The “Egyptian” Midwives
The Midwives’ Nationality
According to Exodus 1:15-21, the king of Egypt, concerned about the large population of Hebrews in his borders, tells their midwives, named Shifra and Puah, to kill any male child they deliver. The midwives, fearing God, ignore Pharaoh’s orders. When Pharaoh confronts them, they make up an excuse, claiming that Hebrew women are “vigorous” (lit. “animals,” חָיוֹת) and give birth before the midwives even show up. The anecdote ends with God rewarding the midwives with “houses (בָּתִּים),” presumably a reference to offspring and / or material success.
The Hebrew text is somewhat ambiguous: Are these midwives meant to be Hebrews themselves or Egyptians who work in the Hebrew community?
Traditional commentators assume that the midwives are themselves Hebrews. Rashbam states this simply and emphatically,
למילדות העבריות – למיילדות שהם העבריות.
La-meyaldot ha-ivriyot – to the midwives who are themselves Hebrews.
This is also the translation of the text that can be found in all three traditional Aramaic targums:
Midrashic interpretation goes even farther, identifying the two midwives with the famous Jewish female characters, Yocheved and Miriam. This is seen most famously in Rashi’s comments, which elaborates on a midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud:
Rashi Exodus 1:15
שפרה – זו יוכבד על שם שמשפרת את הולד:
Shifra – is Yocheved. [The name] comes from her taking care (meshaperet) of the infant.
פועה – זו מרים שפועה ומדברת והוגה לולד כדרך הנשים המפייסות תינוק הבוכה.
Puah – is Miriam who coos (puah), speaks, and makes noises to the infant as women do to calm a crying baby.
ויאמר מלך מצרים למילדות העבריות וגו’ – רב ושמואל, חד אמר: אשה ובתה, וחד אמר: כלה וחמותה. מ”ד אשה ובתה, יוכבד ומרים; ומ”ד כלה וחמותה, יוכבד ואלישבע.
“And the King of Egypt said to the Hebrew Midwives”. Rav and Shmuel; One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: Yocheved and Miryam. He who said a women and her mother in law: Yocheved and Elisheva.
The identification of Shifra and Puah with Yocheved and Miriam (the Elisheva tradition gets little attention) became the entrenched interpretation among traditional Jews. Some modern scholars as well assume that the midwives are meant to be Hebrews. William Propp, in his Anchor Bible commentary (p. 137) writes that he prefers this interpretation for two reasons:
- The women’s names are not Egyptian, but Hebrew or a related dialect.
- Their brave defiance of Pharaoh implies they are Hebrews themselves, not “righteous gentiles.”
Nevertheless, this is not the only way to interpret the verse.
Yehudah HaChasid (Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg, 1150-1217) notes that the storyline implies that the midwives were Egyptians, at least at first:
…שפרה ופועה מצריות היו מתחילה ונתגיירו דאל”כ היאך ציוה אותם להרוג את היהודים…
…Shifra and Puah were originally Egyptian and then converted. If this were not the case, how could it be that [Pharaoh] commanded them to kill Jews? …
Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) makes the same point independently, but without suggesting that they converted:
ולא היו עבריות כי איך יבטח לבו בנשים העבריות שימיתו ולדיהן אבל היו מצריות מילדות את העבריות ר”ל עוזרות אותן ללדת כמ”ש בילדכן את העבריות.
They were not Hebrews, since how could [Pharaoh’s] mind be confident that Hebrew women would murder their own [people’s] babies?! Rather, they are the “midwives of the Hebrews,” i.e., they assist the [Hebrew women] in the birthing process, just as [the next] verse says (v. 16), “when you deliver the Hebrew women.”
To expand on Abarbanel’s final point, during their conversations with Pharaoh, both the midwives and Pharaoh speak of the Hebrews as “others,” always referring to them as “the Hebrews (הָעִבְרִיּוֹת),” implying that the midwives were not part of that group.
Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) adopts Abarbanel’s reading and makes another observation about the narrative logic:
וכן נראה, כי איך ייתכן שיצוה לבנות ישראל להכרית את כל בני עמם, ויאמין שלא תגלינה הדבר?
[Abarbanel’s reading] seems correct, for how could it be that [Pharaoh] could command Israelite women to annihilate their own people [by killing all the male offspring] and believe that no one will find out about the matter?
As Shadal notes, the command was supposed to be a secret; otherwise, how could the midwives possibly be granted access to deliver the Hebrew women giving birth? Even Pharaoh, Shadal argues, must know that Israelite women, considering what was at stake, would not keep this plan hidden from their own people.
Josephus, in his retelling, explicitly assumes that the women were Egyptians who served as midwives for the Hebrews (Antiquities 2:206-207, Brill ed.):
[The King of Egypt commanded] … that the midwives of the Egyptians (τὰς Αἰγυπτίων μαίας) should watch carefully the pangs of childbirth of the Hebrew women and should observe closely their deliveries. For he ordered that they should be delivered of children by these who because of kinship were not likely to transgress the wish of the king. Those, however, who disregarded the decree and dared secretly to save the child that had been born to them, he ordered to be put to death together with their offspring.
Josephus has clearly embellished the story a great deal, but it is clear that he assumes that the midwives must have been Egyptians and that Pharaoh would never have entrusted such a duty to the Hebrews’ own kinswomen.
A Question of Vowels: A Brief Lesson in Grammar
At first glance, it would appear that the question about the identity of the midwives can be solved by the biblical text itself. The vocalized text of verse 15 states that the King of Egypt spoke לַמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת. Properly translated, this is “to the Hebrew midwives,” namely midwives who are Hebrew. Grammatically speaking, since both the word “midwives” and the word “Hebrew” open with a definite article—the patach under the lammed masks the definite article הַ—the word “Hebrew” must be an adjective modifying the previous word “midwives,” hence “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of midwives who are Hebrew.
The LXX, however, reads the text differently, and translates the verse as, “the midwives of the Hebrew women (μαίαις τῶν εβραίων)”; this seems to reflect an understanding of two nouns in construct: “the midwives (the first noun) of (representing the construct) the Hebrews (the second noun in the construct chain).” This translation reads “Hebrews” as the identity of the women and leaves the ethnicity of the midwives unstated. Many scholars have suggested that what lies behind the LXX reading isn’t a loose interpretation of the text, but a different pointing: לִמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת.
A History of Vowels
Until late in the first millennium C.E., the biblical text was unpointed. Vowels were added by a group called Masoretes to preserve the received reading tradition. Thus, readers of text in the ancient period had only context and tradition as a guide for properly vocalizing the text, and it stands to reason that different vocalizations could be implicit in different interpretations.
As stated above, it seems likely that the translators of the LXX assumed a vocalization different than that of the MT. In this vocalization, the lammed is pointed with (what would later be called) a chirik instead of (what would later be called) a patach. Since the latter word has a definite article and the former word does not, the relationship between the two words must be a construct state, yielding, “midwives of the Hebrews.” Thus, it would appear that the origin of the debate about the proper interpretation of the two words למילדת העבריות is not purely exegetical but stems from multiple traditions about the proper vocalization of the text.
Traditional Support for the LXX Reading: A Lost Midrash
Although, as we have seen, some medieval and pre-modern peshat readers of the text favor narrative context over the grammatically correct translation of the MT, the classical rabbinic / midrashic interpreters from late antiquity generally follow the grammatical meaning of the text (=Hebrew midwives) reflected in the (later) preserved vocalized text; some go on to embellish and fill in the text with the tradition that these two midwives are Yocheved and Miriam. And yet, the alternative translation, that the midwives were ethnic Egyptians, seems to have taken hold in some obscure midrashic texts, including in a genizah fragment from a previously lost midrash.
In Praise of Righteous Gentile Women: The Genizah Fragment
A fragment of a midrash from the Cairo genizah dating from around 1000 CE, lists righteous gentile women, or at least righteous women of gentile origin about whom something “was said.” The head of the column is missing, so its opening is unknown. The list includes Asenath (Joseph’s Egyptian wife), Shifra and Puah, Pharaoh’s daughter, Tziporah (Moses’ Midianite wife), Rahab, and Ruth. The passage on the midwives reads as follows (for the passage in context plus a physical description of the fragment, see appendix):
במילדות בפועה ובשפרה המצריות נ’א [=נאמר] כן ויאמר מלך מצרים למילדות [ותיר]אן המילדות את האי’ם [=האלהים] ויקרא מלך מצרים למילדות כל ה’פ [=הפרשה].
It was said so regarding the midwives, Puah and Shifra the Egyptians (Exodus 1:15-18) “and the king of Egypt said to the midwives… but the midwives feared God… and the king of Egypt called to the midwives, etc.”
The description of the midwives as “Egyptian” seems incongruous with the midrashic tradition, but the fact that they are being identified as non-Jews is clear from the context; all of the other women included in this list are non-Israelite women who acted virtuously towards Israel or God.
Scattered Survival of this Tradition
The tradition identifying the midwives as Egyptian was not entirely lost in midrashic literature. Rather, we find scattered references in the margins of the traditional Jewish canon.
The medieval (14th cent.?) midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni on Joshua (247:9) preserves a very similar tradition in a list of righteous female converts:
יש נשים חסידות גיורות: הגר, אסנת, צפרה, שפרה, פועה, בת פרעה, רחב, רות, ויעל אשת חבר הקיני:
There are righteous convert women: Hagar, Asenath, Ziporah, Shifrah, Pua’ah, the daughter of Pharaoh, Rahab, Ruth, and Yael, the wife of Hever the Kenite.
Similarly, Midrash Tadshe, a previously lost midrashic work known only in manuscript form from medieval Ashkenaz (circa 10th-11th centuries),  reports a strikingly similar tradition:
ועוד יש נשים חסידות גיורות כשרות מן הגוים ואלו הן: אסנת צפורה שפרה פועה בת פרעה רחב רות ויעל. והראיה שלהן…
And there are also righteous convert women from among the gentiles: Asenath, Ziporah, Shifrah, Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh, Rahab, Ruth, and Yael. And their evidence is…
ועוד יש גיורות מן הגוים,
And there are also converts from the gentiles:
בהגר נאמר וימצאה מלאך ה’ (בראשית ט”ז) ונאמר וישמע אלהים את קול הנער (שם כ”א),
It is written regarding Hagar ” And the angel of the LORD found her” (Gen 16:7) and it is written ” And God heard the voice of the lad” (Gen 21:17);
באסנת אשת יוסף נאמר אשר ילדה לו אסנת (שם מ”ו),
It is written regarding Asenath the wife of Joseph “whom Asenath… bore unto him” (Gen 46:20);
במילדות פועה ושפרה נאמר ותיראן המילדות את האלהים (שמות א’).
It is written regarding the midwives, Shifra and Puah: “But the midwives feared God” (Exod 1:15).
The Midrash Tadshe text includes the midwives in a similar list of women, defined as “converts from among the gentiles.” It also used the same prooftext (Exodus 1:15) as the Genizah text. Furthermore, it contains a particular terminology, הראיה שלהן, “and their evidence is,” to present biblical evidence. This phrase is scarcely found in rabbinic sources. A similar phrase, however, is found in another column of the genizah fragment in question. The first column of the second page similarly states והראיה שלאלו, “and the evidence of these”,preceding a group of verses regarding Hagar in another context. Moreover, the ending formula which describes how we know these women converted by quoting a verse (ב___ נאמר) sounds very similar to what we have in the fragment (וב___ נאמר כן).
The similarity of rare technical midrashic terminology is of extreme importance in such cases. It gives a strong indication that the author of Midrash Tadshe was familiar not only with the tradition in the genizah text but also with some form of the lost midrash itself. Beyond a limited frame of time and space in medieval Ashkenazi circles, the tradition was lost.
Lost in Plain Sight
The existence of the tradition of Shifra and Puah as (originally?) non-Israelite in two lost midrashic texts and in the (not lost) Yalkut Shimoni suggests that a tradition can be physically present, preserved in the margins of Jewish literature, but can nevertheless be effectively lost. In the collective memory of those who grew up studying Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch and the Babylonian Talmud, the tradition identifying the midwives as Egyptians is novel.
The shared Jewish consciousness is rooted in those midrashic works that generally became part of the publicly told narratives throughout Jewish communities. Whether it is due to the canonization of the Bavli, Rashi’s (unofficial) canonization in the Ashkenazi world as the foremost scriptural commentator, or its absence in the printed editions of Midrash Rabbah and the Tanhuma (the most popular of aggadic midrashic collections), the Egyptian midwife tradition was forgotten.
Why was the Egyptian Midwives Tradition Forgotten?
On the face of it, the tradition that the midwives were Egyptian may have been forgotten because it diverges from the plain sense of the MT. Yet, the fact that this interpretation existed in the Yalkut Shimoni, and is expressed by several medieval pashtanim, implies that more than just a question of grammar is at stake here. Its presence in Josephus, which suggests the Second Temple provenance of the Egyptian midwife tradition, indicates that the lost midrashim in the Genizah and Midrash Tadshe have preserved – or revived – a particularly old tradition.
The Suppression of the Tradition
In some cases, ancient traditions die out and are forgotten; in other cases they are actively suppressed by later sources. It is likely that the tradition that the midwives were Egyptian belongs in this second category. The urge to suppress this tradition is clearly seen when reading modern rabbis who were aware of this tradition but declare it heterodox. Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941) wrote (Torah Temima, Exod 1:15):
ודע דבילקוט יהושע ב’ חשיב בין הנשים הגיורות את שפרה ופועה, וצ”ל דפליג אגמ’ דידן שהיו יוכבד ומרים או יוכבד ואלישבע, וצ”ל שנתגיירו קודם מאורע זו שבפרשה זו, אחרי דהכתוב אומר מפורש המילדות העבריות, דדוחק לומר דהכונה כאן המילדות את העבריות (בחסרון יחס הפעול את).
Note that the Yalkut for Joshua 2 includes Shifrah and Puah among women who are converts. We must say that it goes against our Talmud, which identifies them as either Yocheved and Miryam or Yocheved and Elisheva. And we need to say that they converted before the events described in this biblical passage, since the text explicitly reads “the Hebrew midwives,” and it does not make sense to read this as if the text intended to say “the midwives of the Hebrews”  (leaving out the sign of the accusative “את”).
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher also cites the text from the Yalkut, noting the familiarity of Josephus, the LXX, and even Jerome with it, but stressing that it contradicts the view of our rabbis of blessed memory and Onkelos (Torah Shelema, Exodus 1:15, n. 166):
מובא שס[בירא] ל[יה] שהמילדות היו מצריות שנתגיירו והפי’ לימלדות העבריות למילדות את העבריות. ואפשטיין בהערות שם מביא שגם דעת יוסיפוס בקדמוניות ב’ ט’ שהיו מצריות. ושד”ל מביא שגם המתרגם האלכנסדרי והירונימוס מפרשים כן. ומ”ש ראיה לפ’ זה מבוא לפנינו במדרש תדשא. ויש להעיר גם מהמבוא באמרי נועם וכ”ה בפענח רז אור”י מוינא: שם האחת שפרה, מצאתי בשם רי”ח ששפרה ופועה מצריות היו מתחלה ונתגיירו… וזה לא כדעת חז”ל ואנקולוס.
The view of our text is that midwives were Egyptians who converted, and the interpretation of “The Hebrew Midwives” is “the midwives of the Hebrews”. Epstein in his comments quotes Josephus in Antiquities 2, 9 who said they were Egyptian, and Samuel David Luzzato comments that the Alexandrian translator (=The Septuagint) and Jerome also interpret in this way, and an evidence to this interpretation is found in Midrash Tadshe. And it is worth adding that in the introduction to Imrei Shefer, that this is in the Paaneach Raza: Rabbi Isaac of Vienna said: I found in the name of R. Yehudah HaChasid that Shifra and Puah were Egyptians who converted… And this is not like the view of our Rabbi of Blessed Memory or Onkeles.
1. Suppression Due to the Disappearance of the Category of Righteous Gentiles
The depiction of the midwives as righteous non-Israelite women, reflected in Josephus, and the genizah list) conforms to a Second Temple/early rabbinic category of God-fearing gentiles, namely those who bear some connection to Judaism, espousing aspects of either Jewish practice or theology, without necessarily becoming a full fledged Jew. Later, however, as the Bavli’s dominance prevailed, this category disappeared.
The Bavli has no place for liminal identities or blurring of boundaries when it comes to fearing God; one is either a Jew or gentile, with conversion the only bridge between them. Later tradition moves in one of two directions, but in each case making them unambiguously Jewish: it either casts the women as converts to Judaism (so Midrash Tadsheor Yalkut Shimoni) or conflates them with the well-known Jewish figures, Miriam and Yocheved.
2. The Challenge of Righteous Gentile Women to Male Judaism’s Self Image
Another reason for the disappearance of the Egyptian midwife tradition from the classic midrashic canon is because they are women. As scholars have noted, Jewish texts—both Second Temple and rabbinic—tend to associate women and non-Jews, grouping together as “Other.” This is a deep correlation, cutting through many sources, and is not necessarily reflective of a belief held by specific people. The Egyptian midwives tradition is a challenge to that correlation, undermining or subverting this common line of power, asserting that both non-Jews and women—in this case non-Jewish women!—can play a vital role in the salvation and even birth of the Jewish people from the slavery in Egypt.
These life-giving Egyptian midwives stand in diametric opposition to the image of the seductive non-Jewish temptress, the shiksta, who threatens the identity of the Jewish man. The Egyptian midwives do not conform to the system which contrasts male-Israelite-Jews with Others, in which the male-Israelite-Jews are always superior. These Egyptian women undermine the identity of this imagined male order, and thus must be removed from it.
3. Mistrust of non-Jewish Midwives in Halakhah
Another reason for the fading of the Egyptian midwife tradition might stem from a deep suspicion of non-Jewish midwives as expressed in Tannaitic halakhah. While Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:1 permits the use of non-Jewish midwives, the parallel Tosefta (t. Avodah Zarah 3:3) permits them only under the close watch of (presumably) Jewish bystanders:
בת ישר’ לא תיילד את הנכרית מפני שמיילדת בן לע’ זר’ ונכרית לא תיילד את בת ישר’ מפני שחשודין על הנפשות דברי ר’ מאיר וחכמ’ אומ’ נכרית מיילדת את בת ישר’ בזמן שאחרים עומדין על גבה בינו לבינה אסור מפני שחשודין על הנפשות:
A Jewish woman should not act as midwife to a non-Jewish woman, because she would be delivering a child for idolatry. “And a non-Jewish woman should not act as midwife to a Jewish woman because she is suspected of murder,” the words of R. Meir. But the sages say, “A non-Jewish woman may act as midwife to a Jewish woman when others are standing by her, but if they are alone, it is prohibited because she is suspected of murder.”
The Tosefta cites the opinion of R. Meir prohibiting the use of non-Jewish midwives, because of an inherent mistrust towards a non-Jew that she will try to harm a Jewish child. While the sages permit their use, it is only where others are present to prevent any wrongdoing. The Babylonian Talmud adds a story, where a non-Jewish midwife boasted of shedding the blood of Jewish women (b. Avodah Zarah 26a). This is in direct opposition to the Egyptian midwife tradition, in which non-Jews save the lives of Jewish babies, and thus call into question the suspicious stance found in tannaitic law.
Hence, it is clear that in certain rabbinic circles there was a discomfort with the use of non-Jewish midwives and that the image of the non-Jewish midwife is that of a threat to the life of Jewish infant. The ultimate canonization and great influence of this halakhah is thus another reason for the fading of the Egyptian midwife tradition. Despite the greater authority of mishnaic law, later Jewish Law followed the Tosefta and permitted a non-Jewish midwife only under Jewish supervision.
Conclusion – Women in the Genizah
This fragment is not alone in its more inclusive stance towards women. The Midrash Project at Haifa has encountered other midrashic texts preserved only in the genizah, which similarly acknowledges the importance of tradition’s female characters. For example, one text promotes the perspective of Tamar over that of Judah, another Rebekah over that of Isaac.
The loss of these works might be the result of a type of traditionalist self-censorship, although whether the censorship was conscious or subconscious remains a matter of speculation. Either way, the renewed emphasis during our times on these lost traditions is significant. It reflects the renewal of competing elements within the Jewish tradition that during the course of history were sidetracked to obscurity—a movement back to the sources, where our definition of sources has expanded considerably.
About the Genizah Fragment (CUL: T-S 20.158)
The text is a palimpsest – a parchment that was previously used for another purpose by another community, the text of which was subsequently erased and rewritten upon. In most cases, palimpsests are the earliest texts preserved in the Cairo Genizah. In terms of its genre, it does not resemble any familiar form, but contains an unusual combination of two main building blocks: a list of midrashic examples followed by lists of verses.
The lists of midrashic examples describe various groups of biblical figures who share various common attributes such as: people awaiting (salvation); righteous people born from the wicked and vice versa; kings who first had merit, but later sinned, and so on. Lists of verses probably concluded each unit – though the bad preservation of the fragment makes this uncertain – and, when woven together, may represent a silent rabbinic narrative. At least in one case they seem to move from the sin of the daughters of Zion through their punishment, and the destruction of the city to the later agony “on the rivers of Babylon.”
The beginning and the end of the section including the Egyptian midwives is missing, and we can only read a part of the list of biblical examples. The text preserved of this section reads as follows:
באסנת אשת יוסף נאמר כן
It was said so regarding Asenath, the wife of Joseph.
במילדות בפועה ובשפרה המצריות נ’א כן ויאמר מלך מצרים למילדות [ותיר]אן המילדות את האי’ם ויקרא מלך מצרים למילדות כל ה’פ
It was said so regarding the midwives, Puah and Shifra the Egyptians (Exodus 1:15,17,18) “and the king of Egypt said to the midwives… but the midwives feared God… and the king of Egypt called to the midwives.”
בבת פרעה נאמר כן ותרד בת פרעה ל[רחו]ץ על היאור
It was said so regarding the daughter of Pharaoh, (Exodus 2:5) “and the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the Nile.”
[ב]צפרה אשת משה נ’א כן ולכהן מ[ד]ין שבע בנות ועוד ותקח צפורה צר ותכרת את ערלת
It was said so regarding Ziporah, the wife of Moses, )ibid. 2:16) “The priest of Midian had seven daughters,” and additionally, (ibid. 4:25) “Ziporah took the knife and cut off the foreskin.”
ברחב הזונה נ’א כן ישלח מלך יריחו אל רחב לאמר הוצאי [ה]אנשים ועוד נאמר והמה טרם ישכבון ותאמר אל האנשים ידעתי
It was said so regarding Rahab the harlot, (Joshua 2:3) “the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: ‘Bring out the men.’” Additionally it says (ibid 2:8), “Before [the spies] lay down for the night… she said to them, ‘I know.’”
ברות המואביה נאמר כן ותקם היא וכלותיה ותשב ותאמר רות אל תפגעי
It was said so regarding Ruth the Moabite, (Ruth 1:1,16) “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return… But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me.’”
From here on the text is missing. After a lacuna, the following column contains the end of a list of verses related to Abraham, which might be part of the same unit, moving from the list of god-fearing women to Abraham, the “father of all nations.”
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 27, 2015
February 24, 2024
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Moshe Lavee is a lecturer in Talmud and Midrash and chair of the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Genizah Research in The University of Haifa. His research expertise is in Aggadic Midrash, especially in the communities of the Genizah. Moshe runs programs for young leadership and educators (“Mashavah Techila” and “Ruach Carmel”), working to foster relationships between the academic world and the larger community.
Dr. Shana Strauch-Schick is a post-doctoral fellow at The Center for Inter-disciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah at Haifa University. She received a Ph.D. in Talmudic Literature from Revel at Yeshiva University where she also completed an M.A. in Bible. Her publications include, “The Middle Persian Context of the Bavli’s Beruriah Narratives,” Zion 79.3 [Hebrew].
Essays on Related Topics: