Passover and the Tradition of Shifra and Puah
This world needs revolutionaries who refuse orders to kill and exploit. Two midwives named Shifra and Puah were such revolutionaries. When a racist ruler asked them to limit the reproduction of slaves – out of fear of a slave uprising – they disobeyed. Shifra and Puah refused to implement eugenics: the practice of exploiting and killing those deemed disposable, while cultivating those that the powerful consider worthy.
While eugenics is often presented as a “modern” practice, exemplified by the US eugenics laws of the early twentieth century and later the Nazi regime of racial hygiene, the practice is quite old. Shifra and Puah are two characters from the Book of Exodus (Shemot) in the Hebrew Bible, the book on which the Passover (Pesach) holiday is based. Shifra and Puah’s story, and Exodus more generally, is a cautionary tale about racial capitalism – and a call to resist eugenics and racial ideology.
This Passover we can re-read Exodus for this radical current, which has inspired many struggling against racial capitalism. This old story provides a timely window into how racialization is used to maintain power, extract value, and limit the lives of those deemed disposable. Exodus also reminds us how systems of racialized extraction can and must be disrupted.
The story of Exodus begins with a “demographic threat”: the Pharoah of mitzrayim (“Egypt”) realizes that the enslaved Israelites, the unfree laborers of his regime, are growing too numerous. He fears they might rebel. This fear is familiar from contemporary regimes – from the British empire’s struggle to rule over Black majorities in the Caribbean colonies, to the state of Israel’s ongoing efforts to repress Palestinians and steal their land.
The “solution” is eugenics. Pharoah decides to limit the Israelites’ reproduction, first by imposing harsher forms of labor. He makes the Israelites labor with mortar and bricks, and work the fields. He also uses taskmasters to further oppress the enslaved, yet the Israelites continue to live and have babies.
When harsher labor conditions prove insufficient, he makes a second attempt, this time by trying to control women’s reproduction – just as modern eugenics regimes have done and continue to do. The Pharoah asks Shifra and Puah, described in the text as the “midwives of the Hebrew women,” to kill the newborn Hebrew males. “When you deliver the Hebrew women,” he tells Shifra and Puah, “look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”
The midwives refuse. They deliver all babies safely. When Pharoah asks Shifra and Puah why they didn’t kill as instructed, they play to his racism. The Hebrew women, they tell him, give birth “like animals” – too quickly to intervene. Their answer shows that Israelite (Hebrew) women were seen as racially distinct from Egyptian women, and Shifra and Puah exploited this racist view to disobey the command to kill. This refusal made Shifra and Puah, as Jill Hammer put it, into “revolutionaries” that fight for the most vulnerable and oppressed.
But who are these revolutionaries, Shifra and Puah? The phrase “midwives of the Hebrew women” in the text is ambiguous. It could mean that they are Hebrew women who work as midwives among their own, or that they are Egyptian (or other non-Hebrew) women who work as midwives for the Hebrews. The identities of Shifra and Puah have been much debated, but the fact of the ambiguity is key. This ambiguity adds another layer to the critique of race found in Exodus: racial hierarchies not only justify enslavement and misery, but the very idea of a racial “us” versus “them” collapses if Shifra and Puah could be “race traitors” who come to the aid of those people racialized as inferior.
In fact, Exodus has several cases of people refusing their prescribed racial roles. An obvious example is the Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter who rescues baby Moses, allows his mother to nurse him, and then raises him as her own. Moses himself is arguably an example of racial betrayal, as Sigmund Freud has famously suggested: an aristocratic Egyptian who comes to the aid of the Hebrews upon witnessing their oppression and ends up playing a major role in their – and as a result, his own – liberation struggle. This liberation struggle was never just about “my people,” either. When Moses was forced to flee Egypt after standing up for the Israelites, he found refuge in a place called Midian, where he met his wife Zipporah and decided to name their son Gershom (from the Hebrew root ger, meaning “stranger” or “foreigner”) in honor of the hospitality he had received as “a stranger in a foreign land.” This too undermines the idea of biological, racial groups.
It’s striking that the much-admired figures in Exodus are racially ambiguous, and that what matters is their shared commitment to what’s right rather than loyalty to a racial group. Racial ideologies only get in the way of shared struggles so that eugenic regimes can be maintained. Race, as Dorothy Roberts puts it, is a “fatal invention,” not a biological reality. This is why actions that disrupt racialization and eugenics, such as Shifra and Puah’s, are essential.
When Pharoah realized he couldn’t use the midwives to implement his eugenic policy, he resorted to other means. He decided to make slavery even more terrible. He required the Israelites to collect their own straw for making bricks yet demanded that they produce the same number of total bricks. The Hebrew Bible is very specific on this point: “You must go and get the straw yourselves wherever you can find it; but there shall be no decrease whatever in your work.” This is racial capitalism: squeezing more and more “output” from racialized populations, with less and less supplies and capital.
Exodus thus gives us a profound critique of racial hierarchies, and a demonstration of their nefarious utility in extracting value from workers and stifling solidarity among oppressed peoples.
The Exodus story has inspired many healers and medical practitioners, writers and artists, and those struggling against eugenics and capitalism.
Roza bas Yukel, a Jewish midwife working in Groningen, Netherlands in the eighteenth century, saw herself as continuing the tradition of Shifra and Puah. In 1794, she crafted this introduction (in both Hebrew and Yiddish) to the birth records of the babies she had delivered:
This is the book of the generations/children of man, those that were born by my hands among the Hebrew women. I came to them, I the midwife, for they are vital and give birth to a son or daughter. I took this book as my possession, and I recorded in the name of those giving birth with the name of the newborn, with the date of birth, so that it should be a remembrance from the day I began this occupation and forward…I am engaged in this profession, and may no obstruction be caused by my hands, heaven forbid, neither to the woman sitting on the birthing stool nor to the newborn about to be born: Only let it be expelled from the uterus like an egg from a hen.
The phrase “birthing stool” directly references the scene from Exodus, and the phrase “give birth to a son or daughter” signals a rejection of the Pharaoh’s order to kill the male babies. As historian Jordan Katz has argued, birth records such as Roza bas Yukel’s allow us to hear Jewish midwives in “their own voices, unmediated by men.” And Roza reveals, in her own voice, what is arguably her own subversive aim: while these birth records were often used by the state to document population growth – numbers meant to be used for the state’s interests – this wasn’t how Roza saw her work. She was following Shifra and Puah.
The tradition of Shifra and Puah calls to resist eugenic regimes, which are regimes of racialized extraction. This aspect of Exodus – which shows how racial oppression can create private wealth – has captured the imagination of those struggling against capitalism.
We find Exodus in Yiddish writer IJ Singer’s monumental novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, which chronicles the ravages of capitalism and the emergence of socialist movements in the Russian empire starting in the nineteenth century. In the novel, Jewish handweavers in Lodz, Poland decide to go on strike. In addition to their grueling workday without food or drink, the boss has required them to supply their own candles for working in the dark factory. The workers frame their demands in the terms of Exodus: “The full-time workers, seasonal workers, and apprentices who board at their employers’ must receive food that is fattened, likewise, their coffee must contain milk and sugar, for he who does not feed his workers and demands of them work may be likened to the Egyptians who did not supply straw, yet demanded bricks.”
Fiction drew on reality. “The story of deliverance from Egypt,” as historian Hadassa Kosak argued, “was a particularly recurring theme among Jewish workers.” In the US during the late nineteenth century, for example, “Egyptian slavery became a symbol for the toiling garment workers, while the Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Jews was used as a metaphor for the attempts of autocratic employers to subdue the workers by imposing inhuman conditions.” Jewish labor organizers would give speeches to workers that reference their own ancestors who were “enslaved by Egyptian taskmasters and likewise had to throw off their yoke.”
The Bund, an anti-zionist Jewish socialist movement established in 1897 in Tsarist Russia, also drew on Exodus and the Passover holiday. Bundists in Galicia, for instance, published their own Passover haggadah, framed around socialist struggle against capitalism. Exodus is arguably inscribed in the movement’s very name: as historian Daniel Mahla pointed out, “the Yiddish word Bund is only used in one other context: to denote the Mosaic covenant which God had established with the Israelites after he had saved them from slavery in Egypt.”
Exodus’s theme of liberation has reached well beyond Jewish communities, of course. Exodus is core to the Black spirituals “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water,” which Harriet Tubman used in the underground railroad to covertly communicate with Black slaves during their escape to freedom. And during civil rights actions in the 1960s, radical organizer Fannie Lou Hamer would sing the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with modified lyrics that refer to Exodus: “Go tell it on the mountain/ That Jesus Christ is born” became “Go tell it on the mountain/ To let my people go.”
Jews living under the most extreme regimes of eugenics and enslavement have likened their struggles to that of the Israelites in Exodus.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, a factory of racial capitalist death, provides another example. In this factory, the Nazis extracted everything possible from their captives. Some of the harrowing details come from accounts by members of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners forced to do the dirtiest work in the Nazi pipeline. These prisoners were, in the words of Jewish Hungarian doctor and Sonderkommando survivor, Miklos Nyiszli, the “commando of the living dead.”
The Sonderkommando had to accompany other prisoners to death in the gas chambers. As Nyiszli reports, they had to ensure that those about to be slaughtered strip and put away their shoes and clothes neatly, so that these items could be used by Germans. The Sonderkommando then extracted the remaining valuables, like the gold from the crowns of the teeth (up to 75 pounds of pure gold, once smelted, each day) and the hair, which the Nazis used in making detonators for delayed action bombs (among other uses). The last job was to cremate the dead bodies. Those Sonderkommando prisoners with medical skills, such as Dr. Nyiszli, were also forced to dissect the prisoners selected by Josef Mengele. The captives’ bodies became raw materials for Nazi scientists, with organs of interest sent to elite institutions in Berlin.
Captives were even forced to build the facilities of their own captivity, as Nyiszli described in his memoir, by working with brick, in bondage, like the Israelites in biblical Egypt:
It was they who had worked in the Mauthausen [concentration camp] quarries cutting the blocks; it was they who had carried the finished stones along the seven-kilometer path up the mountain…And it was they who had constructed the powerful walls around their house of sorrow, which was composed of wooden barracks. They had finished the castle at the price of unbelievable suffering, but they had never lived to occupy it. In the midst of this great mass of stone and concrete they had all perished, like the slaves in ancient Egypt.
Nyiszli also gives us a view of the resistance inside this death factory, which is where we find the tradition of Shifra and Puah.
Like the biblical Pharaoh, Mengele wanted to use care providers to implement eugenics. As Nyiszli explained, the Nazis would deal with a case of infectious disease in one of Auschwitz’s camps by exterminating the entire camp, and they needed imprisoned doctors to diagnose these infections. When Nyiszli was ordered by Mengele to dissect the dead bodies of prisoners to determine a cause of death, he understood that the fate of the whole camp might be in his hands.
Nyiszli decided to conceal cases of typhoid fever by making up creatively false diagnoses. Like Shifra and Puah, Nyiszli played on Mengele’s racism – or more precisely, the incompetence resulting from his commitment to racial science. “Dr. Mengele was a race biologist and not a pathologist,” Nyiszli wrote, “so it was not difficult to convince him that my [false] diagnosis was correct.” The unnamed doctors assigned to Auschwitz’s barracks participated in the subversion and cared for sick prisoners under miserable conditions. “They were careful not to reveal any cases of infectious diseases to the SS medical authorities,” Nyiszli recalled. “As often as was possible they went so far as to conceal the sick person in a corner of the barracks, and cared for him as best they could with the meager resources at their disposal. They avoided at all costs sending the sick to the hospital, since the SS doctors checked all patients there and the appearance of a contagious diseases meant the liquidation both of the barracks where the disease had originated and of the neighboring barracks as well.”
The Sonderkommando unit of which Nyiszli was part eventually took up arms against the Nazis, an act made possible by subversion. Imprisoned Jewish women, some of whom worked in a munitions factory, hid gunpowder in their bras and dresses and smuggled it to the Sonderkommando. When the Sonderkommando attacked their Nazi enslavers on October 7, 1944, they managed to kill at least three SS officers and injure several more. They also blew up one of Auschwitz’s four crematoriums, making it unusable. They were all either executed or killed in the fight, and four of the Jewish women who supplied the explosives – Ala Gertner, Roza (Shoshana) Robota, Regina Sapirstein, and Ester Wajcblum – were tortured and publicly hanged. May their memory be a blessing.
Just as in the story of Exodus, this resistance depends on people refusing to play their assigned role in the racial hierarchy. Captives need help from accomplices on the “outside” in order to survive and resist.
We see this in the Warsaw Ghetto, another site of murderous, racialized extraction. The ghetto’s captives who managed to avoid “selection” (being sent to the death camps) had to work for the Nazis. Like the Israelites in biblical Egypt or the handweavers in IJ Singer’s novel, these enslaved laborers were being squeezed, asked to produce commodities for their oppressors with less food and supplies. The Nazis’ food rationing plan was in fact designed to starve the ghetto to death within a year. So, the captives collaborated with those on the “Aryan” side in creative ways to survive, some of which are described in Bernard Goldstein’s stunning memoir Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto. Goldstein, a Bundist and member of the underground resistance, explained for example how children were key to elaborate food smuggling operations for their ability to climb ghetto walls. And this is how captives got milk: “From the window of a building on Franciskanska Street which overlooked the ghetto (half the street was outside the wall) a sheet metal pipe was lowered, and milk poured across the racial boundary.” This nourishment made later resistance possible – resistance that broke out in full on April 19, 1943, during Passover eve.
Survival in the ghetto also depended on mutual aid, a form of care that negates eugenics. In the ghetto, Bundists organized improvised kindergartens, covert elementary schools in kitchens (the Nazis forbade Jewish children from learning Polish), care for orphaned children, among other necessities. The ghetto’s defiant care workers continued the tradition of Shifra and Puah. For instance, Anna Braude-Heller – a Bundist and head doctor in the children’s hospital in the ghetto – did what she could with her colleagues to care for ill and starved children under abysmal conditions. In his memoir, Goldstein recalled how he had tried to convince Braude-Heller to let comrades to smuggle her out of the ghetto, to save her life:
“This has been suggested before, Bernard,” she said with a smile. Her voice was grim. “I am not going. I have agreed to send my son and his wife and child. As long as there are Jews in the ghetto, I am needed here, and here I will stay.”
Anna Braude-Heller was martyred in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943.
It is hard to discuss eugenics in the most canonical of Jewish texts without also thinking about the eugenics practiced by the state that claims to be “Jewish”: Israel.
Like other colonial regimes, the state of Israel generates profits from its captives. Gaza is an obvious example. Israeli state eugenicists make sick calculations about the number of calories Palestinians in Gaza should have, and engineer starvation by blocking foods and supplies sent from abroad from entering. Gaza is also used as a captive market for absorbing the surpluses of the settler economy, and as a laboratory for the lucrative Israeli weapons industry which sells its “tested” products internationally.
All this comes with a policy of periodic murder, made infamously explicit by Israeli demographer Arnon Sofer. In 2004, Sofer told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that once Israel pulls its settlers out of Gaza and places the region under total siege, Palestinians will “become even bigger animals than they are today…The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war…if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” It’s trite by now to point out that these are Hitlerian words; that Israel uses similar tactics to those the Nazis employed against their captives.
Across the whole of Palestine, there is resistance to this regime. Recently, there has been coordinated armed resistancein Nablus and Jenin against Israeli occupation forces. This resistance is organized against all odds, with few resources and under brutal crackdowns by Israeli army and police. In Gaza, of course, resistance continues too. Outside Palestine, there have also been important efforts to damage the Israeli war machine. The group Palestine Action, for instance, managed to shut down several factories of Elbit – one of Israel’s major weapons developers.
In Passover celebrations in the US, Exodus is frequently used as a container for liberal or vaguely “progressive” politics (and all too often, liberal zionism). There has been a proliferation of progressive haggadot and spin offs on Arthur Waskow’s “Freedom Seder” of 1969. This Passover, as in others before, there will be more of that.
This Passover, however, it is worth re-reading Exodus for the radicalism already present in the source, with its critique of racialized extraction, its deep rejection of racial ideology, and its call for subversive resistance.
But the story gains its true power when the radical possibilities within it materialize into collective action against regimes of death and extraction. We should support and celebrate such actions wherever we see them: in Palestine, in the recent wave of strikes in US prisons, or in the ongoing battle by forest defenders in Atlanta to stop ‘Cop City,’ an over $90 million training facility for police forces that is planned to be built on stolen, deforested land – to name only a few.
We live in a world where the social fabric necessary for such actions is generally lacking. This Passover, we must discuss and mourn the destruction of Jewish communities and movements that once had the power to mount collective resistance. In the US and Europe as in other parts of the world, Jewish radicals have been exterminated, exiled, or marginalized, purged from establishment “Jewish” institutions that have aligned themselves with imperialism and capitalism. We can still try to organize ourselves in ways that will make the radical traditions of Exodus come alive – and become more than just a story, and more than material for another haggadah or midrash.