on our Seder table. The Kos shel Miriam is a relatively new symbol. Rather than the wine that fills Kos shel Eliyahu (Elijah’s Cup), the Kos shel Miriam is filled with pure water, symbolizing all the associations between Miriam, the women of her generation, and water.
Wine in the Kos shel Eliyahu is produced only through human effort. Water in the Kos shel Miriam, like the Ultimate Redemption of the Jewish people, comes only from G-d.