Yitro's System – A Bloated Bureaucracy?



Shemot 18:21-22 records Yitro's advice to Moshe:

You should seek out from among the people capable men, God fearing, men of truth, who hate unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And they will judge the people at all times…

A literal understanding of the titles "rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens" might assume that these numbers refer to the numbers of people over whom each group of judges was supposed to rule. Doing the mathematical calculations, though, produces a figure of 78,600 judges for a populace of only 600,000 men, making for a staggeringly inflated bureaucracy. Ibn EzraShemot 18:21About Ibn Ezra cites a verse from Mishlei 28:2, "Because of the sin of the land, many are its rulers" (בְּפֶשַׁע אֶרֶץ רַבִּים שָׂרֶיהָ) to highlight the absurdity of such a suggestion.1 He further questions whether it could be possible to find so many qualified leaders possessing all of the traits in Yitro's job description. Finally, AbarbanelShemot 18About Abarbanel wonders about the need for tens of thousands of people to do a job which until then had been performed by Moshe alone. These questions call for a reassessment of our understanding of Yitro's proposal and the meanings of the various titles and rulers.