Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 30 January 2016 / 20 Shevat 5776

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Why Does Moshe Need Yitro’s Advice?

In the beginning of this Torah portion Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, meets him in the desert. Seeing that Moshe is constantly besieged by the people seeking council, clarification and resolution of disputes, Yitro offers a solution. He advises Moshe to appoint “leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens. They shall judge the people at all times and they shall bring every major matter to you, and every minor matter they shall judge, and it will be eased for you.” (Exodus 18:21-22)

Abarbanel asks two obvious questions. Firstly, how is it possible that Yitro is teaching Moshe something so obvious? Didn’t Moshe realize that one individual could not possibly deal with all the issues of a nation of over three million people? Secondly, the number of judges or leaders that Moshe accepts as the required number adds up to 78,600 individuals to judge a nation of 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty. Why would such an enormous number be necessary?

Abarbanel explains that, first of all, the encounter between Yitro and Moshe occurred just before the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. Since the details of the law had not yet been given to the entire nation, there was no one to whom Moshe could delegate authority. Only Moshe had the prophetic understanding to deal properly with the nation’s legal concerns. Yitro, however, was not aware that the Torah would soon be given, and Moshe did not inform him of this fact. He assumed that the current untenable situation would exist indefinitely and therefore offered his advice. Even though Moshe intended to institute such a system in the very near future, the verse states, “Moshe heeded the advice of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said.”(Exodus 18, 24) The Torah’s intention is to show us the degree to which Moshe honored and respected Yitro’s advice while in his presence. Forty years later, when Moshe recounts the history of the Exodus and the sojourn in the desert he omits any reference to Yitro, and attributes the delegation of responsibility to himself when he says that he took the heads of the tribes and appointed them leaders of thousands and leaders of hundreds.

In regard to the second question, Abarbanel offers a completely different understanding of the nature and number of these leaders. He posits that the Torah is actually referring to several different scenarios. The first possibility is that the numbers ‘thousands’, ‘hundreds’, ‘fifties’ and ‘tens’ refer neither to the people nor to the leaders, but rather to the personnel staffs that the leaders may require to carry out their judgments. The size of these staffs would depend on the individual merits and requirements of the leaders.

A second possibility is that the number ‘thousands’ refers to the maximum number of people that a leader could have responsibility for. A single leader or judge can deal with thousands or even tens of thousands of individuals, but not more. The other numbers refer specifically to the organization of military units. Here, small-unit leadership is essential and is addressed by having leaders of hundreds, fifties and even tens.

Abarbanel’s third approach takes us even further from the simple reading of the verses. Firstly, depending on location and circumstances, the numbers could refer to the wide variation of sub-specialties in the law which could require additional manpower. Some areas may experience a wide variety of cases, involving, for example, nuances in commercial law, property law and criminal law. Secondly, these numbers could refer to the monetary amounts under consideration. Cases involving large monetary claims could be dealt with in different venues and by different judges than those dealing with smaller claims. Thirdly, the numbers may refer to the entire array of governmental bodies required by a populous society. Some issues can only be decided by a council of a thousand or more individuals, others by councils of fewer individuals. (Abarbanel here makes reference specifically to the various governing bodies in the city of Venice where he lived in the early years of the 16th century.)

Abarbanel concludes his analysis with the following summary: “These appointed individuals function at all times, so that when their subjects come to them they can make decisions expeditiously. In this way, everyone can live in peace, since everyone will know where to turn when a problem arises, and every judge and leader will know his particular area of responsibility and how to adjudicate properly. The result will be that truth and peace will be judged in your gates.”

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