Who Was Jethro?

Jethro (or Yitro or Yisro) was a Midianite priest and the father-in-law of Moses. He is mentioned three times in the Pentateuch, once in the Prophets and in numerous places in rabbinic literature.

Let us learn what we can about this fascinating figure.

Jethro In Midian

After describing the circumstances that led Moses to leave Egypt for Midian, the verses tell us about Jethro, a kohen of the land of Midian. Jethro had seven daughters who took care of his sheep. Other shepherds chased them away from the local well, and Moses came to their rescue. Hearing what had happened, Jethro invited Moses to their home, and his daughter Zipporah soon married the kind stranger. At that point Moses began to tend to his father-in-law’s sheep.

When G‑d instructed Moses to return to Egypt, he asked permission from his father-in-law to leave.1 At this point the verses continue with the story of the plagues and the eventual Exodus from Egypt.

In the Desert

After describing the miraculous defeat of Amalek soon after the Exodus from Egypt, the verses tell us that Moses’ father-in-law heard of all the miracles G‑d did for the Jews, and was moved to join the children of Israel in the desert with his daughter and grandchildren (the wife and sons of Moses). There he exclaimed to Moses, “Now I know G‑d is greater than all other gods.”2

At that time Jethro also suggested that Moses implement a judicial system so that he wouldn’t have to address all of the nation’s needs on his own. G‑d approved of this idea, and a judicial system was established. Later, Jethro returned to Midian.3 The verses then go on to tell us about the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

Later on in the Torah, we read that Jethro wished to leave the desert and return home. Moses pleaded with him to remain with the Jews.4 The verses don’t state clearly if he agreed to stay. This is the last time Jethro is mentioned in the Pentateuch.

Jethro’s Descendants

Jethro is referenced again in the book of Judges, where it says that his descendants lived in the land of Israel.5 And that is the last explicit mention of Jethro in Scripture.6

Some Questions

From what we have read, it would seem that Jethro was a man who had a special position in Midian, and though he was touched by the story of the Jews, was hesitant to fully join them. Ultimately though, it seems that his family did remain with the Jews, as they ended up in the land of Israel.

Some of the questions and ambiguities around this man are addressed by the rabbinic tradition:

  1. What is meant in referring to Jethro as a kohen, a priest? Obviously he was not a priest in the sense that it is used in the Torah to mean those of the priestly class, the descendants of Aaron.
  2. Why were his daughters mistreated by the other shepherds?
  3. In reading through the verses that refer to the father-in-law of Moses, we find multiple names for him. Some of those names are used within the same few verses. These are the names we find explicitly: Yeter, Jethro, Reuel, Chovav, Keini. According to the commentaries, he had even more names than that. What is the significance all these names?
  4. The Jews were in the desert for 40 years. At which point did Jethro come with Zipporah and her children?
  5. Since he announced that he recognizes the superiority and truth of G‑d, why would he still want to return home, where such beliefs would have not been accepted?
  6. Why didn’t anyone else, including Moses, come up with the idea of having a court system so that Moses wouldn’t need to address all the nation’s questions on his own?
  7. Did Jethro indeed acquiesce to Moses’ plea for him to remain with the Jews in the desert?

The Talmudic sages have told us quite a bit about Jethro’s background, much of it alluded to in the Torah. There is also much debate among our sages about the various details of this background. Let’s go through some of this commentary, and then we’ll get back to answering the above questions.

Jethro’s Background

Here is a summary of parts of the commentary:

Prior to meeting Moses, Jethro had experimented with all the other religions and beliefs of his time. According to some, he was an adviser—together with Balaam and Job—to Pharaoh. Balaam suggested the enslavement of the Jews, and Jethro, opposing the oppression of the Jews, left Egypt.7 At some point, he rose to the level of being the main priest of the religion of Midian. Eventually he rejected that religion too, and was still uncertain as to what path he would follow.8

In reaction, the Midianites ostracized him and his family, which is why his daughters were being chased from the well.9

After all the events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt, and all the accompanying miracles, Jethro became convinced that the G‑d that the Jews worship was the true G‑d, and he came to the desert to convert.10

Here are some of the opinions as to which event moved him to come to the desert and convert:11

  • The war against Amalek. It seems, according to some, that he sympathized with Amalek12 until he heard of their defeat. Then he concluded that he should commit himself to G‑d.13
  • The giving of the Torah.
  • The splitting of the Reed Sea.

Accordingly, there is a debate if Jethro arrived in the desert before or after the giving of the Torah.14

Jethro’s Feelings

When Jethro arrived, Moses told him in detail about all the miracles that G‑d had done for the Jews, both in leaving Egypt and in the desert, and Jethro was filled with joy.

The Torah uses an unusual word to express Jethro’s joy (vayichad). Some commentators understand this word to mean that he underwent circumcision15 as part of his conversion and new association with the Jewish nation.16 Others emphasize his association with non-Jews, understanding the word to mean that his body shriveled17 in anguish over the loss of the Egyptians. For as the sages teach, though he opposed the evil perpetrated on the Jews, he still felt a certain closeness to the Egyptian nation, and was therefore pained to hear of their severe punishment.18 Others say that the word simply means joy, as the context would suggest.19

Jethro’s Recommendation

Later on, Jethro was disturbed when he saw all the Jews waiting for their chance to ask Moses their questions. Some say that he was disturbed at the seeming disrespect shown to the Jewish people—that they had to stand all day while Moses sat “like a king.”20 Others say he was disturbed that the Jewish people would not get their answers in a timely manner, or that Moses would not be available for receiving prophecy, and in general for his personal service of G‑d.21 Jethro suggested that there be a system of judges appointed to oversee the Jews: judges of thousands, judges of hundreds, judges of fifties and judges of tens.22 G‑d told Moses to implement this suggestion, and that’s what was done.23

Jethro’s Departure

In the Torah, there are two descriptions of Jethro’s departure from the desert, and interpretations abound about the circumstances around, and reasons for, these departures.

Following the implementation of the system of judges in the book of Exodus, the verse says, “Moses sent his-father-in-law, and he went to his land.”24

Later, in the book of Numbers, there is a somewhat cryptic conversation, paraphrased here:25

Moses said to his father in law, “We are traveling to Israel, come with us, and we will do good to you.” And his father-in-law answered, “I will not go, for I will go to my land.”

Here Moses says again, “Please do not leave us, for you have known our dwelling in the desert, and you will be eyes for us. When you will come with us, the good that G‑d gives to us, we will give to you.”

There is quite a bit to clarify here. Between these verses in Exodus and Numbers there is no mention of Jethro returning to the desert. So when, and under what circumstances, was his second arrival?

It is also unclear what the “good” was that Moses was promising Jethro.

One interpretation is that the account in Numbers is an elaboration of the same departure mentioned briefly in Exodus.26 , 27

Some say that the reason Jethro refused to stay was because he wanted to bring more converts from his homeland.

Others say the reason he left was because he wasn’t worthy to be at the giving of the Torah, since he didn’t go through the pain of the enslavement in Egypt as the rest of the Jews had.28

Yet another opinion is that he didn’t want to abandon his property and the possessions he had in Midian, especially since he wouldn’t get a portion in the land of Israel.29 In response, Moses told him that he would get a portion in the land, at least until the time when the Holy Temple would be built.30 Then, the tribe in whose portion the Temple would be built would relocate to the portion that was given to Jethro and his descendants.

Some hold that Jethro was indeed convinced to remain in the desert with the Jewish nation.31 Obviously that could only work according to the understanding that there were two distinct departures, the one referred to in Exodus and the one referred to in Numbers.

Back to the Details

With all this background, let’s go back and deal with some of the remaining questions:

  1. The meaning of “kohen” in reference to Jethro is explained in Midrash to mean that he was a priest for idol worship, referring to his position prior to meeting Moses.32 Others explain that he was the minister of Midian, holding a political position.33 It would seem that these commentaries are compatible, especially since, in ancient times, the authorities of religion and of state were commonly linked.
  2. In addition to Jethro’s names mentioned above, there are other references to him in the Torah. In the portion of Va’eira, the verse say that “Elazar the son of Aaron married one of the daughters of Putiel,”34 and the Midrash tell us that Putiel refers to Jethro. The Midrash adds that one of his names was Chever. And so, it would seem that Jethro had seven names!

    There are varying Midrashim (and varying versions of those Midrashim!) that differ as to exactly how many names Jethro had, and why. In summary, we might say that each name alludes to a significant event or quality in Jethro’s life:35
    • Yeter (which in Hebrew means “more” or “addition”), because he added a portion of Torah. Namely, the judicial system that he suggested, which was accepted as a part of the Torah.
    • Yitro-Jethro (which has the same meaning as Yeter), because he did many good deeds.
    • Chovav (which is from the root word meaning “love” or “favor”), because he was beloved by G‑d.
    • Re’uail (which in Hebrew could be broken up to “reia,” which means friend, and “A-il,” meaning G‑d) and Chever (which is also from the root word meaning “to be connected”), because he was as a friend to G‑d.36, 37
    • Putiel (the first half of the word [פוטי] shares root letters with the word that means “to be redeemed” or “relieved”), because G‑d had redeemed him from idol worship.38
    • Keini (from the root word that means “to acquire”), because he acquired Torah.
  3. His descendants are alluded to in the Prophets as being sages who learned Torah, and who were part of the Sanhedrin.39 Not all of his descendants joined the Jewish nation, and according to some, Balak the king of Moab, who tried to bring misfortune upon the Jews, was actually a descendant of Jethro.40
  4. There are some interesting and profound explanations as to why the suggestion about the court system came specifically through Jethro:
    • G‑d purposefully concealed this idea from Moses so that Jethro would be honored by the people when G‑d-approved his suggestion.41
    • A practical reason: This suggestion was given before the giving of the Torah (see opinions above), so aside for Moses, no one knew the laws, so they were unable to be judges. Jethro wasn’t aware that he was witnessing a temporary arrangement that would come to an end soon after the giving of the Torah.42
    • A matter of diplomacy and etiquette: It wasn’t respectful for the Jews to tell Moses that they needed a judge other than him. Moses didn’t want to tell the Jews to appoint someone else, so that they don’t have the impression that he was getting weak. G‑d didn’t command it because it could have been taken as an indication that Moses wasn’t worthy enough. So the best option was for it to come from Jethro.43
    • A difference of spiritual perspectives: Moses perceived and understood Torah on an altogether higher level than the rest of the Jewish nation. He saw an expression of G‑dliness and spirituality within the laws and their details. He desired to transmit Torah to the Jews directly so that they would absorb the Torah and be elevated on that level.

      Jethro, coming from an idol-worshipping background, recognized the need for the Jews to be taught Torah on a simpler level. They needed to be able to relate the Torah to the mundane aspects of their lives, when their connection to G‑d was not as tangible and as central as it was when they stood in front of Moses.

      Although Moses wished for Jews to never even be in that less connected mode, G‑d agreed with Jethro’s suggestion that the Torah be made available in a more simple format, so that ultimately the Torah would permeate and penetrate even the lower aspects of the life of a Jew.44

Jethro and Amalek

In many of the Midrashim, Jethro’s name is mentioned in juxtaposition to Amalek’s (indeed, his arrival to the desert encampment is recorded in the Torah directly after the war with Amalek). As is emphasized in the words of one commentary, “Just as we are obligated to erase the name of Amalek, so too we are obligated to honor the name of Jethro.”45

Amalek, through the lens of Chassidut, represents an obstinate evil, an evil that is unmoved by any information or experience.46 As we see, Amalek came to wage war with the Jews even after knowing of their miraculous victory over Egypt.

It would seem that Jethro represents the very opposite theme. When he heard information that challenged his philosophy and way of life, he courageously and joyously acknowledged it and incorporated it into his life.

In doing so, he brought upon himself much discomfort. At home he was ostracized. As part of the Jewish nation, though he was favored and honored in remarkable ways, he nevertheless was not able to receive a permanent portion in the land of Israel, and (as detailed above) he was not able to fully and wholeheartedly participate in all the nation’s experiences.

But he and his descendants so intensely desired the light of G‑d and Torah in their lives that they continued to sacrifice their comfort in order to live by its laws and serve G‑d. Ultimately, they became teachers and luminaries for all the Jewish people to follow.