Friday, January 16, 2004

Shemot #4: A Bunch of Chayos!

The midwives defend themselves to Pharoah. He commanded them to kill all male Hebrew children. They don't, on on questioning, say (Shemot 1:19):
וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, כִּי לֹא כַנָּשִׁים הַמִּצְרִיֹּת הָעִבְרִיֹּת: כִּי-חָיוֹת הֵנָּה, בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ.
"And the midwives said unto Pharaoh: 'Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwife come unto them.'"

What exactly are they calling the Hebrew women? Rashi, in his second explanation, cites Chazal that they are similar to animals and need no midwives.

However, Rashi's first explanation is that כִּי-חָיוֹת הֵנָּה means that they are experts [in childbirth] as midwives {and thus do not need midwives, or can take care of the birth before the midwife comes}. As proof of this reading, he offers that in Targum, חייתא means מְיַלְּדֹת. He is correct that this is what חייתא means in Onkelos. However, Onkelos does not use this term here; he rather uses חכימן, which most take to mean wise or skillful. Rashi did not have a different text of Onkelos, but uses Aramaic, as found elsewhere in Onkelos (for example in translating הַמְיַלְּדֹת in the beginning of the pasuk), that the Hebrew word חָיוֹת found in our pasuk equals the Aramaic cognate.

Further, Rashi probably does not think that Onkelos agrees with his novel chiddush, and takes חכימן as I translated earlier, "smart." If he thought that Onkelos was saying that חָיוֹת meant midwives, Rashi would have used a different term - כתרגומו, meaning as it is translated in Onkelos, and then proceed to cite Onkelos. Rashi does this elsewhere.

Why is this important. Because, unbeknowest to Rashi, Onkelos in fact agrees! In Hebrew, and more so in modern Hebrew, חכמה means midwife.

My Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Prag, told me the following joke. Why is a midwife called a Chachama? Because it states in Pirkei Avot, Ezehu Chacham, HaRoeh Et HaNolad!

But seriously, the term חכמה occurs on occassion in the gemara, in Rabbinic Hebrew, as a term for midwife. חכימן is the Aramaic form of the plural.

If so, why does Onkelos use חייתא (this is definate article, meaning the midwives) in the beginning of the pasuk and not use חיין (absolute form of the same) to translate חָיוֹת?

I would answer that it was done to avoid ambiguity. Had Onkelos written חיין, or חייתא, it would be in the same form as חָיוֹת. The reader might think that Onkelos was taking this step and thereby avoiding translating the word. The word could then still mean "animals," or "lively." Onkelos wanted a specific word, a synonym, which would have the same meaning but without the same form.

Why not use חכמה earlier in the pasuk? Because חייתא is the common word for midwife and there was no potential there for confusion.

Tg Yonatan clearly does not take חכימן to mean this. He translates " כִּי-חָיוֹת הֵנָּה, בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ" as :
ארום זריזין וחכימין בדעתיהון הינון, קדם עד דלא תיתי לוותהון חייתא הינון תליין עיניהן בצלוי מצלן ובעיין רחמין מן קדם אבוהן דבשמייא והוא שמע בקל צלותהון מן יד הינון מתעניין וילידן ופרקן בשלם
"for zealous and wise in their knowledge are they; before, until the midwife has not yet arrived, they raise their eyes in prayer and pray and plead for mercy from before their Father in Heaven, and He hears the voice of their prayer. Immediately they are answered and they give birth and they are saved in peace."

Here, Onkelos' חכימן has had a yud added to it, to make it חכימין. This transforms it from a noun (midwife) to an adjective. {What am I saying?? It makes it from the feminine plural to *masculine* plural, which does not make sense. The connatation changing to adjective is from the added זריזין.} In case you still don't get Tg Yonatan's meaning, he adds another adjective from nowhere to bolster חכימין - he adds זריזין. And in case you were still unsure, he appends בדעתיהון to show that it means in intellect, and is not a noun meaning, say, midwives.

I think Tg Yonatan is derivitive of an original Targum that had חכימן, midwife, like Onkelos. He was unsure what this means, and so Tg Yonatan added enough words so that it unamiguously meant what he figured it meant.

The fragmentary Tg Yerushalmi, which parallels in most places Tg Yonatan and has a close relationship to it. In fact Tg Yonatan is called by scholars Pseudo-Jonathan, since Yonatan only wrote a Targum on Neviim and Ketuvim, not on Torah. The naming of it Tg Yonatan is because the Sefer it was found in had ת"י on it, which was taken to be Targum Yonatan on the basis of the gemara's speaking of him writing a Targum. However, it probably stands for Targum Yerushalmi, and is just the full form of the fragmentary Targum Yerushalmi, with variants.

At any rate, Tg Yerushalmi writes:
ארום חיין אינון עד לא ייתי לותהון ילדתי אינון מצלן קדם אבוהון דבשמיא והוא עני יתהון ואינון ילדן
"For they are 'chayyan'; the midwives do not get to them and they pray before their Father in Heaven and He answers them and they give birth."

This is clearly a shorter, and thus probably earlier, version of the same Targum as found in Tg Yonatan. The same story of praying to Hashem occurs in both (and not in Onkelos). ילדתי is used to translate מילדות, but the word חיין occurs. As Rashi notes, this means midwife. However, just as elsewhere it is a different word that חייתא or ילדתי in the same pasuk in Targum.

I would suggest the following reconstruction. Originally, the Targum was חכימן, midwife, as with Onkelos. The rest of the verse, in Tg Yonatan and Tg Yerushalmi, meyaldot was translated in the common way (different in each variant). חכימן was chosen to be different to disambiguate. Tg Yerushalmi took it correctly as חיין and translated it as such (alternatively), since readers would be more familiar with that word. Still, this translation was not done in the initial translation step, but later, so the term does not match ילדתי from elsewhere. In Onkelos, it was retained. Tg Yonatan misinterpreted it and propped up the interpretation with a group of bolstering words that correspond to no word in the pasuk.

1 comment:

Rivka from Perth, Australia said...

I am currently training as a Natural Childbirth Educator, and have been googling Shemot 1:19 for some answers.

When one learns about true physiological childbirth, there is no insult in comparing birthing women to 'animals'. Animals seek privacy and are inhibited by observation during birth, which aligns very nicely with Tsnius!

Many leading natural childbirth teachers (Michel Odent, Ina May Gaskin for example) all discuss the process of the hormone oxytocin, describing it as a shy hormone, that needs modesty and privacy to be most effective to enable a woman's uterus to contract. Odent and Gaskin both use the mammalian model of birth to teach women best how the human mammal functions during childbirth.

I am currently interpretting the definition as multi-faceted. Through the knowledge of this physiology and through the knowledge that birthing in a similarly non-observed and modest fashion as the mammals choose, women in this day and age are experiencing ecstatic and empowering births. This knowledge is employed by the current unassisted birth movement. I am not planning an unassisted birth for my next child, but I have employed a homebirth midwife, who, from past experience, employs this childbirth philosophy, and facilited an amazing birth experience for me last time, despite my previous traumatic, undignified hospital experiences (which with all things considered, having strangers surround you at that intimate moment, compromises your modesty and impedes upon the natural hormonal chemistry that HaShem wondorously placed within women, since HaShem designed women with the specific purpose to give birth).

So I think the translation fits comfortably with both likening the Hebrew women to animals during birth simultaneously with likening them to experts. After a mother educates herself on the true physiology and hormonal chemistry required for a normal birth, she is then able to use this 'expertise' to facilitate for herself a quicker, easier and safer birth.

Natural birth experts generally advise what is called 'active birth' to make birth easier, and countless women have found this to be effective (myself included) using the definition of 'lively' and 'active' also fits very nicely with what Shifra and Puah expressed to Pharoah.

In my personal interpretation, the Midwives committed no insult against the Hebrew women, but devised a way of describing the way the Hebrew women birthed to Pharoah so that in his egotistical way, he interpretted it as insulting.

my 2cents...

foot notes:

* for more info on birth hormones & mammalian birth physiology, here is a good article:

* and for more info about active birth, you can read this:


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