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The Six Women Who Saved Judaism  #810

01/05/2024 05:30:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

 Parashat Shemot / Exodus

"Through the merit of the righteous women of that generation the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt." (Talmud - Sotah 11b)

 The Six Women Who Saved Judaism

Probably the most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar is Passover—when no matter how long your Seder runs, Jews gather everywhere to celebrate freedom.

Even in Israel, where about 45 percent of Jews define themselves as “secular,” an estimated 93 percent of the population attends a Passover Seder.

And though, today, many men participate in the cooking and cleaning associated with Pesach, we have our wives, mothers and grandmothers—among many other women—to thank for enabling the ritual of the Passover gathering to endure for more than 3,000 years.

But it is more than that.  As this week’s Torah reading, the Book of Exodus begins, we learn that the connection between women and Passover is deeply rooted in biblical times.

In the beginning, it immediately becomes apparent, that—while the narrative centers around, Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh—a group of six women profoundly influences the events surrounding Passover.

Without these six role models, Moses would have never risen to power. And, in turn, there would be no Passover, and arguably no Jewish people.

I refer to them as the Exodus SIX. First, there’s Miriam, Moses sister. When Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish males be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s mother and father, Yochevet and Amram, decided to split up.

“What is the point of having another child only to see him killed,” the Talmud quotes them as saying. But Miriam confronts her father: “You are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only threatens males, you eliminate the possibility of any child.”

The couple reverses their decision and eventually had Moses.

Without Miriam, there would have been no Moses—there would be no Jewish people.

And there is the story of the Egyptian midwives—Puah and Shiphrah—who refused to follow Pharaoh’s decree. They claimed that the Israelite women were so “vigorous” that by the time they arrived, the Jewish newborns were already flourishing. And Pharaoh accepts their explanation.

While some commentators posit that Puah and Shiphrah were actually Moses’ mother and sister, I follow the teaching of many others rabbis, giving credit to this group of “non-Jews” who were engaged in civil disobedience.

“These were righteous Egyptian women who feared God and defied Pharaoh’s commands,” notes the great 19th Century Sage, Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser.

Indeed, without Puah, Shiphrah and other Egyptian midwives like them, there would have been no Moses—there would be no Jewish people. The Torah continues teaching that not all biblical heroes need to be Jewish.

While Miriam placed Moses in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter, Batia, noticed the child, rescued him from the water, and even after she realized that the baby was not Egyptian, raised him as her own.

Upon Miriam’s advice, Batia brought Moses’ birth mother, Yochevet, to nurse the child. Tradition tells us that Batia later accompanied the Israelites as they left Egypt on their way to the Promised Land.

Indeed, Batia’s compassion, and Yochevet’s undying love enabled Moses to survive. Without them, there would have been no Moses—there would be no Jewish people.

And then there’s Moses wife, Tzipora. When their son, Gershom, was born, Moses was nowhere to be found. The Torah indicates he was away finding lodging for his family.

Some Sages further speculate that as he reflected upon oppressive conditions in Egypt, Moses had lost hope. So, Tzipora circumcised Gershom, thus ensuring Jewish continuity for her and Moses’ family. She gave Moses hope that the future was worth fighting for.


Without Tzipora, Moses would have never ascended to his leadership position. There would have been no Exodus, and no Jewish people.

And in addition to the Exodus SIX, we have the women of Israel to thank for Jewish continuity. The Talmud and the Passover Haggadah remind us that they disobeyed Pharaoh’s decree that men and women should remain sexually apart.

But as the Haggadah notes, “in spite of the decree, they would be together, and did have children. Through the merit of the righteous women of that generation the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt.”

Too often, it can be observed that the Torah treats women as secondary characters. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob receive much more space and attention than Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

But this week’s Torah portion reminds us that it is women—perhaps even more than men—who shaped the Exodus narrative.

In recent years, a new Passover ritual, known as Miriam’s Cup, has emerged. By pouring water from our glasses into a central cup, we recognize the role of the “righteous women of that generation,” and we encourage everyone to remember the righteous women of our generation.

Our mothers and grandmothers. Our wives, sisters and aunts. Over the centuries, they have sustained the Jewish people.

Miriam’s and Yochevet’s persistence. Batia, Puah and Shiphrah’s compassion and civil disobedience.  Zipporah’s optimism. The refusal of Israeli women to be subjugated.

And so, in a few months, as we gather for our Pesach Seder, lets us remember—perhaps most of all—upon whose shoulders we stand.

We stand upon the shoulders of the women of Israel, whose love and persistence—both in ancient times and today—have ensured the continuity of our families and the Jewish people.

Without them, there would not have been a Moses. Without them we would not have become the people we are. Who is the woman in your life, who influenced you the most?  Let us remember them every day, and praise their independence, their courage, and most of all, their love.

For without them, we could never have survived.

May their names always be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv

Rabbi Irwin Huberman.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784