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Parshas Shemos (5772)

Of Midwives and Matrilineal Descent

By Rabbi David Zauderer

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shemos, we read how the wicked king Pharaoh commanded the Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all newborn male babies born to Jewish mothers. However, the midwives feared only G-d and did not do what Pharaoh had commanded them, and they allowed the Jewish babies to live.

The Torah then tells us that as a reward for the midwives’ courageous and heroic acts, G-d gave them ‘houses’ (see Exodus 1:15-21). Rash”i explains that these houses were not actual buildings; they were dynasties, for Yocheved (Shifra) became the ancestress of Kohanim (Priests) and Levites, and Miriam (Puah) became the ancestress of the House of King David.

Rabbi Berel Soloveitchik ZT”L (1915–1981), a scion of the great “Soloveitchik/Brisker dynasty” (see wiki), asks an interesting question:
Our Sages teach us that G-d rewards every act that we do middah k’negged middah, measure for measure. If so, what was the middah k’negged middah reward for the Jewish midwives that because they saved Jewish babies they became heads of dynasties of Priests, Levites and Kings?

Rav Soloveitchik answers that Pharaoh wanted to kill just the male babies, not the females. Had the Jewish midwives followed his orders, the continuity of the Jewish people would still not have been endangered. This is because, according to Jewish tradition, children born to a Jewish mother are still Jewish, even if their father isn't. Therefore, the Jewish nation would continue to live on, as long as the females were left alive.

What would have been lost, however, would be the dynasties of the Priests and Levites and Kings, since yichus (pedigree) of this type is passed on through the father only, and not the mother. In other words, if your father is a Kohein or a Levite, then so are you, regardless of what your mother is. And if your father is not a Kohein or a Levite, then even if your mother comes from a long line of Kohanim or Levites, you’re still not a Kohein or Levite. [Regarding kings, Maimonides writes in the Laws of Kings 1:5 that only Jewish males who directly descend from the tribe of Judah on their father’s side can rule as kings.]

Therefore, the killing of all the newborn male babies in Egypt by the Jewish midwives would have meant the destruction of the dynasties of the Priests, Levites and Kings only, but the continuity of the Jewish people itself was never in jeopardy.

We now see what the Jewish midwives Shifra and Puah accomplished by preserving the males. They guaranteed the later emergence of these three vital dynasties for the Jewish people. It was therefore most befitting – measure for measure - that G-d rewarded them by having the Kohanim, Levites, and kings descend from them.

I believe that there is a powerful lesson here for all of us to learn – and especially in our own times when traditional Halachic Judaism is being attacked from all corners as being patriarchal and misogynistic and degrading to women.

This accusation can be shown to be patently false in so many ways – too numerous to mention in the space of a short Torah e-mail. Suffice it to say that most of those who make this claim are ignorant of the very Torah they choose to malign.

One classic illustration of the Torah’s high regard for the Jewish woman and her role in shaping the future of the Jewish people is the law mentioned above. Whereas the public status of a Jewish person – i.e. whether he is considered a Kohein, Levite or Israelite in regards to various public duties, responsibilities and privileges – is decided by his father, his very identity as a Jew is decided by his mother.

[Now I am fully aware that there are those who claim that the law of matrilineal descent, (i.e. that people born of a Jewish mother are themselves Jewish, and those born of a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish, irrespective of the father’s religious identity) is not Biblical, but rather originated either at the time of Ezra (4th Century BCE) or during the period of Roman rule in the 1st–2nd centuries CE. However, this is not the traditionally accepted view, which maintains that the rule of matrilineal descent dates at least as far back as Mount Sinai, and likely even earlier during the era of the Patriarchs. To learn more about the Biblical and Talmudic sources for this law, click here]

Let us never forget the power and vision and courage of our amazing Jewish women – from those two heroic Jewish midwives way back in Egypt to all the wonderful Jewish women and mothers throughout history all the way till today. Jewish women ROCK!

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