Shabbat Shirah—This Shabbat is for the Birds

Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

In the middle of the cold, gray winter comes a Shabbat bright with songShabbat Shirah, the Shabbat for feeding the birds. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the beautiful custom that surrounds this Shabbat.  And this one day comes with opportunities for meaningful learning and for doing a mitzvah.

Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat that falls on or before Tu b’Shvat is a great teaching opportunity that is a wondrous combination of Torah, midrash (extra stories that explain the Torah), learning about winter, animals in different seasons, and the mitzvah of tzaar ba’alai hayim/caring for animals.

The Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.  On that Shabbat, we read from the Torah B’Shalah which is about the Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Reed Sea.  The highlight of the parashah is the reading of Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea.  The newly freed slaves sang this beautiful song after crossing the Reed Sea thanking God for saving them.

So what does feeding birds have to do with the Exodus from Egypt? The Rabbis gave two explanations connecting the tradition that surrounds this unique Shabbat.

We feed the birds to thank them for teaching us to sing.  This Torah portion is about using song to praise God.  Birds praise God and creation with their singing, and they do it spontaneously, all day.  What a wonderful lesson for us.

The second reason imagines a situation for which we need to thank the birds that saved God and Moses from embarrassment.  The Torah says that in the desert the Israelites ate manna, a gift that God sent them every day.  But on Friday, everyone was to pick up two pieces, so that they would not need to gather it on Shabbat.  There is a midrash, a Rabbinic story, that says that on the first Shabbat in the desert some malcontents got up very early and put manna out on the ground.  When everyone woke up and saw the manna, the Israelites would distrust what God and Moses had said.  But birds came and ate it before everyone woke up and the plan failed.

So, in the midst of winter, and on Shabbat Shirah, we remember these stories, and we repay the birds by giving them food when they most need it. Learning about winter should not only be about snowflakes and snowmen.  Shabbat Shirah gives an opportunity for children to find out about what happens to animals in winter.  It is a lovely lesson on being sensitive to the needs of animals and performing the mitzvah of kindness to animals, Tzaar Ba’alai Hayim.

There are many ways to make bird feeders.  Whatever kind of feeder is made, each child should make one to take home, and the class should make a few together to hang outside the classroom where children can see the birds eating.  Put more bird feeders near the playground and around the grounds.  For school, use ones that can be refilled as well and take a walk every few days to refill them. Instead of a one-time cute project, the bigger lesson is now the children understand this action in a profoundly, Jewish way.

Don’t lose hope, because it might take a little time for the birds to find the feeders.  Once they do, it is an opportunity for children to observe them and to learn what the different birds are.  Find a guide book with color pictures, so that the children can try to find the birds they are seeing.  Copy pictures of these birds and post them with their names. Photograph these events, and further encourage the children and help them to document their responses in what they are seeing (and saying).  Help to make the families a part of this project by encouraging them to send in their photographs and descriptions of what happened with their bird feeder at home.

Making a bird feeder in winter is a common activity in our classrooms.  Now this fun project is an opportunity for meaningful Jewish learning. The children can become connected to the natural world around them.  They can become aware of the needs of animals and do something about it by performing a mitzvah.

Can you think of a better reason to sing?