“And you should seek from all of the nation men of valor, who fear Hashem, men of the truth, those who hate improper gain. And you should appoint them over the people as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens.” (Shemot 18:21)
Sometimes it is just wonderful to take a single passage of the Torah and consider the wonderful and exacting manner in which our Sages analyze its content. Every passage must make sense in all of its details. It must be internally coherent. It must be contextually consistent. It must correspond with established halachic principles. Let us consider one passage from our parasha and the manner in which our Sages analyze it.
Moshe and Bnai Yisrael are joined in the wilderness by Yitro – Moshe’s father-in-law. Yitro observes Moshe judging and teaching the people. Moshe is fulfilling the role of judge and teacher without assistance. Yitro concludes that no single person can fulfill the role of serving as sole judge and teacher. He advises Moshe to recruit other leaders who will share his burden. Yitro describes the characteristics that Moshe should seek in these leaders. He also advises Moshe to appoint these leaders as leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Moshe will continue to serve as the highest judicial and governmental authority. Moshe accepts Yito’s counsel and creates the system he has proposed.
Our Sages disagree as to the meaning of this last instruction. What is a leader of thousands, hundreds, fifties or tens? Rashi’s explanation is well-know. His explanation is based upon the comments of the Talmud in Mesechet Sanhedrin. According to Rashi, Moshe was to create a multileveled judiciary. Each of the lowest judges would be responsible for a group of ten people. Above these judges would be appointed a second level of judges. Each judge would be charged with the responsibility of leading fifty people. The leaders of the hundreds would each care for the affairs of one hundred people. Those appointed over the thousands would each have one thousand people assigned to his care. Rashi continues to explain that the nation numbered six hundred thousand men. This means there were six hundred judges appointed at the highest level. At the next level, there were six thousand judges. The next level required twelve thousand judges. The lowest level required sixty thousand appointments. The table below represents Rashi’s explanation of the system Moshe was to create. As the table indicates, Moshe was to appoint a total of 78,600 leaders – representing slightly more than 13% of the total adult male population.
Judges of Thousands
Judges of Hundreds
Judges of Fifties
Judges of Tens
Total Adult Male Population
Percentage of Population Serving in Leadership
Ibn Ezra questions Rashi’s explanation. He argues that Yitro and Moshe set very high standards for the leaders Moshe would appoint. The qualities that each and every leader was required to posses are not common, easily acquired traits. These leaders were to be morally and spiritually beyond reproach. It is difficult to imagine that Moshe would find close to 79,000 people possessing this unusual combination of traits. Ibn Ezra also questions the need for appointing close to one eighth of the nation as leaders. This seems to be the beginnings of the greatest bureaucracy in recorded history!
Based on these objections, Ibn Ezra suggests and alternative explanation of our passage. According to Ibn Ezra, a judge of thousands was not charged with judging one thousand people. Instead, the meaning of the passage is that the highest judges were to be selected from most powerful and influential elite. In order to qualify for this position, the candidate was required to be master of a household of at least one thousand individuals. In other words, he must have at least one thousand servants and assistants and others under his control. Leaders for each of the subsequent levels were chosen from a group of candidates who led proportionately smaller households. At the lowest level, a candidate was required to be master over a household of ten people. According to this explanation, the pasuk is not indicating the number of leaders appointed or the number of people each was required to lead. Instead, the passage describes the number of servants and assistants a candidate must command to qualify for each level of leadership.
Abravanel objects to Ibn Ezra’s interpretation on both practical and philosophical grounds. From a practical perspective, he argues that Bnai Yisrael had just escaped from slavery in Egypt. It is hard to imagine that any of these former slaves were masters over the large households that Ibn Ezra describes as a requirement. From a philosophical perspective, he objects to the idea that wealth and power should be a criterion for selection.
In addition to these objections, Ralbag points out that Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the passage is textually difficult to accept. Returning to the passage, it is clear that the passage is composed of two elements. The first portion of the passage describes the qualifications required of each judge. The second half of the passage describes the appointment of the judges. In other words, first Yitro suggests who should be selected and then how these leaders should be appointed. According to Ibn Ezra’s interpretation, the passage looses its coherency. The second portion of the passage first describes the appointment of the leaders and then returns to the theme of the first potion of the passage; an additional qualification is described. If Ibn Ezra’s interpretation were correct, the passage should read “And you should seek from all of the nation men of valor, who fear Hashem, men of the truth, those who hate improper gain. They should be leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens. And you should appoint them over the people.”
This analysis leaves Ralbag with a perplexing problem. On the one hand he agrees with Ibn Ezra’s critique of Rashi’s explanation of the passage. However on the other hand, he does not feel that Ibn Ezra’s explanation is much better.
In order to resolve this dilemma, Ralbag develops a third interpretation of the passage. Now, Ralbag must offer an explanation that responds to all of the questions that he has asked on Rashi and Ibn Ezra. And ideally, it should also respond to Abravanel’s objections. This is quite a task! In order to avoid the questions on Rashi, Ralbag takes an approach similar to Ibn Ezra’s. The passage is not describing the number of people placed under the authority of each leader. Neither does the pasuk indicate the number of judges to be appointed. But unlike Ibn Ezra, Ralbag maintains that the pasuk is divided into two clear portions and the second portion of the passage does not deal with selection criteria; it deals with the process of appointment. According to Ralbag, Moshe was to assign to each judge the resources he would need to enforce his decisions. The highest judges were to be assigned one thousand subordinates; each judge at the lowest level was to be assigned ten subordinates. Each judge was to be given the authority and the resources he would need to carry out his decisions. With this explanation Ralbag, responds to all of the objections he has raised against Rashi and Ibn Ezra.
“And these are the laws that you should place before them.” (Shemot 21:1)
One of the most interesting elements of Ralbag’s explanation is that it is reflected in normative halacha. This above pasuk is the opening passage of Parshat Mishpatim. In Mesechet Sanhedrin, the Talmud asks why the passage does not read, “These are the laws you should teach them?” What is the meaning of placing the laws before them? The Talmud suggests that the meaning of the passage is that before judging a case a judge must have placed before him the “tools of the judge.” What are these tools? The Talmud explains that they include a staff with which to lead, a strap with which to administer lashes, and a shofar with which to announce excommunication. This text from the Talmud is quoted by Tur and based on the authority of Rav Hai Gaon, he codifies this requirement into law.
It is interesting the Tur places this law in the first chapter of Choshen Mishpat. The chapter deals primarily with the appointment of judges and their authority. Why does Tur include a detail regarding the physical organization of the courtroom?
According to Ralbag, Tur’s organizational scheme makes perfect sense. Yitro and Moshe agreed that in appointing judges, each judge must be assigned the means for carrying out his decisions. This assignment of resources is part of the process of appointment. The appointment is meaningless if it is only ceremonial and does not include authority and the resources to carry out justice. Tur’s organization of this first chapter of Choshen Mishpat reflects this same consideration. As part of his discussion of the appointment of judges and the extent of their authority, Tur includes the requirement that the judge have before him his tools – the tools used to carry out his decisions. Why must these tools be present? Consistent with Ralbag’s reasoning, Tur is suggesting that the placement of these tools before the judge is part of the process of appointment. Without these resources at his disposal, his appointment and status as a judge is incomplete.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 18:21.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 18:21.  Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Sehmot, p 156.  Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 134.  Mesechet Sanhedrin 7a.  Rabbaynu Yaakov ben HaRash, Tur Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 1.