Sermon: Shiphrah and Puah – Models of Protest

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 December 2021

So, who were ha-m’yaldot ha-ivriot, Shiphrah and Puah, about whom we read this morning?

What was their ethnic or religious identity?
From where do they come – these heroic figures who appear and disappear in a matter of verses?

What was their motivation in standing up to Pharaoh?

In Targum, the Aramaic translation of the bible, and in midrash, the early rabbis assume that ‘ha-m’yaldot ha-ivriot’ means Hebrew midwives – these women are from the Israelites, part of the oppressed people.
In the Talmudic discussion, the primary concern is not their nationality, which is assumed, but who exactly these women were. The rabbis, always keen to establish back stories, to expand on minor characters in the story – look to place them rather more firmly. The Babylonian Talmud reports a disagreement between the heads of the Babylonian yeshivot in the third century CE, Rav and Shmuel. “One”, we read “Says that Shiphrah and Puah were a woman and her daughter, the other that they were mother and daughter-in-law”. The text elaborates: if mother and daughter, these were Yocheved – mother of Moses – and her daughter Miriam; if mother and daughter in law, Shifrah and Puah were really Yocheved and Elisheva – daughter of Aminadav, would go on to marry Aaron. That is, these are already key characters, but here referred to by different names. And it is this tradition that comes to dominate most of the medieval commentaries that follow.

But the idea that Shiphrah and Puah were Israelite contains a problem.
As the fifteenth century Portuguese commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel asks, “How could Pharaoh think that Hebrew women would murder their own babies?”
In nineteenth century Italy, Shadal – Shmuel David Luzzatto – raises a similar question: “The understanding of our sages is that those midwives were from the seed of Israel… but how does it make any sense that Pharaoh would order Jewish women to destroy all the children of their own people and believe that they wouldn’t tell anyone about this instruction?”

To these commentators it makes more sense to understand the midwives to be Egyptians.
That is, they read the expression ‘ha-m’yaldot ha-ivriot’ not as an adjective, meaning ‘Hebrew midwives’ but as ‘midwives of the Hebrews’. In so doing, they agreed with a stance also found in the work of Josephus in the first century, and also found in a Cairo genizah fragment dated to approximately 1000 CE. These were not Israelites, but – as we would now understand them, righteous gentiles.

It is interesting to wonder how – and why – the perspective that Shiphrah and Puah were Israelites came to dominate, what it says about our tradition’s understanding of the other, its suspicion of non-Jews, and especially of non-Jewish women.
Because reading our text the other way presents us with a more interesting, a more radical understanding of these characters and their motivation.
That they were not driven by self-interest; that they were not simply protecting their own. That they refused to do what they understood to be the wrong thing, even when facing the power of Pharaoh, even with no skin in the game.

Shiphrah and Puah, when we understand them as non-Israelite, become exemplars of two strongly held Jewish ideals.

Firstly, that one cannot excuse immoral action by stating that one is following orders. That we still have responsibility if we carry out that which we are instructed to do. In the Talmudic context this is found in the maxim ‘Ein shaliach l’davar aveirah’ – there is no messenger in a case of sin. That is, as the actor one is responsible even when doing an act at someone else’s behest.
As the Talmud explains, “You heard the words of the master (that is, God) and the words of the student (the person instructing you to do something wrong). Divrei mi shom’im? – To whose words do you listen?”

In their, what we would now call, civil disobedience – Shiphrah and Puah these ordinary Egyptian women, for whom it would have been easier just to do what they were told, or to stay at home, come also to represent a Jewish ideal of protest – of not allowing injustice to go unchallenged.
It is an ideal exemplified, of course, by Abraham who argues even with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly” he demands, establishing a Jewish ideal of standing up to injustice, including on behalf of others.

Our texts are unambiguous that we bear responsibility for that against which we do not protest. This is most clearly found in a Talmudic text I have often quoted from this bimah, brought in the name of a quartet of third century sages – Rav, Chanina, Yochanan, and Chaviva:
“Kol mi she-efshar l’machot l’anshei beito v’lo michah – nitpas al anshei veito”
Whoever is able to protest against the actions of their family and does not do so, nitpas al – is held responsible for, is punishable for – the actions of their family.
“b’anshei iro – nitpas al anshei iro”
Against the actions of the people of their town [and does not do so], is held responsible for the actions of their town.
“b’chol ha-olam kulo – nitpas al kol ha-olam kulo”
Against the actions of the whole world [and does not do so], is held responsible for the actions of the whole world.

It is – as rabbinic texts sometimes can be – rather hyperbolic – but its message is clear – standing back does not make you less accountable.
A practical example of this can be found in another midrash on our portion for this morning. In the Bavli we read about the circumstances of Pharaoh’s decree against the Israelites. ‘Shloshah hayah b’otah eitzah” we read: “There were three involved in that plan.” Who were they? Bilaam, Job and Jethro.” It continues: Bilaam who recommended it was slain; Job who was silent was afflicted with suffering; Jethro who fled [in protest] – his descendants merited to sit as members of the Sanhedrin.
Setting aside the theological problems with this text, its message is clear – it is not just Pharaoh who is responsible for Pharaoh’s actions, nor even just those who recommend it. Those – in this midrash, Job – who stand by in silence and let it happen without protest also bear responsibility.

If you will forgive a short, and unusually overt, foray into politics this morning, we might well observe that this Jewish value of protest in in stark contrast with measures currently going through parliament in the form of the Police Bill, measures that will limit the right to protest in this country. It will give far reaching powers to the police to limit the forms of protest that are currently legal in this country.
There is no doubt that the experience of the protest of others can be deeply disruptive; nor that the voices of many who protest can seem lacking in nuance, as so much does these days. We might also personally disagree with the politics of many of those who take to the streets. But, throughout our texts we find this as an ideal – models of protest, of arguing back, of standing up to authority, of civil disobedience. An ideal of protest, is built into Judaism as a religious obligation, and we should be concerned by attempts to limit it.

So, who were Shiphrah and Puah, about whom we read this morning?
Classically they are understood to be Israelites – indeed, not merely Israelites, but central characters in our existing story.
But to understand them in this way, as Israelites, is perhaps to lose the power of their story. The idea that we should see non-Jews as exemplars may have been uncomfortable for later authorities – but exemplars Shiphrah and Puah should certainly be.
Shiphrah and Puah are best understood as the first true righteous gentiles, non-Israelites, willing to stand against injustice, to protest for the wellbeing of others – motivated not by self-interest but by doing the right thing.