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My First Post!

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

(Footnotes appear as red numbers)


The Book of Exodus begins with Parashat Shemot. In Shemot, the Israelites are multiplying rapidly in Egypt, so much so that the new Pharaoh is worried that they might rise up against the Egyptians. In response, he institutes forced labor for the Israelites, making life bitter for them “with harsh labor at mortar and bricks . . . ” (Exodus 1:14)1. He then summons the Hebrew midwives and commands them: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live,” (Exodus 1:16). It’s clear that Pharaoh is commanding the midwives to kill every male Israelite born. But what is a birthstool, and why does it matter?

The word translated here as “birthstool” is, in Hebrew, avnayim. The suffix -ayim indicates that avnayim is a noun in dual form, meaning there are two of whatever thing it is2. In this case, the word is related to the Hebrew word even, meaning stones, though not necessarily derived directly from it (it may be borrowed from Akkadian, a langugae related to Hebrew, in which the root has the same meaning)2. Thus, the verse could theoretically be translated “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the two stones: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”

Classical Torah commentators and modern scholars alike have tried to tackle this word, and not all agree with its translation to “birthstool”. One theory, supported by Professor John I. Durham3 of Southwestern Baptist Seminary, states that avnayim refers to testicles. You may have thought of this yourself; it’s pretty intuitive. Pharaoh is giving the midwives a command with regards to the sex of the babies, and here we have a pair of “stones”, so he must be referring to testicles. However, there are some other compelling theories, here are a couple.

Often women in ancient Egypt gave birth squatting on a pair of bricks, or birthstool2. The reasons for giving birth this way are twofold. Firstly, it allowed the woman to engage her quads, making childbirth easier. Secondly, bricks carried spiritual significance to the Egyptians and to the ancient Middle East as a whole2. Khnum, in many Egyptian myths, creates humanity from clay (like bricks) on a potter’s wheel2. Meshkenet, the Egyptian goddess of childbirth, was often depicted as a brick with a human head2. In Mesopotamia, the written symbol for childbirth was the same as the symbol for forming something from clay2. There are plenty more examples. Why would the ancient Middle East associate childbirth with bricks?

Enter Jeremiah 18:3. This verse reads, “So I went down to the house of a potter, and found him working at the wheel.” The phrase “at the wheel” is translated from the exact same Hebrew words as “at the birthstool.” These are the only two places in the Hebrew Bible where these Hebrew words are used2. One of them is in a childbirth context, the other a pottery context. In this case, avnayim is translated as “wheel” because ancient potters’ wheels consisted of two interlocking stone sub-wheels4, and because it makes sense contextually. In the context of the Book of Jeremiah, the verse is normally understood as a metaphor for God’s formation of and mastery over Israel. What fascinates me, though, is that pottery is related to brickery in that they both involve hardening clay into a form. What’s even more fascinating is that the Torah details the creation of humans as an act of pottery2. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7), which is essentially what clay is. In fact, the word “formed” (vayitzer) is based upon the same root as the word “potter” (hayotzeir) that is used in Jeremiah2! If we assume that the formation of humans and birth of humans are related, and that pottery and bricks are related, then we can say that the Torah, too, associates bricks with childbirth. But again, why?!

At this point, I’d like to take a step back from the evidence and do some conjecturing. Humans develop in the womb from a malleable, formless piece of matter to a less-malleable piece of matter with a form that allows us to function. This process is fully realized at birth, when the less malleable form emerges from its mother ready to carry out the task it's been designed for, life. Bricks develop from a malleable, formless piece of clay to a significantly less malleable piece of clay with a form that, surprise, allows it to function. So what are we to make of the obvious connection between childbirth and bricks? And how does it pertain to our verse in Shemot?

Before I give my thoughts on those questions, I want to throw in one final wrinkle to our analysis of avnayim. The Talmud records an alternative interpretation of our verses in Exodus and Jeremiah. This interpretation states that because a potter straddles his wheel (avnayim) between his thighs, the avnayim in Exodus must refer to what is between the woman’s thighs when she is giving birth, the baby5.

So, to summarize we have covered three theories about avnayim. Theory one: balls. Theory two: birthstool. Theory three: baby.

I’m torn, and in typical Jewish fashion, I’m not going to settle for one, clean answer. Instead I’ll say this: I think the most basic meaning of avnayim in Exodus is birthstool, the way it’s currently translated. I think in the most basic sense, Pharaoh is telling the midwives to look at the birthstool, see the newborn, identify its sex, and then either kill him or let her live. I also suspect the Torah is using avnayim as a pun. It’s meant to suggest testicles, because that’s what the midwives are looking for to determine whether or not to kill the baby. I also think the association between the baby and the potter’s wheel, which the Talmud presents, is intentional, and perhaps carries the deepest meaning of all. A baby is like a vessel on a potter’s wheel. It is carefully formed by its maker, and it belongs to its maker. Genesis 2:7 suggests that a human’s maker is God, and thus a human’s life belongs to God6. It is not for Pharaoh to decide whether to kill a baby or let it live. The Book of Exodus is often called the story of a birth, the birth of a nation. In Egypt, under the heavy burden of forced brickmaking, the Israelites give birth prolifically, multiplying into a full-fledged nation. The nation of Israel is born through brickmaking! Through labor! Hard labor! Pharaoh’s command to kill the Israelite boys parallels his larger attempt to destroy the nation of Israel through brick making. But his attempt fails; the hard labor in the Egyptian sun solidifies Israel into a unified nation, like a brick in a fiery kiln. However, Israel must be taken out of Egypt so that the labor doesn’t destroy it, just like a brick must be taken out of a kiln so that it doesn’t crack and so that it can serve its purpose. In the end, “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live,” (Exodus 1:17). By fearing7 God, the midwives saved the baby boys from Pharaoh. Just like the midwives, God takes the nation of Israel from slavery and death in Egypt, and Israel emerges a fully formed nation.

I want to know what you guys think about this verse. Comment on this post or make a post in the “Torah” forum to let us know how you think avnayim should be understood. There are a couple theories8 that I didn’t include, and I’ll list them in the footnotes. I’d also love to know whether you agreed with my reasoning. Do you also see the connection between birth and bricks? How about between the midwives saving the baby boys and God saving Israel? Feel free to disagree; I’d love to get your thoughts on this all.

Anyways, this was my first post on the blog. It’s been quite laborious to design the site and get it going (not really, I just used Wix), but I hope that all that labor will be the birth of a thriving community of teens sharing their thoughts on Torah (and other texts). And that’s not a suggestion for you all to start multiplying!


- Robbie Rosen


1 All Biblical references from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published by JPS


2 McGeough, Kevin. “Birth Bricks, Potter’s Wheels, and Exodus 1,16.” Biblica, vol. 87, no. 3, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2006, pp. 305–18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614685.

One such brick was discovered in Egypt, see Wilford, John Noble. “Ancient 'Birth Bricks' Found in Egypt.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Aug. 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/06/science/ancient-birth-bricks-found-in-egypt.html.


3 J. DURHAM, Exodus (WBC 3; Waco, TX 1987) 12


4 Wood, Bryant G. “The Master Potter: Pottery Making in the Bible.” Associates for Biblical Research, 5 July 2011, https://biblearchaeology.org/research/devotionals/3870-the-master-potter-pottery-making-in-the-bible.


5 Sotah 11b:15,The William Davidson Talmud


6 Genesis 2:7 has certainly informed Jewish views on abortion, although it has not led to a general prohibition on it by Orthodox rabbis. One could also argue that a baby is formed by its mother and belongs to its mother. For more, see Daniel Eisenberg, M.D. “Abortion in Jewish Law.” Aish.com, Aish, https://www.aish.com/ci/sam/48954946.html.


7 Fear of God, in the Hebrew Bible, largely means a reverence for and recognition of God’s power, which leads to righteous behavior. See: Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Socken Books, New York, 1996, pp. 25–26.


8 According to the Radak, a medieval French commentator, avnayim refers to the womb. The baby would emerge from the womb either face-up or face-down, and Pharaoh had told the midwives that a face-down baby would be male. Thus they could determine the sex and kill the males before the baby had fully emerged from the womb. This comes from Sotah 11b:16 of The William Davidson Talmud. See: Schiffman, Lawrence H., et al. From Scrolls to Traditions: A Festschrift Honoring Lawrence H Schiffman, Brill, Leiden, 2021, p. 293.

Another theory is that avnayim refers to a bed of brick which a newborn would be rested on post-birth. These brick-beds are attested to. See Footnote 2 for a paper with more on this.

There are a few other views recorded in the Talmud and commentaries, as well as some others supported by modern scholars, but the ones mentioned in this post are the most prominent.



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