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In his commentary the Abarbenel says that the two midwives mentioned in Shemos (1-15) are non-Jewish Egyptian women. Is there any way of reconciling his explanation with the more popular understanding, based on Chazal, that it is referring to pious Jewish women?

  • What do you mean "reconcile"? The idea would be that he would not expect Jewish women to kill their own children but would expect Egyptian women to obey him. – sabbahillel Jan 22 '17 at 12:12
  • Two different ways to read the verse: "the Hebrew women-who-delivered-babies", or "the women-who-delivered-Hebrew-babies." Abarbanel's reading is particularly interesting as he has the Egyptian women fearing God and disobey the Pharaoh; but there's no need for reconciliation -- different commentaries read the verse differently, and that's okay. Keep in mind Abarbanel witnessed the Spanish Inquisition firsthand, so that was very likely on his mind. – Shalom Jan 22 '17 at 12:18
  • Correction: Abarbanel reads: "the women who help Hebrewesses deliver." hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=40216&pgnum=4 – Shalom Jan 22 '17 at 12:30
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    Why would there be a way to reconcile their being Jewish and gentiles? They converted? What are you expecting from this question? It looks like a machloket. – Double AA Jan 22 '17 at 14:17
  • I was thinking along the same idea as what @Shalom had mentioned. This is similar to the controversy at the beginning of parshat Mishpatim on what the term Eved Ivri means. Is it a slave who is a Hebrew or a non-Hebrew slave that belongs to a Hebrew. This is a rather common ambiguity of Biblical Hebrew when two nouns are next to each other. We're sometimes unsure if the 1st noun is a straight adjective or it indicates possessive. – DanF Jan 23 '17 at 17:01
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The following is a (slightly modified) quote from a dvar Torah I wrote in which I propose a possible reconciliation between all the different opinions on this topic. (The full dvar Torah can be found here.):

The story of the midwives is truly one of greatest stories of moral courage in history. Indeed, the medieval commentator, R' Yosef Bechor Shor, writes that the Torah tells us the names of the midwives in order that they should be remembered for all time for their heroism.

However, this brings us to a difficulty. As Rashi tells us, the Sages (Sotah 11b) taught that Shifrah was actually Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Puah was Miriam, Moses' older sister. This raises an obvious question. If Jochebed and Miriam were the actual heroes of the story, then why does the Torah hide their identity from us?

I believe that the basic answer to this question is that Jochebed and Miriam are two of the greatest figures in Jewish history, and if the Torah had explicitly identified them as the midwives it would be all too easy for us to write off their heroism as simply "par-for-the-course" for such outstanding individuals. The Torah wants us to recognize that the heroism of Shifrah and Puah was rooted simply in the fact that, like any pious Jew, they "feared God." Such heroism is something that we can and should expect from every Jew.

This answer gains additional strength in light of the fact that Shifrah and Puah could not possibly have been the only midwives for the entire Jewish population. Rather, as many commentaries (e.g. ibn Ezra, Chizkuni) explain, Shifrah and Puah were the chief midwives, and under them were many hundreds of midwives, all of whom risked their lives to save the lives of the Jewish boys. While Jochebed and Miriam were the leaders of the midwives, the Torah specifically omits identifying them so as not to detract from the heroism of the hundreds of "ordinary" women who also "feared God" and refused to obey Pharaoh's wicked command.

However, some significant difficulties still remain. A survey of the major commentaries finds a surprisingly strong debate on whether, according to the peshat (simple) reading of these verses, the heroic midwives were even Jewish! While most commentaries (e.g. Rashbam, R' Yosef Bechor Shor) reject the possibility that the verses are referring to non-Jewish midwives, there are also major authorities (e.g. the Rokeach, Abarbanel, and Malbim) who see this as the simple reading of the verses.

This would seem to brings us back to square one. Not only did the Torah hide the true identities of Shifrah and Puah, it was even ambiguous about their Jewish identity! There is even a midrash (Medrash Tadshe cited in Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 9) that includes Shifrah and Puah in a list of righteous female converts! This would certainly seem to directly contradict the identification of Shifrah and Puah with Jochebed and Miriam. Is this midrash simply arguing on the tradition cited by Rashi?

Perhaps we can answer this by expanding on what we discussed previously. If Jochebed and Miriam were merely the heads of a large group of many hundreds of midwives, then it is quite possible that at least some of those midwives were not Jewish. This would explain why the Torah is ambiguous about their national identity, because the midwives were actually a mixture of Jews and non-Jews.

If this is correct, then we have to ask ourselves what ultimately happened to the families of these non-Jewish God-fearing women, who risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people. Is it possible that their children and grandchildren suffered the same fate as the other Egyptians during the Ten Plagues? Was that the ultimate destiny of the "houses" with which God rewarded these heroic midwives?

Perhaps the answer is that these God-fearing midwives, having come face to face with the utter moral depravity of Egyptian society, chose to join the Jewish people in their slavery. (Thus, they would not even have been counted among the erev rav, which only joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt.) I believe this may be the underlying intent of the midrash that identifies Shifrah and Puah as righteous converts. In that midrash, Shifrah and Puah represent the God-fearing non-Jewish midwives who, having risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people, chose to throw their lot in with them entirely.

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