Midwives are referred to in the Bible as having been employed among the Hebrews at an early period; thus Rachel and Tamar were assisted by midwives (Gen. xxxv. 17, xxxviii. 28). They were called in, however, only in rare cases. For instance, the delivery of Rachel is expressly stated to have been a difficult one, and Tamar was delivered of twins. But in general midwives were dispensed with. Thus in Egypt, where the Hebrews multiplied rapidly (Ex. i. 7, 12), the names of only two midwives are recorded, Shiphrah and Puah; and it is stated that the Hebrew women, unlike the Egyptians, "are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them" (ib. i. 15, 19). Sometimes the necessary service was rendered by friends or relatives (I Sam. iv. 20).
The general Hebrew term for "midwife" is (plural, ); but the word (Ex. i. 19), also, is interpreted by Rashi to denote midwives, like the Aramaic . The word (ib. i. 16), which is the dual form of (= "two stones"), has given rise to some difficulty. The Targumim and the later commentators, as Rashi and David Ḳimḥi, interpret it as "the delivery-stool," while Ibn Janaḥ, Joseph Ḳimḥi, and Parḥon, followed by some modern commentators, as Eichhorn and Knobel, render it "the womb." Gesenius ("Th."), rejecting the idea that delivery-stools existed in Egypt at such an early period (comp. Ploss, "Das Weib," 2d ed., pp. 197, 232), translates "the stone bath."
Although it is not stated what were the functions of a midwife after the delivery, yet the services enumerated in Ezek. xvi. 4 were most probably rendered by her.
The midwife is generally designated by (a term applied also to the lying-in woman) and by (= "the wise woman"; comp. the French "sage-femme"), but from Lev. R. xxvii. 7 it seems that the term is also applied to the midwife (comp. Gen. R. lx. 3). Besides tying the umbilical cord (Shab. 128b), she performed two other duties, as may be inferred from the Talmudic passage Soṭah 11b. It is here implied that "Shiphrah" and "Puah" (see Midwife, Biblical Data) were not the real names of the midwives, but only indicated their functions; the former meaning "the one who trims the child," and the latter, "the one who talks to the child," or, according to R. Hananeel, "the one who whispers"; that is to say, the midwife whispered in the woman's ear in order to facilitate parturition.
The question whether the delivery-stool was in use in Egypt during the Biblical period is answered by the Rabbis in the affirmative; for they translate "delivery-stool," giving various reasons for so doing (Soṭah l.c.). The Talmudic interpretation of (Hosea xiii. 13) also is "delivery-stool."
A midwife, when called to assist a woman in labor, is allowed to profane the Sabbath, if necessary, in the discharge of her duties (Shab. l.c.; Yer. Shab. xviii. 3); and all concessions are granted to her as to one engaged in saving human life.
Although many physicians studied obstetrics, and rabbis who were acquainted with that science (Samuel, among others) were consulted on certain occasions with regard to the ritual cleanness or uncleanness of the mother, yet it does not appear from the Talmud that men were ever called to assist a woman in her delivery. It is also difficult to say whether in the Talmudic times midwives were specially trained for their profession or whether they gained their knowledge of it merely by watching the operations of others. The term , however, would seem to indicate that they were well trained.
Midwives, as appears from the Talmud, were called to assist not only women, but even domestic animals (Ḥul. 43a).
- Wilhelm Ebstein, Die Medizin in Neuen Testament und im Talmud, pp. 213 et seq., Stuttgart, 1903;
- L. Kotelmann, Die Geburtshilfe der Alten Hebräer, 1876.