Hearing and Understanding

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Parashat Yitro 5772


Moshe’s first encounter with Yitro’s family was at a well. Yitro’s daughters took care of his flocks. Moshe intervened when other shepherds would not let them water their flock.

When Yitro heard what had happened, he invited Moshe to stay with them. This was good for Moshe since he was a fugitive from Paro. Moshe married Yitro’s daughter Tzipporah and they had two sons.

When God appointed Moshe to take the Jews out of Egypt, Tzipporah stayed with her father.

In this week’s parasha Yitro is now bringing her back to Moshe.

Here is the translation from Judaica Press of Shemot 18:1-12:

1 Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.

2 So Moses’ father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away,

3 and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, because he [Moses] said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land,”

4 and one who was named Eliezer, because [Moses said,] “The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword.”

5 Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses’] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God.

6 And he said to Moses, “I, Jethro, your father in law, am coming to you, and [so is] your wife and her two sons with her.”

7 So Moses went out toward Jethro, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they greeted one another, and they entered the tent.

8 Moses told his father in law [about] all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, [and about] all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and [that] the Lord had saved them.

9 Jethro was happy about all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians.

10 [Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians.

11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.”

12 Then Moses’ father in law, Jethro, sacrificed burnt offering[s] and [peace] offerings to God, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moses’ father in law before God.

Some Answers

Shemot 18:1 What did Yitro hear?

The question seems silly. The verse tells us that he heard what God had done for the Jewish people.

Rashi asks, “What news did he hear that he came?”

The question isn’t what did he hear, but of the things he heard which one caused him to act?

In the Gemara that is the basis for Rashi’s comment, three Tannaim give different answers:

  • Rabbi Eleazar says he heard about the splitting of the sea (Shemot 14:15-31).
  • Rabbi Yehoshua says he heard about the war with Amalek (Shemot 17:8-13).
  • Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin says he heard about the giving of the Torah (Shemot 19:16-20:18).

It seems to me that these Tannaim disagree about what was Yitro’s underlying motivation.

The splitting of the sea was the culmination of the miracles and plagues that Hashem did in Egypt. The plagues demonstrated Hashem’s control over every aspect of creation and over every one of Egypt’s gods. We know from verse 11 in our section that Yitro was a spiritual seeker. He came to the wilderness to learn more this God Who destroys idols.

The war with Amalek was a military victory against a dangerous enemy. It could be that Yitro wanted to be associated with a nation that clearly had God on their side and possessed a powerful army.

The giving of the Torah is, so to speak, a spiritual event. Yitro could have been impressed by the fact that God was now revealing to the Jews and to the world how they could properly serve Him.

When Rashi explains this verse, he does not quote all three of the opinions in the Gemara. Here is Rashi (Judaica Press translation):

Now…Jethro…heard – What news did he hear that he came? The splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek.

Why does Rashi omit the opinion that Yitro heard about the giving of the Torah?

Rabbi Uziel Milevsky in Ner Uziel explains that a person can only be accepted as a convert if they are converting for the proper motivations. If a person wants to convert because of economic or political gains, they are not accepted.

The reigns of King David and his son Shlomo were years of great prosperity for the Jewish people. At that time no converts were accepted. It was impossible to determine if their motivations were proper.

Rabbi Milevsky says that Yitro wanted to come and convert as soon as he heard about the splitting of the sea. But he realized that some might question his sincerity.

When he heard about the war with Amalek, then he came. Granted, the Jews won that war. Nonetheless, when the entire world was in awe of God and the Jewish people, Amalek brazenly attacked. Amalek showed that the Jews were vulnerable and not invincible.

Yitro came after that war when his own sincere motivations would not be doubted.


Shemot 18:3, 5 and 6

Here’s a question I didn’t ask earlier in the week, because I didn’t notice it until yesterday. 🙂

Moshe had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

Here in verse 3 they are called “her (Tzipporah’s) sons.” But in verse 5 they are called “his sons.”

Why the difference?

One commentator (sorry, but I can’t find it now) said that these are Yitro’s sons. But back in Chapter 2 we were told that Yitro had seven daughters. No mention of sons.

This commentator explains that because Yitro helped Moshe he was later blessed with sons. Thus, the verse is telling us that Yitro took this opportunity to bring his entire family with him.

This explanation fits well with the words, but it does mean that we have to invent sons that we never knew about.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch provides an explanation that fits smoothly with the words and teaches a lesson in care and consideration.

Why didn’t Tzipporah and the kids go with Moshe into Egypt?

They started the journey together, but Moshe realized that it was bad idea to take the whole family into Egypt. Better that he should be unencumbered by family responsibilities at that time.

Fast forward. The Jews have left Egypt and Yitro is eager to join up with them. But he is not sure whether Moshe is ready to have the whole family with him yet.

Verses 3 and 6 present the situation from Yitro’s perspective. He has come with Tzipporah and her children. She is his daughter, and Yitro is willing to continue caring for her and her children, if that is what is best.

Verse 5 presents the situation from Moshe’s perspective. They are Moshe’s sons and Moshe’s wife and he is ready and happy to be reunited with them.


Shemot 18:7 Who bowed to who? 

The Judaica Press translation clearly states that Moshe bowed to Yitro. However, the Hebrew could be understood to say that Yitro bowed to Moshe.

The commentators that I looked at are unanimous that Moshe bowed to Yitro.

Here is how Rashi puts it (Judaica Press translation):

prostrated himself and kissed him – I do not know who prostrated himself to whom. [But] when it says, “one another,” who is called “a man”? This is Moses, as it is said: “But the man Moses” (Bamidbar 12:3).

Since Moshe is called “man (ish)” in another verse, Rashi concludes that the use of the same word here tells us that Moshe bowed.

The commentators on Rashi quickly point out that many people, including Yitro are called “man (ish).” So how does that word prove anything?

They solve the problem by looking at the whole verse from Bamidbar 12:3:

Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.

It’s not just that Moshe is called “man,” it’s the fact that he was exceedingly humble. He is the one who would be quick to bow and honor another person.

But now we have another problem. Moshe has the status of a king. We are taught in the Gemara Kiddushin 32b that a Jewish king is not allowed to waive his own honor.

How could Moshe bow? It’s not consistent with the king’s honor for him to bow to anyone else.

There is another principle at work here. Moshe owed a debt of gratitude to Yitro. Many years before Yitro had taken in Moshe when he was fleeing from Paro. He let Moshe marry his daughter.

Moshe bowed to Yitro as an expression of his profound gratitude towards his father-in-law. As king Moshe can’t waive his honor. But as a person he must express gratitude to those who have done good to him. The debt of gratitude takes precedence over the king’s honor, so Moshe bowed to Yitro.


Your Turn

Please share your suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture credit flickr.



3 thoughts on “Hearing and Understanding”

  1. Shemot 18:7 Who bowed to who?

    I believe that the Torah is teaching us some important lessons. 1. Torah is teaching that no matter who you are, you can learn something from everyone, if you listen. 2. Torah is teaching that humility is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. 3. And, Torah is teaching that “Honor thy father & thy mother” can be taken in a literal sense or in a figurative sense to refer to all our elders. Anyway that’s my opinion.

    • David:
      Thanks for your thoughts.
      I think your points are learned from how Moshe Rabbeinu treated Yitro and how he listened to him the next day.
      A lot of us could have “bowed down” to a person one day but then have been very upset when they corrected us the next day. But Moshe Rabbeinu was not upset with Yitro’s correction but even implemented it!

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