Houses for Midwives

This week we are studying the story of the midwives in Egypt.

This incident is recorded in Shemot / Exodus 1:15-21.

Here is the translation from Judaic Classics:

Exodus Chapter 1

15. And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, and the name of one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah;
16. And he said, When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.
17. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.
18. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said to them, Why have you done this thing, and have saved the male children alive?
19. And the midwives said to Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and deliver before the midwives come to them.
20. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and became very mighty.
21. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.


I want to start with verse 16. We’ll come back to verse 15 at the end.

The Hebrew in verse 16 has the phrase “al ha’avnaiyim” which is usually translated as “on the birthstool.” That would be some sort of device used to assist the woman in childbirth or a place where the newborn child was placed.

One way we can understand the meaning of an unusual word is to look at other places where it is used in Tanach.

The only other place that the word ha’avnaiyim is used is here (Judaic Classics translation):

Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he was working at the wheels (Jeremiah 18:3).

In this verse, “at the wheels” is the translation of “al ha’avnaiyim.”

The potter uses the wheel as a tool to form the vessel that he is creating. How would this apply to a woman? The woman “forms” the developing infant in her body, in the womb.

If we accept ha’avnaiyim as referring to the womb, then we gain a whole new understanding of what Pharaoh / Paro was telling the midwives: While the child is still in the womb, preparing to come out, when you identify it is a male child, kill it.

Here are some thoughts of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch on this verse:

When indirect methods failed, Pharaoh sought to accomplish his purpose by a method that would be more direct but would still be masked as cleverly as possible. … Our Sages likewise do not take “ha’avnaiyim” as “birthstool” but as one of the organs of the mother’s body, … apparently the womb, in which the infant’s movements advance him toward birth. … It appears that Pharaoh told the midwives to focus their attention on the moment preceding the actual birth, the moment in which the infant executes the rotations that are necessary for birth, rotations that differ in male and female infants.

According to Hirsch, Pharaoh was telling the midwives to perform a late term abortion. There was some discernible difference in the birth process of boys and girls. The midwife would use her knowledge of that difference to identify the sex of the child and kill it during birth. Not even the mother would be aware of what had occurred.

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They kept alive the male children

This phrase is used in both verses 17 and 18. Both times it seems extra. We’ve already been told that the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh. What is being added?

All of the commentators that I looked at explain that this phrase means the midwives did more than just disobey Pharaoh.

By letting the male children be born they disobeyed Pharaoh. The Torah then adds that they actively did things to ensure the survival of the male children.

Rashi says that the midwives gave the male children water and food. Newly born babies don’t need that. Perhaps what Rashi means is that water and food were given to the mothers so that they would be able to nurse their newborn sons.

Ibn Ezra adds that the midwives did everything in their power to help the newborns. We could understand from Ibn Ezra that whatever medical care was needed was given to the mothers and their new sons.

Jewish Women are “chaiyot”

When Pharaoh accuses the midwives of disobeying, they tell him that the Jewish women are “chaiyot.”

The simple translation of “chaiyot” is animals. Rashi says that just as animals give birth without a midwife, so did the Jewish women usually give birth without needing the assistance of a midwife.

With a very different approach, Seforno says that the Jewish women were all knowledgeable in the topic of childbirth and would have detected if the midwives were doing anything that deviated from accepted midwife practice.

Pharaoh Appeased

One of the hardest questions that we asked is why did Pharaoh accept the midwives story?

This brings us back to the question of how many midwives were there? Only two are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Could it be that there were only two midwives for hundreds of thousands of Jewish women?

There are two basic approaches to this question.

1) That’s right. Only two. That’s all that they needed.

2) Of course there were many midwives. Shifra and Puah are mentioned because they were the chief midwives.

Does it really matter how many midwives there were?

Chizkuni on verse 20 essentially says, “Yes, it matters, and there were only two.”

He explains that part of the good that God did for the midwives is that Pharaoh believed their story. Why did he believe? Because, he thought, it must be true that they can’t get there on time. There’s only two of them. They can’t possibly get to every woman who is giving birth.

Who made houses for who?

In verse 21, the Torah says “he made houses for them.” It is our job to identify the nouns lurking behind the pronouns. Also, what does “houses” mean in this verse?

Clearly, “them” refers to Shifra and Puah. Granted, the Hebrew pronoun is “lahem” which is in the masculine form. However, it is not unusual for the masculine form to be used rather than the more correct feminine form.

I suppose it could be suggested that “them” refers to the male children. I don’t think that would be likely. The male children had a mother and father to care for them.

So, who is “he” in this verse? The only candidates in this story are God and Pharaoh.

The commentators are divided on this issue. You should not think that this is a neutral issue. Once we decide who the “he” is, that choice determines whether the houses are a reward or some type of punishment.

Rashi explains that the “houses” are future dynasties. God rewarded Shifra by making her descendents the priests and levites in the Temple. Puah’s descendents became the kings of the Jewish people (King David and his offspring).

Rashbam totally disagrees. He says that Pharaoh is the one who acted. He made jails for the midwives so that they could no longer go to the pregnant Jewish women to assist them.

Ibn Ezra sides with Rashi that God is rewarding the midwives. He suggests two understandings of “houses.” He says that the houses could be understood literally, and it would mean a place where the midwives could hide from Pharaoh, that is, safe houses.

He favors the idea that God gave them children of their own. This fits in well with the concept of middah k’neged middah, that God treats a person in accordance with their actions. The midwives helped the Jewish women give birth, they are rewarded with children of their own.

Chizkuni gives a rather chilling suggestion. Pharaoh gives the midwives houses. But these “houses” are special clinics where all of the Jewish women were forced to go to give birth. His idea leads into the next section of the Torah, where Pharaoh orders all of the male children to be thrown into the Nile River.

King versus King

I mentioned earlier this week that only seven times in Sefer Shemot is Pharaoh just called King of Egypt. Three of those instances are in this story. Why?

I want to suggest that even though Pharaoh was a king, the midwives recognized a higher authority. Look at verse 17 – they feared God, so they did not do what the earthly king told them.

One of the Jewish ways of speaking about God is melech malchei ha’melachim (The King of kings of kings). In other words, God is the real ruler of the universe, no matter who may exercise power and authority in this world.

Because they understood that Pharaoh had a King over him, the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh. We can add, based on the various interpretations of “he made for them houses”, that the midwives acted without concern for the consequences.

They knew what was right and what they should do. Would they be rewarded or punished in this world? That wasn’t their concern. They feared God and did what was right.

Your Turn

Thanks for reading this far.

Please share your questions, suggestions, and other thoughts in the comments.

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Picture by US Army via Flickr.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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5 thoughts on “Houses for Midwives”

  1. This site looks great! It is a pleasure to read. I did consider the issues raised and enjoyed reading the responses.

  2. “I mentioned earlier this week that only seven times in Sefer Shemot is Paro just called King of Egypt. Three of those instances are in this story. Why?”

    Shifra and Puah feared God, not the earthly Paro.

    My take on “seven times”: to emphasize the fact that Paro was only physical, he is called by his lesser title 7 times — 7 representing the natural world (7 days in the week, 7 colours in the rainbow, etc). Paro, despite his claim to be more than human, is only human. This is apparent when the Jews were able to clearly see that Hashem is the true King. I wonder if this idea will hold true for the other four instances.

    • Aaron:
      That’s an interesting idea that you are suggesting.
      Here’s the list of the other instances: Shemot 2:23, 3:18, 3:19, 5:4.
      I don’t have time just now to look at the verses and their context. However, it seems that Shemot 2:23 certainly fits with your idea.

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