Yochoved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Batya (Pharaoh’s Daughter)
As Passover begins Jews and interfaith families and friends around the world gather around a table to celebrate the Exodus of our ancestors out of Egyptian slavery and into freedom. Every year, we retell this story, as it is written in the Torah, “You shall observe this day throughout the generations. A sacred remembrance of the day God freed you with a mighty hand!” One very important part of the story that is often omitted in Haggadahs is the account of four courageous women and one courageous girl who helped save Moses and the Israelites.
In the Book of Exodus (Exodus 1-2), we learn that a new Pharaoh ascended the throne in Egypt who did not know or understand the Israelites in his kingdom. He so feared their growing numbers that he issued a decree, calling for the slaughter of every newborn boy of Hebrew mothers. He demanded that the Hebrew midwives kill the infant boys, saying. “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool: if it is a boy, kill him, if it is a girl, let her live.” Two Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, could not bring themselves to carry out the order. They refused to harm the babies and let them live.
When Pharaoh heard that some of the infants were living, he summoned Shifra and Puah before him and asked them to explain. They lied, saying: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women… Before the midwife can come to deliver them, they have (already) given birth.” While it doesn’t seem like a convincing ruse, Pharaoh accepted their explanation, and let them go. Perhaps, the king understood that midwives, who dedicate their lives to helping bring life into the world, would not participate in destroying these little souls who had just taken their first breath. But this did not deter the king from his goal. He simply changed his strategy, charging all his own subjects, instead of the Hebrew midwives, to kill the newborn boys by throwing them into the Nile.
During these very dark days, Yocheved gave birth to a son. She feared for his life and hid him, nursed him, cared for him, and loved him for three months, before she knew she must give him up to save his life. Yocheved wrapped her precious son in garments, placed him in a waterproofed basket and gently placed the small lifeboat among the reeds along the banks of the Nile. Then she turned to her daughter Miriam and told her to watch her brother from a distance, to see what happened as he was carried down the river. Miriam did as she was told. She watched very closely for some time, until the small lifeboat floated in front of Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, as she and her handmaidens were walking along the riverbank.
Batya’s handmaidens drew the basket out of the water and presented it to her. Batya opened it, and as soon as she heard and saw the crying baby, she knew what she had found, saying: “This must be a Hebrew child.” Miriam, watching from a distance, saw and heard all that had transpired. She immediately emerged from her hiding place and boldly walked up to Pharaoh’s daughter and asked: “Can I find a nursemaid for the child.” “Yes,” Batya answered. Miriam quickly left and soon brought her mother to nurse her own son.” Without asking any questions, Batya offers to pay Yocheved for nursing the child until he is weaned.
According to what we know about nursing customs during that time, this means that Yocheved would nurse him for another three months. After that time, Yocheved brought her son back to Batya, who then made the baby her son. She gives him the name “Moses” because: “I drew him out of the water.” She raises him until he is a grown man. Without the care, compassion and courage of these women – the midwives, Shifra, Puah; Moses’ mother, Yocheved: the compassionate Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter; and young Miriam, Moses’ sister, the Exodus might never have happened. They stood up to powerful authorities. They persisted and prevailed.
During this Passover holiday, let us not forget the very important roles that women have played in our past and do play in our lives today.
The New Union Haggadah, printed in 2014, has a beautiful section that honors women as part of the explanation of the roasted egg, the inclusion of the Cup of Miriam ritual and the addition of the orange on the Seder plate (pgs. 40-41). Here is a copy of this moving section.
HONORING WOMEN : NEW ADDITIONS TO THE NEW UNION HAGGADAH
In addition to the three traditional symbols already explained, there are new elements we have added to the seder, which broaden our reflections of the meaning of Passover for our own time.
THE ROASTED EGG
The leader lifts up the roasted egg.
The egg has long been on the seder plate, but was never formally explained, as were the other ritual foods. As another universal symbol of the renewal of springtime and of women as a source of the cycle of birth and life, we lift it up and honor its meaning now.
THE CUP OF MIRIAM
Our tradition teaches that a miraculous well of water accompanied the Israelites on their journey from slavery to freedom, giving them water and sustaining them throughout the deserts. It is said that this well existed because of Miriam, Moses’ sister, whose spiritual values nourished the community of Israel, and that when she died, the waters of the well went dry. In honor of Miriam and all of the Jewish women – mothers, daughters, and sisters – whose roles in the Passover story and its celebration through the ages have not been fully shared an honored, we place a cup of water, Miriam’s cup, on our table.
The leader raised the cup of water:
This is Miriam’s cup, the cup of living and miraculous water. We pause now to give thanks to her strength and courage, her gifts of prophecy, and the wise ways in which she sustained the Children of Israel in the desert. We think of the countless strong, wise, courageous women in our tradition, in our world, and in our lives who have nourished us, taught us, blessed us, and supported us in our own journeys and search for liberation.
Pass Miriam’s cup, filled with water, to all present. Each person fills their water class with some of the water from Miriam’s cup and then, in so doing, silently reflects a lesson learned or a blessing gleaned through a relationship with a woman in our life.
The leader lifts up the orange.
The orange that we have added to the traditional symbolic foods on the seder plate is yet another new dimension of the traditions of Passover. Its unlikely presence in the midst of the other seder symbols has come to represent other voices not previously recognized in the life of our communities or family life, from women in roles of spiritual leadership, to the full diversity of those who gather around our seder tables.
Let us give thanks for the blessing of everyone among us, for their love and guidance, and for their unique places in our lives – as we recommit ourselves to continuing the Exodus struggle for the freedom and liberation of all people everywhere!
For more information about the Haggadah, go to The New Union Haggadah
For more information about Jewish women, past and present, go to the
Jewish Women’s Archive,
It has the largest collection of information about Jewish women in the world.