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The Untold Story of the Hebrew Midwives and the Exodus

The Untold Story of the Hebrew Midwives and the Exodus


As any mother who has experienced the birth process can tell you, the transition from labor to delivery is always the most intense. The time of transition is also when many women begin to feel completely out of control, emotional, scared, and stuck.

I remember transitioning during my first birth. I begged the midwife to let me walk the three miles to the local hospital and get an epidural for the pain I thought I would not endure. “You’ll deliver the baby before you get there,” she told me. But I had been in intense and active labor for nearly twelve hours, and I couldn’t fathom that it was almost over. I felt as though I was trapped inside a tunnel. It was the role of my midwife to get me through to the other side.

I felt as though I was trapped inside a tunnel. It was the role of my midwife to get me through to the other side“Fulfilling its meaning of ‘with woman,’ midwifery has survived through the centuries as birth, the renewal of life, continues through the ages.”1 If one recognizes birth as being just that, the renewal of life, the importance of the role of midwife becomes perfectly clear. It is not just new lives that midwives bring into the world, but a rebirth, a renewal of a nation.

The redemption of the Jewish nation from the bondage of Egypt, and indeed the bondage of exile throughout time, is a direct result of the actions of the Jewish women of their time. According to the Talmud,2 it was in reward for the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. Yocheved (Moses’ mother and later wet-nurse), Miriam, Shifrah and Puah and the other midwives, Serach bat Asher, and Moses’ wife Tziporah. These are all strong forces within the story of Shemot . . . the Book of Names . . . the book of the Exodus. In order to understand the implications of the feminine drama within this book of the Bible, it is necessary to understand what the feminine represents in Jewish thought.

In the natural realm, the woman is generally understood to be the receiver while the role of the man is that of the giver. Women represent the hidden sphere while men walk in the much more public realm. In the story of Exodus, however, the roles seem to be reversed, with the women pushing the men and driving the course of events. Indeed, after a recounting of the sons of Jacob, the book of Shemot/Names opens with a description of an eerily nameless Hebrew nation. “The Children of Israel,” as it calls them, “were fruitful, teemed, increased and became strong . . . and the land became filled with them.”3 The words the Torah uses to describe the growth of the nation are not positive. They are linked to animalistic, reptilian, or even insect-like reproduction.4 This, coupled with the fact that the Torah does not name them in the very book of Names, bears witness to the fact that, indeed, their individual identities as well as their cultural ones were within the greater Egyptian culture. The Children of Israel had sunken to the lowest levels and become swallowed up by the abyss. “An existential failure is marked here: the grandchildren of Jacob have . . . lost their distinctness, their names, their sense of purpose.”5 All signs of life were gone.

Between the listing of the sons of Jacob in the first five lines of Shemot, and the naming of Moses in chapter 2, verse 10, the only other people to merit a name at all are the midwives Shifrah and Puah. That leaves 28 lines of anonymity. So, why do the midwives have this honor? What makes them so important that they merited being placed between our forefathers and our redeemer?

While there have been a few medical papyri found that deal with fertility and pregnancy in ancient Egypt, very little is explicitly detailed about the actual birth process. It seems, from the papyri, that physicians had relatively little to do with birth; but, it is interesting to note, there is no hieroglyph or word for “midwife” at all. There are hieroglyphs in tombs that appear to tell the tales of goddesses acting as midwives to women of royal blood, but there is no way to be sure that real-life midwives followed the same practices as depicted on the walls of the tombs.

The primary idea of the Egyptian exile was that knowledge (da’at) was in exileThe Hebrew term for “birthstool” in Exodus 1:16, ovnayim, means literally “two stones.” It refers to the primitive form of the birthstool, which was simply two bricks (or stones). Such birthstools are also found depicted in the later forms of the hieroglyphic symbol for “birth.” In ancient Egypt, where child mortality was high, Egyptians called upon the help of their gods through magical objects (like these birth bricks) and special ritual practices during childbirth. The Egyptian birth brick was associated with specific goddesses, and elaborately decorated accordingly.

Because of this evidence of Egyptian birthing we see that there was, indeed, a somewhat developed birth practice. The belief in the involvement of supernatural forces also testifies to the fact that the superstitious Egyptians would surely not have thought the Hebrews capable of birthing on their own as “beasts of the field.”6 Furthermore, because of the associations the Egyptians made between the supernatural and the process of birthing, it would follow that midwives were a respected class. This is why Pharaoh himself would speak directly to the midwives.

The beginning of the Book of Exodus plants the reader in a time of paradoxical chaos, an upside-down world. The Jews were plunged into a world of darkness where they were enslaved and afflicted. The Egyptians had forgotten about Joseph and all he had done for their nation, and saw his descendants as thorns in their eyes. It was a time in which everything that had been in the time of Joseph was reversed or obliterated. The Israelites were in their first exile.

The founder of Chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov, gives us an insight into this and all subsequent exiles. He says that the primary idea of the Egyptian exile was that knowledge (da’at) was in exile.7 Therefore, without knowledge, which contributes to our ability as human beings to speak, it follows that speech was also in exile.

What does this mean that da’at was in exile? According to Kabbalistic teachings, there are ten sefirot, or attributes of the soul. The first three sefirot, chochmah, binah, and da’at (the acronym of which forms the name “Chabad”) are associated with the intellectual process. These “give birth” to the other seven characteristics (called middot) as their offspring, and they are thus known as “the mothers.” Chochmah is the initial flash of insight when an idea first reaches the mind—the conception or impregnation, as it were. Binah is when one begins to synthesize and understand this flash of inspiration—this can be likened to a pregnancy. Da’at is the understanding and knowledge that comes when one has synthesized and internalized the information—this is the birth process. This was temporarily lost while in Egypt.

According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, one who does not internalize the Torah, even if he is knowledgeable in the information, “will not produce in his soul true fear and love, but only vain fancies. Thus, da’at provides the substance and vitality of the middot.”8 This is what leads to action. We live in a physical world in which our actions are of the greatest importance. Our thoughts, our knowledge, our ideas, can only take us so far in our devotion. We must “bring it down” from the highest heavens, allow the knowledge of G‑d to penetrate through our minds, and then, finally, permeate our bodies and be reflected in our deeds.

This is where the Jews in Egypt got stuck. They knew they were a people descended from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. This is why the book of Shemot (Names) begins with a list of these holy ancestors but leaves out the names of the current generation. The current generation, likened in the Torah to insects, were not complete human beings. They never brought their knowledge down into their lives.

“When a person actively fulfills all the precepts which require physical action . . . and with his power of thought . . . then all of his soul’s 613 ‘organs’ are clothed in the 613 commandments of the Torah.”9

“It must be emphasized that although the author states that ‘the middot are the offspring of CHaBaD,’ this is not to say the that mind ‘begets’ them from within itself . . . The relationship between the mind and middot might be thus more accurately described as the mind being the ‘midwife’ that facilitates the birth of the middot.”10

without this arduous birth story, they could not have been born into a new life of freedomThe midwives in Egypt were the conduits for the Exodus. It is Shifrah and Puah alone whom are named in those first verses of the book of Exodus which link the patriarchs to Moses. They were the chochmah, the binah, and the da’at. They stood up to Pharaoh, defied his decree, and honored the Almighty by safely delivering the Jewish boys and girls.

Rashi discusses the word the Torah uses for “midwife,” stating that the word used is the “intensive form” versus the passive. One form is used for a normal childbirth, while the other indicates a difficult birth requiring assistance from the midwife.11 So Shifrah and Puah did not simply assist in the birth of the redemption. Indeed, they hastened its coming.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “limitations” or “confines.” The Midrash12 likens the Exodus from Egypt to removing a baby animal from its mother’s womb. It is said that the Egyptian experience is a foreshadowing of what the Jewish people will endure before the final redemption. The Israelites had become like animals, “teeming and increasing,” and enslaved in Egypt. But without this arduous birth story, they could not have been born into a new life of freedom. When the world found itself turned on its head—with goodness enslaved and knowledge silenced—the connection between the mind and the body was severed. The Israelites had the knowledge (the chochmah and binah), but they had not internalized it (with da’at) and mirrored it in their lives. They had conceived, become swollen and pregnant, but were stuck and waiting to deliver. The womb that had been Egypt was now a place of confinement. It was the midwives who corrected this disconnection and brought the redemption into the world. And who better than midwives to deliver us?

Helen Varney et al., Varney’s Midwifery (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004), p. 3.
Sotah 11b.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 19. Based on Sforno’s commentary to this verse.
Zornberg, p. 20.
Rashi’s commentary to Exodus 1:19.
Heichal Haberachah, Parshat Ki Tavo.
Tanya, part 1, ch. 3.
Tanya, part 1, ch. 4.
Adin Steinsaltz, Opening the Tanya (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), pp. 103–104.
Be’er Rechovot supercommentary on Rashi to Exodus 1:15.
Mechilta to Exodus 14:31.
Nechama Rubinstein was raised on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, and now resides in downtown Fort Lauderdale, with her rabbi/law-student husband and two children. She has a personal interest in children’s cancer research, and enjoys advocating for natural birthing and working on her in-progress collection of short stories.
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Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum, for Folsom, CA February 28, 2017

RE: Hebrew midwives - Shiprah and Puah I'm not familiar with the theory you quote, although it does sound fascinating. Certainly it doesn't hold up according to the opinions that Yocheved (Moses' mother) was one of the midwives, as she already had two children even before Moses was born. Reply

CHRISTOPHER KAFUI GADOSEY Munich February 19, 2017

Hebrew midwives - Shiprah and Puah Heather Farrel wrote:
"Some scholars say that midwives in Israel were always barren women, who in order to find their place in a society where family was valued above all else, were given the responsibility of helping other women bring life into the world."
She argues "If this is true then it makes the fact that God gave them "houses" or "posterity" as a reward for their faithfulness an even more beautiful blessing."
How true is the premise? Were midwives usually barren? Reply

Annie Australia March 1, 2016

Story of Miriam Hi Nechama,
I was fascinated by your article and wonder if you might be able to point me towards a folktale or story that perhaps highlights all you have so beautifully said in particular the story of Miriam and how she as midwife contributed to the birth of a nation? I have the story of 'Miriam at the Red Sea' re-written by Nina Jaffe & wondered if you might have something with more description that you know of? Thanks so much for your help :-) Annie (storyteller from Australia) Reply

Josh Monx Berkely May 4, 2014

This is great, I hate the photo, it does not tell the story of birth but rather the theft of the power to birth by men and medical doctors. That birth is the exception, not the rule. At least one our of ten births can be done just safe at home at this time in this country and probably most countries. Reply

Ruth Bell, Ca. April 26, 2011

I've heard that some sages have stated that men had to receive Torah, because women already carried it through emuna-faith in their nefesh-soul. Therefore they would keep bearing children in faithful trusting of their deliverance. Women might not have presence in the public sphere, but Mishlei a.k.a. Proverbs says: Every wise woman builds up her home, but a foolish one tears it down with her own hands. 14:1 Reply

rachel April 12, 2011

thank you Ruth Yes i do have issue with the male rabbi role and I am struggling to reconcile this as scholars of Torah will tell one that it is Torah law and that is why in orthodox circles women are not ordained and can never be part of Beit Din etc. I am really struggling to wrap my head around this. I would appreciate if some of the Chabad learned staff can comment for us on this within the public space. thank you. Reply

Ruth Housman Marshfield, Ma April 10, 2011

Us womb men Bravo to the woman whose comment is above. Why do hear so much from a perspective that does perpetuate old stereotypes of women and our roles? We were the ancient goddess and we are capable of many things. Here there are
So many male rabbis and very few women. That seems not equal.


Rachel April 7, 2011

i got stuck at "In the natural realm, the woman is generally understood to be the receiver while the role of the man is that of the giver. Women represent the hidden sphere while men walk in the much more public realm."

I object to this stereotype and blatant generalisation. I know many strong positive intelligent loving woman who are very much in the business world etc, very much doing their thing in public so too speak, and enjoying it tremendously.

This is not real life being described here.

I really wish these type of statements would stop permeating Judaism. It is incredibly alienating to all the men and women who do not fit in these broad sweeping generalisations.

Also this "ideal" has been the cause of men subjugating women for millenia, yes even in Judaism. A women's role is whatever she chooses it to be and it is not necessarily in the home behind closed doors taking care of the family. It can be but that is a matter of choice. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 5, 2011

Deliverance There are profound metaphoric connects that do run up and down all creation, and deeply within words do we often perceive of this. As in, as pointed out in this article, the word deliver and deliverance itself, and the parallels that one can make in childbirth, and deliverance in terms of a nation, a peoples. Those who help with the birth process, those pangs, in all societies, are in essence, practicing midwifery.

The book Mirrors in Time is an excellent resource that discusses these connects.

All poetry does draw upon metaphoric connect after metaphoric connect, and these layers go deep, and they are beautiful. It could be said that all creativity is the explication of One ness, and each time, we see it, in a different light, we exclaim: how beautiful! There is such awe. Reply

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