Shemot: The Midwife

“And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah. And he said, When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth-stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live!” But the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt told them; they let the boys live.” (Shemot 1:15-17)

Shifrah and I were called
to an audience with the omnipotent Pharaoh.

He spoke brutally,
thin lips twisted, hooded eyes glittering.

“When you deliver Hebrew babies,
the girls may live: eliminate the boys.”

I felt my face flush, and
my heart thump with latent fury.

I glanced at Shifrah:
her head was bent, her eyes demure.

At midnight I was called
to attend the birth of a Hebrew child.

The mother writhed,
and groaning, turned her head aside.

“One more push,” I urged her softly,
catching her son as he entered the world.

My hands swaddled the baby
as my mind flashed back to the mighty monarch.

I laid the child at his mother’s breast,
not knowing, yet trusting the shadowed future.

The rays of early dawn trickled in
gently playing on the infant’s pristine face.

One day, I mused, as I tidied up,
this child may shine light on Pharaoh’s darkness.


The text says “Vayomer melech Mitzraim lameyaledot ha’Ivriot asher shem ha’achat Shifrah veshem ha’shenit Puah,” which is commonly translated as, “And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah.” (The Midrash holds that the two women were Jochebed and Miriam.) However the phrase could also be rendered, “And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives who birthed the Hebrew women, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah.” Josephus describes them as Egyptian while the Yalkut Shimoni posits that they were Egyptian but converted. Abarbanel* and Samuel David Luzatto** assume that these were Egyptian midwives, both averring that it is hardly probable that the king would have expected Hebrew women to slay children of their own people. Based on a comparison with other places in the Tanach where the phrase “yirat Elokim – fear of God” is used, Nechama Leibovitz also concludes that the midwives were not Hebrews. The name Shifrah appears in a list of slaves attached to an Egyptian estate while the name Puah has been found on documents in Ugarit – an ancient Canaanite city, which seems to confirm this thesis.

On the phrase, “…but the midwives, fearing God…” the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out “this is the closest the Torah comes to having a word for religion. The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behaviour into the universe. The midwives not only believed in God but also understood that God demands a high level of moral behavior. They were willing to risk punishment at the hands of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God.” In this first recorded precedent of civil disobedience, the midwives’ actions were guided by their conscience and ignored the dictates of the ruling authority. The thousands of righteous gentiles who sheltered Jews in the holocaust at huge personal risk did the same.

*Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel (1437–1508), commonly referred to just as Abrabanel, was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator and financier. He was a scion of one of the oldest, wealthiest and most distinguished Jewish Iberian families who had escaped massacre in Castile in 1391. At twenty years old, he wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on religious questions and prophecy. Abrabanel became a prolific writer whose works are often categorized into three groups: philosophy, apologetics and exegesis. His philosophy concentrated on the interface between the sciences and the Jewish religion and traditions His apologetics defended the Jewish idea of the coming of the Messiah. Abrabanel’s exegetic writings were different from the usual biblical commentaries because he took social and political issues of the times into consideration. He appended an introduction concerning the character of each book he commented on, as well as its date of composition, and the intention of the original author, in order to make the works more accessible to the average reader.

**Samuel David Luzzatto, also known by his Hebrew acronym, Shadal, (1800-1865) was an Italian Jewish scholar and poet. While still a boy he entered the Talmud Torah of his native city Trieste, where besides Talmud, he studied ancient and modern languages and science. He studied the Hebrew language also at home, with his father, who, though a turner by trade, was an eminent Talmudist. Luzzatto manifested extraordinary ability from his childhood, so that while reading the Book of Job at school he formed the intention to write a commentary on it, considering the existing commentaries to be deficient! He was a prolific poet and during his literary career of more than fifty years, Luzzatto wrote a great number of works and scholarly correspondences in Hebrew, Italian, German and French. He also contributed to most of the Hebrew and Jewish periodicals of his time. His correspondence with his contemporaries reveals that there was hardly any subject in connection with Judaism on which he did not write.

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