Raboyseyee and Ladies,
The Jewish -or maybe not- Midwives
This week’s review of Parshas Shmois, our 12th, is dedicated to two incredible women -heroines mamish- who get but one Toirah shout-out by name, and then sadly and forever disappear from the text six pisukim later.
We will take a shtikel dive into the backgrounds of Shifra and Puah, identified by the heylige Toirah as the Hebrew midwives who delivered the children of the Israelites (the Yiddin) during the Egyptian servitude. Ober, who were these great women? Were Shifra and Puah their real names? Were they mamish Jewish midwives? Do all agree? The heylige Toirah chronicles -with what appears to be great color and specificity- (Shmois 1: 15-21) that they disobeyed Paroy’s command and did not –as instructed- kill the Israelite male newborns. Apart from this stalwart act, they are forever gone from the text. Ober, not to worry; our sages of the heylige Gemora and the medrish brought them back to life and greatly expanded their resumes. We shall explore what a few had to say. Ober, first a shtikel intro.
Shoin, it’s one parsha later and how are the Yiddin faring? Not very well; in fact, the situation on the ground is quite giferlich. Somewhere between the end of Sefer Bereishis and this week’s parsha –separated by four blank lines in each Toirah Scroll, it appears that all hell has broken loose. The Yiddin have descended from most favored guests to slaves. Several hundred years have elapsed in but one shabbis, and the Yiddin are in trouble. Not to worry: In Parshas Shmois, the RBSO springs into action and in two more shabosim, they will be redeemed from slavery. We will forever celebrate these days and rebrand them as Pesach vacation. We will forever begin discussing Pesach getaways for months before, during, and after. It will consume us.
It appears from heylige Toirah and numerous commentators that throughout the entire slavery, in at least one area, the Yiddin were thriving. Though tired as a result of salve labor conditions, it appears the men were stand-up mamish, if you chap, magically rejuvenated at home, and were exceedingly successful in seeding their wives whom we are told were able to give birth by the half dozen and much more. According to one medrish, as many as sixty were born form one pregnancy. It appears that single birth pregnancies were kimat non-existent during this period. The medrish will credit the women of that generation for seducing their tired husbands into sexual relations; such a miracle has never again been seen, oy vey! As an aside, men have never had such success! An exasperated Paroy, seeing the writing on the walls of the expanded classroom sizes of the thousands of yeshivas that mistama popped up to educate millions of children, came up with a last-minute plan to stem the explosive growth which he feared might eventually overrun his kingdom and the Egyptians. He directed two Jewish midwives to immediately -upon birth- kill all Jewish male babies. His plan in one word: infanticide; say it’s not so. The heylige Toirah dedicates a total of seven pisukim to the instructions, and to the defiance by the midwives.
Our sages, based on the heylige Gemora (Soita 11b and the medrish (Shmois Rabbah 1:14) add some color and tell us azoy: when Paroy commanded the midwives to kill the sons, he also taught them the secrets of the birth process, to aid them in implementing his decree. When he told them “[…] look at the birthstool [ha-avnayim, literally, stones],” he entrusted them with an important sign, namely, that when a woman is about to give birth, her thighs become as cold as stone, thus teaching them when her time was near. When he ordered them “if it is a boy, kill him,” he gave them an additional important sign, for a male child comes out with his face turned downward, looking at the earth from which he was created, while a female is born with her face turned upward, looking at the rib from which she was formed. Thus, the midwives would know the sex of the infant, already at the beginning of the birth. That was then. In hyntige tzeytin (in today’s times), many women have cold thighs all the time; headaches too. Shoin!
And because the medrish and the heylige Gemora just love color, especially of a sexual nature -efsher added to pique our interest, or to stam azoy perk up, if you chap, our imaginations, they (Soita 11b), also tell us azoy: when Paroy summoned the midwives to his palace, he sought to seduce them. To what? Paroy wanted sexual favors from the midwives? Yikes! And the Gemora deduced this how and why? Our sages looked at the wording of the heylige Toirah -see posik 17- where we read this: “[The midwives] did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them [aleihen],” instead of as he “told them [lohen].” And because of this grammatical imperfection, the heylige Gemora deduced that Paroy wanted to seduce. The word used implies that he wanted to engage in intercourse with them (la-voi alayhen), to come upon them, but they refused his advances. And that’s why Raboyseyee, you must learn and enjoy the heylige Gemora.
Wait! There’s more; much, and here’s but a small sampling. The heylige Toirah tells us (v. 17) that the midwives did not heed Paroy, and “did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them; they let the boys live.” The Rabbis ask why it was necessary to write “they let the boys live?” If Scripture already stated that the midwives did not do the king of Egypt’s bidding, we already chap that the boys lived. They answer that the words at the end of posik teach us that not only did they not kill the boys, but they also actively aided them to live, by giving them food and water. These nuggets too are found in the heylige Gemora (Soitah). Says the medrish, azoy: if the midwives saw poor women, they would go and collect food and water from the houses of wealthy women, which they gave to the poor ones, thus enabling them to provide for their children. Many years later -a few thousand- Tomchei Shabbis was founded.
Another medrish (Shmois Rabbah 1:15) relates that the midwives knew that fetuses are liable to be harmed during the delivery and be born with some physical defect. They therefore stood and davened to the RBSO with these words. “Master of the Universe, You know that we did not fulfill Paroy’s edict, but we seek to fulfill Your word. Master of the worlds, may the child emerge unscathed, so that the Israelites will not find a reason to speak against us, saying that we wanted to kill them, and they were born with defects.” The RBSO immediately accepted the prayer of the midwives, and all the children were born without flaw. According to an additional tradition, in order to avoid such mishaps during the course of the delivery, the midwives prayed to God, saying: “Master of the worlds, Punish them for their sins now [i.e., in some way other than by death], and give them life, so it will not be said that we killed them by order of Paroy.” The RBSO did as they requested and let both the mothers and the children live. The bottom line: they were good people and the RBSO rewarded them. Ober, who were they? And just how many midwives were there? Were there more than the two specifically delineated by name? Let’s chazir (review): we know that sixty-six Jewish males descended to Mitzrayim with Yaakov, along with many women. The commentaries tell us that at that point in history all Jewish mothers were having sextuplets. The bottom line: the Yiddin were enjoying a population explosion. Their numbers were increasing so dramatically that Paroy feared they’d soon be strong enough to wage war against his country. And if that’s the case, how could but two midwives -no matter how skilled- accomplish this great feat of millions of deliveries? How taka? And the answer?
Many commentaries (to include the Ibn Ezra, Sforno, Ohr Hachayim and the Chizkuni), offer a simple answer: There were in fact many midwives, up to 500 of them. Shifra and Puah were merely the ones in charge of all other midwives, hence they were the ones Paroy addressed by name. Conflict resolved. And if that’s the case, why does Rashi neglect to mention this position, and instead speaks about Shifra and Puah as if they were the only midwives in Egypt—which appears to be impossible? Even more mind-boggling is the possibility that the midwives weren’t necessary at all. As the midwives tell Paroy: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians, they know how to deliver. They can give birth before a midwife even gets to them.” We know that this wasn’t merely an excuse the midwives gave to throw Paroy off, because he could have easily verified their assertion. What’s taka pshat here? Ober says the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sichas Shabbis Parshas Shemois 5746 and a shout out to chaver Yossie Popack) so gishmak azoy: Yocheved and Miriam still had roles as midwives, as they were available in case of any complications during a birth. Even though they were only two people, their reputation as wellborn and righteous individuals (who would be granted Divine assistance if necessary) was enough to reassure the entire population of birthing women. Got to love the Rebbe!
Let us explore questions raised above by reading Paroy’s harsh decree and of the defiance shown by Shifra and Puah. Says the heylige Toirah (Shmois 1:15-21, azoy:
|15. Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifra, and the second, who was named Puah.||טווַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה:|
|16. And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.”||טזוַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָ֣עִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָֽאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַֽהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖וא וָחָֽיָה:|
|17. The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.||יזוַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים:|
|18. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, that you have enabled the boys to live?”||יחוַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֨יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים:|
|19. And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives; when the midwife has not yet come to them, they have [already] given birth.”||יטוַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַֽמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ:|
|20. G-d benefited the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong.||כוַיֵּ֥יטֶב אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֑ת וַיִּ֧רֶב הָעָ֛ם וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ מְאֹֽד:|
|21. Now it took place when the midwives feared G-d, that He made houses for them.||כאוַיְהִ֕י כִּי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים:|
Let us repeat the questions and add a few more: Were Shifra and Puah their real names? Who were these two women? Were they Jewish? Were they converts? Were Shifra and Puah but nicknames for other people? And if so, who were the other people? A number of you may be thinking that these answers are low hanging fruit as anyone who went through the yeshiva system, avada knows that famous Rashi which tells us that Shifra and Puah were none other Yocheved and Miriam. And for those who don’t recall, let us remind you that Yocheved was Moishe’s mother and Miriam, his older siter. Nice! Ober, does everyone agree? Are there other opinions? And if such other opinions exist, why don’t we know much about them? Is there a reliable source that connects Shifra and Puah to others? Let’s get answers.
Says the Rashbam and several others that avada they were Jewish. They so state emphatically and with certitude. The heylige Toirah states למילדות העבריות” – למיילדות שהם העבריות.. La-meyaldois ho-ivriyos – to the midwives who are themselves Hebrews. Targum Unkelis, and others agree: they were Jewish midwives. Fartig and case closed. Moreover, the medrish goes veyter to build up their resumes and tells us not only were they Jewish -from birth- Shifra and Puah were none other than famous female characters, known to us as Yocheved and Miriam. And so, quotes Rashi (1:15) based on a medrish found in the heylige Gemora. שפרה – זו יוכבד על שם שמשפרת את הולד:: Shifra – is Yocheved. [The name] comes from her taking care (meshaperet) of the infant. And
– זו מרים שפועה ומדברת והוגה לולד כדרך הנשים המפייסות תינוק הבוכה.Puah – is Miriam who coos (puha), speaks, and makes noises to the infant as women do to calm a crying baby.
So far so good until we read this in the heylige Gemora (Soita 11b) which states azoy: “And the King of Egypt said to the Hebrew Midwives.” Rav and Shmuel (expound): One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: Yocheved and Miriam. He who said a woman and her mother-in-law: Yocheved and Elisheva. Yocheved and Elisheva? The same Elisheva who later married Aharoin? Indeed so; ober, for reasons we don’t chap, and were not taught (at least not as a real pshat), this particular identification of Puah to Elisheva never took flight -why not, ver veyst- and we -as a collective- were taught to believe that Puah was Miriam and not Elisheva.
The bottom line: we of course understand that all three women, Yocheved, Miriam and Elisheva, were members of the tribe in good standing, all Jewish. That being said, is there another possibility? Seemingly there is and says Yehudah HaChosid that the storyline implies that the midwives were Egyptian shiksas; yikes! They were what? Shiksas who helped the Jews give birth? And they saved the babies from death? Let’s read his words: Shifra and Puah were originally Egyptian and then converted. If this were not the case, how could it be that [Paroy] commanded them to kill Jews? … And by extension, if they were not Jewish until their conversion, they could not possible be identified with Yocheved and Miriam, or Yocheved and Elisheva. You hear that? And guess what? Yehudah Hachosid is not alone. Says the Abarbanel, azoy: They were not Hebrews, since how could [Paroy’s] mind be confident that Hebrew women would murder their own [people’s] babies?! Who were they? Rather, they are the “midwives of the Hebrews,” i.e., they assist the [Hebrew women] in the birthing process, just as [the next] verse says (v. 16), “when you deliver the Hebrew women.”
ולא היו עבריות כי איך יבטח לבו בנשים העבריות שימיתו ולדיהן אבל היו מצריות מילדות את העבריות ר”ל עוזרות אותן ללדת כמ”ש בילדכן את העבריות.
The bottom line according to this view is azoy: during their conversations with Paroy, both the midwives and Paroy speak of the Hebrews as “others” -always referring to them as “the Hebrews (הָעִבְרִיּוֹת),” implying that the midwives were not part of that group. And says the Shadal that Abarbanel’s pshat is correct. And he adds azoy: for how could it be that [Paroy] could command Jewish women to annihilate their own people [by killing all the male offspring] and believe that no one will find out about the matter? Moreover, the command was supposed to be a secret; otherwise, how could the midwives possibly be granted access to deliver the Hebrew women giving birth? Even Paroy, Shadal argues, must know that Israelite women, considering what was at stake, would not keep this plan hidden from their own people.
And the question is azoy: why is it that we all grew up thinking that Shifra and Puah were Jewish and that they real names were Yocheved and Miriam, when there are seemingly at least several known names who believe otherwise? And if not Jewish, they could not be Yocheved and Miriam. Were they or were they not Jewish? And why taka did this pshat never take off in popularity? Was there efsher a deliberate effort made to deny that Shifra and Puah were but very decent shiksas who helped out the Yiddin at a critical time? Have our sages ever suppressed or changed a medrish that did not fit their narrative? We will address shortly.
Ober, listen to this: the idea that the midwives were ethnic Mitzrim, seems to have taken hold in a genizah fragment from a previously lost medrish. Mamish azoy? Where was this found? Let’s check out a medrish titled, “In Praise of Righteous Gentile Women” where a fragment from the Cairo genizah dating from around 1000 CE, lists righteous gentile women, The list includes Osnas (Yoisef’s shiksa Egyptian wife), Shifra and Puah, Paroy’s daughter, Zipporah (Moishe’s Midianite wife), Rochov (she, the famous innkeeper, if you chap), and the ever-popular Rus. All of the women included in this list are non-Israelite women who acted virtuously towards Israel or the RBSO.
Says the medrish (Yalkut Shimoni on Yehoishua 247:9), azoy: There are righteous convert women: Hagar, Osnas, Zipporah, Shifra, Puah, the daughter of Paroy, Rochov, Rus, and Yael, the wife of Chever the Kenite. Another medrish (Medrish Tadshe), says kimat the same: And there are also righteous convert women from among the gentiles: Osnas, Zipporah, Shifra, Puah, the daughter of Paroy, Rochov, Rus, and Yael.
And listen to this original pshat from the Malbim, who said azoy: Shifra and Puah are not names of people, but rather job titles. One job entailed helping a mother through the labor process, and the other cutting the umbilical cord and tending to the new baby’s needs. He further states that Paroy addressed many midwives, not only two, and not two who were in charge of many. Further, he says that these were righteous Egyptian women who feared G‑d and defied Paroy’s commands, and makes no mention of them converting. What? Born and died as shiksas? Mamish? Well, blow me down!
The bottom line: There is ample exegesis suggesting that Shifra and Puah were -at least- originally not Jewish (and by extension, also not Yocheved and Miriam). And let’s not forget the Malbim who just told us they also never converted. The questions stand: whatever happened to this idea? Why was it lost? And if not lost, was it perhaps buried? With at least a few exegetes pointing to them as non-Jewish, why taka is that not the prevailing view? Was there a suppression conspiracy at play?
Seemingly, what we have here is a case where our sages of the medrish did not see eye to eye with others, and in this particular case, perhaps took measures to make sure that one view would be discredited. Say it’s not so, but was it? One might suggest that medroshim positing the idea that Shifra and Puah were not Jewish -at least at first- might have been fought by Rashi, Unkelis and a few others davka because that theory diverges from the plain text of the heylige Gemora. On the other hand, are we to ignore ideas put forth by the Medrish (Yalkut Shimoni), Medrish Tadshe, and others to include a medrish found in the Genizah? And the Malbim? Would rabbis ever suppress evidence contrary to their own opinion? Don’t answer that! Grada just last shabbis, a fine gentleman the heylige Ois was sitting next to suggested a book title (yet to be written) ‘what rabbis get away with.’ Ober, why taka would this idea be suppressed? Says the Toirah Temima, (Shmois 1:15), azoy:
ודע דבילקוט יהושע ב’ חשיב בין הנשים הגיורות את שפרה ופועה, וצ”ל דפליג אגמ’ דידן שהיו יוכבד ומרים או יוכבד ואלישבע, וצ”ל שנתגיירו קודם מאורע זו שבפרשה זו, אחרי דהכתוב אומר מפורש המילדות העבריות, דדוחק לומר דהכונה כאן המילדות את העבריות (בחסרון יחס הפעול את).
And in English: Note that the Yalkut (Yehoisha 2) includes Shifra and Puah among women who are converts. We must say that this understanding goes against the heylige Gemora, which identifies them as either Yocheved and Miriam, or Yocheved and Elisheva. And we need to say that they converted before the events described in this biblical passage, since the text explicitly reads “the Hebrew midwives,” and it does not make sense to read this as if the text intended to say “the midwives of the Hebrews.”
The bottom line: in the case of Shifra and Puah, Rashi, the Toirah Temima and others, were not at all happy to read opposing views davka because the heylige Gemora did not offer the possibility of them being Egyptian shiksas. Any opinion to the contrary could not fly and was eventually moved to the back pages of the proverbial google pages. Another bottom line: In some cases, ancient traditions die out and are forgotten; in others, they are actively suppressed by later sources. It is likely that the exegeses suggesting that the midwives were Egyptian shiksas belongs in this second category. The urge to suppress this view is clearly seen when reading modern rabbis who were aware of this potential pshat, but declared it heterodox. In case you’re wondering, heterodox is defined as not conforming with accepted, or orthodox standards or beliefs. In other words, suggesting that Shifra and Puah were not Jewish and never converted is perhaps heretical, blasphemous, iconoclastic and rebellious; so say some. The final bottom line: whether or not Shifra and Puah were Jewish from birth, converts, or but good and righteous Egyptians who did the right thing and were therefore rewarded by the RBSO instantly, ver veyst? We don’t know with certainty.
A gittin Shabbis-
The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv