Leaving Egypt

Females played a central role in the story of the exodus from Egypt, so why are most of the heroes of the haggada male?

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men prepare matza in the southern city of Ashdod. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men prepare matza in the southern city of Ashdod.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
The book of Exodus describes the origin of Passover, a holiday bursting with meaning, which is revived each year by means of the Passover seder, a festive ritual that evokes our liberation from slavery in Egypt.
The Mishna contains the first description of a celebration around the table on the eve of Passover, dating back to the period of the Second Temple. But in order to understand the seder described in the Mishna, we have to be familiar with the customs of ancient Greco-Roman banquets. At these meals, in which the diners reclined and drank wine in abundance, there were no women.
At the heart of the seder is the reading of the Passover haggada. (The earliest version of the haggada as we know dates back to Rav Saadia Gaon in the tenth century). The haggada has a clear educational goal, which is the transmission of national memory from generation to generation by means of a theatrical story. It also has a moral message, exploring national liberation, miraculous redemption, divine providence, and God’s revelation in national history. The transmission of this pedagogical message is achieved by means of relating the story of the exodus from Egypt to one’s sons; “tell your sons,” as the Bible instructs, and not "tell your daughters." The tradition is passed down by the men alone. And it is male heroes who populate the haggada.
The haggada speaks of four sons, and not of four daughters. It seems that these sons have no mothers or sisters. There are also many sages mentioned: Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Yossi HaGlili and several others. There are also several Biblical heroes mentioned, including: Joshua, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Lavan the Aramean, and Elijah. But not a single woman.
However, women played a central role in the story of the exodus from Egypt. They are depicted in the Bible as independent, enterprising, responsible and bold. When not coping with reality, they are crying out against it. Unlike the men, who resign themselves to Pharaoh’s orders, the women are not prepared to surrender to his decrees of death. Moses is saved by women, including the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah, his mother Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter, as well as Miriam. They are courageous and sensitive to the plight of the weak and helpless, and they exemplify ethical standards and humane behavior.
The midwives fear God more than they fear Pharaoh, and they save the Israelite children from death by claiming that the Hebrew women, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, give birth even before the midwives arrive on the scene. Yocheved does not give up the son that is born to her, but hides him for three months and then rests him in a basket of reeds on the banks of the Nile.
Pharaoh’s daughter, who goes down to bathe in the Nile, discovers the baby crying in the basket. “And she had compassion on him and she said: This is a child of the Hebrews.” That is, the identity of the child was clear to her, as were her father’s orders, which she knowingly violates. Miriam, who has been watching over the baby in the basket, suggests a nursemaid for the boy, another display of courage and resourcefulness.
These altruistic women, who speak in a voice that is different and unique, go unmentioned in the haggada, even though they are the progenitors of the redemption of Israel. But since the haggada teaches that “the more one elaborates on the exodus from Egypt, the more it is praiseworthy,” women, too, can tell the story of the exodus from Egypt from their perspective by remembering their ancestral mothers, without whom the nation of Israel would not have been redeemed.
Professor Aliza Shenhar is the provost of the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.