Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women from that generation” (Sotah 11b). Learning about the Jewish midwives who played an important role in the redemption from the Egyptian exile can inspire us to help bring about the future redemption.
Who Were the Midwives in Egypt?
“The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second Puah” (Shemot 1:15). Considering the immense population explosion among the Jews during the Egyptian exile, the obvious question arises: How is it possible that two midwives could be sufficient for a nation as great as Israel? Ibn Ezra explains that these two were in charge of all the midwives; for without doubt there were more than five hundred midwives. According to Abarbanel, there were two types of midwives. The Shifrah-type would take care of the baby, and clean it, while the Puah-type would help the woman in labor with her breathing and prayer. Rashi’s explains, based on Sotah 11b that Shifrah, from the language of meshaperet, which means to improve, was another name for Yocheved. She used to take care of the baby after its birth and put it into good physical condition. Puah was another name for Miriam. She used to speak aloud and croon to the baby just as women do to soothe a child from crying. Maharsha explains that the language “…the name of the one…and the name of the second…” is never found in the Torah unless it has previously stated that there were two people. As for example, “Unto Ever were born two sons, the name of the one was Peleg…and the name of the second…” (Bereishit 10:25). Yet, regarding Shifrah and Puah it states, “…the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second was Puah,” using the definite article without prefacing that there were two Hebrew midwives. From this, Maharsha deducts that their identities must have been known from another place in the Torah. This is how we know that Shifrah and Puah must be Yocheved and Miriam, the most well known women in their time.