The Midwives of the Exodus: Yours, Mine or Ours?

There are so many nameless women in the Bible, and yet the two midwives in the Exodus story who stood up to Pharaoh and saved the Israelite babies get two names each in ancient rabbinic literature. According to one account, the midwives’ names, Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), were code names for Miriam and Jochebed, Moses’ sister and mother. Shiphrah was Jochebed, the story goes, because Shiphrah means “cared for” and Jochebed used her skills to care for newborns. Puah equals Miriam because Puah means “cry out” – and Miriam would “cry out through the Holy Spirit, ‘my mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel’” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b).

Pharaoh and the Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century. Wikimedia commons.

The numerous permutations of the midwife story in rabbinic literature throughout the ages, extending even to a talmudic debate (Sotah 11b) over the birthing room equipment, shows how intrigued the sages were with these two women. They intrigue me too. But what I want to know is where they got the courage to resist the will of Egypt’s all-powerful sovereign, at the risk of their own lives.

Who were they?

Perhaps because of Shiphrah and Puah’s association with Miriam and Jochebed, we usually imagine the midwives as Hebrew women. In Hebrew, the Bible calls them hameyaldot ha’ivriot, which is usually taken to mean “the Hebrew midwives.” But this term might also mean “the midwives of the Hebrew women.” So for all we know, they might have been Egyptian, or perhaps from from Nubia (partly today’s Sudan), which was ruled by Egypt in various periods.  To the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, it was obvious that the midwives were Egyptian (Antiquities 2, 205).

So, the sages conceded, the midwives may not have been Hebrews. Still, they couldn’t resist making them honorary members of the tribe – according to some medieval sources they were “righteous converts” to Judaism.

Resistance personified

But I like to think of them as full-fledged Egyptian women; “righteous gentiles,” we’d call them today, saving lives oblivious to ethnicity, endangering their own to do so. And I learned that it was ethnic prejudice and hatred for the Hebrews, the “other” in this saga, that defeated Pharaoh’s own plot against them. When he finds out that the Hebrew babies’ lives were spared, blinded by his own ignorance, he falls for the midwives’ unlikely argument – a ruse – that Hebrew women give birth faster than Egyptian women  – so fast that they can’t get there in time to take their babies away.

I like to imagine those brave biblical midwives carrying out their task unconcerned with the identity of their patients – like medical professionals today, sworn to equally treat every human being who comes to them in need, “whether common or distinguished, friend or foe,” as the oath of the Israeli army medical corps states.

A Palestinian baby injured in a car accident last year was breastfed by a Jewish ER nurse after he refused to take a bottle. The baby’s mother had sustained a serious head injury and his  aunts asked the nurse, Ula Ostrowski-Zak, to help find someone to nurse him. Ula  volunteered. “I breastfed him like I do my own son….I’m here all night. It seemed so straightforward,” she told Ynet news at the time. (Photo: Hadassah Hospital Spokesperson)

These mysterious biblical women, perhaps of another nation, delivered the children of Israel – literally – in their hour of need. There’s no time like the festival of freedom, especially this year, to remember the message Jochebed’s son and Miriam’s brother brought down from the mountain:  “When a foreigner, a stranger, resides among you in your land, do not do them wrong” (Lev. 19:33).

When opportunities come our way, whether extraordinary or mundane, to be there for the other – and our lives are full of them these days wherever we live – here’s a thought: Without the midwives of the Hebrew women, we would never have gotten to the Red Sea shore, much less have crossed it.



Want to know more?

Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b, midwives, birth stool: 

A. Brenner. A Feminist Companion to Exodus and Deuteronomy, pp. 23–24.

C. Meyers (ed.). Women in Scripture, pp. 127, 156, 185.

M. Feinberg Vamosh. Women at the Time of the Bible, pp. 49–51.

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors

A Cup of Hope on the Seder Table

As first published at Jerusalem Perspective Online

The decades have not dimmed the memory of my parents’ Seder table back in Trenton, New Jersey. It was laden with traditional family favorites, and, more importantly, with the enduring symbols of commemoration. We each had our own little bowl to hold the salt water symbolizing our tears when we were slaves. The parsley was at the ready for dipping into the salt water, symbolizing the new life and joy of our springtime festival of freedom. And of course there was the all-important Seder plate, each object representing an element of the immortal saga. The full wine cup of Elijah was there, too, waiting for the redemptive door to open. My mother added to the symbolism with her signature, green-in-honor-of-spring Passover Jello-and-pineapple ring.

Just under a week ago,  in our home in the mountains of Judah, at my own family’s Passover table, we had all of those, along with a new symbol of which my mother would certainly have approved: Next to Elijah’s cup we set another goblet—brimming with water—Miriam’s cup. I’m glad my granddaughters, and the many families around the world who mark this new custom, will grow up with Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, “singing unto them” more powerfully than ever before.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous well as the sages pictured it. At left is Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17; Num. 26:46), another scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend.  Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

What is Miriam’s connection to water? We remember her as “prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron,” timbrel in hand, leading the women in praise song and dance at the shores of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20–21).  But there’s much more. The medieval commentator Rashi, explaining Psalm 110:7, interpreted her name as having two parts: mar, a Hebrew word for “bitterness,” plus the Hebrew word for “sea,” yam.  In fact, those are the two elements that bookend the drama of Miriam’s early life, from the bitterness of the slavery into which she was born, to the shores of the Red Sea where she emerges as a public leader, part of a team, as the prophet Micah (6:4) reminds us.

Miriam was a prophet, says Exod. 15:20—the first woman in the Bible to receive this title. The Bible does not tell us what she prophesied, but the ancient sages are there, as always, to fill in the blanks. The two midwives, Puah and Shifra (Exod. 1:15), they said, were none other than Jochebed, Miriam’s mother, and her five-year-old (!) daughter. In this imaginary telling, Pharaoh summons Miriam and Jochebed to his palace to deliver his diabolical edict—to kill the Hebrew baby boys they had delivered. The world’s most defiant toddler then stamped her foot (as I picture it) and warned the Egyptian ruler: “Woe to this man because of his evil deeds when God is finished with him.”

Miriam's well Miriam before Pharoah

A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

Further evidence of Miriam’s prophetic skills comes from the ancient commentary on Exodus, Exodus Rabbah, which teaches that when the Israelites realized Pharaoh’s plot, “many men decided to remain separate from their wives.” But young Miriam predicted: “a son will be born to my father and my mother at this time who will save the People of Israel from the hand of Egypt.” Persuaded by the sheer power of their daughter’s words, Jochebed returned to her husband Amram enthroned as a queen. She gave birth to a son, “and…the house was filled with a great light like the sun and the moon at their rising.”

Despite her leadership status, in fact, no doubt because of it, the Bible highlights an incident revealing a character flaw. Numbers 12:1-2 finds Miriam and Aaron apparently gossiping about their Cushite sister-in-law and maligning big brother Moses. Miriam bears the brunt of the punishment, struck with leprosy.

However, the same ancient sources who took Miriam to task and accused women in general of being prone to idle talk, also gave us Miriam’s most enduring, positive association, which comes to her only in death. Scripture speaks of Moses’ death and unmarked grave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-2, 6). As for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 says the whole house of Israel wept for him and mourned him for 30 days. But when it comes to the third member of the triumvirate, there is only the date, “the first month,” and the place, Kadesh (Num. 20:1).

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

But then, it is the very next verse that brought Miriam’s cup to our Seder table. The sages who interpreted Scripture were all about connections, and the fact that the death of Miriam is immediately followed by an assembly, not of mourning but of “striving” (Num. 20:3), was simply too good to leave alone.

In answer to the people’s outcry, God tells Moses to strike a rock, bringing water gushing forth (Num. 20:8-12). The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of this well as one of ten amazing sights created on the eve of the first Sabbath after creation—on a par with the rainbow after the great flood, manna, and Moses’ miraculous staff (Ethics of the Fathers  5, 6). In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Jose noted that the well, like other miraculous gifts, was given out of merit for the three wilderness leaders (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a). Because Miriam’s most memorable deeds involved water—saving Moses and leading the women in praise song and dance next to water—the people felt the lack of water most powerfully when she died. And so, in her honor, God caused the well, which had mysteriously disappeared, to return. When the head of each tribe would strike the rock, water would emerge in a stream leading to that tribe’s encampment. Wherever the tribes encamped, there the well would be.

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg,

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

The legend of Miriam’s well is still with us. Christian pilgrims crossing the Sea of Galilee spot many boats making the crossing with them, pausing mid-lake just like they do. But passengers on other decks are sometimes pilgrims of another faith—their dress clearly identifying them as Orthodox Jews. They are there waiting for a spring—none other than Miriam’s well, which they believe ended up here—to bubble up from the depths of the lake, as it intermittently does, as a sign of God’s faithfulness and healing power.

A 2012 film about reconnecting and renewal bears the name of the fictional town that is its backdrop:  “Hope Springs.” That play on words was not accidental. Hope springs eternal, Alexander Pope said. The cleansing and quenching of our spiritual thirst, the promise of new growth nourished by winter rains of blessing in the Holy Land, are all contained in “Miriam’s cup.”

Women dance, rarely, elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam. 18:6; Judg. 11:34; 21:21; Ps. 68:25). But it is Miriam who is depicted by the Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, as dancing in Heaven. Miriam’s dance was unique, the very embodiment of praise and hope, which continues to promise that wherever we set our Seder table, in the words of the ancients, “sustenance may be granted for the sake of one individual.”

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

My thanks to the artist Riki Rothenberg ( for her insights about Miriam and for her evocative painting of the prophetess, details of which grace this article.