Moses’s father-in law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out” Exodus 18:17-18


Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) hears of the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people and chooses to join their ranks as a convert after the Sinai experience. We are told that prior to his conversion to Judaism, Jethro had been a spiritual wanderer, associating with various religions and belief systems in his search for truth, including holding position as a pagan priest.

Jethro witnesses a run-down and exhausted Moses, who is attempting to juggle all leadership and judging roles. He queries how Moses intends on being personally invested in each and every legal case and forces him to recognise how unsustainable this is. Instead, Jethro maps out for Moses a plan for the delegation of leadership and legal powers. 

It is Jethro who advises Moses on a hierarchy for adjudication, including minor and major courts. He identifies the challenge of content versus process; how the laws of Torah can function within the human experience. In this context, the eyes of a newcomer are invaluable. 

Jethro, with his lived experience of multiple cultures and theocracies, and his rejection of these in favour of Judaism, was in a prime position to deduce a practical system for Torah to have real legalistic expression in this world. Perhaps the Israelites in their religious infancy,fleeing from subjugation and the impotence of slavery, needed the paradigm shift that Jethro could introduce; that of systemic autonomy. How to wield responsibility in interpreting and carrying out Torah law.

Judaism does not have a monopoly on the systems for justice, although certainly we should be a beacon. One of the seven Noahide laws — those principles of universal morality — is to set up courts of law. Our history records further individuals who converted into Judaism and went on to lead stellar legal careers. Most famously, Shmaya and Avtalyon, both proselytes, became leaders of the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court) in the first century BCE.

Perhaps they too brought with them some invaluable experience from their pasts.
It is fitting that the Torah portion where the Ten Commandments — our initial set of laws — are found is named after Jethro, our first recorded convert after we became an organised religion. Jethro chose to accept the yoke of Jewish law, but he brought to Judaism his own wisdom and played a major role in shaping the judicial establishment of the Jewish people.


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive