Wise women and an enduring legacy

Insights into the Torah reading.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

Judaism  Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple


Joseph did so much for the Egyptian kingdom but after he was gone “there arose a new king… who knew not Joseph”.

It seems to happen often that people get forgotten and it is as if they had never been.

A depressing thought. You work so hard but then a new age brushes the history aside.

Doesn’t this all seem to suggest that no-one should exert themselves because it will all recede anyhow?

The answer is a firm No. We must each use our energies, talents and time to enrich society even in the tiniest way.

The legacy never entirely vanishes. We leave something behind on which others will build.

So what if you don’t get a vote of thanks, if the histories don’t devote a chapter to you?


Brought up in Pharaoh’s court with the best possible grounding in the culture of the kingdom, Moses seems to have jeopardised his whole status and future by killing an Egyptian who was maltreating an Israelite (Ex. 2:11-12).

Surely he was not so foolish as to lose everything as the result of one intemperate act!

The rabbinic sages have a different take on the episode. They say that Moses was far from rash and impetuous. His act was reasoned and deliberate.

He had two choices – to be an Egyptian or to be a Hebrew. If the latter, he needed to choose a dramatic moment to show his Hebrew loyalty.

As an Egyptian royal he could have been a great prince of prosperity. Instead he chose to be a prince of the prophets.



In the first chapter of Sh’mot the word “wise” is used in several senses.

In verse 9 the king of Egypt, fearing the incoming Hebrews, says, “Let us deal wisely with them”. The better translation is “let us deal shrewdly with them”.

Instead of brute force, Pharaoh preferred to think out a policy that would suppress the Hebrews without a massacre. One of his methods was to keep the people so hard at work that they had no time to conspire against the regime.

In verse 19 the text says that the Hebrew midwives were “lively”, which Onkelos renders as “wise”. Ancient cultures often referred to midwives in this way. The Jewish sources (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:4) use the word “wise” with this meaning.

Why the Torah says “lively” is probably to convey the sense of “quick and efficient”; why Onkelos says “wise” probably comes from the thought that these women were well trained and professional.

If, however, the word “lively” applies to the Hebrew women as a whole and not the midwives, it suggests that they gave birth more quickly than their Egyptian counterparts, perhaps because there were traditional child-birth customs amongst the Hebrews that led to easier births.