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"Yitro, the Pious Gentile"

  • Rav Avi Baumol






"Yitro, The Pious Gentile"


by 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[1]  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,[2] 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),[3] Rashi[4] (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"[5] (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 textual unity.[6]


            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.[7]  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.[8]


            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 His religion.


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 wrote:


"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?"[9]


            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.[10]  Abrabanel, however, rejects this idea, calling it a 'lie.'[11] 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[12] 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 day?'" (14)


Moses responds:


(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."


            Yitro retorts:


(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 this thing..."


            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[13].  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."[14]


            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,[15] 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.[16]


            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 political level.[17]


            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 book.

[1] There seems to be an unusual interest in the specific motivation for his coming.  The Torah refers in the first pasuk to the exodus from Egypt, while in the subsequent pesukim there are remnants of the other miracles.  Chazal are troubled by the ambiguity on the one hand and an excess of sources on the other.

[2] See Talmud Zevachim 116a.

[3] Although in the notes of the Torat Chaim, it is brought down that Rav Avraham the son of the Rambam quotes Rav Sa'adia as saying the opposite.

[4] This is a source of debate in the commentaries.  Shadal seems to be of the opinion that Rashi did not take a position, while others maintain he believed Yitro came before.

[5] See Talmud Pesachim 6b.

[6] An explanation of this might relate to the idea that the general principles of the Torah were to be handed down along with the most specific day-to-day detailed mitzvot, saying it's a package deal.  Any interruption might disunite the intentional cohesiveness of the two units.

[7] See Shadal page 305, where he lists many examples of this phenomenon.

[8] Sforno seems to have a middle approach where Yitro himself stayed in his homeland but his children went on with the Israelite camp.  See inside.

[9] Abrabanel on the Torah chapter 18 question 5.

[10] See Ralbag purpose #15 after his commentary on chapter18.

[11] Abrabanel et al.

[12] The word "davar" - translated here as "thing" - is very ambiguous and is used ten times in this sequence.  Cassuto hints that it is a prelude to the ten "devarim" which will be coming up shortly.

[13] Rav Soloveitchik z"l developed this idea in a lecture on parashat Beha'alotkha.

[14] I should note that Abrabanel does say that Moses accepts the advice but wasn’t going to institute the judges at this point, because it would be impractical; he intended to institute them after Matan Torah.

[15] Although it is Re'uel who is mentioned there, see Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Rashi there.

[16] See parashat Behaalotkha 10:31.

[17] See Bemidbar 10:31.