In the Book of Exodus, we are introduced to Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, wife of Moses and mother of their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

What Does “Zipporah” Mean?

Zipporah literally means “bird,” and just as the blood of a bird purifies a home that is covered in leprosy, Zipporah cleansed her father’s home from idols.1 Alternatively, just as a bird is admired for its beauty, so was Zipporah admired for her loveliness.2

How Moses Met Zipporah

Scripture describes how, after Moses protected Jethro’s daughters from shepherds who did not allow them to access the local well, Jethro “gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses.”3

The Midrash provides a fascinating backstory of how this union came to be. When Moses showed up in Midian and admitted to Jethro that he was fleeing from Pharaoh, Jethro—who was an advisor to Pharaoh at the time—threw him into a pit and left him there to die of starvation.

Zipporah had compassion on Moses and brought him bread and water. After 10 years, she turned to her father and said: “This Hebrew who has been jailed in the pit for the past 10 years, nobody has come around asking for him. [Hence, it is no longer dangerous to have him in our home.] If it is good in your eyes, Father, let us send for him and see if he is alive or dead!”

Jethro hadn’t known of his daughter’s kindness to Moses, so he was quite shocked: “Is it possible for a man to be locked up for 10 years and survive without food?”

His daughter replied: “Father, haven’t you heard that the G‑d of the Hebrews is great and awesome, and does miracles for them all the time? He saved Abraham from the fire, Isaac from the sword and Jacob from the angel who fought him. And how about this very Moses who was saved from the Nile and from the sword of Pharaoh? I’m sure that G‑d could have saved him now as well.”

Indeed, they went to the pit and found Moses alive, standing and praying to the G‑d of his fathers. He was taken out, cleaned, given a haircut and brought to the family table for a meal.

It was then that Moses asked for Zipporah’s hand in marriage. She had kept him alive and shown him great kindness.4

Another Midrash shares that when Moses first showed up in Jethro’s home, Zipporah felt a deep love for him. She asked her father to allow her to marry him, which he did.5

Zipporah’s Courageous Act

After Moses was informed by G‑d that he would be the redeemer of the Jewish people, Moses, together with his wife and children, left the comfort of Midian to travel down to Egypt where the Jews were enslaved. This was a risky journey, which Zipporah courageously joined.

One night, while they were staying in an inn, an angel of G‑d came to kill Moses. Zipporah realized that he was being punished for not circumcising their newborn son. (Moses had delayed the brit milah due to the rigors of travel.) In the words of the Torah:

Now he was on the way, in an inn, that the L‑rd met him and sought to put him to death. So, Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son's foreskin and cast it to his feet…6

Thus, with quick thinking, Zipporah saved her husband’s life by giving their son a brit milah. The leader and redeemer of the Jewish people was twice saved by this holy woman!

Staying Behind in Midian

As Moses neared Egypt, he was greeted by his older brother, Aaron, who reprimanded him for bringing his family along to Egypt: “We are pained by those already here, and you bring more people to this terrible situation?”7 Zipporah and their two sons Gershom and Eliezer traveled back to her father’s home in Midian. She would not see her husband and the Jewish nation for more than a year, until after the exodus and the splitting of the sea (and according to some opinions, the giving of the Torah at Sinai as well).

The next time we hear of Zipporah is when the Torah tells us that Jethro came to join the people of Israel.8 Together with him came his daughter and grandsons, Moses’ wife and children. The last time they saw their husband and father, he was an unknown and private man. Now, he was the leader of the Jewish people, “Moses, our Teacher.” This would demand tremendous sacrifice, as we find later in the Torah . . .

The Ultimate Sacrifice

In the Book of Numbers, we read: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.”9

According to tradition, the woman in question was none other than Zipporah.10

What were they saying about her? The Torah continues to say that they were actually not talking about her, but rather about their brother Moses: “They said, ‘Has the L‑rd spoken only to Moses? Hasn't He spoken to us too? [So why did he separate from his spouse, whereas we haven’t!]’”

What were they speaking about? Rashi tells us that Moses had divorced his wife:

How did she [Miriam] know that Moses had separated from his wife? R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad [newly appointed prophets] were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband separated from me.”

From this, Miriam knew [about it] and told Aaron.11

In truth, however, it was only Moses who was required to separate from his wife in order to be constantly “on call,” ready to speak to G‑d at any moment. Other prophets remained married and led normal family lives.

In the end, Zipporah made the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike every other prophet, her husband had to be in constant communication with G‑d, which did not leave room for anything else in his life. It was thanks to her kindness, courage and sacrifice that the Jewish people were gifted with the eternal leadership and influence of our greatest teacher: Moses.