Chapter 18 combines six events which happened during different time periods, and part of Chapter 18 is in its chronological place while part is not. There is a full spectrum of variations of this compromise position:22
Almost the entire chapter (18:1-26) transpired before the nation arrived at Mount Sinai, and only the last verse (18:27) regarding Yitro's departure is achronological and happened later.
in his first possibility,23
in his main possibility.24
– This opinion is consistent with Ramban's
view that the Torah is generally in chronological order, with Shadal adding that the single verse achronology of Yitro's departure is caused by a desire to complete the story.25
This position can also readily explain why Chapter 18 appears in its place despite the fact that it interrupts a unit detailing the nation's sojourns from Yam Suf to Sinai (see Context
Yitro at Sinai
– Ramban 18:1 suggests that Yitro came to Mount Sinai because he knew from Moshe about the impending revelation.26
For this reason, Ramban (in contrast to the Pesikta et al.) postpones Yitro's departure until after the Decalogue and posits that there is a limited achronology with regard to this one verse.
"The statutes of God and His laws"
(18:16) – Shadal says that this verse speaks of commandments that were given to Moshe on an ad hoc basis ("להוראת שעה") before the revelation at Sinai. See Statutes Before Sinai
and Mitzvot at Marah
Shemot 18 and Devarim 1
– Ramban (Shemot 18:1, Devarim 1:9,18) maintains that both stories describe the same appointment of judges – see here
, and thus the account in Devarim must also be speaking about the first year. However, the context in Devarim 1 is the events of the second year. Ramban therefore needs to explain that the phrase "at that time" in Devarim 1:9 does not imply that the judicial appointments occurred at the same time as the rest of the events of that chapter, but rather a year prior to them.27
Ramban (Devarim 1:18) also encounters difficulties in trying to explain why Devarim 1 makes no mention of Yitro. In contrast, Shadal does not address the relationship between the story here and in Devarim, and he could maintain that Devarim 1 is a retelling, not of the story of Shemot 18, but rather of the story in Bemidbar 11.28
Chovav in Bemidbar 10
– Ramban and Shadal both agree that Yitro and Chovav are the same person, but they disagree as to how many visits he made and what ultimately became of him. Ramban thinks that Yitro converted,29
and he consequently assumes30
that Yitro/Chovav acceded to Moshe's request to remain with the Children of Israel (see Did Yitro Ever Return
). Therefore, Ramban says that Yitro traveled back and forth,31
going home in the first year to convert his family,32
but returning in the second year and ultimately remaining with the nation. According to Shadal, however, Yitro/Chovav arrived in the first year, remained until the second year but did not convert (see here
), and left when the Children of Israel left the area of Mount Sinai33
to begin their journey to the land of Israel. According to him, Shemot 18:27 describes the same departure of Yitro which happened only in Bemidbar 10:29, in the second year.
" – Shadal explains that this refers to partaking from the sacrifices mentioned at the beginning of the verse.
"At God's mountain"
(18:5) – According to Ramban, this phrase does not describe where the nation was camped, but rather where Yitro initially stopped on his way to visit Moshe.34
From there he sent messengers to Rephidim to inform Moshe of his imminent arrival. Moshe then traveled to Mount Sinai to greet him, and they apparently returned together to Rephidim where Yitro observed Moshe judging the people – see Ramban Shemot 17:5 and 18:1 that Rephidim and Mount Sinai were only a short distance apart.35
Shadal does not explicitly address the contradiction between "at God's mountain" in 18:5 and the nation arriving only in verse 19:2.
Aharon and Chur's task – Ramban Shemot 24:14 explains that when Moshe ascended Mount Sinai, Aharon and Chur were assigned to deal only with the matters that were too difficult for the regular judges. This is consistent with his approach that judges were appointed already before the Decalogue (cf. Ibn Ezra above and Abarbanel below).
Yitro arrived and also gave his advice (18:1-23) before the people came to Mount Sinai, but Moshe appointed the judges and Yitro departed (18:24-27) only in the second year when they left Mount Sinai.
Why did Moshe need Yitro's advice
– Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel attempt to address the question of why Moshe on his own had not already implemented Yitro's plan. By assigning the advice and its eventual implementation to two different time periods, they are able to explain that the timing was not yet ripe for Yitro's plan.36
This allows them to posit that Moshe was always planning to appoint judges, but that it was first necessary for the people to receive the laws.37
"At God's mountain"
(18:5) – According to Abarbanel, even though some of the people were still at Rephidim until Chapter 19, Moshe and part of the nation38
were at Mount Sinai already from Chapter 17 onwards.39
Abarbanel also notes that Hashem had instructed Moshe to draw water from the rock at Horev in 17:6, and that Sinai was the "hill" (17:9) where Moshe sat during the battle with Amalek (like Ibn Ezra there). Thus, we can readily understand why in 18:5 Yitro came to "where he (Moshe) was encamped, at God's mountain." Abarbanel adds that we should not be surprised that the Torah calls Mount Sinai "God's mountain" even before the Decalogue (see also Shemot 3:1), because the Torah uses the names by which places were later known ("על שם סופו"). This suggestion appears already in Sifre Devarim 22 (cf. Targum Onkelos Shemot 3:1, 18:5). Alternatively, R. D"Z Hoffmann 18:5 cites an opinion that "God's mountain" refers not to Mount Sinai, but rather to the mountain upon which Hashem appeared and provided water in Shemot 17:6.40
" – Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel explain these words as in front of the altar which Moshe had built. Abarbanel identifies this altar as the one Moshe built at the culmination of the battle with Amalek in 17:15.
"The statutes of God and His laws"
(18:16) – Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel both explain that these refer to commandments given at Mara, however they diverge as to the relationship between these and the laws of Parashat Mishpatim. According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, the people only received some basic civil laws at Mara, and therefore Moshe needed to adjudicate every single dispute until the people received the rest of the laws in Parashat Mishpatim. In contrast, Abarbanel posits that Moshe received all of civil law at Mara, but that it was not until Parashat Mishpatim, that Moshe was instructed to transmit the laws to the people, and thus in the meantime Moshe needed to judge every case. Abarbanel does not explain why Moshe could not have instructed the people already at Mara, and thereby have avoided the unmanageable workload. For more, see Statutes Before Sinai
and Mitzvot at Marah
Shemot 18 and Devarim 1
– All of the above commentators maintain that the stories of the appointment of judges in Shemot 18 and Devarim 1 are one and the same event which occurred in the second year. This both matches the context of Devarim 1, and squares nicely with the verbatim parallels between Shemot 18 and Devarim 1 – see Moshe's Assistants
. However, as a result, this position must grapple with the question of why Moshe would have waited until the second year to appoint the judges, if the laws were already transmitted to the people in the first year.41
Alternatively, a variation of this approach could avoid this problem by dating the implementation of Yitro's advice to later in the first year (immediately after the receipt of the laws of Parashat Mishpatim) and saying that Devarim 1 incorporates flashbacks to the first year.
Relationship to Bemidbar 11
– Given their dating of Shemot 18:24-26 to the second year, these commentators could go one step further and integrate the judicial and administrative appointments of Shemot 18, Bemidbar 11, and Devarim 1 into one story. See Moshe's Assistants
for further analysis.
Aharon and Chur's task – Abarbanel Shemot 24:14 proposes that when Moshe was away on Mount Sinai, there was a need for a two-tierred system. The responsibility for judging the simple matters (in place of Moshe) was given to the seventy elders, while the difficult cases were assigned to Aharon and Chur. This is consistent with his position that permanent judges were not appointed until the second year (cf. Ramban and Ibn Ezra above).
Chovav in Bemidbar 10 – This position maintains that Yitro came in the first year but departed only in the second year, and Bemidbar 10 is speaking about the same departure of Yitro mentioned in the final verse of our chapter.
– Despite Moshe's implementation and Yitro's departure taking place only after the Decalogue, they are recorded here in order to complete the story. See here
for other examples.
Moshe's family at Sinai – According to the Akeidat Yitzchak it is inconceivable that Moshe's wife and sons would not have been present for the revelation at Mount Sinai (cf. Tur and Tosafists above).
Yitro arrived and offered sacrifices (18:1-12) before the Decalogue, but he gave his advice (18:13-27) only afterwards.
"The statutes of God and His laws"
(18:16) – these words present no problem for this position since Yitro's advice takes place after the commandments were given. For more, see Statutes Before Sinai
Chronology – The Tosafists in Avodah Zarah 24b "Yitro" explain that the Torah places the second half of the chapter achronologically in order to complete the Yitro unit (see the second possibility in Ramban 18:12 below who explains similarly).
This option also appears to be the likely reconstruction of Rashi's position
. In explaining Moshe's judging of the people "on the next day" (18:13), Rashi cites a Sifre (a reference to our Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Yitro Amalek 2) that this was the day after Yom HaKippurim.42
From here it is clear that Rashi is of the opinion that the second half of Chapter 18 occurred after the Decalogue.43
If Yitro observed Moshe on the day after Yom HaKippurim, one can readily understand that Moshe had a huge backlog
of cases to judge because he had been away on Mount Sinai for the previous four months. See Why So Many Litigants
Rashi's position regarding the first half of Chapter 18 is somewhat ambiguous. Rashi on 18:1 and 18:8 presents the opinion in the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael that the events which Yitro heard about and which Moshe recounted to him were only the ones which occurred before the revelation at Sinai.44
It would appear from here that Rashi is taking the position that Yitro arrived before the Decalogue, and that the reason Yitro was not told about the Decalogue was that it had not yet happened.45
"On the next day"(18:13) – If Rashi holds that the first half of Chapter 18 took place before the Decalogue, then he is in effect saying that there is a disconnect between the two halves of Chapter 18, and "it happened on the next day" in 18:13 cannot mean that Moshe judged the people on the very next day after the events of 18:1-12. And, in fact, Rashi says that this phrase refers to "the next day after Moshe's descent from the mountain," and not to the day after the meal described in 18:12. See also Ramban who, in reinterpreting the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael, argues that it is impossible to say that 18:13 took place on the day after Yom HaKippurim if it were also the day after the events of the previous verses, because then the meal in 18:12 on the day before would have violated the prohibition of eating on Yom HaKippurim (cf. Tosafot HaShalem 18:13:6).
R. Eliyahu Mizrachi disagrees with Ramban. He argues that nothing prevented having a meal on Yom HaKippurim, as the commandment to fast had not yet been received. He also points out that while "מחר" could refer to any time in the future, "ממחרת" always refers to the very next day. Accordingly, Rashi could maintain that both halves of Chapter 18 took place after the Decalogue, and that 18:13 took place on the day after the feast in 18:12 which was on Yom HaKippurim. This is supported by Rashi's mention of the Torah already in his interpretation of 18:9 (see note above). See also Minchah Belulah.
Chovav in Bemidbar 10 – Rashi Shemot 18:13 asserts both that Yitro and Chovav are one and the same, and also that there is no hint that Yitro traveled back and forth. Thus, he brings this as a proof that the departures of Yitro in Shemot 18 and Chovav in Bemidbar 10 must be referring to the same event which took place in the second year.
Aharon and Chur's task
– Rashi Shemot 24:14 explains that Aharon, Chur, and the seventy elders judged the people while Moshe was on Mt. Sinai. This is in accordance with his view that Yitro's advice was implemented only in the second year. Similarly, Rashi Shemot 18:18 (Cf. Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael) implies that Yitro's judges were intended to supplement the existing system which already included Aharon, Chur, and the seventy elders.46
Yitro arrived (18:1-11) before the revelation at Sinai, but he brought sacrifices and gave his advice (18:12-27) only afterwards.
Sacrifices before Sinai – This suggestion is Ramban's attempt to reconcile his own favored position that Yitro arrived before the Decalogue with the opinion in Bavli Zevachim 116a that "peace offerings" (שלמים) were not offered before the Decalogue.
Did Yitro convert?
According to Ramban, Yitro converted
, and verse 12 speaks of his conversion ceremony sacrifices.
Chronology – Ramban explains that the Torah places the second half of the chapter achronologically in order to complete the Yitro unit (see the Tosafists above who explain similarly).
Yitro at Sinai
– See above for Ramban's position that Yitro came to Mount Sinai because he knew about the upcoming revelation. Similarly, the Minchah Belulah 18:5 states explicitly that Yitro's purpose in coming was to be present for the revelation, and thus he brought his own wife and children along, in addition to Zipporah and her sons (see here
In 18:13, he explains, like R"E Mizrachi, that Yitro's sacrifices and the meal took place on Yom HaKippurim, and that there was no fast that year because they received the second set of tablets (similar to the Yom HaKippurim in the year Shelomo built the Temple). The Minchah Belulah Bemidbar 10:29 identifies Yitro with Chovav but it is not clear if he thinks that Yitro stayed until the second year or made two trips.49
"On the next day"(18:13) – This possibility must claim that there is a long interim period between Yitro's reunion with Moshe and his sacrifices. However, the Torah gives no indication of such, and the words "And it happened on the next day" in verse 13 would seem to imply that the prior events all occurred on the same day. See above that R. Saadia explicitly disagrees with this possibility of Ramban.
Yitro heard the news of the Exodus (18:1) before the revelation at Mount Sinai, but he arrived at the camp only afterwards.
A possibility raised by Ramban
This position is a variation of the opinion of Rashbam / R. Elazar HaModai in the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael. According to Ramban, this variation has the advantage of being able to explain why the Torah doesn't say that Yitro heard already in Midyan about the revelation at Sinai (see above for alternative explanations).
– According to this, the first verse of the chapter is in chronological order
, and the rest of the chapter appears achronologically in order to complete the story.51
An alternative split between hearing the news and the rest of the chapter could be that Yitro heard the news of the Exodus before the battle with Amalek, but arrived only after the battle. In this case, the chronological place of 18:1 would be before Chapter 17, and perhaps even before Chapter 16.