How Many Midwives Were There in Egypt?

Parshat Shemot 5772


This week we begin reading Sefer Shemot – Exodus, the second book of the Chumash.

At the beginning of Shemot the Jewish people are living contentedly in Egypt. However, very quickly their circumstances change into slavery and persecution.

Pharaoh (in Hebrew: Paro) decided that the Jewish people were a threat to his kingdom so he devised several schemes to limit their population growth and power.

One of his schemes is that only the female Jewish children should be allowed to live. To this end he ordered the midwives to kill the male children.

This incident in recorded in Shemot 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.

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Here are my questions on these verses. (In this section I am using my own translation of the Hebrew.)

Verse 1:15

Why is Pharaoh called here “King of Egypt”? How often is this title used?

Doing a word search (in Hebrew) I found that in Sefer Shemot, the Egyptian ruler is called Pharaoh 94 times and Pharaoh King of Egypt an additional 5 times.

On only seven occasions is he just called King of Egypt. All of these appear in Chapters 1-5 of Exodus. So, what is the significance of this title and why is it used here?

Who are these midwives? Are they Jews or Egyptians?

This question becomes clearer if you look at the Hebrew. The Hebrew phrase could be translated as “the midwives of the Hebrews” or “the Hebrew midwives.” The first translation leaves open the possibility that it is Egyptian midwives helping Jewish women give birth.

Furthermore, why are there only two midwives?

Verse 1:16

What is the best translation of “al ha’avnaiyim”?

How could the midwives tell the difference between a male or female baby?

At what point during the birth process were they being ordered to kill the male children? Before labor, during labor, or immediately after the woman gave birth?

Verse 1:17

Why is God’s name Elokim used here?

The verse says, “and they did not do as the King of Egypt said to them.” Once I know this, what is added by “and they kept alive the children”?

Verse 1:18

Again, why the added phrase “and you kept alive the children”? We already know that they disobeyed Pharaoh. What does this phrase add?

Verse 1:19

Does this verse imply that the midwives were assisting both Egyptian and Jewish women and that is how they knew that the women were different? Or perhaps, there really was no difference, but they are just making up a plausible excuse?

What does the word “chaiyot” mean in this context? Which women have this trait?

Why does the verse say “the midwife”? In their reply, why don’t the midwives say “we”? This implies that more than two midwives were involved.

How did their answer appease Pharaoh? If he wanted the male children killed, did it matter to him if they had already been born?

Verse 1:20

What good thing did God do for the midwives?

Why are we told in this verse that the people multiplied and became strong?

Verse 1:21

The verse ends: “and he made for them houses.” Who made houses for who? What does houses mean in this context?

Your Turn

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

Also, if you have enjoyed reading this, please share it with your friends.


Photo Credit: from 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.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.

4 thoughts on “How Many Midwives Were There in Egypt?”

  1. 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.

    Q. Why does the verse say “the midwife”? In their reply, why don’t the midwives say “we”? This implies that more than two midwives were involved.

    A. Essentially this is a question about use of pronouns. Why does the Torah repeat the noun ‘midwife’ when it could just as easily used a pronoun?
    I think that Rashi provides us with an answer to this question in Ber 19:24 –

    And the Lord caused to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire, from the Lord, from heaven

    In the above posuk regarding Sodom the Torah repeats a noun (in this case Hashem’s name), Rashi puts this down to a writing style we see elsewhere in the Torah:

    Rashi comments:

    It is customary for the Scriptural verses to speak in this manner, as in (above 4:23): “wives of Lemech,” and he did not say, “my wives.” And so did David say, (I Kings 1:33): “Take with you the servants of your lord,” and he did not say, “my servants” ; and so did Ahasuerus say (Esther 8:8): “in the name of the king,” and he did not say, “in my name.” Here too it states “from the Lord,” and it does not state “from Him.” – [from Sanh. 38b]

    If it is customary for the Torah to write in this way, as Rashi suggests, I would argue that here too regarding the midwives, we are just talking about Shifra and Puah.

    Looking at the examples that Rashi uses, perhaps I could suggest they all have something in common. In each case there is the sense of an ‘exertion of superior authority’:

    – Lemech exerts his authority over his wives, telling them not to defy him. (see Rashi)
    – David exerts his kingly authority to pronounce that Shlomo will succeed him, despite the rebellion of Adonijah against him.
    – The reference to the Book of Esther explains how an edict written in the king’s name can never be rescinded (kingly authority once again)
    – The posuk in Bereshis describes the absolute power Hashem wields in destroying Sodom – here the superior authority is Hashem himself.

    Looking again at our posuk in Shemos, perhaps we can sense just a trace trace of Jewish chutzpa in the words of midwives to Paroh. They repeat the noun ‘midwife’ to demonstrate that they are the real authority regarding the Jewish births, and not Paroh. As professionals, they are in control of the situation and Paroh himself can only look on, with deference to them, as a layman.

    Looking at the following posuk, perhaps we can say Hashem rewards the midwives middah for middah:

    And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.

    Perhaps ‘houses’ here suggest some sort of position of authority within Klal Yisrael, in the same sense that Baalas HaBayis ,means a women in charge of her household. Perhaps there are other senses in which Bayis relates to authority that I am unaware about…

    • Russell:
      Thanks for all the time and thought that went into your comment.
      I like the idea about authority.
      I hope to say more about “houses” in my next post.

  2. I would like to congratulate Rabbi Skinner on his in-depth analyses of the weekly Parsha, and to highly recommend him to lead Shiurim. I have been attending his Parshat haShavua classes for a few years, and always look forward to hearing his insightful interpretations. I have gained a lot from his lessons and his enjoyable method of delivering them.

    • Thank you, Dvora.
      Everyone who gives a public shiur should be as fortunate as me and have a person like Dvora attending on a regular basis.

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