INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
"Yitro, The Pious Gentile"
Rabbi Avi Baumol
"And Yitro, the Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all the
wonderful things that Elokim had
done to Moses and Israel His people..." (18:1).
Parashat Yitro begins with an emotional reunion between Moses and Yitro. The motivation behind this meeting
seems to be the news of God's great miracles in Egypt Along with him he brings Moses's wife
and children, though they are not mentioned in the parasha other than in the
introduction. The main focus, then,
rests on these two great men; Moses and his father-in-law.
These two remarkable personalities, each a leader of his own nation,
meet, and disagree in this story.
Although there is disagreement, there is a seemingly happy reunion between Moses
and his family. Yet, the story does
not end with the reunion; the Torah chooses to describe the scenario which took
place the next day - that of the way Moses judged his nation and the advice
which Yitro offered.
Who was Yitro? What was his
motive for coming to the Israelite nation?
When did this meeting take place?
What is the nature of the advice he gave Moses? These are some of the questions I
would like to address in this article.
Through an analysis of the various verses and their commentaries we will
paint a portrait (or two) of Yitro, and understand the effect he had on his
son-in-law, Moses, and the rest of the nation of Israel.
I. Yitro: Before or After?
"And Yitro, the Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all the
wonderful things..." (18:1).
Did Yitro come to visit Moses before the giving of the Torah or
afterwards? This question has
puzzled many of the great commentators dating back to the Tannaim. According to the gemara, the issue of when
he came is intertwined with which of God's miracles Yitro had heard. Rav Yehoshua states that he heard
about the victory over Amalek - and therefore he came before Har Sinai (since
had he come afterwards, that would have been the 'great event' that he heard);
Rav Elazar felt that he heard the story of the giving of the Torah; therefore,
he came subsequent to the event.
If these two issues are connected - that of when he came with that of
what he heard - it can be assumed that Yitro would have been most impressed by
the spiritual aspect of the giving of the Torah, rather than the physical
miraculous aspect of Amalek or the splitting of the sea. If these two issues are not
connected, it is unclear which act might have given Yitro a more sensational
impression; the physical miracles or the spiritual giving of the Torah.
Among the classical commentators, Rav Sa'adia Gaon (Persia, 892-942), Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben
Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), and Don Isaac Abrabanel (Spain, 1437-1508),
take the position that Yitro came before the giving of the Torah, while Rashbam
(Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160), Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence,
1160-1235), and Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167), assert that
he came afterwards. What are some of
the advantages and disadvantages of each side's argument?
An essential issue in biblical exegesis concerns whether the Torah is
bound to chronological unity. Do we
look at the Torah in a sequential framework - each story occurring after the
next, or do we say that the Torah is not necessarily a timeline. This concept is called "ein mukdam
u-me'uchar ba-Torah" (there is no
early and later in the Torah). This
age-old debate has been discussed for centuries.
The notion that Yitro came before Matan Torah relies on the theory that
there is a steady chronology in the Torah and if it was written that he came
beforehand, then he did. Those who
feel that Yitro came after the giving of the Torah (Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, etc.)
must explain the need for the Torah to mention his visit here rather than in its
correct chronological place. Ibn
Ezra opts for thematic unity rather than chronological order. He claims that there was a need to
connect his words of praise about the victory over Amalek with the story of the
victory itself which ends the preceding parasha.
The Rashbam also deals with thematic unity but he gives a different
reason for placing the Yitro story here.
Rather than focus on Yitro as the reason for the placement of this story,
he focuses on the thematic unity of the remaining narrative. The Yitro episode appears here so as
not to interfere with the flow of the mitzvot section which comes after the
narrative concerning Yitro.
According to the Rashbam, the significance of continuity in the giving of the
Torah and the commanding of mitzvot outweighs the importance of maintaining
Yet a third approach is brought by Shadal
(Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865),
in the name of many other commentators.
He claims that the Torah sometimes begins with a general overview of the
event before getting into the specifics. All of these positions aim to relieve
the disruption in the textual flow that Yitro coming after Matan Torah imparts.
On the other hand, there are various pesukim which raise questions with
the assertion that Yitro came before Matan Torah.
For example: When Moses responds to Yitro's queries, he states that the
people come to him to learn "the laws of God and His Torah." If the Torah was not given yet, what
was Moses teaching his people?
Furthermore, this episode is recalled by Moses in Sefer Devarim, where the story
there seems to take place after Matan Torah.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) addresses this
problem and attempts a third approach in resolving the issue. He claims that in reality Yitro came
before AND AFTER Matan Torah.
He came twice, yet the Torah records it only once. Why did he come twice? The midrash discusses a fundamental
question about Yitro - did he convert to Judaism?
On the verse "And Moses sent Yitro back to his land," Rashi quotes the
Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ('Tannaitic halakhic midrash' of the
school of Rabbi Akiva on the book of Exodus) that says Yitro went back to
convert his family. Others argue
that his return to his land and to his people was final. The Ramban's reasoning fits in well
with the notion that Yitro converted, went home to convert his family, and then
returned after the giving of the Torah.
The debate over whether Yitro converted is the source of two texts from
the time of the gemara. The gemara
in Zevachim 116 asks the question "what did Yitro hear to convince him to come
and convert?" Rashi had a
slightly different reading of the gemara - "what did Yitro hear to convince him
to come?" From this gemara we see
that the question addressed is, did Yitro just come, or did he come to convert?
To sum up what has been discussed: We started by asking whether Yitro
came before Matan Torah or afterwards.
This question was directly linked to the issue of what Yitro heard; the
splitting of the sea or the giving of the Torah.
We saw various approaches in the Rishonim as to whether he came before or
after. Finally, we asked whether he
converted or not.
To piece together his personality perhaps we can tie in all three aspects
in the story. We can conjure up two
distinct Yitro personalities.
Yitro #1: He came to Moses as a bystander/father-in-law. He heard about the great physical
miracles his son-in-law experienced.
He had no intention of converting to his son-in-law's religion but he did feel
the need to praise Moses' God (and then to give advice). After praising God, he went home.
Yitro 2: He was very awestruck by both the physically miraculous events he had
heard about (such as the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek), but he
was more struck by the spiritual energy that was apparent throughout the
countries as the sounds and signs of God rested on Mount Sinai. Yitro, the great priest of Midian,
who had tried (according to Chazal) all the different types of avoda zara, had
finally acknowledged that "God is greater than all the elohims." Furthermore, Yitro was ready to act
on that personal revelation.
According to this assumption, Yitro came after Matan Torah and planned to stay
and become a part of the Jewish people.
Following his conversion, Yitro went back to his land to promote God and
II. The Next Day
With the understanding of the two different perceptions of Yitro, we can
proceed to the next section of the narrative:
(18:13)"And it was on the next day, and Moses sat to judge the nation. And the nation stood upon Moses from
morning to evening."
The next day, Moses goes to work; Yitro observes:
(18:14) "And the father-in-law of Moses saw all that he was doing to the nation,
and he said 'what is this thing that you are doing? Why do you sit by yourself and the
entire nation stands upon you from morning to evening?'"
After this observation, Yitro advises Moses that if he single-handedly
has to judge the entire nation, the job will become too difficult for one man
alone. Instead, a system of
hierarchy needs to be developed - such a system of government was possibly used
in Midian, and it troubled Yitro to see this inefficient system where the leader
of the entire nation sits by himself every day and answers all the questions of
the entire nation.
This advice from Yitro was indeed very logical - but why did Moses not
think of this system on his own? And
if Moses had not thought of it and God had wanted this hierarchy, wouldn't God
have dictated it to Moses? Are we to
assume that the only person with any understanding of how to effectively judge
the nation was Yitro?
Don Isaac Abrabanel asked this question in his commentary on the Torah. In his commentary the Abrabanel
"Yitro's words were true and worthy, in fact they were quite simple, for it is
fiery advice to let someone sit by himself day and night to judge thousands. How could Moses and all the elders of
Israel not have given thought to this simple appointment of judges?"
In truth, some commentators do accept the notion that this expeditious
approach to judging the nation eluded Moses, and upon hearing Yitro's advice, he
accepted it. Abrabanel, however, rejects this
idea, calling it a 'lie.' How, then, can
we explain the fact that Moses seemingly (or at least according to Yitro) was on
the verge of a breakdown?
An answer can be suggested from a further examination of the pesukim and
some help from other commentators:
"...And Yitro said: 'What is this thing that you are
doing to the people? Why do you sit
by yourself and have the whole nation standing (and waiting) for you the entire
(15) " Because the nation comes to me [through me] to seek God."
(16A) "If they will have something between them, they will come to me and I will
judge them man to his friend."
(16B) "And I will teach them the laws of God and His Torah."
(17) "You cannot do it, for the job is too demanding. You cannot do it on your own."
Yitro then proceeds to give his own advice to Moses...
The dialogue between the two men seems to run on two different planes,
with Yitro speaking to Moses and Moses responding, but not directly to Yitro's
previous statement. Yitro asked why
Moses sits ALONE, while Moses answers why the entire nation comes to him. Alternatively, Moses states the
purpose for why he sits there and Yitro, instead of responding to that issue,
bluntly exclaims "you will fall, for the job entails too much."
Let me preface this with a quote from Shadal:
"There is no doubt that had [Moses] started his
leadership on a straight path and had not been seen by the nation,
hearing their words from elder to minor, the heart of the nation would not have
drawn close to him and they would not have accepted his laws and mitzvot. Therefore, God did not tell him to do
Yitro asks Moses why he sits alone to judge the entire nation; Moses
answers that they come to him "to seek God."
Moses saw himself not only as political leader/judge but also as teacher
and Rabbi. First and foremost, they came to
him/through him, to seek God.
Through Moses the nation comes to believe in God, learn His laws, and follow in
His ways. Shadal claims that without this intense initial connection the vital
human link to the other-worldliness of God would never have been formed.
This disagreement between Moses and Yitro might be the point of
contention. What Yitro saw as a
system failure, Moses regarded as an opportunity to spiritually bond with his
people. The words of Abrabanel are
poignant when he says:
"It seems that the words of Yitro are correct on a policy level, but the actions
of Moses prove right on a spiritual level."
From all that has been written one might get the impression that Yitro
was a negative force in the Israelite camp, and that his advice was a waste of
words. This is untrue. The fact is that Yitro was a great
man, and the positive presentation of him in the Torah is very valid. Yitro's kindness which he showed
Moses in parashat Shemot, and the
wonderful praises he afforded the God of the Israelites in our parasha
re-inforce this idea. We also note
the way Moses relates to him on a personal level, as well as a political one.
The question I have tried to deal with here is whether Yitro's advice was
new to Moses or was this idea well-known in the camp, and for reasons Yitro
could not have been aware of, they were not implemented.
These 'spiritual reasons' which he might not have been concerned with,
brings us back to our two distinct representations of Yitro. Yitro #1, the one who was impressed
by the physical miracles and had no interest in converting to Moses' religion,
might have been unaware of the other factors in Moses' decision.
Yitro #2, however, who was deeply moved by the incident of Har Sinai and
had converted to Judaism may have had more of an understanding of the external
factors which went into Moses' decision making process. Nevertheless, the notion of Moses as
the leader/teacher/prophet for the people outweighed the efficiency aspect of
the government at that time.
Two distinct personalities of Yitro have been presented in this article. Each one is supported by differing
views on when he came to his son-in-law, what he heard, and what his intentions
were in giving Moses advice. Moses
honored and respected his father-in-law, which could account for his
wholehearted acceptance of the advice.
Moses also asked Yitro to stay in the camp and help him lead on a
As an advisor to the national religious affairs of the Israelite nation,
Yitro might have overstepped his bounds.
As a pious Gentile praising the God of Moses, or as a sincere convert
ready to accept the yoke of God's word, Yitro merited a worthy position in God's