“Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives” Exodus 1:15

By Elaine Robinson, January 7, 2010

Who were these midwives who did not carry out the King’s command to kill the male babies of the Israelites, but rather “saved the boys” (Exodus 1:17)?

According to Rashi, the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, were mother and daughter: Jochebed and Miriam, since for Rashi, the term meyaldot ha-ivriyot (Exodus 1:15) is to be understood literally, as the Hebrew midwives. Another view suggests that the midwives were daughter-in-law and mother-in-law: Jochebed and Elishebah, daughter of Amminadab. In both midrashim these are prominent Hebrew women who were celebrated for their righteousness.

The reason that commentators chose to see them as Israelite women is based on the biblical account that the midwives did not obey the royal edict because they “feared God”.

God rewarded them for their actions, as verse 21 attests: “He established households [batim] for them,” which the rabbis understand as priestly and levitical households, or as royal households.

However, Sforno disagrees and insists that the midwives were not Hebrews.  For Sforno, meyaldot ha-ivriyot is to be understood as the midwives of the Hebrews, rather than “the Hebrew midwives”. If this was the case, then what an incredible and brave stance they took. They risked their own lives for the safety of an enslaved people.

This wonderful interpretation is a lesson to us all: the moral imperative that every member of humanity must act. Our responsibility is not only to our own people, but to those around us, as it says: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). We are obligated to stand up to injustice wherever and whenever it occurs.

Last updated: 10:43am, January 7 2010