Parashat Beha’alotecha – Study sources

These sources formed the basis of a discussion at the Chaburah on Shabbat afternoon.

I first learnt of the ambiguity of Jethro’s status from my teacher Rabbi Sheila Shulman z’tl. From recollection she was very clear about what made most sense to her and offered her the deepest sense of meaning. I have never returned to this question since my course with her which was over 10 years ago. Now I’m somewhat absorbed by the questions these texts raise. We can see Moses’ father-in-law’s identity even in the Bible is somewhat unclear (were Chovav, Reuel and Yitro all the same person?). But I would love to hear what questions these texts pose for you about whether you think Jethro – a Midianite Priest no less – was or was not Jewish, how important it is for then and how this is important for us today and conversations we have as Jews in the 21st century. Rabbi Neil Janes (Sivan 5775)

Primary Biblical Sources

(Translation, JPS Tanakh, Second Edition with some minor changes)

Text 1 – Numbers 10:29-32

(כט) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָב בֶּן־רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֘ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר ה֔’ אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־ה֥’ דִּבֶּר־ט֖וֹב עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: (ל) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו לֹ֣א אֵלֵ֑ךְ כִּ֧י אִם־אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י אֵלֵֽךְ: (לא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַל־נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י׀ עַל־כֵּ֣ן יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם: (לב) וְהָיָ֖ה כִּי־תֵלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְהָיָ֣ה׀ הַטּ֣וֹב הַה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵיטִ֧יב ה֛’ עִמָּ֖נוּ וְהֵטַ֥בְנוּ לָֽךְ:

29 Moses said to Chovav son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Eternal One has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Eternal One has promised to be generous to Israel.” 30 “I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.” 31 He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Eternal One grants us.”

Text 2 – Exodus 2:15-21

(טז) וּלְכֹהֵ֥ן מִדְיָ֖ן שֶׁ֣בַע בָּנ֑וֹת וַתָּבֹ֣אנָה וַתִּדְלֶ֗נָה וַתְּמַלֶּ֙אנָה֙ אֶת־הָ֣רְהָטִ֔ים לְהַשְׁק֖וֹת צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶֽן: (יז) וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ הָרֹעִ֖ים וַיְגָרְשׁ֑וּם וַיָּ֤קָם מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיּ֣וֹשִׁעָ֔ן וַיַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־צֹאנָֽם: (יח) וַתָּבֹ֕אנָה אֶל־רְעוּאֵ֖ל אֲבִיהֶ֑ן וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מַדּ֛וּעַ מִהַרְתֶּ֥ן בֹּ֖א הַיּֽוֹם: (יט) וַתֹּאמַ֕רְןָ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י הִצִּילָ֖נוּ מִיַּ֣ד הָרֹעִ֑ים וְגַם־דָּלֹ֤ה דָלָה֙ לָ֔נוּ וַיַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־הַצֹּֽאן: (כ) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֶל־בְּנֹתָ֖יו וְאַיּ֑וֹ לָ֤מָּה זֶּה֙ עֲזַבְתֶּ֣ן אֶת־הָאִ֔ישׁ קִרְאֶ֥ן ל֖וֹ וְיֹ֥אכַל לָֽחֶם: (כא) וַיּ֥וֹאֶל מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָשֶׁ֣בֶת אֶת־הָאִ֑ישׁ וַיִּתֵּ֛ן אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֥ה בִתּ֖וֹ לְמֹשֶֽׁה:

16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; 17 but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Re’uel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.” 21 Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife.

Text 3 – Exodus 3:1

(א) וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה:

1 Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

Text 4 – Exodus 18:27

(כז) וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־חֹתְנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ ל֖וֹ אֶל־אַרְצֽוֹ:

27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law, and he went his way to his own land.

Text 5 – I Chronicles 2:55

וּמִשְׁפְּח֤וֹת סֹפְרִים֙ <ישבו> יֹשְׁבֵ֣י יַעְבֵּ֔ץ תִּרְעָתִ֥ים שִׁמְעָתִ֖ים שׂוּכָתִ֑ים הֵ֚מָּה הַקִּינִ֣ים הַבָּאִ֔ים מֵחַמַּ֖ת אֲבִ֥י בֵית־רֵכָֽב:

55 And the families of scribes that dwelt at Jabez: the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, the Sucathites. These are the Kenites that came of Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

Text 6 – Judges 1:16

וּבְנֵ֣י קֵינִי֩ חֹתֵ֨ן מֹשֶׁ֜ה עָל֨וּ מֵעִ֤יר הַתְּמָרִים֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֔ה מִדְבַּ֣ר יְהוּדָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּנֶ֣גֶב עֲרָ֑ד וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אֶת־הָעָֽם:

16 And the children of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up out of the city of palm-trees with the children of Judah into the wilderness of Judah, which is in the south of Arad; and they went and dwelt with the people.

Mefarshim – Biblical Commentaries

Text 7 – Targum Pseudo Yonatan, Exodus 18:27

(כז) וּפְטַר משֶׁה יַת חָמוֹי וְאָזַל לֵיהּ לְגַיְירָא כָּל בְּנֵי אַרְעֵיהּ:

Moses sent his father in law and he went to convert the kinsmen of his land.

(Targum Pseudo Yonatan/Yerushalmi – maybe 8th century)

Text 8 – Sforno, Exodus 18:27

(כז) וישלח משה את חותנו. כי לא רצה ללכת עם ישראל לארץ, כאמרו לא אלך כי אם אל ארצי ואל מולדתי אלך (במדבר י, ל). וזה אולי מצד זקנתו כענין ברזלי באמרו ישוב נא עבדך ואמות בעירי, עם קבר אבי ואמי (ש”ב יט, לח) אבל בני יתרו הלכו עם ישראל לארץ בלי ספק, כאמרו ובני קיני חותן משה עלו מעיר התמרים וכו’ (שופטים א, טז) ועליהם אמר בלעם איתן מושבך כו’ (במדבר כד, כא):

“Moses sent his father in law” – For he did not want to go with the People of Israel to the land, as it says, “I will not go, rather to my land and my birthplace I will go” (Numbers 10:30). And perhaps this is on account of his old age, like the case of Barzillai, as it says, “Let your servant please turn back that I may die in my city, by the grave of my father and my mother” (II Samuel 19:38). But without doubt the children of Jethro went with the People of Israel to the land, as it says, “and the children of Kenite, the father in law of Moses, who went up from the city of palm trees, etc” (Judges 1:16)

(Sforno 15th-16th century Italy)

Text 9 – Rashi, Numbers 10:29

(כט) חובב – הוא יתרו, שנאמר (שופטים ד, יא) מבני חובב חותן משה, ומה תלמוד לומר (שמות ב, יח) ותבאנה אל רעואל אביהן, מלמד שהתינוקות קורין לאבי אביהן אבא. ושמות הרבה…

“Chovav” – this is Jethro, as it says, “Of the children of Chovav, father in law of Moses” (Judges 4:11). Why does scripture state, “They came to Re’uel their father” (Exodus 2:18)? To teach that children call their father’s father, dad. There are numerous names for him…

(Rashi – 11th century France)

Text 10 – Ramban, Numbers 10:29

(כט) ויאמר משה לחבב – כבר פירשתי (שמות ב טז) כי חובב שם חדש שקראו ליתרו כאשר שב לתורת ישראל, כי זה דרך כל המתגייר כי לעבדיו יקרא שם אחר.

“Moses said to Chovav” – I already explained (Exodus 2:16) that Chovav was his new name that was given to Jethro when he returned [converted] to the Torah of Israel. For this is the practice for all who convert that he calls his servants by another name.

(Ramban – 13th century Spain)


Ambiguity of Pesikta de Rav Kahana

(possibly compiled 7th century, but containing earlier materials, translation – Braude and Kapstein)

Text 11 – Pesikta de Rav Kahana, Piska 12 (Bachodesh Hashlishi) – part 1

ביום הזה באו מדבר סיני (שמות יט: א). א”ר יהושע בן לוי לבן מלכים שהיה מטייל בשוק ופגע בו אוהבו של מלך ומילא חיקו אבנים טובות ומרגליות. א’ המלך, פיתחו לי תיסבריות שלי, שלא יהא בני או’ אילולי אוהבו של אבא לא היה לו מה ליתן לי. כך אמ’ הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה שלא יהו ישר’ אומרי’ אילולי שבא יתרו ולימדך את הדינים לא היה לו ליתן לנו את התורה, אלא הרי אני נותן להם את התורה כולה דינים, ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם (שם /שמות/ כא: א).

[Immediately after Jethro’s departure, Scripture declares]: The same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 19:1). R. Joshua ben Levi said: Consider the parable of a prince who was walking in the marketplace where a friend of the king met him and filled his bosom with precious stones and pearls. Thereupon the king, [who had long been amassing great riches for his son], said: For my son’s sake open up my treasuries right away, lest he say, “But for the example of my father’s friend, my father would have given me nothing.” Likewise the Holy One, [who had long been treasuring the Torah against the day He would give it to Israel], said to Moses: Lest Israel say to you, “Had not Jethro come and taught you laws, God would not have given us the Torah,” I herewith open for Israel the treasury of Torah with its entire riches of law: “These are the laws which thou shalt set before them” (Exodus 21:1).

Text 12 – Pesikta de Rav Kahana, Piska 12 (Bachodesh Hashlishi) – part 2

[טז] מה כת’ למעלה מן העינין, פרשת יתרו, מה שהוא מלמד את משה, שנ’ ואתה תחזה מכל העם אנשי חיל וגו’ (שמות יח: כא), ואחר כך בחדש השלישי, אמר שלמה, לב יודע מרת נפשו (משלי יד: י), לפיכך, ובשמחתו לא יתערב זר (שם /משלי י”ד/). אמ’ הקדוש ברוך הוא ישר’ היו משועבדים בטיט ובלבנים במצרים ויתרו יושב בתוך ביתו השקט ובטח ובא לראות בשמחת התורה עם בניי, לפיכך, וישלח משה את חותנו (שמות יח: כז), ואח’ כך בחדש השלישי וג’ (שם /שמות/ יט: א).

ד”א למה כן, דרש משה מקל וחומר, אמ’ ומה אם מצוה אחת כשבא הקדוש ברוך הוא ליתן את מצות הפסח אמר כל בן נכר לא יאכל בו (שם /שמות/ יב: מג), עכשיו שהוא בא ליתן את כל התורה לישר’ יהא יתרו כאן ויראה אתנו. לפיכך וישלח משה את חותנו וגו’ (שם /שמות/ יח: כז), ואח’ כך בחדש השלישי (שם /שמות/ יט: א).

What comes directly before the phrase just cited? The passage concerning Jethro, wherein he instructs Moses, “Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men,” etc. (Exodus 18:21), after which In the third month (Exodus 19:1) follows. [In connection with Jethro and the giving of Torah in the third month] a verse of Solomon’s is cited: “The heart knoweth its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10); therefore “with its joy no stranger is to intermeddle” (ibid.). The Holy One said: While Israel were in servitude to clay and bricks in Egypt, Jethro dwelt in quietness and security in his own home, and now he has come, [a stranger], to behold the joy of Torah with My children. Therefore Moses sent his father-in-law away (Exodus 18:27). And after these words: In the third month, etc. (Exodus 19:1).

Another comment: What reasoning led Moses to send Jethro away? Drawing an inference a fortiori, Moses reasoned: If, when only one commandment was involved at the time the Holy One was about to give the commandment concerning the Passover lamb, He decreed that “no alien shall eat thereof” (Exodus 12:43), now that He is about to give the entire Torah to Israel, shall Jethro, an alien, be present and watch us? Therefore Moses sent his father-in-law away, etc. (Exod. 18:27). And after that In the third month (Exodus 19:1).

Text 13 – Pesikta de Rav Kahana, Piska 3 (Zachor)

וכיון ששמע יתרו כל הנסים האלו שעשה הקדוש ברוך הוא במצרים ובעמלק, מיד בא ונתגייר, לכך נאמר לץ תכה ופתי יערים (משלי יט: כה). מה שכרו, זכו בניו לישב בלשכת הגזית ולהימנות עם ישראל, שנא’ יושבי יעבץ תרעתים שמעתים סוכותים וגו’ (ד”ה =דברי הימים= א’ ב: נה).

As soon as Jethro heard of all the miracles which the Holy One worked against Egypt and Amalek, he came at once and was converted: When thou smitest a scorner the simple will become prudent (Proverbs. 19:25). What was Jethro’s reward? His descendants had the privilege of sitting as judges in the Chamber of Hewn Stones and to be reckoned as part of Israel: it was They who sat before Jabez: the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, the Sucathites. These are the Kenites,16 etc. (I Chronicles 2:55).


לבן מלכים – Abbreviated way of saying ‘to what may this be compared, to a son of a king’

תיסבריות – treasury (probably from the Greek)

אילולי – but for, if not

כך אמ’ הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה – similarly, God said to Moses

בטיט ובלבנים – clay and bricks

ד”א – ‘davar acher’ – another interpretation

דרש משה מקל וחומר – Moses expounded using an argument of ‘minor to major’ (kal vachomer) – a formal argument in which a presentation of a ‘lesser’ case is used to resolve something in a more serious case, where theoretically both cases should be essentially comparable.

ונתגייר – converted. The word גר is derived from the same root (גור). In modern Hebrew we might talk of גיור – conversion. Rabbinic sources often use the term in the hitpael/nitpael form, which has a reflexive sense.

בלשכת הגזית – in the ‘lishkat hagazit’ (chamber/hall of hewn stone) – the meeting place of the Sanhedrin in the Second Temple. The ritual Temple stones were not permitted to be of hewn stone, thus this was distinguished. Probably situated half in/half outside the Temple sanctuary with doors to access it from within and without the Temple.

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Six Texts for Shavuot – Revelation, Identity and Covenant

The pack containing the previous five text studies and the sixth and final in the lead up to Shavuot.

Revelation, Identity and Covenant

If you’re thinking about a Text 7 – perhaps you could read Levinas’ ‘The Temptation of Temptation‘. Alternatively, there are suggestions about where you could take the conversation included in the introduction.

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Pesach to Shavuot 5

Here is the fifth text study for the Omer.

Text 5 – Ramban on bShabbat 88a

“When they came to the land for the second time…they willingly accepted”.

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