Thoughts to Ponder 114

Moshe and Yitro, major or minor in jurisprudence ?

As is well known, Yitro, the father in law of Moshe, advised his son in law
to change the juridical process being used to judge the people traveling in the desert on their way to the
land of Israel:

 “And it came to pass on the morrow that Moshe sat to judge the people and the people stood around Moshe from the morning unto the evening. And Moshe’s father in law saw all that he did for the people and he said: “What is this that you do to the people….?” And Moshe answered his father in law: “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. If they are solicitous about any matter they come to me. I have to judge between one and the other. I have to make the laws of God and His teachings known.”

And Moshe’s father in law said unto him: “That what you do is not good. You shall surely wear yourself out and the people that are with you, for this thing is too heavy for you alone, you are not able to carry it out. Hearken on to me… shall  descry out of all the people able men….and place them over them (the Israelites), leading judges out of thousands and leading judges out of hundreds, leading judges out of fifties and leading judges out of ten. And let these judge the people at all times and it shall be that every major matter will be brought to you but every minor matter they (the other judges) shall judge…” (Shemoth: 18, 13-23)

It is generally understood that Moshe implemented the suggestions of his father in law and indeed appointed different judges to judge the smaller cases, while Moshe only involved himself with the major ones. However, this is not entirely true. It seems that Moshe was not prepared to take his father in law’s suggestion at face value. In fact we may argue that he saw some flaws in his father in law’s approach and when we dig a little deeper into the way the Torah describes Moshe’s implementation we may notice a most significant difference between the attitudes of both personalities in regard to the application and the function of the law.

When Yitro suggests changes in the juridical process he makes a distinction between a major case (davar hagadol) and a minor case (davar hakatan). However, when Moshe implements these recommendations he makes a distinction between harder cases and easier cases:

And they (the judges) judged the people at all times; the hard case (davar hakashe) they brought to Moshe and the easier case (Davar hakatan) they judged themselves.” (18:26)

Commentators indicate that there is a big difference between what Yitro calls a major case and what Moshe calls a hard case. 

Yitro considered a major case to be one where (for example) a lot of money was involved, while a minor case involved only a small sum. Consequently only cases where substantial amounts of money or property were an issue were judged by Moshe, while  minor monetary issues were dealt with by the other judges and the smaller the amount the “lower” the courts.

Moshe seems to object to this. In his eyes major and minor cases were of a totally different nature and not related to larger or smaller amounts of money. In his opinion “major cases” meant cases which are harder to judge since they are more complicated and difficult to judge. This could equally be the situation in the case of a large or very small amount of money.  A problem related to a small amount of money sometimes causes the judge more juridical hardship than a large amount of money. The latter may easily be decided on while the former may require a lot of wisdom and experience.

From the perspective of Jewish ethics the quantity of money is of no significance to the rabbinical court when dealing with a monetary case. What may be a small amount of money in the eyes of the rich may be a major amount in the eyes of the poor. No distinction between major and minor can be made.

Yitro, coming from a world in which the quantity of an object was a reflection of its owners “worth”, could not (yet) fully grasp that “having” more in no way says anything about  “being” more. It was Moshe who in a most subtle way makes his father in law aware of this. He gives him the honor of drastically changing the juridical procedures but at the same time, without even mentioning it, changes the content of Yitro’s suggestion. In many ways this reflects the function of the Jewish tradition. Its purpose is not always to replace other legal systems which carry much weight and wisdom, but to refine them and bring them to even higher standards of weltanschauung and moral behavior.

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