This story takes place in ancient Egypt. The Jewish people were flourishing under Egyptian rule,1 until one day, a new Pharaoh came into power, and he didn’t take too kindly to the Jews.2 He began to enslave them, and even felt threatened by the possibility that, one day, a good Jewish boy would dethrone him. As a countermeasure, Pharaoh sent for the midwives named Shifra and Puah, and commanded them to kill every baby boy that was born.3

The midwives feared G‑d and did not obey. When challenged by Pharaoh, they told him that the Jewish women were skilled in the art of giving birth, and would give birth before the midwives had a chance to get to them. As a reward for their actions, G‑d granted them the dynasties of the priesthood, the Levites and royalty.4

Shifra and Puah’s bravery was what made the birth of Moses possible, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s All in the Name

So who were these heroines who were willing to risk their lives only to never be mentioned in the Torah again?

The Talmud lets us in on the secret and reveals the real characters behind the code names Shifra and Puah.5 The Talmudic sage Rav held that Shifra referred to Yocheved (Moses’ mother) and Puah to Miriam (Moses' sister). The sage Shmuel argued that Puah was actually Elisheva (Moses' sister-in-law, Aaron’s wife).

The commentator Rashi takes the view of Rav, and explains the mystery behind the names themselves. The name “Shifra,” he says, translates as “improvement,” a reference to the way that Yocheved would “improve” the newborns by cleaning them and straightening their limbs. “Puah” means “cooing,” a reference to how Miriam would “coo” to the babies and sooth them.6

A Numbers Game

So just how many midwives were there? Let’s take a step back. Sixty-six Jewish males descended to Egypt, along with many women.7 The commentaries tell us that at that point in history all Jewish mothers were having sextuplets.8 So that would mean that there was a population boom among the Jewish nation at that time. Their numbers were increasing so dramatically that Pharaoh feared they’d soon be strong enough to wage war against his country!9

So how did they do it? How did two midwives single-handedly deliver every baby from every mother?

Most commentaries10 offer a simple answer: There were in fact many midwives, up to 500 of them.11 Shifra and Puah were merely the ones in charge of all other midwives, hence they were the ones Pharaoh addressed.

Yet Rashi neglects to mention this position, and speaks about Shifra and Puah as if they were the only midwives in Egypt—which would be impossible!12 What is even more mind-boggling is the possibility that the midwives weren’t necessary at all. As the midwives tell Pharaoh: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians, they know how to deliver. They can give birth before a midwife even gets to them.”13 We know that this wasn’t merely an excuse the midwives gave to throw Pharaoh off, because Pharaoh could have easily verified their assertion.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Yocheved and Miriam still had roles as midwives, as they were available in case of any complications during a birth. Even though they were only two people, their reputation as wellborn and righteous individuals (who would be granted Divine assistance if necessary) was enough to reassure the entire population of birthing women.14

Jewess or Gentile

What may not be known is whether Shifra and Puah were in fact Israelites. The verse says, “The king of Egypt spoke to the miyaldot ha-ivriyot, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah.”15 The debate here is whether miyaldot ha-ivriyot is translated as “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives of Hebrews.”

As mentioned before, we typically think of them as Jewish women, because Rashi says they are Yocheved and Miriam. In addition, both Targum Onkules (the Aramaic translation of the Torah) and Targum Yerushalmi (another Aramaic rendition of the Torah) translate the verse at its straightforward meaning: “Hebrew midwives.”16

However, some commentaries question this stance and feel it doesn’t fit with the context of the story. Rabbi Yehudah Hachassid (Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg 1150 – 1217) believed that Shifra and Puah were actually righteous converts, as it wouldn’t make sense that Pharaoh would ask two Jewish women to kill members of their own faith and family. The medieval Midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni names Shifra and Puah in a list of righteous converts, further supporting the notion that they were indeed Egyptians at first.17

The Malbim

Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as Malbim, was a rabbi, master of Hebrew grammar and a biblical commentator. He had a novel approach to this whole story. The Malbim believed that Shifra and Puah are not names of people, but rather job titles. One job entailed helping a mother through the labor process, and the other cutting the umbilical cord and tending to the new baby’s needs. He further states that Pharaoh addressed many midwives, not only two, and not two who were in charge of many. Further, he says that these were righteous Egyptian women who feared G‑d and defied Pharaoh’s commands, and makes no mention of them converting.

For more information on the lessons learnt from this story see Faith and Strength in Difficult Times.

Helping another Jew

The following story illustrates the importance of helping Jewish mothers, as it was revealed to the Baal Shem Tov.18

As a young man, the Baal Shem Tov would travel from city to city with a group of righteous and holy men who, disguised as paupers, would secretly help those in need. On one of these journeys, the group was in a city named Brody. While there, the Baal Shem Tov saw a poor man bent under his load, but with a bright, holy light radiating from his face.

This simple man was the laughing stock of the city because of his love for goat milk, and when people would catch sight of him, they would call out in laughter, “Herschel Tzig, trog gezund,” “Herschel goatman, carry your load in health.”

The Baal Shem Tov inquired in the town as to who this “Herschel goatman” was. He was told that Herschel was a simple man, a widower for 10 years, with two sons currently learning in yeshivah. He earned his keep as a porter, using all profits to provide for his four goats.

The Baal Shem Tov requested from on high that he learn the secret of the shining of Herschel goatman, who shone as bright as the day Moses descended with the Torah for the Jewish people. But Heaven was not forthcoming with the answer. So the Baal Shem Tov fasted and wept for three whole days, until Heaven finally revealed the mystery behind “Herschel goatman.”

On the third day of his fast, after the Mincha services, the Baal Shem Tov met Herschel and asked for an invitation to his house. Herschel was more than excited to accept, and led him back to his home, offering a glass of milk free of charge.

Then Herschel began telling his story:

“Ten years ago I lost my wife. She was always very generous to people, constantly visiting the sick and tending to the needs of new mothers. During the mourning period, my wife appeared to me in a dream and told me of the great reward that awaited her for her charitable acts.

“She said, ‘Herschel, I had heard a lot from the maggidim (preachers) about all the trials and tribulations that await us in the next world. But when the heavenly courts asked me my name, and I responded, the souls of all the sick and new mothers that I had helped appeared. They pleaded on my behalf before the heavenly throne, and I was granted Gan Eden (paradise). Now Herschel, heed my advice and do as I did and you will be greatly rewarded.’

“Since then,” said Herschel, “I purchased four goats and have lovingly cared for them in order to produce milk which I give to sickly and new mothers, all of whom have healed from it.

“My wife came to me in a dream last light and said that if I meet a poor man after Mincha who asks something from me, I should invite him in and offer him a glass of milk, because through him I will merit eternal salvation.”

After learning the secret of the simple yet great man, the Baal Shem Tov took Herschel under his wing, and he learned and grew into a hidden tzaddik, helping thousands throughout his travels.