Ilana Sober Elzufon

Miryam and Bitya

What really happened when the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe and found a Hebrew baby in a basket on the Nile? A suggestion (Shemot)
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Moses in the Bullrushes, 1921, oil on wood panel, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins, 1983.95.197 (Detail)

Yocheved’s baby is 3 months old, and she can no longer conceal him. Any day now, the Egyptians will hear him crying. She’s seen it happen with her neighbors. They will barge into the house. They will tear him from her arms, and, laughing, throw him into the mighty Nile.

So she prepares a waterproof basket, nurses the baby to sleep, places him inside on a blanket, and walks down to the river. She kisses the baby, gazes at him one last time, covers the basket, and sets it down in the reeds. As she turns to leave, she sees that Miryam, her eldest child, 5 years old, has followed her to the river.

Yocheved walks home, bereft. Miryam stations herself at a distance to know what will happen to her baby brother. Did Yocheved entrust her with this task? Did Miryam take it upon herself, refusing to go home with her mother?

Miryam waits. She hears the laughter of young women approaching, hears them chattering in Egyptian, sees the glint of gold on a royal headdress. This can only be the daughter of Pharaoh, the cruel oppressor. Miryam prays with all her heart that the baby will not cry, that the basket will stay hidden until someone more sympathetic comes along.

But Pharaoh’s daughter, Bitya, has noticed the basket and sends her maidservant to fetch it. Miryam, hidden in the reeds, watches Bitya open the basket and sees her royal face soften in pity as she realizes: “This is one of the Hebrew children.”

The baby cries. He is hungry, his diaper is wet, the light coming into the basket has startled him. Bitya looks at his round face, his fine dark hair, his tiny fingers. He is a beautiful baby. She wishes, for a moment, that she could pick him up, hold him, comfort him. It is really so sad, the situation with the Hebrews. But there is nothing to be done about it.

Bitya is about to close the basket and continue on her way to bathe, when she hears a voice beside her.

“Shall I go and call you a nursing woman from among the Hebrews, and she will nurse the child for you?”

The speaker is a slightly muddy little girl, dressed like a Hebrew. She speaks respectfully but boldly to the princess. And she seems to be convinced that Bitya has decided to care for the baby in the basket.

“Go,” Bitya says to Miryam.

What does Bitya mean, when she says “go”? She might just be telling Miryam to go away, to leave her alone. She might not be entirely sure what she means. But Miryam chooses to understand that single word as an acceptance of her offer to find a wet nurse. The little girl smiles and runs off.

When she returns a few minutes later, with a woman who is clearly her mother, Bitya is holding the baby from the basket. She bounces him gently and he calms down, resting his head on her shoulder. He is so sweet, so little. She loves him already. The wet nurse holds out her arms, and Bitya tells her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will give your payment.”

Bitya stands by the river and watches Yocheved carry the baby back towards the Hebrew settlement, with Miryam at her side. She feels a sudden elation. She did not have to harden her heart, to close the basket and walk away. The baby will live, and he will become her child. “I have drawn him from the water,” she says to herself.

About the Author
Ilana Sober Elzufon is a Yoetzet Halacha in Yerushalayim, and a writer and editor for Nishmat's Yoatzot Halacha websites ( and for Deracheha (
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