Did Moshe Need Yitro's Advice?

Exegetical Approaches


The Akeidat Yitzchak notes that in trying to understand this story, one is caught between a rock and a hard place. If Yitro's plan was an obvious and appropriate corrective for a difficult situation, then Moshe looks foolish for not solving the problem on his own. On the other hand, if Yitro's plan was unhelpful or unnecessary, then why would Moshe implement it at all? There are three basic approaches to understanding the thought processes of Yitro and Moshe, and they paint differing portraits of the two protagonists and their interaction.

Moshe Needed Help

Moshe needed help in correcting his system, and Yitro was able to provide him with an outsider's insight and perspective.

Critique of Moshe's ivory tower leadership – Ralbag explains that Moshe's great spirituality and closeness to Hashem caused him to make errors of judgment in mundane matters, and thus he needed Yitro to guide him in setting up an effective judicial system.3 See Moshe's Character for a more general discussion of Moshe's leadership and possible leadership flaws.4 Ralbag tempers his criticism with strong praise of Moshe's wisdom and the completeness of his personality, presenting his willingness to listen to advice and correct his actions as a shining example to be emulated. Nevertheless, his position aroused the ire of Abarbanel who heatedly disputes Ralbag's assertion (calling it a "lie"). Abarbanel maintains that Moshe had superior administrative skills, noting that it would be impossible that Hashem had not instructed Moshe in basic knowledge and common sense.5 Interestingly, R. S"R Hirsch's criticism of Moshe's legislative and administrative skills is even sharper than Ralbag's.6
Chronology – While many exegetes explain that Yitro visited in the first year in the wilderness, Ralbag maintains that Yitro arrived and offered his advice only in the second year – see Chronology of Shemot 18. By this point in time, civil laws had already been given and Moshe would have already had ample opportunity to put a judicial system into place. For Ralbag, this magnifies Moshe's administrative shortcomings and highlights that he did not think of Yitro's advice on his own.7
Yitro's inspiration – R. Avraham Saba in his Tzeror HaMor commentary focuses not on a possible administrative deficiency of Moshe, but rather on the Divine inspiration which Yitro possessed allowing him to see even what Moshe did not – see Yitro's Religious Identity. He explains that Yitro merited this inspiration because of his good deed in coming to bless the Children of Israel.
Why Hashem didn't command Moshe – Ralbag does not explain why Hashem worked through the agency of Yitro and did not previously advise Moshe to appoint judges. See Ralbag's Exegesis for Hashem utilizing man and nature. Tzeror HaMor proposes that Hashem waited to advise Moshe on this matter so that Yitro would receive credit for making the suggestion and the entire nation would understand why Moshe married Yitro's daughter.8 See also Or HaChayyim who suggests that Hashem wanted to demonstrate that there is much wisdom among Gentiles, and that He did not select the Children of Israel because of their intellect.
Ideal and reality – In a private conversation, Prof. Uriel Simon suggested that Moshe's system was a model for an ideal world, but Yitro's plan was designed to account for a reality in which the demands on Moshe's time were simply too great.
Yitro the consultantR. Eitan Mayer presents a variation of this approach employing a "corporate metaphor" which portrays Moshe as the CEO of the not-for-profit organization of the Children of Israel, and Yitro as the outside management consultant. According to him, Yitro is the outsider who brings a fresh perspective to the insiders who have become accustomed to the status quo.

Moshe and Yitro Were Both Correct

Moshe was making the best of a difficult situation, but Yitro correctly advised him that there was a need for God to fix the underlying cause of the problem by giving a code of civil law.

R. Yitzchak Arama in his Akeidat Yitzchak charts this middle ground in attempting to portray both Moshe and Yitro in the best possible light.

Why had Moshe not already appointed judges – The Akeidat Yitzchak explains that by the time of Yitro's advice, the people had only received some basic laws at Mara. Therefore, until the people received the body of civil law in Parashat Mishpatim, Moshe needed to adjudicate all disputes, as both Moshe and the nation did not trust anybody else to judge fairly. And thus, there is no fault to be found in Moshe's leadership, as he was doing the best that could be done with the hand that God had dealt him.
If Moshe was acting correctly, what was Yitro suggesting? According to R. Yitzchak Arama, Yitro (like Moshe) realized that there could be no effectively functioning judiciary without first having a code of civil law,9 and therefore he attempted to address the root of the problem by proposing that the nation receive a Divine civil law code.10 Thus he understands that Yitro's words "and God will command you" ("וְצִוְּךָ אֱ-לֹהִים") in 18:23 refer to the necessary condition of God giving Moshe the laws11 (rather than to God commanding Moshe to appoint the judges).12 According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, Yitro was also well aware of the impending revelation, as Zipporah and her sons had come to participate in the experience – see Chronology of Shemot 18.
Divine civil law: Yitro's revolutionary concept – The Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that until Yitro's advice, Moshe did not realize that Hashem was planning on bequeathing a Divine code of civil law, and that Yitro was the first to conceive of this concept and recognize its desirability.13 While at first blush, this approach may be difficult to digest, in truth, the Torah was the first corpus to combine ritual prescriptions with civil legislation; all other Ancient Near Eastern codes of civil law were established by the king and were separate from matters of religious worship. Thus, the Akeidat Yitzchak is proposing that Moshe originally thought that in civil matters, the nation would conduct themselves like all other nations, i.e. there would be a separation of church and state.14 Cognizant of the novelty of his approach,15 R. Arama concludes by pointing to parallel cases where Torah laws are given as the result of new circumstances,16 and where it appears that Moshe had been previously unaware of the need to institute them.17
Chronology – In order to understand both Moshe and Yitro, Akeidat Yitzchak needs to posit that Yitro gave his advice before the Decalogue but that it was implemented only in the second year once the nation had received the laws – see Chronology of Shemot 18.18 However, he does not explain why Yitro would have given his advice already before the Decalogue, knowing that it could not yet be implemented, and given the likelihood that Moshe on his own could have figured it out when the time was ripe.
Perspectives on Moshe and Yitro – The Akeidat Yitzchak depicts both Moshe and Yitro as capable leaders possessing administrative competence and insight. According to him, Yitro was a wise man19 whose advice was fundamentally sound, and he praises Moshe for implementing Yitro's advice as given, citing the verse from Mishlei 12:15 "but he who is wise listens to counsel."

Yitro's Advice was Unnecessary

Moshe's system was the best possibility for the time being, and Yitro's advice was unnecessary or unhelpful. There are a number of distinct variations of this possibility,20 but they all agree that the appointment of judges which ultimately occurred was not directly connected to Yitro's advice (see Chronology) and took place only significantly afterwards:

Long lines were an anomaly

The long line for judgment was a one-time aberration on the day of Yitro's visit, while in general there was no need for additional judges.

Moshe had been away

According to the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael and Rashi, Yitro observed Moshe judging the people on the day after Yom HaKippurim (when he descended from Mount Sinai with the second tablets) – see Chronology. If Moshe had spent the last four months on Mount Sinai, one can readily understand why a huge backlog of cases had accumulated in his absence.

Moshe had taken the previous day off when Yitro visited

Chizkuni, in explaining why the Torah notes that "it happened on the next day" posits that on the day of Yitro's arrival Moshe was busy with Yitro and had not judged the people. This might explain why he needed to work overtime on the following day.21

Newly acquired wealth

R. Medan offers an alternative predicated on the assumption that most of the Yitro story appears in chronological order – see Chronology, and that Yitro arrived and observed Moshe shortly after the battle with Amalek. According to him, the division of the spoils with Amalek caused significant strife and was responsible for Moshe's heavy caseload on that particular day.22 R. Medan posits that shortly thereafter things settled down and while the nation was encamped at Mount Sinai there was little need for additional judges. Only in the second year, when the nation resumed their journey, did complaints spike once again and Moshe again needed assistance – compare opinion cited in Hoil MosheHoil Moshe Devarim 1:9About Hoil Moshe and see Appointing Moshe's Assistants.

Sources:R. Yaacov Medan23
Recent water shortage

R. Medan offers an additional possibility that Moshe's busy schedule resulted from the need to allocate the water which the nation had just received.24 According to this explanation, the people's complaints and the need for more judges arose only while they were in transit and not during the year they were at Mount Sinai.

Sources:R. Medan25

There were additional prerequisites

There was a consistent need for additional judges to assist Moshe, but additional preparatory steps needed to be taken before they could be appointed:

The nation needed to first receive the laws
Why had Moshe not already appointed judges – According to Abarbanel, Moshe had already thought of Yitro's suggestion by himself and was planning to implement it as soon as it would be viable. He explains that although Moshe himself had received the Torah's civil laws already at Mara, it was not until Parashat Mishpatim that he was instructed to transmit the laws to the people. Thus in the meantime Moshe could not yet entrust cases to other judges.27 Abarbanel's explanation of why Moshe had not already selected judges is thus almost identical to the Akeidat Yitzchak above.28 They differ significantly, however, in their assessment of what Moshe was planning and what Yitro was suggesting.
What was Yitro thinking? While the Akeidat Yitzchak assumes that Yitro knew about the upcoming revelation and conditioned the appointment of judges on the nation's first receiving the laws, Abarbanel disagrees and thinks that Yitro knew nothing of the imminent revelation or the giving of a law code29 and erroneously thought that Moshe was planning to continue indefinitely as the sole judge.30 According to Abarbanel's understanding, Yitro recommended that Moshe appoint judges immediately (without the nation first receiving any of the laws), who would then render verdicts based on their own common sense.31 Consequently, Abarbanel concludes that Yitro's advice was both ill-timed ("ויתרו אכלה פגה העצה הזאת") and reflective of a Midianite model of justice rather than a Divine one.
Chronology – Like the Akeidat Yitzchak, Abarbanel needs to claim that Yitro gave his advice before the Decalogue but that Moshe selected judges only in the second year once the nation had received the laws – see Chronology of Shemot 18.32
Perspectives on Moshe and Yitro – It is likely that Abarbanel's position reflects his instinctive recoil (see above) from the suggestion of Ralbag that Moshe's administrative skills were lacking and that he was in need of Yitro's advice.33  In response, Abarbanel tries to demonstrate not only Moshe's wisdom but also the flaws in Yitro's advice. Thus, Abarbanel emphasizes that Moshe's ultimate implementation was not a result of Yitro's suggestion,34 that it differed from Yitro's advice in several critical respects, and that Moshe by himself had already thought of whatever positive aspects Yitro's plan contained.35 Abarbanel adds that for these reasons Moshe does not even credit Yitro for the suggestion in his retelling of the story in Devarim 1.36 This is all in stark contrast to the Akeidat Yitzchak (see above) who portrays Yitro and his advice in a very positive light.37
Moshe needed to build support

Initially, Moshe needed to judge the people himself in order to win over their hearts so that they would accept the Torah and its commandments.

Why Hashem didn't command Moshe – Shadal thus explains why Hashem had not yet commanded Moshe to appoint judges.
Implementation – It is unclear according to Shadal here how long a period was necessary until Moshe could begin to delegate responsibilities, but according to one possibility in Shadal Shemot 18:1Shemot 18:1About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto Moshe implemented the advice before the Decalogue. See Chronology of Shemot 18.