Single subject – Tzeror HaMor states explicitly "Yitro asked only regarding the matter of judgment, and Moshe responded to him only regarding the matter of judgment."1 The advantage of this approach is that the entire discussion focuses on the same topic, Moshe's response to Yitro's query does not contain any extraneous information, and Yitro's solution addresses the main cause of Moshe's burden.2
General and then specifics (כלל ופרט) – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor appears to read "Because the people come to me to inquire of God" in 18:15 as a general statement meaning to come to hear Divine justice, with 18:16 being an elaboration.3
In contrast, the Tzeror HaMor reads the verses as referring to two distinct cases – in 18:15 the litigants themselves appear before Moshe, while in 18:16 only the matter comes to Moshe and he takes the initiative to investigate.
Meaning of אֱ-לֹהִים – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Tzeror HaMor interpret the word as referring to judges, rather than God4 – see א-להים for further discussion.5 Thus, they explain לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים (18:15) as to request judgment,6 and Tzeror HaMor interprets חֻקֵּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְאֶת תּוֹרֹתָיו (18:16) as the laws which provide the source of the verdict and its reasoning.7 Both similarly suggest the possibility that הֱיֵה אַתָּה לָעָם מוּל הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְהֵבֵאתָ אַתָּה אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֶל הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְהִזְהַרְתָּה אֶתְהֶם אֶת הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַתּוֹרֹת (18:19) means that Moshe should make himself available to the judges and teach them the laws.8 This allows them to maintain that all of the verses are speaking of judicial matters.9
Discussed More than Merely Judicial Role
Yitro and Moshe discuss Moshe's manifold responsibilities, but Yitro recommends reducing only the judicial role.10 This possibility subdivides over the question of how many of Moshe's duties are mentioned and regarding the definition of לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים:
Yitro and Moshe discuss two responsibilities – educational and judicial.
Two possible understandings of the structure of Moshe's response in 18:15-16:
A-B-B-A structure (והשיב על האחרון תחלה)11 – R. Saadia and Ibn Ezra explain that the description of Moshe's educational duty "Because the people come to me to inquire of God… and I make known the statutes of God and His laws," is interrupted by the delineation of his judicial task "When they have a matter, it comes to me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor".12
General and then specifics (כלל ופרט) – Cassuto reads "Because the people come to me to inquire of God" in 18:15 as a general statement which includes both the judging and teaching which are detailed in 18:16.
R. Saadia explains that the people seek to learn how to worship Hashem.13
Ibn Ezra (following Onkelos and Rashi) says this term means to ask about the Torah, and "the statutes of God and His laws" are the Mitzvot that were given after the Decalogue (see Ibn Ezra Short Commentary 18:1).14 This is consistent with Ibn Ezra's position regarding the chronology of the chapter – see Chronology.
Yitro's advice – Cassuto explains that Yitro misunderstood Moshe's words לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים, and interpreted them as referring to requesting prayer, rather than judgment or edification. Thus, he posits that Yitro tells Moshe that he should continue to pray on behalf of the people, even though Moshe himself did not mention prayer. Cassuto thinks that Yitro is reflecting an idolatrous conception in which the priests would bring the people's petitions to the idols.15 This is consistent with Cassuto's view that Yitro remained a polytheist and did not convert – see Yitro's Religious Identity.
Yitro and Moshe discuss three different responsibilities of Moshe – responding to the people's various requests or needs, judicial, and educational.
כִּי יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים – These exegetes disagree regarding how to interpret this phrase and why the people were coming to Moshe to seek God – see also לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים:
To ask him to pray to God on their behalf – Ramban.17
To find out what the future holds in store – Ralbag.18
To greet and pay their respects to Moshe – Akeidat Yitzchak.19
Structure of Moshe's response in 18:15-16 – According to this approach, "When they have a matter, it comes to me" (כִּי יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר בָּא אֵלַי) is connected to "I judge between a man and his neighbor" (וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ), as it would appear from Yitro's advice in 18:22.
"The statutes of God and His laws" – According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, these are the laws that were given in Marah which Moshe would teach the people.20
Scope of Yitro's proposal – Yitro advises Moshe to reduce only his judicial functions. Ramban adds that Yitro suggests that Moshe should sit in the Tent of Meeting,21 rather than in the place of judgment. See also Did Moshe Need Yitro's Advice for Akeidat Yitzchak's theory that Yitro was proposing the need for Divine civil law.
Yitro and Moshe discuss four different responsibilities of Moshe – answering the tribal leaders' administrative queries, deciding disputes between the leaders, teaching the leaders, and judging the masses.
Relationship between verses 13 and 15-16 – Verse 13 describes what Moshe was doing for the entire nation, while verses 15-16 delineate Moshe's duties vis a vis the tribal leaders, which caused the delays in his judging of the people.
כִּי יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים – According to Seforno, this refers to the leaders bringing to Moshe issues related to the nation's encampment.22 Seforno similarly explains that the judging referred to by Moshe in verse 16 is regarding national matters brought by the leaders.
Educational hierarchy – Seforno maintains that in verse 16, Moshe is describing how he taught the laws to Aharon and the other leaders, as described in Bavli EiruvinEiruvin 54bAbout the Bavli. Apparently, according to Seforno, this system was in place prior to Yitro's arrival, and was part of the cause of the judicial backlog.
Yitro's advice – Yitro suggests to Moshe that he should implement a hierarchical system for the judiciary, parallel to what was already in place for the administrative and educational systems.23
The meaning of הָעָם – Seforno's approach is inconsistent in its interpretation of the word הָעָם, as in 18:13-14 it refers to the entire nation, in 18:15-16 it refers to the tribal leaders, and in 18:18 it refers to Moshe's court.24
Delegated More than Just Judicial Role
Yitro and Moshe not only discuss Moshe's many responsibilities (besides his judicial duties), but Yitro also advises Moshe to delegate a number of these roles. The two variations of this approach differ as to how many and which of Moshe's roles are under discussion and regarding which ones Moshe delegates:
Two of Five Roles
Yitro and Moshe discuss five different responsibilities of Moshe – prophetic, administrative, judicial, educational, and military – of which Moshe delegates the judicial and military.
Chronology – Abarbanel maintains that Moshe implemented Yitro's advice only in the second year in the desert, immediately before the intended journey to the land of Israel – see Chronology of Shemot 18, and Did Moshe's Need Yitro's Advice. On this backdrop, he suggests that the need for a dramatic increase in the number of judges was due to the impending dispersal of the nation to settle the land. In addition, the upcoming battles for the conquest of the land necessitated the appointment of a military chain of command.25
Yitro's proposal – "אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל" – According to Abarbanel, Yitro advises Moshe to appoint "men of valor"26 because they needed to function not only in a judicial capacity but also as military officers.27 In support of his approach, Abarbanel also points to the leadership of the "rulers of thousands" and "rulers of hundreds" in the battle against Midian in Bemidbar 31.28
The number of appointees – Abarbanel wonders why there would be a sudden need for tens of thousands of rulers to judge the people if until then Moshe alone had sufficed. He is also puzzled by what the judicial distinction would be between rulers of hundreds and rulers of fifties. For these reasons he postulates that the appointees must have also played military and administrative roles – see Yitro's System.29
לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים – According to Abarbanel, the people are "seeking God" in order to inquire (through Moshe) about the future.30
"When they have a matter, it comes to me" (כִּי יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר בָּא אֵלַי) – This refers to Moshe's handling of camping and travel related issues, and is a separate task from "I judge between a man and his neighbor" (וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ).31
"The statutes of God and His laws" – These are the laws that were given in Marah which Moshe would teach the people.32
Three of Four Roles
Yitro and Moshe discuss four different responsibilities of Moshe – responding to the people's various requests or needs, judicial, educational, and military – of which Moshe delegates the judicial, educational, and military.
Scope of Yitro's proposal – Yitro advises Moshe to delegate not only his judicial but also his administrative and teaching duties. According to this understanding, Yitro's proposal addressed many of the different needs of the people by appointing multiple categories of leaders who filled different roles.34 The rulers of thousands were administrative and military leaders,35 the rulers of hundreds judged and were also military leaders,36 the rulers of fifties educated, and the rulers of tens were enforcement officers.37 Thus, Yitro's proposal provided for not only the creation of a judicial system, but also for administrative help for Moshe and for the educational pyramid described in Bavli EiruvinEiruvin 54bAbout the Bavli. As a result, Moshe could dedicate his time to the tasks of which only he was capable, communicating with God and instilling the nation with the love and fear of God.
Different categories and large numbers of appointees – R. D"Z Hoffmann notes that this approach explains the need for such a large bureaucracy – see Yitro's System.
The major difficulty with this approach – (noted already by HaKetav VeHaKabbalah) is that Yitro's advice only explicitly mentions the role of the various rulers in helping judge (וְשָׁפְטוּ) the people, while all of the various other roles appear to remain concentrated in Moshe's hands (וְהֵבֵאתָ, וְהִזְהַרְתָּה, וְהוֹדַעְתָּ).38 This difficulty can be somewhat mitigated, though, if one adopts the broader definition of וְשָׁפְטוּ as referring to general governing – see שפט and R. D"Z Hoffmann Shemot 18:26, Devarim 1:15.39
כִּי יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים – These exegetes present two options regarding how to interpret this phrase and about why the people were coming to Moshe to seek God – see also לִדְרֹשׁ אֱ-לֹהִים:
To learn from him how to worship Hashem with love and fear – Vilna Gaon,40 HaKetav VeHaKabbalah.
To hear prophecy about future events – R. D"Z Hoffmann.41
Structure of Moshe's responsein 18:15-16 – According to this approach, "When they have a matter, it comes to me" (כִּי יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר בָּא אֵלַי) is connected to "I judge between a man and his neighbor" (וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ), as it would appear from Yitro's advice in 18:22.