Tag Archives: Shifrah

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

Who Was Miriam the Prophetess, and What Did She Prophesy?  

This week’s parasha is Chukat, in which we read of the passing of Miriam, the older sister of Moses. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) lists Miriam as one of the seven major female prophetesses of Israel, and also states that she was so righteous that the Israelites had water for forty years in the Wilderness in her merit (Taanit 9a). Who was Miriam, why was she so great, and what exactly did she prophesy?

Bitterness in Egypt

'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts 1829

‘Departure of the Israelites’ by David Roberts 1829

The Israelites spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. This duration was prophetically hinted to by Jacob himself when he told his children to descend to Egypt (Genesis 42:2), where the numerical value of the word “descend” (רדו) is 210. While the sons of Jacob were still alive, the extended family was treated well by the Egyptians. After their passing, and as the family multiplied to ever greater numbers, persecution of the Jews began. These decrees started 94 years after the Israelites arrived in Egypt (or 116 years before the Exodus). Thirty years later, the Israelites were officially enslaved. That year – 86 years before the Exodus – was when Miriam, the firstborn daughter of Amram and Yocheved, was born. Not surprisingly, her parents named her Miriam, which literally means “double bitterness”, or “very bitter”.

It is important to point out that people often mistakenly think the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The correct number is 86 years. This, too, has a numerical hint in that we drink four cups of wine on Pesach, and the gematria of “cup” (כוס) is 86. At the end, we pour a fifth cup that is not drunk, and altogether the five cups (5 × 86) make 430, which is the time elapsed since God decreed the Israelite sojourn in Egypt.

Birth of a Prophet

Six years after the slavery began, the Egyptians noted that the Israelite population continued to miraculously flourish. It was then that Pharaoh decreed the male-born be drowned in the Nile. Amram and Yocheved, along with many other couples, decided to separate to prevent bringing more children into the world, lest they be murdered. At this point, Miriam stepped in and told her parents: “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. Whereas Pharaoh decreed against the males, you have done so against the females as well” (Rashi on Exodus 2:1). It was then that Miriam had her first prophecy, aged just six years: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel” (Megillah 14a). And so, Amram remarried Yocheved and she had Moses, who did indeed go on to save Israel.

The Talmud further explains that this is why Exodus 15:20 describes her as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.” Why did the Torah not say “the sister of Moses” or “the sister of Aaron and Moses”? This is because when she had made her first prophecy, and received the status of a prophet, she was only the sister of Aaron, since Moses had yet to be born!

Prophecy for the Distant Future

Exodus 15:20 is the only place in all of scripture where Miriam is described directly as a prophetess. The Kli Yakar comments here that Miriam prophesied once more during the “Song of the Sea” following the Exodus. The Torah describes how she called out to the other women to continue singing, after the men had finished doing so. Miriam used the masculine term “lahem” in place of the feminine “lahen”.

The Kli Yakar explains that in this current world women have often been oppressed, disadvantaged, and generally treated as second-class citizens compared to their male counterparts (this was especially true in his day, having lived 1550-1619 CE). What Miriam prophesied is that a time would come when women would finally be equal to men in all ways, hence the use of the masculine lahem. (For a more in-depth analysis of this, read The Moon’s Lost Light, by Devorah Heshelis.)

Mother of Royalty

The Torah writes how two midwives delivered the Israelite babies in Egypt, and refused to follow Pharaoh’s decree of killing the male-born. The midwives’ names were Shifrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15). The Sages state that they were none other than Yocheved and her daughter Miriam, who were called Shifrah and Puah because they beautified (meshaper) the newborns and soothed (po’ah) them. Amazingly, archaeologists discovered an ancient Egyptian papyrus that mentions a woman named Shifrah among a list of slaves during the time of Pharaoh Sobekhotep III, who reigned not too long before the estimated time of the Exodus. (The papyrus is currently at the Brooklyn Museum.)

In addition to Puah, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:17) records the many names with which Miriam was called. One of these names – based on I Chronicles 2:19 – is Efrat, because she made the Israelites be fruitful and multiply (Efrat shares a root with pru u’rvu – God’s command to procreate). For doing such a huge mitzvah, the Midrash says that Miriam merited to be the mother of royalty, with King David being her direct descendent.

Miriam’s husband was Caleb ben Hetzron (not to be confused with the good spy Caleb ben Yefuneh), who was a great-grandson of Judah. (Hetzron was the son of Peretz, who was Judah’s son with Tamar.) Although it is actually Hetzron’s son Ram, and not Caleb, who is the forefather of King David (I Chronicles 2:10-16), the Midrash insists that David descended from Caleb and Miriam, and this is why I Samuel 17:12 describes him as “David, the son of an Efrati”, Efrat being Miriam. It is quite possible that Caleb and Ram are one and the same person, and this seems to be the suggestion of this Midrash.

Miriam at the Seder

It was once customary to place an additional item on the Passover seder plate that does not officially appear there today. The haggadah of Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006 CE) suggested placing a piece of fish next to the shank bone and the egg, and this custom was also cited by the Ma’aseh Rokeach (c. 1665-1742 CE). The shank, egg, and fish were meant to symbolize the three prophets of redemption: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, as described in Micah 6:4.

'Destruction of Leviathan' by Gustav Doré

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

This ties into the Talmudic dictum (Taanit 9a) that in the merit of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam the Israelites in the wilderness had manna, the protective clouds of glory, and water. They further parallel the midrashic beasts said to come at the End of Days: Behemoth, the land beast; Ziz, the great bird; and Leviathan, the sea dragon. These creatures will be slaughtered and served in the so-called “Feast of Resurrection” or “Feast of Mashiach” (Pesachim 119b).

By eating an egg, fish, and meat at the Passover seder, one is not only commemorating the role of the three great prophets Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and the three miracles in the Wilderness that existed in their merit, but also having a mini-Mashiach feast. After all, the Exodus was only the First Redemption, and we are eagerly awaiting the Final Redemption. May we merit to see it soon.