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Monday, February 8, 2010

What Did Moshe Know and When Did He Know It?

Thanks for the questions from the last posting. For those who didn't read them, they are important and will help to fit things together as we proceed.

So at the beginning of parshat Yitro, we are faced as readers with a bit of a dilemma simply trying to figure out when the scenario with Yitro visiting Moshe takes place. The chronological issue was provoked by the geographical issue, as we noted last time.

There is at least one more issue to give us pause, as well, and that is Yitro's advice to Moshe. We read in chapter 18 that Moshe gets up every day to act as judge for the people. Yitro suggests how Moshe can implement a judicial system which would be far more effective.

Is Yitro adding on to the Torah which Moshe already received at Sinai? Or is he anticipating something which will yet be given at Sinai?

As for Moshe judging the people: If the Torah has not yet been given, how does Moshe know how to judge the people?  Moshe says to Yitro:

שמות פרק יח (טז) כִּי יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר בָּא אֵלַי וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֶת תּוֹרֹתָיו:

Exodus Chapter 18 (16) When they have a thing (with legal implications), it comes to me and I judge between a man and his neighbor and I let them know the statutes of the Lord and His teachings.

How does Moshe know what the statutes and teachings of the Lord are if the Torah hasn't yet been given? While this question would seem to point to the understanding that this entire chapter must have taken place after the revelation at Sinai, there are other possibilities.

Where else in the Torah prior to this did we learn about justice?


  1. As for Moshe judging the people: If the Torah has not yet been given...
    Moshe has an open line of communication with H', it can be assumed that he can ask for help in areas that are not given yet.

    "Is Yitro adding on to the Torah...?"
    In a sense, yes - something was added. For more I would recommend Likutei Sichot, vol. 16. (Likutei Sichot of the lubavitcher rebbe can be found in a hebrew translation)

    "When they have a matter, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his friend." (18:16)
    Another question asked is: If Yitro's plan to appoint judges was logical and simple, why didn't Moshe think of it himself?

    When the Jews left Egypt, a group of Egyptians known as the "eirev rav" — "the mixed multitude" — joined them. When the Egyptians drowned in the sea, their jewelry washed up on the shore and the Jews took it. The people of the eirev rav fought with the Jews, arguing that the drowned people were their relatives and that they were their heirs. Therefore, many Din-Torahs took place over this issue. (The term "rei'eihu" can refer to an Egyptian, see 10:2).
    A judge is qualified to preside over a Din-Torah only if he has no personal interest in the matter. All the Jews except Moshe took the wealth of the Egyptians. Therefore, he was the only judge qualified to handle all the Din-Torahs.

    Interestingly, this same verse (18:16) was the reason (according to Rashi) that the Halacha of Bnos Tslafchad was concealed from him. Seemingly, Moshe having people "...come(s) to me" was not the best way to put it. Another reason to assume that people were really coming to H' for rulings when they approached Moshe.

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment. Actually, my point here was to find the answer in p'shat in the Torah itself. I followed up on this post here:

    I realize now that I didn't follow up with what should have been the final post. However, read that post, and consider what the proof from the text is regarding how Avraham would have known about משפט. I'll try to follow up myself and post my answer but if you have your own that is based solely on what we know from p'shat in the Torah, I would be interested, as well.

    1. Also, I take exception to your assumption that simply because Moshe had open communication with Hashem he must have asked or been told about this by Hashem. I feel we shouldn't assume unless we have no other choice. Here, there is no obvious indication that such communication about משפט per se took place between Hashem and Moshe.

      More to the point, as I indicated in the next post referenced above, we just need to read B'reishis more carefully to understand that there was already a tradition of משפט from much earlier. Ultimately, this is connected to Chazal's understanding of the שבע מצוות בני נח which were in turn preceded by שש מצוות given to Adam Harishon.


      רמב"ם הלכות מלכים פרק ט

      על ששה דברים נצטווה אדם הראשון: על ע"ז, ועל ברכת השם, ועל שפיכות דמים, ועל גילוי עריות, ועל הגזל, ועל הדינים, אף על פי שכולן הן קבלה בידינו ממשה רבינו, והדעת נוטה להן, מכלל דברי תורה יראה שעל אלו נצטוה, הוסיף לנח אבר מן החי שנאמר אך בשר בנפשו דמו לא תאכלו, נמצאו שבע מצות,

      You'll see the references in the כסף משנה to the gemaras in Sanhedrin 56b and 59b. Chazal learn out משפטים from a drasha.

      My point is that there is also a proof in the story of Avraham which indicates that Hashem must have already given the Mitzvah of משפטים prior to Avraham's time.