The Merit of the Hebrew Midwives

The cat’s out of the bag. Pharaoh discovers that the Hebrew midwives who he entrusted to kill the baby boys of the Israelites were actually allowing them to live. Instead of following his supreme command to kill their kin, they disobeyed and saved their lives. He asks the midwives “Why are you disobeying me?” and their reply is “The Israelite women give birth so vigorously, even before we come to them, they deliver the baby.”

Did Pharaoh really buy this explanation? Perhaps he did. After all, one of the words used to describe how quickly the Israelite population grew is וישרצו,[1] meaning that they multiplied like insects. It seems more likely, however, that Pharaoh did not, as he quickly changes his strategy to having all the people throw the baby boys into the Nile rather than having the midwives kill them.  Why then doesn’t he arrest the midwives for civil disobedience, for defying his order?

From most accounts it appears that the midwives are rewarded for their efforts. The continuation of the story reads, “G-d dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied greatly. And because the midwives feared G-d, He established homes for them.”[2] What is the purpose of the homes which are established? Who is the “he” who establishes homes? Who is the “them” for which they are established?[3]

Rashbam[4] views the two parts of the verse as separate from each other. Because the midwives feared G-d, he (Pharaoh) put them (the midwives) in homes, to guard them lest they allow more Hebrew children to live. As punishment for disobedience, Pharaoh put the midwives in a controlled environment, so he could keep an eye on them. The difficulty with this, however, is why would Pharaoh do an about face and change his command to throw the Israelite children into the Nile River? If he had control over the midwives, he should proceed with his plan of killing all the sons.

A more compelling way of looking at the midwives is that they were being protected from Pharaoh. Rabbi Saadia Gaon[5] asserts that it simply means that G-d protected the midwives. The midwives obeyed G-d, and in return G-d ensured that Pharaoh would not harm them. Midrash HaGadol[6] expands on this, affirming that Pharaoh did come to kill the midwives, and God put two walls around them, protecting them.

Rashi[7] has a different take, referencing the Talmud.[8] He states that the houses refer to the descendants of the midwives. Shifra, who the Talmud equates with Yocheved, was blessed to have the Kohanim and the Leviiim[9] descend from her, through Aaron and Moses. Puah, who is equated with Miriam, has royalty follow her line, as she is an ancestor of King David. The houses thus refer to the midwives’ descendants.

Hizkuni[10] expands upon Rashi’s idea, arguing that בתים, or homes, really means בנים, or children. The midwives undertook a daring task, putting their lives in danger to save others. In return, G-d ensured that their memory would endure forever through their descendants. For Hizkuni, one’s descendants are his home, as they ensure stability and permanence. Thus God gave the midwives the greatest gift they could ask for: families.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Meklenberg[11] has a unique take, arguing that the midwives were not directly rewarded but that the entire people of Israel benefitted from their action. He states that because the midwives feared G-d, He (G-d) made for them (the people of Israel) homes. Rabbi Meklenberg points out that the them (להם) is masculine and so it could not possibly refer to the midwives; rather it must go back to the previous verse,[12] where it states “the people of Israel multiplied and increased greatly.” Because the midwives let the male children live, the Israelites increased in number, and because they increased in number, G-d established dwelling places for them.

The lesson to take from the example of the midwives is to do the right thing precisely because it is the proper thing to do. One needs to defy immoral commands, even if they come from the ruler of the land and even if they will not result in direct benefit for oneself. David Hazony wrote about the “six women and Moses.”[13]  Our redeemer from Egypt would not have been able to save the Jewish people if he, himself, had not been saved by six women.  Shifra and Puah, those faithful midwives, help to ensure his birth by creating a culture of civil disobedience. Miriam and Yocheved, his sister and mother, protect and hide him for as long as they can. Pharaoh’s daughter takes him into her home and adopts him.  Finally, his wife Tzipporah circumcises their son to stop an approaching angel who seeks Moses’ death. Without these women, there would be no exodus story. As the Talmud[14] declares: “As the reward of the righteous women of that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.” May we be as righteous as the Hebrew midwives, doing the right thing at a time of great difficulty, and may it lead to our houses, our children, knowing and sharing our merits. That is the greatest reward for which we can ask.

[1] Exodus 1:5

[2] Exodus 1:20-21

[3] The latter two questions might appear to have obvious answers: the “he” is G-d and the “them” is the midwives. However, it’s not so clear cut, as we will see in the commentators.

[4] Rashi’s grandson who lived in 12th century France

[5] Leader of the rabbinic academy in Sura (Babylon) in the 9th century

[6] A 14th century collection of Midrashim (rabbinic interpretations of biblical verses)

[7] 10th century France and the grandfather of Rashbam

[8] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b

[9] The Jewish priestly class

[10] Hezekiah ben Manoah of 13th century France

[11] 19th century Prussia; author of HaKtav V’HaKabbalah

[12] Exodus 1:20

[13] From Jewish Ideas Daily, December 22, 2010.

[14] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b

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