Weekly Parsha: Shemot
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
“The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah.” Exodus 1:15
Of the 83 people introduced by name in Genesis, only 24 are women. In Chapter One of Exodus, we are reintroduced to Jacob and his 12 sons and two new female characters: Shifrah and Puah.
When we first meet them (Exodus 1:15), we don’t know if they have husbands or children. As far as we know, they aren’t descended from someone of note, nor are they rich or famous. Rather, their claim to fame is their fear of God. They are told to do one thing: kill the Israelite baby boys. Their fear of God compels them to refuse this order; they save them instead.
Herodotus said, “Great deeds are usually wrought at great risk.” Shifrah and Puah were not superstars, not famous, not likely to stand up to Pharaoh. Rather, they were hard-working women who understood the will of God and did what they knew was right, regardless of cost. We don’t know if they were Israelites but that is immaterial (the midrash says they are Miriam and Yocheved, Moses’ sister and mom). They were brave, righteous, and gained fame once the Torah recorded their actions.
We learn later their deeds bring them blessings from God, but at the moment, we first meet them they are simple midwives. They stand up to Pharaoh, who by the way, is not named. By telling us Shifrah and Puah’s names, the Torah teaches they are symbols of strength and faith to be emulated.
Rabbi Ari Segal
Shalhevet Head of School
Rashi states that the name Puah derives from “the manner in which people speak to children.” But his reasoning is far deeper than the onomatopoeic soothing sounds spoken to fussy babies.
In discussing the sin of the meraglim (spies sent to report on the land of Israel), the Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin notes the significance of the letters and their order in the alef-bet. The letter peh connotes the imagination; conjuring up flights of fancy, and creative ideas that are described with our mouths (peh). The letter ayin, however, refers to hard, factual reality that we can see with our eyes (ayin). Moreover, in the Hebrew alphabet, ayin comes before peh, signaling a generally preferable order. The spies made a mistake when they put their peh, their creative theories, before their ayin, the reality of what they saw in Israel.
In our verse, the name פועה is spelled with the peh before the ayin. According to R’ Moshe Shapiro, this teaches us that in the context of raising children, this out-of-order approach is actually preferable. Children need us to allow their imagination and make-believe (their peh) blossom before they are taught hard reality (the ayin.)
While adulthood (and Jewish law) leans toward the reality we see and only post-facto do we employ creative thinking (see “fixed functionality”), we must not restrict children to this order of logic and consequence. Puah’s name tells us that building fantasies for children and encouraging them to use their boundless imaginations come first.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am
Do you know anyone named Puah? I don’t. But we all should, even if we know at least the English-sounding reasons why we don’t. Shifrahs abound. But there is a paucity of Puahs! The verse does not distinguish between these heroic women who saved Hebrew babies from infanticide. But via midrash, Puah has her own story. Rashi relates her name to a Hebrew word meaning “to coo” or “to cry empathically.” Puah didn’t just birth these babies surreptitiously; she also soothed them. In his commentary on the Talmud (Sotah 11b), Rashi praises Puah for being playful. Just imagine the heroism of creating laughter amid crisis and devastation.
Building off that same root, but reading it from a different emotional angle, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh of Riminov (19th-century Poland) describes two types of tzadikim or righteous ones. Some, like Shifrah, live out their piety in humble silence, barely noticeable. That is an admirable model worth emulating. Others, like Puah, literally “split the heavens” with their fiery righteousness, and serve God with a great ruckus. While it hard to square the notion of creating loud noises alongside Puah’s secret and ostensibly quiet heroics, we can be moved by this Chasidic teaching, offering us (at least) two ways to serve God and do good.
Some moments call for muted rectitude, with Shifrah as an example. And some moments call for raucous, heavens-awakening virtue. All done without surrendering the instinct to whisper, to becalm, to pacify. Those are the moments we need Puah.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik
When someone learns about my profession as a rabbi, I am often asked: As a woman, how is your experience in comparison with your male colleagues?
I graduated from rabbinical school in 2009. By then, already more than 30 years had transpired since the ordination of the first female rabbi in the Reform movement, almost 25 years in the Conservative movement. My answer about my experience as a female rabbi must not be answered with, “It was mostly smooth sailing.” My answer must include both the positive sentiments of my six years at the Jewish Theological Seminary and willfully acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears endured by the women before me, the turned backs, slammed doors and uphill battles fought so I could receive my ordination. Women yearning to speak so that my voice would be audible, accepted and heard.
Midrash reminds us that the midwives went far beyond their defiance of Pharaoh. The midwives went to the homes of the children they saved, brought food and water in order to keep the mothers and children alive. They risked their lives to ensure the voices of Jewish children would be heard for generations to come.
Our actions today don’t impact only our individual journeys. Our lives are products of those who came before us, a blended package of those willing to speak out and those who remained silent. Let us live with an eye toward the future, knowing that our purpose in this world may be actualized in generations to come.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
What’s in a name? Our rabbis teach that Shifrah and Puah were nicknames for Yocheved (Moses’ mother) and Miriam (his sister), respectively. Which leads us to ask, why use these names here instead of their better-known names?
Our tradition answers through the reasons behind the names. “Shifrah” means both that she would prepare the newborn babies (meshapperet), and that the Jewish people increased (sheparu) and multiplied in her days. And “Puah” means that she would make comforting sounds (po’ah) as she would deliver the babies, and that she would speak (po’ah) through divine inspiration prophesying that Moses would save the Jewish people. In short, these names describe actions.
They are not their given names, but rather names that these women made for themselves through how they lived. It is fitting, then, in the moment when they are tested — when Pharaoh challenges them to abandon their values and kill Jewish baby boys — that the names used are the ones which reveal their true characters. With the names Shifrah and Puah, the Torah reveals that these women will not heed Pharaoh’s decree. To do so would go against their very beings. For the names we create for ourselves in this life most reflect who we are and what we do. As we learn about these two brave, empathetic and holy women, let’s also reflect on the names and nicknames we have created for ourselves. How are we known and how do we want to be known? What’s in our names?