Yitro's Sacrifices and Eating Bread Before God

Exegetical Approaches

A Gentile's Sacrifices

Why is Yitro (a Gentile) bringing sacrifices and making a festive meal?1

Celebration of the Children of Israel's salvation

Chizkuni explains that Yitro brought sacrifices out of joy over the miracles that God had performed for the nation. See vayichad for a discussion of Yitro's reaction.

Conversion sacrifices

Ramban suggests that the sacrifices are a religious ritual intended to fulfill the halakhic obligation of a proselyte to bring a burnt offering upon conversion, and that the feast celebrated Yitro's conversion and circumcision. R. BachyaShemot 18:12About R. Bachya and SefornoShemot 18:12About Seforno explain similarly and Seforno draws a parallel to Na'aman.

Covenant sealing meal

R. D"Z Hoffmann posits that the sacrifices and meal were not part of a religious ritual, but rather a political ceremony which accompanied the signing of a covenant between the Israelite nation and Yitro's clan.

Use of the generic name Elohim – R. D"Z Hoffmann thereby explains why the proper name of Hashem is not used, as these sacrifices were not a religious rite and Yitro had not become a monotheist.
Eating bread before God – According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, this refers to partaking from a covenantal meal.
Omission of Moshe – R. D"Z Hoffmann explains the absence of Moshe from the meal by noting that Moshe was already related to Yitro (and would have had a conflict of interest), and it was Aharon and the elders who were representing the Children of Israel in this treaty.
Biblical parallels – R. D"Z Hoffmann points to the story of Yaakov and Lavan in Bereshit 31:44-54 as another example of a treaty which is accompanied by sacrifices and breaking bread together (לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם). Additional cases of a covenantal meal are found in the stories of Yitzchak and Avimelekh in Bereshit 26:28-31, the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai in Shemot 24:3-11, and David and Avner in Shemuel II 3:19-21.
Ancient Near Eastern parallels – Charles F. Fensham, in an article in BASOR 175 (1964): 51-54 cites parallels to the custom of sacrifices accompanying a covenant from a letter from Mari and two treaties from Alalakh.2
Additional evidence for the existence of a treaty – see Yitro's Purpose for possible substantiations from the story of Moshe's arrival at Yitro's home in Shemot 2 and the later relationships between the nation of Israel and Yitro's descendants.

Sacrifices to Elohim

Why is Yitro offering his sacrifices to Elohim and not to Hashem?3

Recognized Hashem

Yitro fully recognized Hashem as his God.

Ibn Ezra attempts to explain that Yitro is really sacrificing to Hashem, whom he has just now acknowledged as his god (and hence the use of Elohim).4

Did Not Yet Recognize Hashem

Yitro was still in the midst of his theological transformation and did not yet fully recognize Hashem as the one and only God.

Never Recognized Hashem

Yitro never became monotheistic and always considered Hashem to be only one of many gods.

Eating Bread Lifnei HaElohim

Exegetes differ on whether the term lifnei haElohim is used here to connote a particular geographical location. In addition, the meaning of our verse depends on when this story occurred and where the nation was encamped – see Chronology.

A Place With a Divine Presence

Lifnei haElohim means in front of a specific place where there was a Divine presence. This approach subdivides regarding the identity of that place:

Moshe's personal tent

Moshe's tent was mentioned just a few verses earlier in 18:7.

The pillars of cloud and fire which housed God's presence
The Tabernacle
An altar where sacrifices were offered before the building of the Tabernacle
A designated place for thanksgiving and prayer
Mount Sinai
Sources:Perhaps the second option in RalbagShemot 18:12About Ralbag
The burning bush

A Sanctified Activity

"Eating before God" is an expression which connotes a sanctified activity, but not necessarily a particular location.

Partaking of Sacrifices
Partaking of a meal in the presence of sages (in this case Moshe) which is analogous to benefitting from the Divine presence
Partaking of a covenantal meal made before God

Where Was Moshe?

Moshe Participated in the Meal

Moshe participated, but this is understood and needed no mention, as the meal took place in Moshe's tent.12

Moshe Did Not Participate

This opinion subdivides in explaining Moshe's reasons for not participating in the meal:

Moshe was the waiter
Moshe never ate with other people
Moshe was not a signator to the covenant, and thus did not participate in the covenantal meal
Moshe was preoccupied with judging the people
Sources:Benno Jacob Shemot 18:12
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