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    Wise women – Sh’mot

    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.

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