The Spiritual Idealism of the Hebrew Midwives


This Shabbos, we will chant the first parsha – portion – of the Book of Exodus, and it contains the story of how Pharaoh attempted to murder all the newborn Hebrew males. The first stage of his attempt began with the following command to two Hebrew midwives, and as the commentator, Ibn Ezra, explains, these two midwives were the supervisors of all the Hebrew midwives:

“The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, the first whose name was Shifrah and the second whose name was Puah. And he said: When you assist the Hebrew women at childbirth, observe the laboring womb; if it is a son, you shall kill him, and if it is a daughter, she may live.” (Exodus 1:15, 16)

The commentator, Rashi, cites the tradition that Shifrah was “Yocheved” – the woman who would later give birth to Moshe. As Rashi explains, Yocheved was known as “Shifrah” – a term which connotes beauty, for in her role as a midwife, she would “beautify” the child at birth. Rashi also cites the tradition that Puah was Yocheved’s daughter, Miriam. In her role as midwife, the young Miriam was known as “Puah” – an expression of crying out, for she would lovingly cry, speak, and coo to the child, in the manner of women who soothe a crying baby. (A source for Rashi’s commentary is found in the Talmud, Sotah 11b.)

In this letter, we will discuss the verse which mentions that the midwives defied Pharaoh; moreover, the verse reveals the spiritual cause of their idealistic defiance. Our discussion will focus on the deeper and loving meaning of this spiritual cause, and how it relates to our mission in Zion.

Dear Friends,

As Rashi explains, the Hebrew midwives were Yocheved and Miriam, and the following verse reveals that they defied Pharaoh:

“But the midwives revered God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them; moreover, they kept the boys alive.” (Exodus 1:17)

“They kept the boys alive” – They not only refused to kill the boys; they also nourished them. (Commentary of Rashi, based on the Talmud, Sotah 11b)

The following words from the above verse reveal the spiritual cause of their idealistic and courageous behavior: “The midwives revered God.” The commentary of Midrash Exodus Rabbah (1:15) praises these women for this spiritual quality, and it applies the following quote to them:

A woman who reveres Hashem, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30).

In what way did their reverence for Hashem inspire their courageous defiance? When I was age 14, I learned that there were three levels of yiras Hashem – a Hebrew term which can refer to the fear, awe, or reverence of Hashem, depending on the context. The lowest level of yiras Hashem is fear of “punishment” – the consequences of sin. The next level is “awe” of Hashem – an awareness of the Divine grandeur and majesty. For example, one can experience awe of Hashem upon seeing the majestic wonders of creation. The third and highest level is the reverence which comes from love of Hashem. According to the commentary of Rabbi Eliezer Rockeach, a person who reveres Hashem because of love will be very careful not to do anything that might damage his or her loving relationship with Hashem. (Commentary on Psalm 112:1 – cited in the ArtScroll book “Tehillim” by Rabbi Chaim Feuer)

The reverence which comes from love is also discussed in the “Sefer Chassidim” – a classical work on serving Hashem which was written in the thirteenth century and which is attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid. Within this work, there is a discussion on the concept of chassidus – the devoted and loving service of Hashem which causes one to go beyond the minimum requirements of the Torah path. In its discussion of chassidus, “Sefer Chassidim” states that yiras Hashem is “the root of chassidus”; and it offers the following definition of a person who has yiras Hashem:

“One who fears that one will not be whole in the love of the Creator, as it is said, ‘Be whole with Hashem, your God’ (Deuteronomy 13:18). And this is the meaning of fear of Hashem.” (Section 12)

The above explanation can help us to understand the yiras Hashem of the Hebrew midwives. They not only refused to kill the baby boys; they also “kept the boys alive.” As Rashi explains, they gave the baby boys nourishment. The midwives feared that they would not be whole in their loving service of Hashem, the Compassionate and Live-Giving One, if their defiance was limited to disobeying the order to kill the babies; thus, they also nurtured them. (See Note 1 at the end of this letter.)

As the “Sefer Chassidim” taught us, yiras Hashem is the root of chassidus, the loving service of Hashem, as it strengthens our desire to be whole in this loving service. The midwives, Yocheved and Miriam, achieved this high level of service through their reverence of Hashem. At the dawn of the messianic age, when our people will return to Zion, we will all achieve this high level of service through reverence of Hashem. As Hashem proclaimed regarding our final ingathering in Zion:

“I will give them one heart and one way so that they may revere Me all the days – for their good and that of their children after them.” (Jeremiah 32:39)

In the spirit of the above verse, I will conclude this letter with the following story:


A Jewish grandmother from Russia moved to Israel with her daughter and grandson, a six-year old called Daniel. The grandmother and mother considered themselves to be secular, so they registered the boy at a secular school. To their dismay, they discovered a lack of discipline in the school, which they were not used to in Russia; moreover, they became aware of other problems such as violence and drug use. They therefore decided to transfer Daniel to a religious school.


One day, the grandmother phoned in to a radio talk show to share this story:


I took my Daniel to the playground. As he was playing with his toys, an Ethiopian boy came over and wanted to play with him. Daniel told him, “Get out of here! I don't want to play with you!” The Ethiopian boy moved away, staring longingly from the sidelines at Daniel and the toys. I felt bad for him. I said, “Daniel, let him play too!” But Daniel answered nastily, “He's not touching my toys!” I tried again: “That's not nice, Daniel. Let him play.” But Daniel said obstinately, “I'm not letting him and he's not touching them, and that’s that!” Suddenly I said, “Tell me, Daniel, you learn Torah at school, right?” So he answered, “Yes.” And I asked, “And you know about Hashem, that there's a God in the world, right? What do you think? What does Hashem say about you not wanting to let him play?”


The grandmother continued:


“Something amazing happened. Daniel stopped playing, put his head down for a minute, thought and thought -- and gave the toy to the Ethiopian boy!” (Mishpacha, English edition, 5 Sivan, 5764)
In his own way, Daniel connected to yiras Hashem. Yocheved and Miriam would have been proud of him.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. After writing most of this letter, I found a commentary on Midrash Rabbah that reveals the following insight:


The midwives were motivated by the highest level of yiras Hashem – the reverence which comes from love. If the midwives were motivated by the fear of Divine punishment, then it would have been sufficient for them to refrain from killing the babies and thereby avoid the punishment. They decided, however, to also lovingly nurture the babies. This is an indication that their reverence was because of their higher consciousness – their love for Hashem.  (Nechmad L’Mareh – commentary on Exodus Rabbah 1:15)


2. A source for the mitzvah to revere Hashem is found in the following verse:


“Revere Hashem, your God, so that you may serve Him; to Him shall you attach yourself, and by His Name shall you swear.” (Deuteronomy 10:20 – based on the translation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) 


There is no mention of punishment – the consequences of sin – in the above verse. This may because the highest level of yiras Hashem is the reverence which comes from love.


3. At the dedication of the Holy Temple in Zion, King Solomon was aware that the Temple would also attract Gentile pilgrims, for the Temple is destined to become a “house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Solomon therefore offered the following prayer to Hashem:

“May You hear from Heaven, the foundation of Your abode, and fulfill all that the Gentile asks of You; so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your Name, to revere You as does Your people Israel, and to know that Your Name is proclaimed upon this Temple that I have built.” (I Kings 8:43)
“So that all the peoples of the earth will know Your Name” – As we discussed in previous letters, the “Name” refers to the most sacred Divine Name that expresses the idea that Hashem is the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. King Solomon is therefore asking that all the peoples of the earth should come to know this Name and thereby “revere You as does Your people Israel.” 


4. Miriam became an ancestor of the Messiah, who descends from King David, for as the Talmud and Midrash explain, Miriam married Calev from the Tribe of Judah, and King David descends from Calev. (Sotah 11b, Exodus Rabbah 1:17)


Just as Miriam and her mother, Yocheved, had reverence for Hashem, so, too, the Messiah will be a human being who will have reverence for Hashem, as it is written regarding the Messiah:


“The spirit of Hashem will rest upon him – a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and reverence for Hashem.” (Isaiah 11:2)  

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