As the founding leader of the Children of Israel, Moshe filled the numerous roles of lawgiver, teacher, administrator, general, judge, miracle performer, and even priest. All of these responsibilities competed for Moshe's attention, and the second half of Chapter 18 describes Moshe's dialogue with Yitro regarding how to deal with the near impossible burden. The text, though, leaves some ambiguity as to how many and which of Moshe's various roles are under discussion, and how many of them did Yitro advise him to delegate.
Was Yitro's advice limited to Moshe's role as a judge? If yes, what was the need for thousands of "rulers of tens," how did it help for Moshe to delegate only part of one of his many tasks, and why did Yitro focus only on the judiciary? On the other hand, if Yitro's advice applied to a number of Moshe's roles, why are these not mentioned more explicitly? For Abarbanel's formulation of some of these questions click here.
A Seeming Contradiction
Verse 13, in providing the backdrop for the episode, states only that "Moshe sat to judge the people" (לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת הָעָם). However, when Yitro asks Moshe to explain his actions, Moshe responds in 18:15-16 by delineating a seemingly longer list of the duties he is performing:
Because the people come to me to inquire of God (לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים). When they have a matter, it comes to me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God (חֻקֵּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים) and His laws.
This expanded description then forms the basis for the advice which Yitro proffers in 18:19-22.
You be for the people before God (מוּל הָאֱ-לֹהִים), and you bring the causes to God. And you should teach them the statutes and the laws, and you should show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover you should seek out from among the people capable men… And they will judge the people at all times; and it will be that every great matter they will bring to you, but every small matter they will judge themselves…
Yitro's advice reflect almost each of Moshe's words with some slight variations – see Table 1 and the analysis in Literary. However, neither Moshe's nor Yitro's words state unambiguously whether they are speaking only of Moshe's judicial role or also of his additional duties.
Complicating matters is that a number of the terms used in the above verses to describe Moshe's functions (such as לִשְׁפֹּט, לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים, and וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת חֻקֵּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים) are sometimes employed in Tanakh with a juridical connotation, but in other cases are used with a more general meaning. The reader is thus left to wonder: Did Moshe and Yitro's exchange focus only on Moshe's judicial duties, or also on his broader array of tasks? And did Yitro's proposal address only the judicial system or did it attempt to also reduce the additional components of Moshe's burden?1
There is also a Rabbinic source which plays a role in the development of the exegesis of this topic. The Bavli in Tractate Eiruvin describes an educational hierarchy in which Aharon, Aharon's sons, and the Elders assist Moshe in teaching the laws to the nation. The description of this system, while not found explicitly in the Torah, does have some textual underpinnings,2 and bears some resemblance to Yitro's advice. This motivates some exegetes to wonder if this educational system was already in place before Yitro came, was part of Yitro's proposal, or was initiated only after Yitro departed.