Terumah: the Shechinah dwells amongst us but are we driving Her away?

There is no woman in parashat Terumah. Indeed there is barely any human presence at all as the bible instructs the people via Moses about the materials needed to build the tabernacle that will travel with them in the wilderness – the mishkan, and all its vessels and accoutrements.

There is no woman, but there is God, and it is this aspect of God that I would like to focus upon.

In Chapter 25 v8 we read

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

And they shall make me a mikdash/special place and I will dwell among them/in them.

The notion of God dwelling among/within the people of Israel is a powerful one, one that removes God from any ties to geography or history, but allows God to move freely wherever the people may be. And this idea of God is given a name, one not found in bible itself but found extensively in rabbinic literature post 70CE – Shechinah.

The Shechinah is an explicitly feminine aspect of God. Whereas many of our other names for God imply transcendence, a God-beyond us, the Shechinah dwells right here where we are. Talmud reminds us that “When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b).  It tells us that wherever we go, this aspect of God goes with us – “wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them” (Meg 29a), and yet this aspect of God also remains in Israel waiting for our return “The Shechinah never departs from the Western Wall” (Ex.Rabbah 2:2)

The Shechinah is experienced by people engaged in study or prayer together, and by people who engage in mitzvot such as caring for the poor and giving tzedakah. It is said that She is the driver that caused prophets to prophesy, that enabled David to write his Psalms. She is the enabler of translating our feelings into words and actions, a conduit to relationship with the immanent God. She is associated with joy and with security. It is no accident She makes an appearance in the bedtime prayer for children – the four angels Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Raphael invoked to protect the four directions, and the Shechinah to be at the head of the sleeping child.

The Shechinah is the constant presence, the nurturer of the Jewish soul. She is with us in times of joy and she is with us in times of suffering and pain. She connects Creation with Revelation – the universal with the particularly Jewish, the sacred with the mundane.

This week as I was mulling over the sacred feminine embodied in the Talmudic and mystical traditions, I joined in the prayer of the Women at the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Adar, albeit by ipad from thousands of miles away. I sang with them and followed the prayers as best I could, for there was a terrible cacophony picked up by the technology that sometimes threatened to overwhelm this joyful female prayer. Some in the men’s side of the area had turned their loudspeakers directly towards the praying women in order to drown out their song. Some in the women’s side (an artificially inflated crowd of seminary and high school girls bussed in for the morning by their institutions in order to prevent the Women of the Wall getting anywhere near the Wall itself) were blowing whistles loudly in the direction of the women – including the young batmitzvah – who were praying with grace and with joy.

The spectacle – for it was a spectacle – was painful in the extreme. Jews were determinedly drowning out the voices of other Jews in prayer and seemed to think that this was authentic religion, rather than a particularly vile form of sectarianism with little if any connection to any Jewish custom or law.

And it made me think of the Shechinah who never leaves that Western Wall, the remaining stones of the Temple. The Wall itself was built as part of the expansion of the area surrounding the second Temple in order to artificially create a larger flattened area for the sacred buildings above.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 21b), the Second Temple lacked five things which had been in Solomon’s Temple, namely, the Ark, the cherubim, the sacred fire, the Shechinah and the Urim and Tummim.

It is easy to see that the Ark of the Covenant, the Cherubim, the sacred fire, the Priestly and mysterious Urim and Tummim were lost by the time of the second Temple – they were artefacts which could disappear. But the Shechinah – that fascinates me. The redactor of Talmud, clearly anxious about the statement, continues the narrative by saying that they were not gone, just less present than before.

It is clear to me that the artefacts are gone and lost to history, replaced by our system of prayer and study. But I wonder so about the Shechinah in the light of the events that are now almost normal at the base of the remaining Western Wall.  For while the midrash may tell us that the Shechinah is there, waiting for us to return from our exile; While it may say that She is waiting to be among us, to welcome us, never departing from the Western Wall, waiting to connect us to our deepest selves, to link us to a God of comfort and compassion – if she was, she must have had her head in her hands and been close to despair at what She saw.

When people pray and study together, when they enact law to help the society, when they are sick and frightened and when they are doing mitzvot that bring joy and comfort, there the Shechinah will be. But when they abuse their power, ignore the other, hold only disdain and triumphalism as their values, it is no wonder that the Shechinah finds it hard to hang around. She wasn’t there in the Second Temple, rife as it was with political machinations and abuses of power. And I only caught a glimpse of her yesterday at Rosh Chodesh Adar when so many Jews were at the Wall, but so few were there to pray from the depths of their hearts in joy. I saw her flee from the shrieking women and men determined to drown out prayer. I saw her flee from the passivity of a police force refusing to intervene to protect those who needed their help.

But I saw her in the faces of the group of women celebrating a bat mitzvah together in song and dedication, in the sounds of a young girl reading Torah with grace and mature sensitivity.


The minor daughter sold to another man:parashat mishpatim asserts her rights.


“And if a man sell his [minor] daughter to be a maidservant (le’amah) she shall not leave as the male servants do. If she does not please her master who should be espoused to her/ who is not espoused to her, then he shall let her be redeemed.  He has no power to sell her on to a foreign people for he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouses her to his son then he will treat her as he would treat a daughter. And if he takes another wife [having married her himself] he must not diminish her food, clothing allowance or conjugal rights. And if he fails to provide her with these, then she shall be able to leave freely, without any money to be paid” (Exodus 21:7-11)

Sometimes in bible we are taken aback at the worldview of the text, a perspective that is so far from ours as to seem it comes from a completely different universe.  One response has been to effectively excise some texts from the biblical canon, never going to far as to physically remove them perhaps, but certainly to ensure that they are not read or brought forward to support our current system of beliefs or actions.

At first reading the fate of a minor daughter seems to be that she is powerless and of use only insofar as money can be made from her. It appears that the daughter is an asset to be leveraged for the benefit of the father or the family. And this must have seemed to be reasonable to some, for otherwise why would we find in the Babylonian wisdom literature the maxim – “The strong man lives off what is paid for his arms (strength), but the weak man lives off what is paid for his children” which is surely warning people not to sell their children for profit.

Bible however is a subtle text and we cannot simply read the first half of the verse without the conditions required in the second half and the following verses on the subject. It begins with the presumption that a man may sell his daughter to be a maidservant   (AMAH ).  Immediately we note that this must be a minor daughter over whom the father has authority, which already limits the possibility for him to take this action. Then we see that while the word ‘AMAH’ is used and is posited against the male servants (AVADIM) the word that is NOT used is ‘SHIFCHA’ a word which is more servile in its usage. AMAH can be used of a free woman when speaking to a social superior; SHIFCHA is not used in this way. So she is being sold not as a slave but as an AMAH, a status that Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah are also described as having, and as Ruth and Hannah, Abigail and Michal will also  describe themselves later in bible.

After this introductory phrase that must have been familiar to the original audience for the biblical text, that a many might sell his daughter to another, comes a set of conditions that make clear that whatever the girl is being sold for, her rights are clearly stated and they are tightly drawn and powerfully asserted.

First – she is not someone who is sold as a male slave for whom the sabbatical year of jubilee year will end the contract being made and from this we can clearly deduce that while the context of the narrative is the rights of the Hebrew slave, the rights of this minor girl are different. Something else is happening here and the contract is quite different.

The first clue is the expectation that she is being sold into the household of a man who will later expect to marry her and raise her status accordingly. What is she doing in his household? She is learning the business of becoming a wife and director of the household, something that for whatever reason she does not have access to in her own parental home.

The text then goes on. If the master of the house does not wish to marry her at the appropriate time of her maturity, then he must arrange that she is redeemed from the contract. Rabbinic law assumes that someone in her family will act as go’el and pay out the remaining debt her father has incurred.

The master of the house is expressly forbidden from passing her on to another family – she is not property to be sold on, she is not to be given in prostitution. The bible is absolutely clear – if he does not marry her then he has broken the original contract and so he now has no legal power or ability to direct her future.

The one curiosity here is that there is a kerei ketiv – that is the text is written in one way but understood differently. The negative LO (Lamed Alef) is written, but the text is read as if the word were LO (Lamed Vav). As written it would read “Her master who has not become espoused to her”, as read it is “Her master who has become espoused to her”.  It seems that the Masoretic text cannot imagine that her master did not begin by arranging the engagement, the first part of the marital contract, and instead they think he must have changed his mind once she grew up and was unwilling to go through with it. I think this underlines just how deeply the assumption was that the contract between the father of the girl and the master of the house was that she was being given up early to be married in the future – either because the father was too poor to offer a dowry at the time it would be needed, or too poor even to support her while she grew up. It may even have been done in order to settle the girl’s future in times of political unrest. We know that the Jewish marriage ceremonies which are nowadays done either in one day or at least very closely together were originally separated into the two ceremonies of betrothal and subsequent marriage and that these could take place years apart from each other, the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ continuing to live in their respective homes after the betrothal for many years before the actual marriage took place and the couple came together as a new family.

Bible gives the possibility that should she not marry the father of the house, then she might marry the son of the house – something which may have delayed her future status but not otherwise significantly alter it. And if she did marry the son rather than the father, her rights as a full member of the family are once again asserted. She is to be treated in every way as a daughter of the house.

The passage then lays down the rights of the girl should she subsequently find that her husband takes another wife – something that might damage her status in the home and leave her marginalised and potentially poorer than before he did so. Thus bible clarifies that the rights of the wife to food, clothing and sex are absolute, and that nothing and nobody can diminish these rights.

It ends with the clear statement about the limits of the contract even if the man has broken it by espousing the girl to his son and therefore lost all rights of ‘ownership’ or privilege.

Should the girl find that she is not being given the full status of married woman, that she is not given the food, clothing and sex that are her rights, then she is free to go – the man has broken his contract and has no hold over her whatsoever – she does not need to be redeemed by a goel or even pay any remaining debt incurred by her father and by her own maintenance in the household – she is a free woman in every way

This passage, which on first reading appears to say that a minor girl can be treated as a chattel to be sold at the whim of her father to a man who would then establish his own ownership is nothing of the sort. The bible actually stops a man selling his daughter as a slave for the purposes of prostitution, and in this first and only legislation in the ancient near east to discuss the rights of a girl who is sold, the girl is protected by some quite draconian legislation, her rights and the obligations to her spelled out beyond the possibility that someone might try to reinterpret what is happening.  Interestingly any obligation of the girl is not mentioned. While we assume she will work to pay for her maintenance, this is not specified. The text is interested only in protecting her and putting boundaries around what the men in her life may think they are able to do with her.

While it would be nice to think that she would be consulted in the betrothal as Rebecca was (albeit without seeing Isaac) we must be grateful for what we get in the world view in which bible was formed. We have here the basis for the rights of all wives – to food, clothing and a home/ sexual relations. Rabbinic law took the text from here in order to provide a basic minimum for every woman who threw her lot in with a man in marriage, and thus protected women in a world which was otherwise potentially disrespectful and without care for her needs.

The unknown AMAH of Mishpatim is the beneficiary of quite phenomenally forward thinking law. Her personhood was respected far more than the mores of the time. There might even be a case to say that a girl from a poor family who might otherwise only be able to look forward to a life of hardship and work either married to a man too poor to offer her much or not able to provide a dowry in order to be married at all, would in this way be able to jump out of her impoverished setting into one of economic security.  One cannot help but think of the women from less economically thriving countries offering themselves in marriage on the internet to men from wealthier countries in order to better their own standard of living.

I cannot say I am thrilled by this passage, but we must be aware of the context of the narrative and the legal codes it comes to replace. The sale of minors was common throughout Assyria and Babylonia and there are documents to suggest it was also in practise in Syria and Palestine. And we see in the book of Kings (2K 4:1) that children might be seized into slavery by their dead parents’ creditors. Nuzi documents show that sale into a conditional slavery was practised, whereby the girl would always be married but not to the master of the house, rather to another slave. The genius of the biblical amendment was that the girl was to be raised in status and treated properly for her whole life, and that she would be freed if certain conditions were not met.

The minor daughter of a man who needed to be free of the economic burden she represented was vulnerable. To this day in some societies daughters are perceived as less valuable, less giving of status to the family, and as people who will never be as economically worthy as sons. It remains true of course that women’s work is not valued in the same way that work done by men is and sadly many women have bought into this viewpoint so even high flying career women will see an increasing gap between their remuneration and that of their male colleagues.

It would be wonderful for this perception to be erased. There is no intellectual or scientifically validated case for it to be held, and yet even in modernity it holds great power in society.  Bible cannot help us here, but it is something to hold on to – that bible restricts the rights of men over their vulnerable daughters and over the defenceless women in their household and it clearly and powerfully ascribes and asserts rights for those women, rights which Jewish legal codes have had to uphold even in highly patriarchal and paternalistic times and groups.

It looks to me from this text that God is aware of the problem humans seem to have with gendered power, and has set a model for dealing with it we could emulate. As the Orthodox Union just tried to curtail the rights of women in scholarship and leadership positions with a  responsum so out of touch and lacking respect for its own constituency, it is good to see that this ancient text gives a lead on the building of the status of women who may need such building, and does not try to either take advantage of them nor to diminish their place in the world.


To study further I recommend reading:

“Slavery in the Ancient Near East”. I Mendelsohn in “The biblical Archaeologist”  vol 9 number 4

Josef Fleischman in The Jewish Law Annual ed. Berachyahu Lifshitz. Taylor & Francis, 1 Sep 2000





Zipporah: unsung heroine of parshat Yitro

The sidra is named for Yitro, the priest of Midian and father of seven daughters and indeed Yitro deserves the honour for he takes in the fugitive Moses, provides him with shelter, with work and with a wife – his daughter Zipporah, and he teaches him a great deal about leadership and about relationship with God.

But it is his daughters I would like to focus on, and in particular the long suffering Zipporah.

Moses, having fled the wrath of Pharaoh after he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled to Midian and sat down by a well. The verse repeats one verb – וַיֵּשֶׁב – “to sit or to stay”, which alerts us to pay close attention. Rashi quotes midrash: – the first “staying” means that he settled in Midian, and the second that he deliberately sat near the well. Just as Jacob met Rachel and Eliezer found Rebecca at a well, it seems clear that Moses was intending to find himself a partner. Sure enough, he meets and subsequently helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who have come to get water for their father’s flocks. Having filled the troughs with water for their animals, the women are chased away by the shepherds – something that is apparently their usual experience as after Moses helps them they arrive home earlier than usual, an event noted by their surprised father.

Why do the shepherds chase the girls away? Scripture gives us no clue, but midrash comes to our rescue. According to Shemot Rabbah (1:32), the priest of Midian had abandoned idolatry and so had been excluded from the community, and his daughters were treated harshly because of this ban. It is a curious lacuna in the text,  tantalising us with the unexplained punitive treatment of the vulnerable daughters of a man of status even while appearing not to care very much.  At this point we do not know the name of their father, only that he is a “cohen Midian”, a priest of Midian.

Unlike the meetings that lead to the marriages of Rachel and Rebecca there seems to be no special relationship created between Moses and any of the women at the well. Indeed they do not invite him back to their home in order to thank him with their hospitality, but they leave him at the well; indeed the encounter would end there except that  their father asks what has happened that  they are back earlier than usual. Only then do they recount the event, and their father exclaims at their omission and tells them to call Moses in order to offer him a meal. Laconically the text then tells us that  “Moses was וַיּוֹאֶל – willing or content to stay with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses”. Having met all seven daughters without being given any sense of their individuality or their difference, we now find that one of the daughters is given as a wife to Moses. There has been no courtship, no sense that they were interested in each other or found any connection with each other, Zipporah is simply an object here, given to the “ger Toshav” and she bears him a child whom he (not she) names Gershom, a signifier of Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land. It is not indicative of any closeness of relationship or belief in a shared future through the child.

Zipporah is almost invisible. She appears to have no agency whatsoever, no personality is evinced and no relationship with Moses on show. All we have is her name – which probably derives from the root meaning ‘bird’- in particular a sparrow, and seems to gloss the meaning that she is unremarkable and unappreciated.

But our next meeting with Zipporah changes all of that.

While acting as shepherd for his father in law Moses had met God near Horeb at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and been told to return to Egypt and to take out God’s people who were suffering there.  Moses is not at all keen. First he asks God “who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out?” and God reassures him – “I will be with you, and as proof when you have done it you will worship me here”. Moses finds another reason to avoid the task –“no one will believe me. They will ask me for your name and I don’t know what to say”. God responds with a phrase that will answer this fear “ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be” God extends the instruction – “Go tell them I sent you, Go gather the elders and tell them I have remembered them and will bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. Go with the elders and tell Pharaoh to let you take three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. And when Pharaoh refuses, I will smite Egypt and you will be allowed to go. And then when you go, ask for compensation from the Egyptians, you will not leave empty handed”.

Moses responds once more with anxiety:  “They won’t believe me. They won’t think I have met You”. God responds with admirable patience and firstly turns Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, and then turns Moses’ hand leprous and then returned it to its healthy state.  These are to be signs Moses can use to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his meeting with God.

Leaving aside the whiff of bad magical tricks, what we are left with is Moses’ desire not to get involved, not to take any initiative or risk, even at the direct request of God. God even offers him a third sign to show the disbelieving Israelites – the changing of water to blood – it smacks a little of desperation, how many tricks does one need if one actually believes in what you are saying?

Moses finds another reason not to go – he is not an orator, he finds public speaking hard and he is not convinced by God’s response to him that as God has chosen him his speaking skills will be adequate. Only then does God get angry – this dissembling has gone on long enough. Moses will have the help of Aaron, he will have his staff and the various tricks. He should get going.

Interestingly Moses does not get going immediately – instead he goes to Yitro his father in law and asks for permission to leave to see if any of his family in Egypt are still alive. And Yitro tells him to go in peace. Was he hoping that Yitro would not give permission? Who are the brothers in Egypt whose status Moses is referring to?  God seems to respond to an unsaid remark – “everyone who sought your death in Egypt is now dead. Go.”

Moses takes Zipporah and his two sons to journey to Egypt and while they travel God tells him that while he may create magical effects with his staff, Pharaoh will not give the people permission to leave. Then follows an opaque and quite terrifying text.

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the first born son of God.  Pharaoh has been asked to let God’s first born son travel to worship God, but Pharaoh has refused and so God will kill the son, the first born son of Pharaoh.

The theme of the first born son, of the primacy of that role and the specialness of that child, is emphasised and established. We are prefiguring the final plague when the first born son of everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the animals in the fields, will be slain during one terrible night. All will be killed except the first born of those Israelites who have enacted the ritual of the night of Pesach, slaying a lamb and displaying its blood on their doorpost. There is a time slippage – this is being said before anything has really happened. There is a person slippage – quite who is who is unclear. All we know is that the first born son belongs to God in a way that others do not.

Moses is travelling with his own first born son, Gershom.

On the way to the lodging house, God encountered him (וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ) and sought to kill him.

What is the nature of the encounter? Who does God encounter? Who does God seek to kill?

Is it Moses? Is it Gershom?

Moses is entirely passive. Rigid with shock? Prepared to acquiesce? Unwilling to act? Up till now he has mainly been avoiding what God  asks of him. This seems to be part of the same behaviour.

But Zipporah is having none of it. The daughter of a Cohen Midian, a Midianite Priest, she immediately recognises the danger and the need to act. She becomes a Priestess, performing the ritual that will avert the danger.

Zipporah takes a flint and circumcises her son – presumably Gershom her first born rather than Eliezer.        She touches/approaches ‘his feet’ She declares “כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי:”

It is a priestly ritual with an act and a declaration. The blood seems to be the sacrifice that propitiates God and also binds her to the divine. It also seems to save the life of Moses and/or Gershom.

What is a “hatan damim”. Often translated as a “bridegroom of blood”, it may refer to the newly circumcised Gershom (a child being circumcised is described as Hatan); or to Moses (Hatan can mean bridegroom) in that this act is the one that really binds them together as equal partners in the work of God; or even to God – does she bind God to her in her ritual action where she offers the blood of her own first born? And here is God the Hatan (bridegroom) of the Hatan (father in law)? Has she bought into Moses’ relationship with God by virtue of circumcising her son?

Whatever happens in this night, God withdraws the danger, and Zipporah clarifies that the ritual is to do with the act of circumcision: חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת

One might think that this act by Zipporah is enough to give her status and place in the leadership going into Egypt, but bizarrely it appears to have the opposite effect. There is no record that she ever goes to Egypt, and no record that she is part of the events there, and no record that she is part of the Exodus.  Instead she disappears from the text until all these events are over, and then we have an insight into where she had gone.

In this sidra (exodus 18) we find that Yitro, the priest of Midian and hatan (father in law) of Moses , has heard about God having brought the Israelites out of Egypt and he brings Zipporah and their two sons to Moses

We are told

 וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ:

Yitro, the Hoten of Moses, took Zipporah the wife of Moses, after he had sent her away.

The word for sending away here is the same as that used for divorcing a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Had Moses divorced Zipporah? Had he sent her back to her father’s house in order to protect her from what was to happen in Egypt? Was the sending away an act of shielding love or of punitive revenge? We cannot know. But we do know that Yitro feels confident enough to bring her and the two sons to Moses at the mountain where God will be revealed to Israel.

Is he ensuring his daughter is able to be present at the giving of Torah? Is he ensuring that his grandchildren take their appropriate place in Israelite history? Torah stays silent on the subject. Neither Zipporah nor her two sons with Moses will have any role in the future narrative. Moses is the ultimate high achieving father/husband who has no time for family – everything is focused on his love of his work/God – a personal life is irrelevant.

Poor Zipporah. Moses isn’t even interested to see the family. He welcomes Yitro his father in law, he performs all the social niceties with him, he brings him into the tent and updates him about what has happened and Yitro behaves like a priest. Once again there is a meal – they eat bread together as when Moses first met Yitro.

And Zipporah fades out of the narrative. She is, we assume, at Sinai – but Moses is determined to stay focussed and pure and instructs men and women not to be together for the days of preparation. Their relationship – never close or personal – is now over. Only with the story in the book of Numbers of the complaining about Moses (second) wife being Cushite brings her back to mind. But even here it is not clear – is this a new wife or the same one? There are no children. Moses is not interested in relationships. He is married to his job, to God, to his position as leader.

Zipporah is a woman who, like the other women in the early chapters of Exodus, saves the life of Moses and allows him to grow and mature into the person able to fulfil God’s work. From the midwives who facilitate his birth and his mother who carefully hides him where he will be found, through Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh, the protective function is carried out by women – a relic maybe of an earlier tradition of guardian goddess, that has been subverted by the paternal and patriarchal characteristic of the Hebrew God.

Zipporah forms no close relationship with a peer. She cuts a lonely figure despite being one of seven sisters.  Her marriage is loveless and cold. She is given no obvious honour or status, does not seem to have any contact with her sister-in-law Miriam (unless one reads Miriam’s complaint about the Cushite wife as being one of sisterly solidarity with Zipporah – a reading that would be quite a stretch).  She stands alone, but she is powerful. She takes on God and makes God back off. She protects her young son and saves his life. She protects her husband and saves his life too. I can only hope she got more pleasure from Gershom and Eliezer, that they honoured and respected her and understood just what a brave and competent woman she was. I like to think of her rising to the priesthood, an early role model who understood ritual and liturgical formula and could use them to best effect.

Whoever she was and whatever happened to her, her name gives us some optimism. Like a sparrow she flies unnoticed, getting on with her life, able to see from her own perspective. As psalm 84 reminds us

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר ׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר ׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֢תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֭זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מַ֝לְכִּ֗י וֵאלֹהָֽי:

Even a sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest where she may lay her young, Your altars Adonai tzeva’ot, my sovereign and my ruler.

Zipporah the priestess of Midian both challenges God and is brought by God into the inner circle of God. Where Moses fails her, let’s hope God supports her. She is at Sinai and she is unencumbered by her husband. Who knows what she could have achieved that bible has chosen not to record.


Parashat Bo: amid the drama and death in Egypt God gives a glimmer of hope for feminism

When Moses wanted to warn of a plague that would affect every single family from the most powerful in the land to the most vulnerable and powerless, he chooses a telling analogy – he tells Pharaoh “and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 11:5)

What do we learn from this? We learn that the normative belief of Moses and of Pharaoh is that the lowest of the low in Egyptian society was the shifcha – the female servant – in particular the one whose job was the physical labour of grinding the corn on the millstones.

In human society this woman who worked behind the millstones, completely unseen, and the product of whose work was the most critical and basic foodstuff – she was at the very bottom of the pile, only above the animal herds.

Midrash notices her – in Pesikta Rabbati (ch 17) we have the question why she should also become a victim of the tenth plague, losing her firstborn child like the rest of non-Israelite society, and unsurprisingly it enters the realm of apologetics, and an explanation supporting this position is devised :“because the children of the slave women were also enslaving the Israelites, and they were happy about their misfortune”

Even in the world of slaves it seems, there is no compassion for fellow sufferers, the hierarchy and the need to enslave others, is assumed.

She seems to me to be a paradigm for women’s work through the ages. She is barely noticed, hidden behind the millstones, her gender and her status as servant both contributing to her concealment. She is the definition of what society has constructed as “worthless”, even while she is doing work that is not only of real value but that is utterly necessary for the society to continue – grinding the flour for the bread is the work on which all other factors build. Women’s work has always been valued as less-than. Be it home making or child rearing, tending to the sick and to the elderly, in service to others or even if it is innovative and creative, society values it less, sees it as inferior. And sadly girls absorb this world view early –gender stereotypes seem to be functioning in children as young as six years old[i]

Yet the biblical text views the shifcha – the bondmaid – in Hebrew society differently – they are not so hidden from view. It seems that the shifcha is the name of the maid given directly to the women by their menfolk in order to help them in their lives.  Hagar is introduced as a shifcha belonging to Sarah (Gen 16:1) though she is called an amah when she has Abraham’s child.  Zilpah and Bilhah are similarly introduced as Shifchot when given by their father to Leah and Rachel on their marriages to Jacob. The shifcha helps her mistress fulfil her work – in these cases she goes so far as to provide children with the husband of her mistress, functioning as a surrogate. It is a status both lowly and without personal identity or autonomy and yet at the same time the shifcha is in the heart of the family, bearing children who are recognised and who will inherit. Her function is to support and build the status of her mistress and in so doing she will herself grow in status.

In the Ten Commandments the status of the servants (admittedly av’decha v’amat’cha) means they also do no work on Shabbat.  Their power may be low and their vulnerability great, but God notices them and cares for them.

And this may explain the disappearance from the text of these women described by Moses as the very lowest of Egyptian society.  For in the very next chapter when the plague he is warning about comes to pass we read “And it came to pass at midnight, that the Eternal smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 12:29)

The shifcha who worked behind the mill has been replaced here by the captive in the dungeon. And we have to ask why. Is it that Moses got it wrong, that the shifcha was not quite at the bottom of the pile? Is it that the two groups, captives and maidservants, are essentially synonyms?

I don’t think Moses got it wrong, and I don’t think that the two groups fully equate – the imprisoned captive or the hard working servant woman. I have the feeling that God noticed when Moses issued his threat, God saw that these women who were unsung and uncared for but who worked for the society – in their case to feed them –did not deserve this total lack of respect that Pharaoh and Moses assumed. God didn’t buy into the idea that “women’s work” – the kind of work that creates and cooks the food, that ensures there is clean clothing and that the home is functioning and hygienic; the kind of work like cleaning offices when everyone else has gone home or visiting the sick or elderly and helping with their basic needs – God sees the value even when sometimes society doesn’t.

When Moses and Pharaoh demonstrate that they do not see the women because the society in which they lived do not see the women, God has a little extra lesson to give. The story is dramatic, the tenth plague particularly cruel and unfair leading us to much soul searching about what kind of a God could behave like this – but the glimmer of fairness and valuing of someone shows through as God subtly shifts from the warning to the action. And it makes me see a God working in a patriarchal context but refusing to be bound by it.

[i] Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389–391.