Shifrah and Puah: Courage And Righteousness Defined

Posted on January 6, 2021

By Rabbi Schwab

The future of the Jewish people was hanging in the balance.  The Pharaoh had just decreed his intent to kill all of the first born Hebrew males.  Thus, he called the two most popular midwives who served the Hebrews, Shifrah and Puah, and commanded them to immediately kill all male Hebrew babies they delivered.  In an act of courageous and righteous defiance, puting their own lives at risk by directly defying the King of Egypt, they did not follow his orders.  Countless babies lived because of their bravery and due to their willingness to stand up for what they knew was right.  In fact, because of their righteous compassion, the Jewish people were able to continue to multiply and survive in order to later be redeemed and freed from Egypt.  Without their bravery Moses and Aaron themselves would have been killed at birth.  Our people survived because of the heroism of these two midwives.

While the story of Shifrah and Puah is brief, their heroism does not go unnoticed by the Torah and certainly not by the rabbis.  In a dramatic scene, Pharaoh realized that his orders were not being carried out and personally summoned Shifrah and Puah.  He challenged them, “How is it that you are not doing what I told you to do?” They replied, “The Hebrew women are unlike the Egyptian women, for they are experts; before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth” (Shemot 1:19).  This answer seems to confound Pharoah and allows Shifrah and Puah not only to live but to continue to be the appointed midwives so that they can save more lives.  It is after this exchange that the Torah tells us, “God benefitted the midwives” and gave them “houses”, that our tradition defines as dynasties connecting them to the future lineage of King David.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that their story is “the first recorded instance of civil disobedience…(setting a precedent) that would eventually become the basis for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.” In other words,history’s proud line of  social activists and conscientious objectors can trace their source back to these righteous midwives stand against pharoah.  Their heroic bravery not only enabled the redemption of an entire people but served as an inspiration for generations to come of the importance of doing one’s part in righting whatever wrongs exist  even ones perpetrated by another.

This year we embarked on a synagogue theme dedicated to “Loving Our Neighbor as Ourself.”  There are many wrongs in society, most not of our own personal doing.  Yet, Shifrah and Puah teach us that we must do our part.  As Proverbs 31:8-9 commands us, “Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”  Please join our initiatives, or those of others in the community, that allow us to follow in the footsteps of these women, whom Gd, Gd’s self, described as righteous and worthy of great praise.  Let us be brave and courageous in the pursuit of justice, righteousness, and our sacred values.