Yitro: Portrait of A Tzaddik and Tzaddeket

How our Sages could name the Torah portion that contains the 10 Commandments for a former idolator.

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Daniel Pinner,

Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
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David Rubinger

“Yitro, the Priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that G-d had done to Moshe and to Israel, his nation – that HaShem had taken Israel out from Egypt. So Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons, of whom the name of one was Gershom, ‘Because’ – he said – ‘I have been a stranger [ger] in a foreign land’; and the name of one was Eliezer – ‘Because the G-d [E-lohey] of my father came to my aid [ezri] by saving me from Pharaoh’s sword’. Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came to Moshe with his wife and sons, to the desert wherein he encamped, to the Mountain of G-d” (Exodus 18:1-5).


The Midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Amalek 3; Yalkut Shimoni, Sh’mot 169) tells us that Yitro [Jethro] was called by seven names: Yeter, Yitro, Hovav, Reuel, Hever, Putiel, and the Kenite.


The Torah calls Moshe’s father-in-law both Yeter (Exodus 4:18) and Yitro (18:1), and it also calls the same Midianite priest, Moshe’s father-in-law, Reuel (2:18); so the simple text informs us that Yitro was known by these three names.


Almost a year and a half later, the Torah would refer to “Hovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law” (Numbers 10:29). This phrase is ambiguous: was Moshe’s father-in-law Hovav or Reuel?


Since the Torah already told us that Reuel was Moshe’s father-in-law and the Tanakh refers to Hovav as Moshe’s father-in-law (Judges 4:1), the Midrash understands “son of Reuel” to be a title which Hovav carried. The Tanakh refers to “Hever the Kenite” (Judges 4:11, 17; 5:24), showing that Hever and the Kenite are the same person, and the Midrash understands the circumlocution of those verses to suggest that Hever the Kenite was Hovav.


And as for Putiel – the Targum Yonatan (Exodus 6:25), the Talmud (Sotah 43a, Bava Batra 109b), and the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 7:5; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Amalek 3; Yalkut Shimoni, Sh’mot 169) record that Putiel was another name for Yitro. Playing on words, they explain that in his days as a Midianite priest, he would pitem (fatten) calves for idolatry, and eventually niphtar (freed himself) from idolatry.


Yitro could proclaim: “Now I have known that HaShem is greater than all the gods, by the thing that they had plotted against them” (Exodus 18:11).

On one level, Yitro knew that HaShem was greater than all gods because he had previously been the greatest idolater of all: “There was not a single idol in the world that Yitro had overlooked, and not chased after and worshipped” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:1; ) Having worshipped them all, he knew they were all false; and now he encountered HaShem, G-d of Creation – and upon encountering absolute and infinite and ultimate truth, he recognised it instantly.


On another level, Yitro had seen all that Egypt and Amalek had done and plotted to do against Israel, and had witnessed that HaShem had saved them from both Egypt and Amalek (following Zevachim 116a and Rashi on Exodus 18:1), demonstrating His superiority over the world’s mightiest nation and its gods.


This resonates particularly deeply. The Talmud (Sotah 11a, Sanhedrin 106a) and the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:9;) tell us that Yitro, together with Job and Balaam, had sat with Pharaoh when he enacted his decree that all the baby boys be drowned in the River Nile. Alone among them, Yitro had walked out in protest. As one of Pharaoh’s inner circle of advisers, Yitro knew only too well how Egypt had plotted to exterminate Israel, so he knew – perhaps better even than the Jews themselves – how perilous their situation had been in Egypt.


And Yitro also knew Amalek only too well. Amalek’s father was Eliphaz, son of Esau and Adah (Genesis 36:2-12), and Reuel was the son of Esau by another wife, Basemath, daughter of Ishmael (ibid. verses 2-4). Thus Reuel (Yitro) was Amalek’s uncle.


Intriguingly, the Targum Yonatan (Genesis 36:12) records that Eliphaz, the father of Amalek, was the same Eliphaz the Temanite who was one of Job’s three friends (Job 2:11). Job lived in the East (Job 1:3), meaning east of Israel, and his other two friends came from Shuah and Naama (ibid 2:11), the general vicinity of Midian, south-east of the Dead Sea. (And the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1:36 further bolsters the identity of Eliphaz the father of Amalek, with Eliphaz the Temanite.)


So on every level, Yitro, more than anyone else in the world, could appreciate the greatness of Hashem, G-d of Israel, and how He had saved His nation.


Yitro had seven daughters (Exodus 2:16). The only one whose name is recorded in the Torah was Zipporah, who married Moshe; the other six we never hear of again. All of them, growing up with their idolatrous father, had obviously also experienced the seductive allure of idolatry. Only Zipporah, whose name denotes that “those who knew her tzippu ve-ra’u [‘forecast and saw’] the best” (Sifrei, Numbers 99), made the break with the idolatry of their childhood and joined Am Yisra’el. Little wonder, then, that Yitro’s daughter Zipporah was worthy of marrying Moshe, the greatest Jewish leader of all time.


And little wonder that when Moshe had to devote his time and efforts to redeeming the Jews from Egyptian slavery and persecution, during the tempestuous months of the Ten Plagues, Moshe sent his wife away to the safety and calm of her father’s home in Midian: Moshe knew that he could rely on his father-in-law to look after his wife, both physically and spiritually, during his temporary absence.


And Moshe also knew that he could rely on Zipporah to look after him physically and spiritually for the rest of his life. When Moshe and Zipporah with their two young sons were on their way into Egypt to begin the process of redemption, G-d had threatened to kill Moshe for failing to circumcise his son Gershom. And Zipporah saved Moshe’s life when “Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off her son’s foreskin” (Exodus 4:24). When Moshe had neglected a mitzvah (because he had mistakenly thought that he should delay circumcising his son due to the circumstances), it was Zipporah who saved him both spiritually and physically.


Significantly, only two people in the entire Tanakh are specified as having circumcised their sons: Abraham (Genesis 17:23, 21:4) and Zipporah. As a convert, Zipporah had proven herself a worthy daughter of her spiritual father Abraham.


Yitro brought his daughter Zipporah back to her husband Moshe about the time that Moshe was to ascend Mount Sinai to bring the Ten Commandments to Israel. (There is a dispute in Zevachim 116a, Avodah Zara 24a-b, Yerushalmi Megillah 1:11, if Yitro and Zipporah came just before or just after the Giving of the Ten Commandments, and if the Torah follows strict chronological order here.)


As Moshe was incomplete without Zipporah, so too would the entire nation have been diminished had Yitro not joined us. The Talmud (Sotah 11a, Sanhedrin 106a) and the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:9; Tanhuma, Yitro 4;)  tell us that as a reward for having walked out on Pharaoh when he decreed that all the baby boys in Egypt be drowned in the Nile, “Yitro’s descendants merited to sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone”.


What was the Chamber of Hewn Stone? – “There were three courts there [in the Holy Temple]. One would sit at the entrance to the Temple Mount, one would sit at the entrance to the Temple Courtyard, and one would sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone. [The plaintiffs] would come to the first court…and if the case was too hard for them to decide, they would proceed to the second court…and if the case was too hard for them to decide, they would proceed to the highest court, which was in the Chamber of Hewn Stone” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:2). So Yitro’s descendants were members of the Supreme Court of Israel.


Such is the power of the tzaddik and the tzaddeket, Yitro and Zipporah, who had explored all the 'foreign fields', and who, when they encountered the infinite and eternal truth of Torah, were unable to remain outside.

Little wonder, then, that Rabbi Natan could proclaim that “the Covenant that G-d forged with Yitro’s descendants was even greater the Covenant that He forged with King David’s descendants” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 18:27).


And little wonder that when our Sages arranged the Torah into the weekly parashot with which we are so familiar today, they saw fit to name this parashah, containing the Giving of the Torah, for Yitro.