Talmud Tips

For the week ending 9 September 2017 / 18 Elul 5777

Sanhedrin 51 - 57

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Commandments Before and After Sinai

Ten mitzvot were commanded to the Jewish People at Marah: Seven of these they had accepted on themselves as Bnei Noach, and added to them were (three new mitzvot): Laws, Shabbat and honoring one’s father and one’s mother. As it is written "There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.” (Shmot 15:25)

Maharitz Chiyut points out that we see from this teaching that the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and the mitzvah of honoring one’s mother are all one mitzvah. Otherwise there would have been four additional mitzvot added at Marah, besides the original seven mitzvot Bnei Noach. He points out that this understanding of the mitzvah to honor one’s parents is not in accordance with the teachings of the Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot and the Ramban, who both hold that the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and one’s mother constitutes two separate mitzvot. (He also explains why the seven mitzvot Bnei Noach were repeated at Marah, as implied in our gemara, and cites a fundamental teaching of the Rambam: All mitzvot that we have and keep today are due to their having being given to us at Mount Sinai, and not due to any command that preceded the Sinai experience when we received the Torah with all its mitzvot.)

  • Sanhedrin 56b

The Jewish and Egyptian Midwives

In the name of Rabbi Yishmael the Rabbi said, “A Ben Noach is obligated the death penalty also for killing a fetus.”

This statement on our daf is one of many teachings regarding the mitzvot, laws and sources applicable to a Ben Noach. The Maharsha addresses this statement of Rabbi Yishmael, and with it offers a fascinating explanation that gives a special insight into a well-known part of the Jewish history in Egypt.

When Pharaoh decreed to kill the Jewish male babies, the verse states, “The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birth-stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.’” (Ex. 1:15-16)

An oft-asked question asked by learners of these verses is why Pharaoh spoke to the Hebrew midwives to act in this way, and not to the Egyptian midwives. Were there no Egyptian midwives in Egypt? And wouldn’t one think that they would have even more motivation and obedience to Pharaoh to obey his command to kill the Jewish babies?

The Maharsha explains this portion of the Torah based on the teaching of Rabbi Yishmael. Certainly, he explains, Pharaoh didn’t ask or command the Egyptian midwives to actively kill the babies, because a Ben Noach is prohibited from killing another person — even a fetus, as Rabbi Yishmael teaches here. But he did tell the Jewish midwives to kill the fetus while it was still inside the mother, since it was permitted for them as Jews to do so. The Jewish midwives were prohibited to kill the baby only once its head or majority of its body emerged from the mother into “the air of the world”. And since the Jewish midwives needed to do the deed before the fetus emerged, signs that indicated that the fetus was a male even before it emerged were provided to the Jewish midwives so they could act as commanded — in a permitted way — and kill the fetus before it was born. (See the first chapter Tractate Sotah for early signs that revealed in advance the gender of the child.)

And let us not forget the righteous Jewish midwives, of course, who disobeyed the command of Pharaoh to kill the Jewish babies, as the verse states, “The midwives, however, feared G-d; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.” (Ex. 1:17)

  • Sanhedrin 57b

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