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Parsha and Manuscript: Yitro – ‘What did Yitro hear?’

Thursday, 13 February, 2020 - 6:35 pm

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 35 (1396).pngIn the Torah portion of Yitro, it discusses the journey of Yitro, father of law of Moses, from Midian to the desert and his conversion to belief in one G-d. It states:[1]

 

Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt. Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses'] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God…Moses told his father in law [about] all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, [and about] all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and [that] the Lord had saved them. Jethro was happy about all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. [Thereupon,] Jethro said, "Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them."

 

The question that is posed in the classic texts of the Talmud[2] and Midrash[3] is: what in particular did Yitro hear that is referred to in the Torah: ‘Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt?’ The Talmud[4] and Midrash[5] propose three interpretations:

 

1.     Rabbi Yehoshua says: He heard about the war with Amalek, as it is written adjacent to the verses that state that Yitro came:[6] “And Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” 

2.     Rabbi Elazar HaModa’i says: He heard about the giving of the Torah and came.

3.     Rabbi Eliezer says: He heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and came, as it is stated in a similar context with regard to the splitting of the Jordan in the days of Joshua:[7] ‘And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, heard.’

 

There are three variations to the question: what did Yitro hear?’ The Babylonian Talmud states:[8] ‘What tiding did he hear that he came and converted (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba v’nitgayer)?’ The Jerusalem Talmud states:[9] ‘What did he hear (Ma shama)?’ The Midrash Mechilta states:[10] ‘What tiding did he hear that he came (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba)?’

 

The variation in the way the question about what Yitro heard is phrased is also found in the commentary of Rashi as found in the numerous editions from the earliest medieval manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary through to the published editions. We will present how the exact version of the question changed over hundreds of years. The printed version that we have today and found in all contemporary printed editions is similar to the Midrash: ‘What news did he hear that he came?’ To this question Rashi presents two tidings: ‘The splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek.’ In earlier editions however there are four variations of the text of Rashi’s commentary:  1. In The oldest known manuscript of Rashi, Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig B.H.1, it does not include any question at all. It only quotes the verse: ‘And Yitro heard’ and records the answer without any prior question: ‘The splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek.’  

 

In MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225),[11] MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425)[12] and MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408),[13] the question: ‘what did he hear?’ is inserted in the margin. In MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225)[14] and MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408),[15] the question that is added in the margin is as the Jerusalem Talmud that merely states:[16] ‘What did he hear (Ma shama)?’ In MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425),[17] the question in the margin is with the additional word, as found in the Midrash and Talmud: ‘What tiding did he hear (Ma sh’muah shama)?’ It does not however include, as in the printed edition: ‘what did he hear that he came.’ This, version, with the word ‘tiding’ (sh’muah), then, doesn’t follow any complete version of the text, as found in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud or the Midrash.

 

The latter version: ‘What tiding did he hear (Ma sh’muah shama)?’ is how it is found in all the other manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, including: MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188 (1301-1400),[18] MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[19] MS. Michael 384 (1399).[20] This is also how it is found in the early printed editions: HIJAR (IXAR), SPAIN (1490) and the Bomberg Rabbinic Bible, known as Mikraot Gedolot (1517). This version is also the text that the 16th century commentators Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525) and Rabbi Judah Loew (1520-1609) had, as evident in the latter’s commentary Gur Aryeh that only quotes these words, as well as Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe (1530-1612) in his Biblical commentary, Levush ha’orah.

 

It is only in the 17th century when a Chumash appears to have been printed in Amsterdam (1680) that edits the text of Rashi further to follow the complete text of the question with the additional words: ‘that he came’ (u’ba), as found in the Midrash Mechilta:[21]‘What tiding did he hear that he came (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba)?’ Reflecting this 17th century change, the Biblical commentator Rabbi Shabtai Bass (1641–1718) is found to be using this version in his commentary Siftei Chachamim. Following the 17th century, all printed versions of rashis commentary appear with the text folowing the Midrash Mechilta:[22]‘What tiding did he hear that he came (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba)?’[23]

 

MS. Canonici Or. 35, fol. 82 (1401-25).pngOrigin of the change in the version

 

It’s difficult to know the origin of the first changes in the commentary of the Rashi text, from not having any question about what Yitro heard, to include the question in simple form, as found in both Talmudic works and the Midrash: ‘What did he hear’ or ‘what tiding did he hear?’ In addition, there is also a lack of consistency in the chronology of the development of the text, as in the 1201-1225 manuscript it is first written without any question, inserted later in the margin, and then in the 14th century, the question is found in the main text, however, in a 15th century (1408) manuscript, it does not include the question at all again in the main text and is only added in the margin.

 

One may however identify the author of the second change in the commentary of Rashi from the question in its simple form as found in the Jerusalem Talmud: ‘What did he hear?’ or a variation of this: ‘What tidings did he hear?’ to the text as found today in all printed editions with the addition: ‘What tidings did he hear that he came (u’ba)?’ The origin of this change appears to have been the author of the commentary Siftei Chachamim, Rabbi Shabtai Bass. This is evident from the fact that the Chumash printed in Amsterdam in 1680 includes this change and is consistent with his biography, whereby between 1674 and 1679 he travelled through Poland, Germany, and the Dutch Republic, and finally settled in Amsterdam in 1679, where he became familiar with publishing and devoted himself to publishing Jewish books. He had residency in Amsterdam for five years until he left first for Vienna and finally settling in 1678 or 1688 in Breslau where he was granted permission to set up a Hebrew printing press. The printing of the Chumash in Amsterdam in 1680 with the Rashi commentary containing this change: ‘What tidings did he hear that he came (u’ba)?’ – seems to be at the same time Rabbi Shabtai Bass moved to Amsterdam, when the change can be also found in his own commentary, Siftei Chachamim.

 

In summary: the commentary of Rashi’s text on the verse: ‘And Yitro heard’ appears to have developed in three stages: in the earliest manuscripts no question at all appears. This is followed by the text with the question added: ‘what did Yitro hear?’ following the Jerusalem Talmud - including the incorporation of a single word from the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrash Mechilta: ‘tidings’ (sh’muah). This was followed by a further change: the additional word by Rabbi Shabtai Bass in the 17th century and subsequent printed editions: ‘What tidings did he hear that he came (u’ba)?’ Interestingly, the development of the text does not, however, include a further additional word, as found in the Babylonian Talmud: ‘What tiding did he hear that he came and converted (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba v’nitgayer)?’

 

Significance

 

The question we would like to pose is, firstly: what is the significance of this change in the wording of the commentary of Rashi from the earliest correction of the text to include the question, as found in the both Talmudic works and the Midrash, but without the additional words: ‘that he came(u’ba),’ to then deliberately correct the text a second time to include the additional words in the question: ‘What tidings did he hear that he came (u’ba)?’ – following the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrash Mechilta? Secondly, what is the significance of making this further correction in the text, following the Midrash Mechilta, but not to follow fully the Babylonian Talmud that has the question in its fullest form:[24] ‘What tiding did he hear that he came and converted (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba v’nitgayer)?’

 

MS. Oppenheim 35, fol. 40 (1408).pngCommonality

 

The commonality of all the texts of the question is the premise that Yitro heard something that is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, necessitating the three opinions offered that Yitro either heard the war of Amalek, the giving of the Torah or the splitting of the sea. In the view of Rashi, only two of these appear to be relevant: the war of Amalek and the splitting of the sea.[25] The premise however is the same that Yitro heard something that is not explicit in the text.

 

Two hearings

 

This premise is however contradicted by the text of the Torah itself that Yitro heard ‘all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt?’ This critical question is posed by a great number of commentaries from the 6th century, including: Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525), Rabbi Judah Loew (1520-1609),[26] Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe (1530-1612), Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631),[27] Rabbinic judge and printer of Amsterdam Rabbi Moses ben Shimon Frankfurter (1672 - 1762), in his commentary on Midrash Mechilta, Zeh Yenachamenu (1712),[28] Rabbi Isaac Hirsch Weiss, (1815 –1905) in his commentary on Midrash Mechilta, Midot Sofrim,[29] Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson in Likkutei Sichot[30]and Rabbi Efrayim Ze'ev Garbuz (1903-1959) in his commentary on Midrash Mechilta.[31]

 

MS. Michael 384, fol. 49 (1399).pngPremise

 

The premise that Yitro heard something other than what is explicitly mentioned in the Torah - thus the question: ‘What did Yitro hear?’ - is explained by the following seven commentators – presented in chronological order:

 

Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525)[32] and Rabbi Isaac Hirsch Weiss, (1815 –1905) in his commentary on Midrash Mechilta, Midot Sofrim,[33] explains the question is: What was the particular miracle from the many that Yitro heard that inspired him to come to the desert? Rabbi Judah Loew (1520-1609)[34] explains that the question is why did Yitro come to the Jewish people only at this time, since he had surely heard about all the miracles of the Exodus that endured an entire year prior to this?

 

Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe (1530-1612) explains that the question is what were the miracles that Yitro contemplated on that caused him to convert to Judaism?[35]

 

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631) explains that the question is what did Yitro hear since the Torah only says in broad terms: ‘heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel.’[36]

 

Rabbi Shabtai Bass (1641–1718) explains the question is which miracles did Yitro hear at the very time they actually occurred that motivated him to come to the Jewish people.[37]

 

Rabbi Moses ben Shimon Frankfurter (1672 - 1762), in his commentary on Midrash Mechilta, Zeh Yenachamenu (1712),[38] explains that the question is: which miracles led Yitro to convert?[39]

 

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson explains that the question is: what caused Yitro to come at this time and not immediately after the Exodus?[40] Alternatively, what caused Yitro to leave the comfort of his home to come to Midian to convert as opposed to staying in Midian and convert?[41]

 

Three categories

 

In summary, the above seven interpretations of the question: ‘what did Yitro hear?’ can be categorised into three approaches: 1. What did Yitro hear? This is followed by Rabbi Shmuel Eidels that suggests the scripture is ambiguous. 2. What did Yitro hear that led him to come to the desert. This is followed by Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, Rabbi Judah Loew, Rabbi Shabtai Bass and Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. 3. What caused Yitro to convert? This is the view of Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe and Rabbi Moses ben Shimon Frankfurter.

 

Manuscripts

 

This study explains the development of the text of Rashi through the centuries. The first text that has no question at all or the simple form of the question: ‘what did Yitro hear?’ reflects the first interpretation that the verse does not present a difficulty but merely lacks detail and may be understood from either the juxtaposition of the text with the war against Amalek or the extrapolation of the term ‘heard’ that points to the splitting of the sea. The second stage of the development of the text overlapping with the simple form question: ‘what did Yitro hear’ and also implied by the additional word: ‘what tiding did Yitro hear,’ suggesting a particular tiding that motivated Yitro to leave Midian and come to the desert. As the interpretation of this question is unclear, whether the focus on what Yitro heard or what motivated Yitro to come to the desert, in the 17th century, this was clarified with the addition: ‘what did Yitro hear that he came.’

 

Finally, based on this analysis, the fact that the text of the Rashi does not develop further to include also, as found in the Babylonian Talmud: ‘what did Yitro hear that he came and convert,’ suggests that the principle question relating to Yitro is in fact why he came, whether referring to the timing of his coming, or the place he chose to convert (the desert) - which he could have done in Midian, without coming to the desert, as opposed to why he converted in the first place.[42]

 

 

 


 

[1] Exodus 18:1-27.

[2] Talmud Zevachim 116a.

[3] Mechilta Parshat Vayishma Yitro.

[4] Talmud Zevachim 116a.

[5] Mechilta Parshat Vayishma Yitro.

[6] Exodus 17:13.

[7] Joshua 5:1.

[8] Talmud Zevachim 116a.

[9] Jerusalem Talmud Megillh 15a.

[10] Mechilta Parshat Vayishma Yitro.

[11] Fol. 38.

[12] Fol. 82.

[13] Fol. 40.

[14] Fol. 38.

[15] Fol. 40.

[16] Jerusalem Talmud Megillh 15a.

[17] Fol. 82.

[18] Fol. 63.

[19] Fol. 35.

[20] Fol. 49.

[21] Mechilta Parshat Vayishma Yitro.

[22] Mechilta Parshat Vayishma Yitro.

[23] Likkutei Sichot 11:77, footnote 31 states: ‘In all the printed texts of Rashi that I have seen it states: ‘What tiding did he hear that he came (Ma sh’muah shama u’ba)?’ For some reason it does not mention the earlier printed editions of Rashi that also omit, as all the manuscripts, the word ‘that he came’ (u’ba).

[24] Talmud Zevachim 116a.

[25] According to the Maharsha, Rashi chose not to mention the giving of the Torah, as this is a subject of dispute in the Talmud whether Yitro came before Mount Sinai or after.

[26] Gur Aryeh on Exodus 18:1. He explains the reason why the war against Amalek and the splitting of the sea motivated Yitro in articular was since other miracles related to minor details of the world, whereas the stopping of the sun in the war of Amalek and the splitting of the sea, that effected all the water in the world – a fundamental element of life for all of the humanity – brought Yitro to the Jewish people. The reason why Yitro required knowledge of both – Amalek and the sea was since the sea belongs to the lower realms and the war against Amalek belonged to the higher realms, as G-d stopped the sun, and only combined shows G-d’s complete presence, as it states (Deuteronomy 4:39): Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord is G-d in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is no other.’

[27] Maharsha on Zevachim 116a.

[28] https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=40606&st=&pgnum=78.

[29] https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33719&st=&pgnum=167.

[30] Likkutei Sichot 11:77, footnote 32 and Likkutei Sichot 16:201, including footnote 75.

[31] Mechilta de-Rabi Yishmael: im hagahot ha-Gera ve-im perush Kav. Efrayim Ze'ev ben Tsevi Ary Garbuz.

[32] Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi on Exodus 18:1.

[33] https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33719&st=&pgnum=167.

[34] Gur Aryeh on Exodus 18:1. He explains the reason why the war against Amalek and the splitting of the sea motivated Yitro in articular was since other miracles related to minor details of the world, whereas the stopping of the sun in the war of Amalek and the splitting of the sea, that effected all the water in the world – a fundamental element of life for all of the humanity – brought Yitro to the Jewish people. The reason why Yitro required knowledge of both – Amalek and the sea was since the sea belongs to the lower realms and the war against Amalek belonged to the higher realms, as G-d stopped the sun, and only combined shows G-d’s complete presence, as it states (Deuteronomy 4:39): Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord is G-d in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is no other.’

[35] L’vush Ha’orah on Exodus 18:1. If the verse merely wants to say that Yitro heard all the miracles and therefore came to the Jewish people, it should have written ‘when Yitro heard all that G-d had done to Israel, he came,’ similar to how it is written in Joshua (5:1): ‘And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were on the side of Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel.’ According to this commentary, the hearing of Yitro of the two miracles refers in fact to what is stated in the verse itself: And Yitro heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel. It also includes the Exodus itself, which the splitting of the sea is a part of and is also mentioned in the same verse. All that The reason the splitting of the sea and war with Amalek was unique in Yitro’s mind was because: splitting the sea was to glorify G-d and for all people to accept the Kingdom of Heaven and war of Amalek showed G-d’s love for Israel, since Yitro would have justified the war of Amalek against Israel as such was the nature of the world for one nation to wage war against another nation. The fact that G-d swore revenge and place His name on the erasing fo Amalek showed G-d’s immense love for Israel and there worthy for Yitro to cleave to this people.

[36] He argues that the subsequent statement: ‘that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt’ is not related to the previous words: ‘all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel,’ since, firstly, it would make the first words: ‘all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel’ redundant, and, secondly, in the latter it says ‘for Moses and for Israel,’ whereas the statement: ‘that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt’ only mentions Israel but not Moses, since he had already been outside Egypt in Midian.

[37] Siftei Chachamim on Exodus 18:1. This understanding of the question is based on the term: ‘And Yitro heard’ – in the present. The two such miracles would have been the splitting of the sea, the Torah and Amalek, as all of them impacted the whole world.

[38] https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=40606&st=&pgnum=78.

[39] He explains that the war of Amalek filled him with dread and repentance out of fear. Mont Sinai and the splitting of the sea had universal impact.

[40] Likkutei Sichot 11:77, footnote 32. It explains that the reason Yitro came was due to the splitting of the sea that represented the combination of the higher and the lower in the spiritual but the war of Amalek shoed opposition to this harmony in the realm of negativity itself. For this reason, Yitro came and his transformation from idolatry to holiness completed this harmony even on the lowest levels, thereby preparing the world for Mount Sinai, when the higher realm came down to the lower: ‘And G-d descended on Mount Sinai.’

[41] Likkutei Sichot 16:201. It explains that the splitting of the sea was a change on the level of deed, whereby the Jewish people travelled forth, and the war against Amalek represented to change on an intellectual level, whereby the cold intellect of denial of G-d by Amalek was defeated brought Yitro himself to change requiring him to leave his own surrounding and come to the desert to convert, as oppose to stay and convert in Midian.

[42] Likkutei Sichot 16:201, including footnote 75.

 

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