Despite the fact that many women are integral to the story of Exodus, not a single one is actually named in the traditional Passover haggadah.
While every haggadah is a little different, the traditional versions outline the experiences of the Israelites from their time as slaves in Egypt to liberation in the Promised Land. It includes the seder, or order, of the service, and it’s full of metaphors, symbols, and meditations on the themes of freedom. In these traditional haggadahs, Moses takes center stage in opposition to Pharaoh. Yet the vast contributions of women that made it possible for Moses to bring the Israelites to safety are completely neglected.
In fact, there are five women that were integral to the story of Exodus we re-tell every year. The first two women are a team, midwives Shifra and Puah. Together, they lie to Pharaoh who commanded them to murder the baby boys born to any Israelite family. Next is Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who smuggles her son to the Nile and sends him into the unknown rather than watch him be murdered. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, finds Moses and adopts him despite knowing he is an Israelite — which directly defies her father’s orders. Miriam, Moses’s sister, plays many parts in this story, from encouraging her parents to conceive Moses, to suggesting that Yocheved put the baby in the basket on the river, to encouraging Batya to let Yocheved serve as Moses’s wet nurse, and then ultimately leading the women and children to freedom.
National Council of Jewish Women’s Scholar in Residence, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and Communications Specialist Steph Black have created The Five Women of the Exodus: A Feminist Supplement to the Haggadah in which each of these women is named, given a backstory, and celebrated.
This conversation between Alma faves (and past contributors!) Rabbi Ruttenberg and Steph features the genesis of this project, how and why this supplement can be used, and why it matters so much.
Steph Black (SB): Hi Rabbi Ruttenberg!! So tell me, how did the idea to create this supplement come about?
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (RDR): I’ve been writing and teaching about the various forms of resistance to oppression that we can learn about from the five women at the beginning of the Exodus story (and the five women at the end!) for a while now. When we started talking at NCJW about how we could mark Passover this year, I threw out the idea of lifting up these women, and it really resonated. Since Shifra and Puah are really a team, the five women connected to getting us out of Egypt mapped on really beautifully to the four cups of wine. And since Elijah’s and Miriam’s cups are marked as we pour the fourth cup of wine, it just made sense to tie them all to the act of pouring. Our cups overflow with gratitude for them, no?
What’s your relationship to these stories?
SB: My favorite holiday, Jewish or secular, is easily Passover. The themes of liberation, moving from the narrow place to freedom, and the ways that my family used to gather together over wine and matzah balls cemented Passover in my heart and my Jewish practice as an adult.
But the more I deepened my Jewish practice, the feminist in me couldn’t ignore how gendered the traditional seder was, seemingly in contrast to the actual story of the Exodus. I began hosting feminist seders for my friends in 2017, and I would attempt to cobble together as many modern interpretations of the hagaddah as I could find, including using the story of Passover as a framework in which we could discuss violence against women, abortion access, and sexism. Yet nothing actually addressed the lack of women in my haggadah. When you approached me with the idea to create a ritual around honoring and uplifting their voices, I jumped! I’m really excited to use this insert this year.
Building off of that, in your opinion, why is it so important that we name and honor these women?
RDR: A few reasons. One, of course, is that they were critical to the work and, as such, should be celebrated. While it’s true that Moses is only mentioned once in the traditional haggadah, his presence is certainly felt throughout the story, and the haggadah also mentions Pharoah extensively and cites by name many of our ancient sages and rabbis whose thinking and conversations helped shape the seder ritual as we have it today — all men. Particularly given how historically patriarchal Judaism as a whole is — over almost all of the centuries of our tradition, men authored almost all of our foundational texts, held authority in legal and ritual matters, and had dominance in a myriad of other ways — it feels especially important to make sure that we amplify women’s voices both in our day-to-day lives and in our texts and holy celebrations.
And more than that, these women were badass! When I took a closer look at them, I was able to see them not only as autonomous agents — which they were — but that each of them actually models different ways of facing and resisting oppression, based on their own social location, resources, capacity, and personality. When you look at them as a whole, the message is clear: We each have a role to play in the work for a more just world, and that might look like a lot of different things.
So, yeah, this can be a way to bring in not only more women’s voices — and a feminist perspective — into the seder, no matter how traditional or innovative your seder might be, but to remind all of us, everyone of every gender, what might be possible for us today.
What are some of the other feminist rituals you include in your own Passover celebration?
SB: That’s so powerful! There are so many ways we can bring the lessons of these five women into our everyday struggles for justice. I hope that everyone who reads and uses our Feminist Supplement carries these lessons with them.
I include the ritual of filling a Kos Miriam, or Miriam’s Cup, and having it on my table during the seder. Miriam is my favorite biblical heroine (I even have the verse that Debbie Friedman based “Miriam’s Song” off of tattooed on my wrist!) and having the chance to honor her many contributions in Exodus is critical for me. Miriam was brave and smart and without her, the Israelites would never have found their way to freedom, and certainly not with the amount of joy and song and dance she did it with! The back of our Feminist Supplement also includes a ritual prayer to say over the cup that I plan on saying as well.
Like so much of Jewish tradition, it’s even more meaningful when we can bring our full selves, our perspectives, and our passions into the actions we take. We are proud to have created this additional way to celebrate Passover and honor these five incredible women whose stories are just not told enough. We wish everyone a very happy, healthy, and liberatory Passover!