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Pioneers of Faith


Childbirth, perhaps more than any other life event, is an experience that demands a strong dose of faith and surrender. No matter how well planned or organized we may be, the inevitable moment will arise where the birthing woman must face the fact that there is a force at play that is larger than herself. As her baby moves down the narrow passage towards birth, and contractions rush through her body with the force of a tidal wave surging towards land, the birthing woman is presented with a sublime choice: to faithfully submit to its power, or to fight it tooth and nail. There is a precious body of women who for centuries have been intimately connected with this simple truth, and have continuously chosen faith. They are called midwives.

A midwife's role, among other things, is to encourage a birthing mother to "let go"

A midwife’s role, among other things, is to encourage a birthing mother to "let go" and allow herself to become a conduit for this great Force to flow through. Trust in the natural process of labor and in a woman’s body to birth normally and safely is the hallmark of midwifery care. Every culture and religion has their own words and metaphors to describe their reverence and awe of this process. But for Jewish midwives, this reverence stems from an understanding that birth is G‑dly in nature. Their faith in birth is inexorably bound with their faith in G‑d.

We have an historical precedent for the midwife’s inherent faith in G‑d in the Torah portion, Shemot, where we are introduced to two of the most powerful Jewish leaders in our history, both extremely faithful and righteous women. They are our first recorded midwives, Shifra and Puah.

They practiced their trade during a time where the very existence of the Jewish people was hanging by a delicate thread. Pharaoh’s astrologers had predicted that a Jewish male would rise amongst the Hebrews and overtake his throne. In a paranoid attempt to curtail the Jewish birth rate, he ordered all Jewish men into backbreaking slave labor (Ibn Ezra). But when the Jews continued to multiply, Pharaoh, driven by evil and desperation, commanded Shifra and Puah to kill all newborn Jewish boys.

"The midwives, however, feared G‑d; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live." (Exodus 1:17)

Pharaoh didn’t count on the midwives defiance or their faith in G‑d. Despite the danger of defying Pharaoh’s command, Shifra and Puah decided to continue their holy calling. With whole-hearted faith in the Creator, they swam against a very strong and dangerous political tide, fully knowing that disobedience of Pharaoh’s decree meant death for them. But their fear of G‑d far surpassed their fear of a human king.

They helped to nurture and sustain all the newborn babies

From then on, not only did Shifra and Puah help birth the Jewish women, but they helped to nurture and sustain all the newborn babies. Before each birth they prayed to G‑d to assist the Jewish women to birth quickly and safely and they prayed for the health and well being of all the babies under their care. The Midrash states that Shifra and Puah actually became G‑d’s partners in creation, granting life to the Jewish children (Shemot Rabba 1:19).

"G‑d bestowed goodness upon the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. It was because the midwives feared God, that He made houses for them." (Exodus 1:20-21)

The "Houses" G‑d made for Shifra and Puah were in fact dynasties born through them. Our Sages explain that Shifra was a pseudonym for Jochebed, and Puah was another name for Miriam. The name "Shifra" comes from the Hebrew word "meshaperet" which means "to beautify", and/or "to swaddle and clean" (i.e. a baby). Miriam was called Puah, from the Hebrew verb "Po’ah" that means "cry, coo or groan" because of the way she soothed and cooed the crying newborn infants.

Jochebed was blessed to give birth not only to her daughter Miriam, but also to Moses and Aaron. Through Jochebed (Shifra), a nation of priests was born. And Miriam (Puah) was blessed to mother the Royal dynasty, the "House of David."

There is something about being present at a birth… about standing at the threshold between born and unborn that transforms a person. Perhaps it is because of their trade that Shifra and Puah developed such faith in their conviction. Perhaps it was because they witnessed the miracle of life unfold before their eyes that they found the strength to face the challenge to kill or be killed… and overcome it with power and grace.

Shifra and Puah never entertained the idea of fighting G‑d’s will. Instead, they fought for G‑d’s will. And they won. This strength has been handed down all the way from our ancestral midwives to the modern midwives of today. May G‑d bless them to continue in the paths of Shifra and Puah, fearing G‑d, not man, and through their faith in the G‑dliness of birth, bless them to be His partners in creation.

Sarah Zadok is a Jewish educator and lecturer, a childbirth professional and a freelance writer. She lives in the Golan Heights with her husband and five children.
About the Artist: Sonia Young attended Pratt Institute and continued her education at the University at Buffalo. Sonia has also studied pastel drawing with artist Barbara Greene and has studied under painter, Gustavo Glorioso. Sonya resides in Buffalo, NY with her husband and children. Her current show, "Partner in Creation" deals with the beauty of the role of a Jewish woman and our unique position as Mothers.
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Discussion (23)
January 18, 2017
important job, a calling for sure, remarkable info!
women are very unique and special, they should be greatly considered in every way.
wonderful writing, informative and illustration so perfect that it should be distributed at marriage ceremonies, framed of course!
February 3, 2015
As a midwife myself who has a Holy fear of G-d Almighty this article made me weep. It is perfectly written and captures birth and midwives with perfection. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
jamie stafford
January 23, 2014
Midwives / Birthing Coaches
Absolutely beautiful ...
As a representative of the Pastoral Medical Association (PMA), we license midwives and associated persons relating to midwives. I am proud to see more and more such work (practice) in God's name.
Thank you and may God bless each and every one.
Jim Brewer
July 10, 2011
Article re midwives
I came upon your article quite accidntally while looking for quite something else, was it so accidental, I wonder....I sadly, have not had the joy of giving birth to my own childern, partly due to the sudden and early death of my first husband. However, perhaps because of the "double portion" of grief that his death caused, ie the death of my life partner and with it the virtual death of the hope for a family, "birthing" became the metaphor for my grief, and when I subsequently "walked with" others in their grief, I then took on the role of "midwife", ie helping them to "birth" their pain. I have always loved the story of the two Hebrew midwives, and so appreciate learnign more.
Kelowna, Canada
December 20, 2010
Wonderful post! I am a birthing doula and lay lactation consultant.... I whole heartedly support this article. Pregnancy and birth are a journey with many blessings and lessons to learn along the way if we are listening closely.

keep on writing wonderful articles like this one! :)
richmond, Va
November 8, 2010
I still remember the moment in each of my three births when I looked up into my midwife's eyes and, panicked, said "I can't do this." She gently smiled and told me each time, "You can do this. You ARE doing this." She was a vessel, and G-D's compassion and encouragement showed brightly through her.

Midwives have a special gift for honoring and empowering women, instead teaching them that they are broken and inadequate. Thank you for honoring that gift.
Ft Collins, CO, USA
February 1, 2010
Re: Not Happy
If you educate yourself on the natural birth movement, you will learn that it is FOR the safety of the mothers and babies that midwives practice the way they do. G-d created His plan perfectly, and though I am thankful for medical professionals in times of need, 98% of births need no "medical" assistance. In fact, pain-relieving drugs and other medical interventions increase the number of complications in birth. Natural birth is cheaper AND safer. Homebirth with a skilled midwife being the cheapest and safest of all. Studies show this.
Richmond, KY
December 6, 2009
sweet article
My daughter's hebrew name is Shifra, after my grandmother. When I chose the name I did not know the meaning, but I later found out that it was the name of the woman who rescued Moses and other boy babies in Europe. I didn't know she was a midwife, but it is definitely fitting- I gave birth to my daughter at home, with two midwives and two midwifery students in attendance. Our midwives are very strong, spiritual women, and I am very glad to have honored them (indirectly) by naming my daughter Shifra!
Seattle, WA
July 13, 2009
Thank you for bringing out "Through Jochebed (Shifra), a nation of priests was born. And Miriam (Puah) was blessed to mother the Royal dynasty, the "House of David."" Ha'shem truly blessed these women for their faith in him during a fateful time. This was new information for me.

I have a dear friend who attended UC Davis in CA and earned her Nurse/Midwife certification. It was a lengthy course but she gained hospital privileges in a time when midwifes were seen as quacks. She knows when to call the OBGYN on call and when to allow the mother to give birth with no intervention. Our skilled Shifra and Puah no doubt knew when to call in back-up as well.
I enjoy when an article has Torah explanation. I appreciate that you pointed out that the 'houses' Ha'shem built for these women were Holy offspring that will indeed bring about the coming of Moshiac - most hopefully soon!
My gratitude for your writing.
Kelly Rae
South Carolina
April 23, 2009
Not Happy
I am the mother of 7 children between the ages of 19 and 32. I am not happy with certain aspects of the natural birth movement. I don't like playing into the "let's save money by getting the least but still capable person" attitude of clinics: that is, a volunteer doula instead of a Certified Nurse Midwife instead of a medical resident instead of an experienced ob-gyn to handle births. Or, how about hospitals keeping the anesthetist "on call" so that all the women who don't use drugs to deliver still have to pay for it? Pain management is now a medical specialty, but there is no official interest in developing safer medicines to assist women through painful labor. Ironically, women have to rely on releasing their bodies' own endorphins (free and unlimited natural painkillers) which the hospitals love because of the zero cost. Birthing women are treated like repugnant aliens who get tossed out the millisecond their insurance companies stop paying.
Judy Resnick
Far Rockaway, NY