“Who Were the Midwives?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read that Pharaoh, king of Egypt, orders the Hebrew midwives to kill the male children as soon as they are born. The midwives, however, fear G-d and do not do as the king of Egypt instructed, defiantly allowing the Hebrew children to live.

One cannot read about the cruel decrees of Pharaoh and not wonder how it was possible that within a period of about 100 years, the Egyptians, who had wildly hailed Joseph as their savior (Genesis 47:25, “hech’yee’tanoo”), could condone the genocidal scheme to eliminate Joseph’s people.

The Torah itself provides some clues, relating that a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. Some scholars say that the king represented a new dynasty and was bereft of any knowledge of Joseph’s era. Rashi says that it was the same old Pharaoh who hatefully disregarded Joseph’s accomplishments. Pharaoh’s behavior, in fact, anticipates the common pattern of ingratitude that many nations have expressed toward the people of Israel over the millennia.

The Torah also relates that the Jews increased geometrically in numbers, and that the Egyptians were simply afraid that they would be overrun by the Hebrews. Perhaps they were afraid that the venerated culture of Egypt would be overwhelmed by the boorishness of the new immigrants, a concern that we often hear articulated in the contemporary debate regarding immigration. The Torah also acknowledges the Egyptians’ suspicion of Jewish dual loyalty, and the fear that the Jews of Egypt would join Egypt’s enemies if ever a war were to come to their land.

The verse in Exodus 1:10 alludes to another Egyptian fear, “V’nil’cham bah’noo v’ah’lah min ha’aretz,” that not only will the Hebrews join the Egyptian’s enemies and fight against their nation, but that they will leave the land as well. Perhaps the Egyptians were afraid that their country would lose the economic prowess of the Jews, and that Egypt would go into an economic tailspin after the Jews leave. The decline of countries has also been a common occurrence following the massive expulsions or murder of Jews in various countries.

Determined to address their “Jewish problem,” the Egyptians initiated their first course of action against the Jews, afflicting the Hebrews with overwhelming work obligations, charging them with building great storehouses. This, however, did not seem to work. In fact, the more they afflicted the Hebrews, the more they multiplied and flourished. The scriptural verse describing the Egyptians’ attitude toward the Hebrews (Exodus 1:12), “Vah’yah’koo’tzoo mip’nay b’nay Yisrael,” has a double meaning. This may mean that the Egyptians felt utter revulsion toward the Children of Israel, or that they were actually pained by their very existence.

Pharaoh’s next scheme was to enslave the Jews with bitter and crushing work in the manufacture of mortar and bricks.

Although we are not told of the effectiveness of this tactic, it seems not to have been enough. We learn that, not long after, Pharaoh placed his famous “call” to the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) “la’m’yahl’doat ha’iv’ree’yoat,” one whose name was Shifrah and the other Puah, instructing them to kill the male children in the birth process.

Who were these midwives who were ordered to carry out this murderous scheme? Many of the classical commentators follow the opinion of Rashi, citing the Talmud Sotah 11b, that the midwives were two Jewish women, either a mother and a daughter (Yocheved and Miriam) or a mother and daughter-in-law (Yocheved and Elisheva, Aaron’s wife). Yocheved is called Shifrah, because she improved the child by carefully caring for the baby. Miriam (or Elisheva) is called Puah, because she would coo to the children, calming them when they cried.

Philo (Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, first century C.E.), Flavius Josephus, and Abarbanel all argue that the midwives must have been non-Jewish, since Pharaoh would hardly trust Jewish women to kill Jewish babies. The words of Exodus 1:15, “la’m’yahl’doat ha’iv’ree’yoat,” the Hebrew midwives, are ambiguous, and lend themselves to be interpreted as Egyptian women who were midwives to the Hebrews.

Scripture tells us (Exodus 1:17): “Vah’tee’reh’nah ha’m’yahl’doat et ha’Eh’lo’kim,” that the midwives feared G-d and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the children live. Defying Pharaoh was incredibly heroic. If the midwives were non-Jewish, Egyptian women, then they were exceptionally saintly women, “Cha’see’day oo’moat oh’lahm,” righteous women of the nations.

Although she finds his statement rather hard to believe, Nehama Leibowitz cites Shadal (Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italian Jewish scholar and philosopher, 1800-1865) who states, “Whoever has a G-d (true or false) will recoil from massacring innocent children, whatever nation he belongs to.” Professor Leibowitz, however, explains that while this does not mean that these non-Jewish midwives feared the Jewish G-d, it may mean that they had an exalted sense of universal morality that prevented them from following Pharaoh’s orders.

Whether Jewish or non-Jewish, Leibowitz notes that these women were probably the first individuals to perform an act of “civil disobedience” in the name of morality. Their actions are so highly regarded that the Bible records their names for all posterity. In stark contrast, the vaunted Pharaoh, with all his power and glory, is known only by his title, but his personal name remains a mystery. The midwives’ courage serves as an exalted model for all humanity, underscoring how individuals can indeed resist evil, and that one’s personal sense of moral responsibility can boldly stand up to the wickedness of even the greatest powers, and prevail.

That is why G-d blessed and rewarded the women (Exodus 1:21): Vah’yah’ahs la’hem bah’teem”, and [He] made them houses. The Al-mighty built up their families, increased their prosperity, and allowed them to multiply and increase abundantly. These women surely deserved their rewards!

May you be blessed.