The Gemara teaches that "in the merit of the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Mitzrayim." The Gemara proceeds to describe the righteous acts of the women. They would endear themselves to their husbands by coming to the fields where their husbands labored (since their husbands were unable to leave their labor to come home to their wives). When the time came for the women to give birth, they would go out to the fields and give birth under the "Tapu'ach" trees, and they would give cakes of oil and cakes of honey to their newborns. When the Egyptians became aware that the women had given birth, they came to kill the babies, but a miracle happened and the babies were swallowed up into the protective ground. The Egyptians brought oxen and plowed over the ground, but when they left the babies emerged from the ground like the grass of the field. When Hash-m appeared to the Jewish people at Yam Suf, these children were the first to recognize His presence.
If the miracle related by the Gemara is to be understood literally, it seems to dwarf all of the miracles that occurred during the process of the redemption from Mitzrayim. However, no mention of this miracle is made in any of the sources which express praise to Hash-m for the miracles He wrought in Mitzrayim. Perhaps the account related by the Gemara is intended as an allegorical lesson about the Mesirus Nefesh of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim.
When the Gemara says that the Jewish people were redeemed "in the merit of the righteous women," it refers to the merit of their Bitachon, their unswerving trust in Hash-m. The Gemara (12a) says that even Amram, the greatest leader of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim at the time, wanted to stop having children because of the terrible decrees the Egyptians enacted. The women, however, trusted in Hash-m that He would send them the promised redeemer at the proper time, and they encouraged the men to continue to build families (as the Gemara relates about Miriam, who encouraged her father Amram to continue to build his family). (The Jewish women also sought to become pregnant from their husbands so that the Egyptians would not be enticed to violate them.)
The Gemara relates that the women give birth "under the Tapu'ach" tree. The Gemara in Shabbos (88a) states that the unquestioning faith which the Jewish people expressed when they declared "Na'aseh v'Nishma" at Har Sinai is represented by a Tapu'ach tree, which produces fruit even before it produces leaves to protect the fruit from the elements. In the same way, the Jewish women sought to produce offspring even before they knew how their offspring would be protected from the Egyptian decrees.
The oil and honey which Hash-m prepared for the babies may allude to the fact that Hash-m blessed these children with their spiritual and physical needs despite the limitations imposed on them by the Egyptian tyranny. They were blessed with an aptitude towards Chochmah (which allowed them to integrate the Torah so quickly at Har Sinai) which is compared to oil (see Berachos 57a), and their physical needs, which are compared to honey (see Mishlei 25:16), were miraculously met.
When the Gemara says that the babies were miraculously swallowed into the ground when the Egyptians came to kill them, it means that the Egyptians were not able to find them when their parents hid them (just as Moshe Rabeinu's mother hid him) because Hash-m protected them.
The Gemara says that the Egyptians came with oxen to plow over them and extract them from their hiding place. This means that the Egyptians declared that if their slaves are still having children, they will make them toil even harder so that they will lose any desire to have more children. However, the children "sprouted forth like grass in the field," showing that the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more the Jews multiplied (as expressed in Shemos 1:20).
When the Gemara says that these children were the first to recognize Hash-m when He appeared to the Jewish people at Yam Suf, it means that when Hash-m showed himself to the Jewish nation as the "Ish Milchamah" (Shemos 15:3), who quashed the mighty Egyptian army, they exclaimed that they always had complete faith in the coming of His promised redemption. They felt Hash-m's protection when they were born and when they grew up under the Egyptian oppression, and they trusted that He would redeem the entire Jewish nation from the Egyptian exile at the destined time, as He promised. (M. Kornfeld)
QUESTION: The Torah relates that Pharaoh, in his attempt to reduce the growth of the Jewish people and to eliminate the perceived threat of rebellion (Shemos 1:10), ordered the Jewish midwives (1:15) to kill every baby boy that was born (1:16). The Gemara relates that he taught them a way to discern when the expectant mothers were ready to give birth (so that they would not be able to give birth in secret and hide their babies; Rashi). Pharaoh also taught them how to discern whether the baby -- before it emerged from the womb -- was a boy or a girl. The Torah relates that the midwives "feared G-d" (1:17) and they did not kill the babies, but, on the contrary, they helped keep them alive.
Why did Pharaoh find it necessary to teach the midwives a way to discern the gender of the baby before the baby was born? The midwives obviously would know the gender of the baby immediately after it was born. Why did they need to know its gender before it was born?
Similarly, when Pharaoh confronted the midwives and censured them for letting the babies live, the midwives responded that they had no chance to kill the babies because "before the midwife comes to them, they already have given birth." How did the midwives intend to defend their actions with this response? Pharaoh could have responded simply that the midwives should have killed the babies after their birth!
ANSWERS: It is clear from the Gemara that Pharaoh's intention was to have the Jewish midwives kill the babies before they emerged from the womb. However, what was Pharaoh's motivation behind this? Why did he not simply command the midwives to kill the babies after they were born?
(a) The VILNA GA'ON (Kol Eliyahu #49) explains that Pharaoh did not have the power at this point to order that the babies be killed by the midwives after they were born. The statutes of the land required that the due process of law and judgment be implemented before putting someone to death or administering capital punishment. Although Pharaoh was a very cruel monarch, it would have been beyond the accepted practice of the kingship to issue such a barbarous order. The issuing of such a cruel and irrational order likely would have prompted a national uprising. Therefore, Pharaoh commanded the midwives that "when you see them on the birthing stool" -- that is, before the women have given birth -- "if it is a boy, you shall kill him" (1:16). In this manner the mothers would not be aware that their babies were murdered, but they would assume that they were born as stillborns. This is why Pharaoh taught the midwives how to discern whether the fetus was a boy or a girl before it emerged from the womb, and why Pharaoh had no response when the midwives informed him that the babies were born before the midwives arrived.
The RAMBAN (Shemos 1:10) explains that when Pharaoh saw that his secret plan did not work, he had no choice but to reveal his plan to kill the Jews to his compatriots. However, still concerned about the repercussions of an explicit executive order to openly kill the children, Pharaoh ordered the people to throw any unattended Jewish babies they find into the river. When the Jewish parents would come crying to the courts and government officials, the courts would ask the parents to bring witnesses to prove who killed their babies (which they were unable to do).
According to the Gemara here, the Gezeirah to throw the children into the river was based on astrological predictions and thus lasted for only one day. Accordingly, the king could justify such a decree on the grounds of astrological predictions.
It is interesting to note that the verse originally refers to Pharaoh as "king of Mitzrayim," but after his plan to have the midwives kill the babies is foiled and he passes the decree to throw the babies into the river, he is referred to simply as "Pharaoh." (See ALSHICH.) According to the Ramban and the Vilna Ga'on, the reason for this change is clear. His second decree was more befitting of a despot than of a king, and thus the Torah denies him the royal appellation. (M. Kornfeld)
(b) The MAHARSHA (Sanhedrin 57b) and the PARASHAS DERACHIM (Derush 17; see also HE'OROS B'MASECHES SOTAH) asks another question. Why did Pharaoh specifically order the Jewish midwives -- "la'Meyaldos ha'Ivriyos" (Shemos 1:15) -- to kill the babies? He explains as follows.
The Torah forbids a Nochri to kill an unborn fetus. A Nochri who transgresses this Isur is considered to have transgressed the Isur of Retzichah (murder) and is Chayav Misah (Sanhedrin 57b). For a Jew, however, killing an unborn fetus is prohibited only by a Lav. There is no Chiyuv Misah for a Jew who kills an unborn fetus.
Therefore, Pharaoh specifically ordered the Jewish midwives to kill the baby boys before they were born, because the Egyptian midwives would be Chayav Misah for doing so! He did not expect the Jewish midwives to kill the babies after they were born, because then they, too, would be Chayav Misah.
The Parashas Derachim adds that Pharaoh made an error in his calculation. Although the Jewish midwives would not be Chayav Misah at the hands of Beis Din for following Pharaoh's orders and killing the unborn babies, they would be Chayav Misah b'Yedei Shamayim, and therefore they refused to follow his orders. They were righteous who feared G-d and heavenly punishment. That is why the verse states that "the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the king of Mitzrayim told to them" (Shemos 1:17); even though they would not have been Chayav Misah at the hands of Beis Din for killing the fetuses, they "feared G-d" and the Chiyuv Misah b'Yedei Shamayim.