The Book of Exodus opens by creating a picture of the Israelites’ life in Egypt: who was there, where they came from, and what their connections were to the stories of Genesis. Then, we read the famed words, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). In this single statement, the Torah signals the end of a period of peace and the beginning of an era of oppression and slavery.
The Israelites’ oppression becomes even more profound a few verses later, when Pharaoh orders the killing of all newborn Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:16). This decree foreshadows the ten plagues to come, with their last and most-terrible plague, makat b’chorot, the killing of the firstborn (Exodus 11). But as the Israelites’ period of slavery already included Pharaoh’s order to kill all newborn Hebrew boys, perhaps that last plague should not have come as a surprise.
It was in this volatile climate that two women took a daring step of spiritual audacity that changed the story forever. Two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, let the Hebrew newborn baby boys live.
The Torah says that the midwives take this risk because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17). We can only guess why Pharaoh doesn’t want newborn boys: perhaps they could be a future threat to him, perhaps he just wanted the Israelites completely eliminated over time. (It’s interesting to speculate about what Pharaoh would have gained by killing all newborn males. Was he so shortsighted or insecure that he was willing to forgo his free workforce in exchange for a show of power or security? Did he want unfettered access to Hebrew women? There are many possibilities.) In focusing on killing baby boys, Pharaoh doesn’t account for female power — that two brave midwives would disobey his order and set in motion the story of Moses.
Who are these women and how does “fearing God” motivate such a radical move of opposition? The standard reading is that they are “Hebrew midwives,” m’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot who are determined to save their people (Exodus 1:15). This explanation is plausible: Hebrew midwives would naturally be averse to killing sons in their own community. Plus, it’s strategic — those baby boys could grow to be the threat that Pharaoh feared. Scholars, including legendary Torah commentator Rashi as well as Rav and Shmuel, two Rabbis of the Talmud, even interpret Shiphrah and Puah to be women we know in other contexts such as Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Miriam (Moses’ sister), and Elisheva (Aaron’s wife) (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b and Rashi on Exodus 1:15). If we follow these interpretations, then we understand Shiphrah and Puah’s motives: not only are they saving newborn boys, but also they are enabling Moses to come into the world and acting to ensure his survival.
As anyone who reads Torah knows, it is not written with vowels. Our standard way of reading Torah, the Masoretic text, has appointed vowels. But in some cases, there may be multiple options for vowel readings, and in this case, a single vowel could change the entire story. What if we read the text not as lam’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “[to the] Hebrew midwives,” but as li-m’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “the midwives to the Hebrews”?
This is a traditional, though less well-known, Jewish reading. Josephus (37-100 CE), Y’hudah HaChasid (1150-1217), and Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) all suggest that Shiphrah and Puah can’t be Hebrews, because how could Pharaoh trust Hebrew women to murder their own people? They must be Egyptian.
If Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptian, then what’s their motivation to defy Pharaoh? It seems that Shiphrah and Puah’s motives must have been pure — they genuinely did not want to kill baby boys, period. It’s a moral compass, a deep and intuitive sense of right and wrong that motivated them, since they had everything to risk and nothing to gain. When Pharaoh finds out that Hebrew boys are living under Shiphrah and Puah’s watch, he confronts them. Their excuse that the Hebrew women are so strong that they give birth before the midwives have time to arrive seems like a creative but quickly made-up excuse (Exodus 1:19). Their bravery makes them Exodus’ first heroes.
There is an incredible fragment of a text from the Cairo Geniza (a collection of manuscripts found in a Cairo synagogue, some dating back as far as 870 C.E.) that recognizes Shiphrah and Puah as Egyptians. It’s a list of biblical righteous gentiles, and it includes the midwives. The context of the fragment has been lost, but the list remains — and Shiphrah and Puah are on it, along with women like Hagar and Zipporah.
So what do you think? Do you read Shiphrah and Puah as Hebrews or as Egyptians? Our tradition, in its multi-vocal complexity, leaves the jury still out. Either way, Shiphrah and Puah have something powerful to offer. Not only did they save new babies, but also they — two women in ancient Egypt — leave us with some amazing lessons:
1. The power of women in a uniquely female space. It’s easy to think that the events that make history are the decrees, battles, and moments of high drama. But Shiphrah and Puah remind us that history also happens at the birth stool. Their actions literally determined the fate of a people. They set the stage for Moses to live.
2. The power of individuals valuing life over politics. In every generation, there are the people who are truly righteous. It’s people who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, hiding Jews in their homes. It’s people like Shiphrah and Puah quietly saving lives through what they know to be right, despite the tremendous risk involved.
3. Humanity first. In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Shiphrah and Puah chose to see babies as babies, as people with only possibility ahead, not defined by their religion, gender or status. That one of those babies would turn out to be Moses was only incidental, superseded by the concept of saving a life.
To learn more about Shiphrah and Puah, feel free to consult these sources.
1. Mayer I. Gruber, 2009, “Puah: Bible,” Jewish Women’s Archive
2. Tamar Kadari, March 20, 2009, “Shiphrah: Midrash and Aggadah,” Jewish Women’s Archive
3. Moshe Lavee and Shana Strauch-Schick, 2016, “The ‘Egyptian’ Midwives: Recovering a Lost Midrashic Text and Exploring Why It May Have Been Forgotten,” The Torah.com
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, NC with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director, and director of year-round programs, at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past 8 years.