Miriam in Egypt

From: Maria

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for answering my question about who Miriam was and the meaning of her name. I found your answer to be fascinating, and if you don’t mind I’d like to know more. Could you please tell me about her life and her role in the Torah?

This is a continuation of:

Miriam’s Name

Dear Maria,

In Miriam’s Name we saw that Miriam was the eldest sibling of Aaron and Moses, and that she too was a prophet. The early events of her life revolve around these points. But since her story is so fascinating, I’ll have to focus on the early period of her life in this installment, while concluding with the events of her later life in the Wilderness in the next installment.

The Torah relates (Ex. 1:15-17), “Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live’. The midwives, however, feared G‑d; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.”

The Talmudic Sages taught (Sota 11b) that these midwives, Shifra and Puah, were actually Yocheved and her daughter Miriam, respectively. Miriam was only five years old at the time but she accompanied her mother to help deliver and save the Hebrew infants (Ex. Raba 1:13). Thus the Sages note that her zealous character was apparent at a very early age. It was in this merit that G‑d “made houses for them” (Ex. 1:21), establishing the Priestly Dynasty from Yocheved and the Davidic Dynasty from Miriam (Ex. Raba 1:17).

The Midrash (Ex. Raba 1:13) explains that the Torah refers to Miriam in her role as midwife by the name “Puah” based on the meaning of various permutations of that word: She made bubbles (nofa’at) of wine with her mouth to amuse the infant; she revived (mefiah) the infant; and she lifted (hofiah) Israel’s hope up to G‑d. In alternate explanations based on “lifted” (hofiah), she was called Puah because she raised her face in rebellion against Pharaoh’s decree and even raised objection to her father’s well-intentioned, but mistaken, separation of Jewish marriages (see more below). As discussed in “Miriam’s Name”, these two latter explanations are related to the inference of “rebellion” (meri) in the name Miriam. The Talmud (Sota 11b) adds two more reasons why she was called Puah, based on the word “poah” meaning to speak, because she would coo the infant with comforting sounds (Rashi) and because she prophesied that her mother would give birth to the savior of Israel.

After describing Pharaoh’s decree and the midwives’ refusal to obey it, the Torah relates (Ex. 2:1), “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.” The Sages (Sota 12a; Ex. Raba 1:13 [end]) taught that this refers to Amram re-marrying Yocheved and that the otherwise superfluous word “went” refers to the fact that in doing so, Amram went according to the advice of his daughter Miriam. The details of the story are as follows:

Because of the decree to throw all male children into the Nile, Amram, who was the leader of the generation, decided it was futile to have more children and so divorced his wife, whereby the other men followed his example. Miriam criticized her father saying, “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s: His is only against boys, yours is also against girls; his is only in this world, yours applies also to the next; his might not be executed, yours offers no chance”. Amram accepted her rebuke and remarried his wife, whereby the other men followed suit. When Amram remarried Yocheved, he seated her on a bridal throne and Miriam and Aaron danced before her while the ministering angels portended the birth of Moses by singing, “The mother of children shall rejoice” (Ps. 113:9).

Miriam’s wise counsel as a child not only caused all of Israel to remarry and defy the decree by having children. According to Talmudic sources (Sota 12b,13a; Ex. Raba 1:22), even at that young age she was also a prophet. After Miriam convinced Amram to remarry Yocheved she prophesied, “My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel”. Thus, the Torah states about Yocheved (Ex. 2:2), “The woman conceived and bore a son”. When Moshe was born, the house became full of light and Amram kissed Miriam on her forehead and said, “My daughter your prophecy has been fulfilled” (Sota 13a; Ex. Raba 1:22).

The Egyptians kept record of when each woman was due to give birth in order to seize her child (Ex. Raba 1:20). They would even enter houses holding crying babies in order to elicit cries from hiding infants in order to rout them out. For this reason, newly wedded couples were registered and searched nine months after the wedding. But in the case of Moses, when Amram remarried Yocheved she was already 3 months pregnant from their prior marriage and thus gave birth in what seemed to be the sixth month. Since Moses was born earlier than the Egyptians expected, Yocheved was able to conceal him for three months. . Since Moses was born earlier than the Egyptians expected, Yocheved was able to conceal him for three months. Thus the Torah states, “When she saw that he was well, she hid him for three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took a reed basket…placed the child into it, and put it into the marsh at the Nile’s edge” (Ex. 2:2-3).

Her parents then exclaimed, “Miriam, what will become of your prophecy!” For this reason the verse states (Ex. 2:4), “His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him” (Sota 13a; Ex. Raba 1:22). Thus, when she saw the daughter of Pharaoh remove Moses from the water, it was Miriam who saved his life: “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go!’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother” (Ex. 2:7-8).

Since Moses was born on the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, this event which took place three months after his birth was on the 6th of Sivan, the day on which G‑d gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai. This means that Miriam saved the life of Moses who was destined to receive the Torah on the very day that G‑d appointed to give it!

Other parts in this series are:

Miriam’s Name

Miriam in the Wilderness

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