Sunday, December 26, 2010

Shemot: Righteous midwives

Shemot was my bar-mitzvah parashah, and I spoke about it yesterday at Shomray Hadath. I did not give a reprise of my bar-mitzvah speech, and I couldn't have: I grew up in a congregation where, with the exception of one aliyah, the young person was supposed to be seen and not heard.

One episode in Exodus 1 is the story of the midwives who defy the Pharaoh's order to kill the male Israelite babies. I have always wanted the midwives to be Egyptian, and therefore an example of righteous gentiles. One medieval commentator, Isaac Arbabanel, did think that they were Egyptian, but the majority opinion is that they were Israelite women.

The Hebrew text allows either interpretation: they're [ha-]m'yaldot ha-ivriyot, which can be either "the Hebrew midwives" or "the midwives of the Hebrews." There are several arguments for rejecting the latter reading:
  • Their names, Shifrah and Puah, are Semitic names, not Egyptian names (Moses, on the other hand, is an Egyptian name). Not only are they common Hebrew names today - a woman in the congregation who received an aliyah yesterday has the name Puah - but their form is Hebraic.
  • The Torah does not refer to the Israelites as ivrim - the plural noun that is translated as "Hebrews" - anywhere else. It's found only as an adjective, as in "Hebrew slave." (The most likely derivation of ivrim is from a word that seems to have denoted people who have lost their former status, i.e., an underclass, rather than a nationality.)
  • It seems likely that a people living apart from most of the nation would have its own midwives and not call in Egyptian midwives.
One argument supporting the idea that they are Egyptian midwives comes from the argument that they give for not having killed the male infants. A typical translation reads, "The Hebrew women aren't like the Egyptian women - they are vigorous! Before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth."

The comparison to Egyptian women suggests that the midwives have personal experience of birthing among Egyptian women. Kal v'chomer: If it is unlikely that Israelite women would have called in Egyptian midwives, it is even more unlikely that Egyptian women would have called in Israelite midwives.

Furthermore, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, "vigorous" is an unfortunate translation. What the midwives actually say is that the Israelite women are chayot - animals, or animal-like. To my ear, "They're animals!" sounds like something an Egyptian midwife would be more likely to say.

Friedman mentions one other problem of translation in this passage. Most translations read, a few verses earlier, "When you deliver the Hebrew women and you look at the birthstool..." with a footnote explaining that a birthstool consisted of rocks or bricks, usually two, on which the woman in labor sat.

It would need to consist of two rocks or bricks because the Hebrew is avanayim. The ordinary plural of even, stone, would be avanim. A plural ending in -ayim specifically indicates either two of something or, especially in anatomical terms, something that comes in pairs. The obvious reading is "When you see the two stones," an anatomical reference to the male child.