Rabbi Bernie Fox


“And the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah.  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."  And the midwives feared Hashem.  And they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.  And 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?"  And the midwives said to Paroh, "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 given birth."  And Hashem benefited the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong.  And it took place when the midwives feared Hashem that He made houses for them.” (Shemot 15:21)

Sefer Beresheit describes the immigration of Bnai Yisrael to Egypt.  Bnai Yisrael were invited to Egypt by Paroh.  They were honored and valued by the Egyptians.  Sefer Shemot describes the persecution of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt and their redemption from bondage.  The opening chapters of Sefer Shemot explain the transformation in the attitude of the Egyptians towards Bnai Yisrael.

The Torah explains that this transformation was predicated on fear. The Egyptians observed the growth and vigor of Bnai Yisrael.  Also, they did not fully trust the loyalty of Bnai Yisrael.  With these two factors combined, the Egyptians were concerned that if their nation was attacked or invaded, Bnai Yisrael could not be depended upon to rally to the defense of Egypt. 

The persecution of Bnai Yisrael had a specific goal.  It was designed to break the nation and eliminate it as a threat.  The persecution developed in stages.  It began with the levying of taxes.  It then evolved into outright persecution and bondage.  Finally, Paroh attempted to put into place a program of genocide.

Initially, this genocide was designed to be covert.  Paroh met with the Jewish midwives who served Bnai Yisrael.  He directed them to murder any Jewish males they delivered.  The midwives did not carry out these instructions.  Instead, they continued to perform their duty as midwives and applied all of their skills to successfully deliver Jewish children.  Paroh challenged the midwives and asked them to explain their refusal to fulfill his instructions.  The midwives explained that they had no opportunity to obey Paroh’s instructions.  Whenever they were called upon to facilitate a delivery, they discovered that the child had already been delivered by the mother.  Any opportunity to covertly murder the child was lost. 

Paroh seems to have accepted this explanation.  Hashem rewarded the midwives.  The description of the reward is vague.  The Torah tells us that Hashem made houses for them.  Rashi quotes the Talmud in explaining this reward.  He explains that the “houses” to which the Torah refers are the families of the Kohanim, Leveyim, and the family from which David descended.[1]

As a consequence of this failure, Paroh implemented a new plan.  He instructed the Egyptians to implement genocide.  He authorized and instructed his own people to seize and kill all newborn Jewish males.

There are many interesting elements in this narrative.  First, it is notable that Paroh seems to have accepted the midwives’ excuse for their failure.  It is surprising that he did not suspect them of undermining his plan.  We would expect that rather than accepting their explanation, he would have punished them.  Why did the midwives believe that their explanation would be accepted?  Why did Paroh accept this explanation?

In fact, the passages are somewhat vague in describing the midwives’ explanation.  There are two elements to their explanation.  The second element is clearly stated; the midwives explained that they had no opportunity to carryout Paroh’s instructions.  When they came to the home of the expectant mother, the child had already been born.  However, the first element of their explanation is less clearly stated.  The passages tell us that the midwives told Paroh that Jewish women are not like their Egyptian counterparts.  They are “chayot.”  The meaning of this term in this context is not obvious.  Certainly, it is meant to describe some trait of Jewish women that enabled them to birth their children without the assistance of a midwife.  However, what is the precise trait to which the term “chayot” refers?

The above translation adopts the position of Rashi and many others.  According to Rashi, the midwives explained to Paroh that Jewish women are skilled midwives; they do not require the services of other midwives in order to deliver their children.[2]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests a more literal explanation.  The root of the term “chayot” is chai – life.  According to Ibn Ezra, the midwives explained to Paroh that Jewish women are endowed with a tremendous life-force or vigor.  Because of their strength and vigor, they do not require the services of a midwife.[3]

Based on Ibn Ezra’s explanation, we can understand the midwives’ reasoning in offering their excuse.  The midwives presented an explanation that perfectly corresponded and reinforced Paroh’s own prejudices regarding Bnai Yisrael.   Paroh and the Egyptians feared Bnai Yisrael.  Their fear was based upon the perception that Bnai Yisrael were different than themselves.  They believed that Bnai Yisrael were stronger, possessing more vigor and energy.  The midwives appreciated the power of this perception and they constructed their explanation to perfectly correspond with the Paroh’s perceptions.  Paroh may have been disappointed in the failure of his plan.  But undoubtedly, he was pleased that his perceptions regarding Bnai Yisrael were confirmed.

Another issue that should be considered is the reward received by the midwives.  Hashem’s rewards are not arbitrary.  They correspond with the act or virtue that they acknowledge.  What is the connection between the reward received by the midwives and their efforts on behalf of Bnai Yisrael?

This question can be answered on two levels.  Geshonides suggests a simple explanation.  The midwives were devoted to their people.  They were willing to risk their lives in order to protect and assist Bnai Yisrael.  This devotion is an essential quality of a leader.  The leader must be dedicated to the welfare of his nation.  In other words, the devotion of the midwives was an inspiring example of a trait required in a leader.  Therefore, the midwives were rewarded by being selected as progenitors of the leadership of Bnai Yisrael.[4]

However, Gershonides’ explanation takes on a deeper significance if we consider an important insight provided by our Sages.  Rashi explains that Paroh’s implementation of a program of genocide was motivated by a specific concern.  He had been told by his astrologers that a redeemer was to soon be born to Bnai Yisrael.  Paroh knew this redeemer would be a male.  His plan of genocide was devised to deprive Bnai Yisrael of their redeemer.[5]

Based on Rashi’s comment, Gershonides’ explanation is even more compelling.  The midwives were specifically instrumental in undermining Paroh’s plan to deprive Bnai Yisrael of leadership.  They were rewarded by being chosen as to be the progenitors of Bnai Yisrael’s leadership.

The most disturbing element of this narrative is that it seems that the courageous efforts of the midwives were a failure.  As a result of their refusal to carryout Paroh’s instructions, he implemented a general, public policy of genocide.  He ordered the Egyptians to murder all newborn Jewish males.  It seems that the refusal of the midwives to participate in Paroh’s plan only resulted in a more widespread and intensive program of genocide.

Gershonides offers a brilliant insight into this issue.  He explains that the nurturing of a child from among Bnai Yisrael who would develop into a redeemer of his people was not a simple proposition.  Bnai Yisrael were a nation of slaves.  They had been humbled and humiliated by servitude.  Their pride and self-image had been destroyed.  How could one of their offspring be expected to rise above these attitudes and develop the courage, knowledge and self-confidence required to achieve prophecy and assume a role of leadership?  How could a member of this oppressed nation ever challenge the authority of Paroh?

The redeemer – Moshe – was able to become a prophet and leader because he was raised in the household of Paroh as the king’s adopted grandson.  How did this occur?  Moshe’s parents attempted to hide and protect Moshe from the Egyptians’ program of genocide.  Eventually, they could no longer hide him.  They placed him in a basket among the reeds at the shore of the river.  Paroh’s daughter discovered Moshe.  She realized that he was a Jewish child.  She was overcome with compassion for this innocent child and she took him under her protection and raised him as her own.

This is a remarkable series of events.  However, it is clear that Paroh’s own efforts to subject Bnai Yisrael to a program of genocide were the antecedents of these events and laid the groundwork for their occurrence.

Paroh’s genocide program forced Moshe’s parents to place him in the river in the hope that he would be discovered and sheltered by a compassionate Egyptian.[6] 

However, it should be noted that the refusal of the midwives to participate in Paroh’s program was also essential to the unfolding of the events that led to Moshe’s development.  Paroh attempted to enlist the cooperation of the midwives in order to conduct his program covertly.  His preference was to not publicly declare a policy of genocide.  This suggests that he recognized that some Egyptians would not condone or support this program.  Furthermore, those members of the society that were the most intelligent and open-minded would be the most likely to oppose Paroh’s efforts.

Paroh’s daughter was one of these intelligent and open-minded individuals who could not accept Paroh’s program.  She was overcome by compassion for this Jewish child who was destined to be murdered for reasons she could not accept.  She acted on this compassion and saved the innocent child.  Paroh could not oppose or refuse his own daughter.  He allowed Moshe to be raised as a member of his household. 

In short, the resistance of the midwives forced Paroh to publicly declare a policy of genocide. This cruelty evoked the compassion of his daughter.  She acted on this compassion, rescued Moshe, and raised him in the king’s household.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 1:21.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 1:19.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 1:19.

[4] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 3.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 1:16.

[6] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), pp. 6-7.