In the Torah portion of Yitro, we read that after Moshe went to greet his father-in-law Yitro, Moshe brought him into the camp, and “Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moshe’s father-in-law before G-d.”
According to our sages,
Moshe served the guests at this dinner. This is derived from the fact that his name is not mentioned as one of the people who partook in the meal. Our sages say
that since the verse says that they came to dine “before G-d,” we may infer that one who receives guests (and serves them) is as if he is receiving the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
Yitro as the Host
The Talmud says
that we can learn the power of inviting guests to eat from Yitro. Rabbi Yochanan said, “In the merit that Yitro told his daughters to invite Moshe for a meal, he merited to have descendants who were members of the Sanhedrin.” This story is recounted in the Torah portion of Shemot. When Moshe was running away from Pharaoh, he came to Midian where he saved Yitro’s daughters from being persecuted at the well. When his daughters recounted the day’s events to Yitro, he said to them “So where is he? Why have you left the man? Invite him, and let him eat bread.”
recounts how Yitro’s daughter Tziporah ran swiftly after Moshe like a bird (Tziporah means bird) and invited him to their home. Based on his dress, Tziporah realized that Moshe was Jewish, so in preparation for his arrival, she cleansed the house of any vestige of idolatry just as a bird devours every available crumb of food. She ended up marrying Moshe, and through their marriage her entire family became Jewish. Thus she brought purity to her previously idolatrous home just as a bird can bring purification to a leprous home.
(Although Yitro had already decided to reject idol worship, it was only through Tziporah and Moshe that he and his family followed in their footsteps.)
Renowned Torah Scholars
After joining the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, Yitro returned to Midian to convert his family. When they entered the land of Canaan, the Jewish people offered Yitro’s descendants the fertile land around the city of Jericho as a temporary dwelling-place. In actuality, however, they refused this offer which would have provided them with a life of physical comfort, and they left to study Torah under the tutelage of Otniel son Kenaz, the first of the judges of the Jewish people. This is alluded to in the verse, “And the children of Keni,
the father-in-law of Moses, went up from the city of date palms with the children of Judah into the wilderness of Judah, which is south of Arad; and he went and dwelt with the people.”
This is interpreted (see Rashi on the verse) to mean that they left the city of Jericho (city of date palms) and went to study with Otniel who lived in the wilderness of Judah, near Hebron.
They succeeded in their studies to such an extent that many of the members of the family became sages in the Sanhedrin. This is alluded to by the verse, “And the families of scholars, those who dwelt with Yavetz: Tiratim, Shimatim, Suchatim, they are the Kenites, who were descended from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechav.”
The Midrash explains that this verse refers to the descendants of Yitro who had gone to study Torah with Yavetz (Otniel ben Kenaz
), as explained above. The verse describes their qualities:
- Tiratim. They heard the Shofar blast (teruah) at Mount Sinai. Also, they would sit at the gateways of Jerusalem (tarah means a gateway in Aramaic) where they would judge as members of the Sanhedrin.
- Shimatim. They listened (shmiah means listening) to the request of their father (see below).
- Suchatim. They refrained from anointing themselves (sicha means anointing) with oil (see below). And they dwelt in huts (Sukkah means a hut).
Canaanite Allies Yet Loyal to the Jewish People
Although the descendants of Yitro were Jewish, they maintained an identity as a separate clan with their own military alliances. Thus we find that, although the Jewish people in the time of Devorah the Prophetess were warring with Yavin, the king of Canaan, some of the descendants of Yitro were his allies. As the verse says, “For there was peace between Yavin the king of Chatzor and the house of Chever, the Kenite.”
It has been suggested that the Canaanites did not see the family of Yitro (the Kenites) as a threat to them since the Kenites were nomads who did not seek to conquer and occupy any territory.
Despite this, Yael, the wife of Chever, the Kenite, killed Sisera, the Canaanite general who sought refuge in her tent.
points out that Yitro had received a redeemer (Moshe) in his house who was fleeing from an enemy (Pharaoh). So from his house arose a woman (Yael) who received an enemy (Sisera) in her home who was fleeing from a redeemer (Barak) and she killed him. This follows the principal that if one does a mitzvah, G-d gives him the opportunity to do more of the same mitzvah. Therefore, since Yitro helped the Jewish people by giving shelter to their redeemer Moshe, G-d enabled his descendants to continue helping the Jewish people by killing their enemies.
Living Among the Amalekites
Before King Saul battled and nearly wiped out the Amalekites, he told the Kenites (descendants of Yitro) who were dwelling among the Amalekites to separate from the Amalekites so that they not be killed. (As mentioned above, the descendants of Yitro had moved to the Judean desert, south of Arad. This is near the Amalekites who lived in Arad.
) In Saul’s words: “Turn away, and go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them, and you did kindness with all the children of Israel, when they went up out of Egypt.”
There are many opinions as to which kindness of Yitro made his descendants deserving of this consideration. Some of the opinions are
- Yitro fed Moshe when he was fleeing from Pharaoh, as explained above. He did not do this only to repay Moshe for saving his daughters from the shepherds, but because he genuinely wanted to help him although he was a complete stranger.
- Yitro was kind to Aharon and the sages of Israel by inviting them to the meal that he prepared to celebrate his acceptance into the Jewish people. (Although the simple reading of the verse is that Yitro was a guest at the meal as mentioned above, some say he was actually the host.) Thus we see that acting kindly to a few individuals is considered like acting kindly to the entire nation.
- Yitro’s kindness was that he advised Moshe to establish the system of judges as described in Exodus 18:13-27.
- While the Jewish people were wandering in the desert, Yitro would tell them what were the best routes to travel. (Although G-d showed them the routes which they should take, it was gratifying to the Jewish people to get this advice from someone who had firsthand experience.)
Yonadav ben Rechav
One of the famous descendants of Yitro was named Yonadav ben Rechav.
He lived in the time of Yehu, king of Israel, and he aided Yehu in wiping out the evil household of Achav.
Yonadav foresaw the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash, and he therefore instructed his descendants to begin mourning for it although it was still standing in his time. Specifically, he told them to
- Not to drink wine because the wine would no longer be poured on the Mizbe’ach (holy altar).
- Not to live in houses or plant vineyards but rather in tents. Since G-d would be without a house, so should they be. Although this lifestyle had already been adopted shortly after their entry into Israel (see above), Yonadav asked his descendants to accept this as an obligation.
His descendants kept his instructions as recorded in the book of Yirmiyahu. The prophet Yirmiyahu gathered some of Yonadav’s descendants and offered them to drink wine. They responded and said “We will not drink wine, for Yonadav, the son of Rechav, our father, commanded us saying, ‘You shall not drink wine, you or your children forever. And you shall not build a house, neither shall you sow nor shall you plant a vineyard, nor shall you have [any], but you shall dwell in tents all your days in order that you live many days on the face of the land where you dwell. And we harkened to the voice of Yonadav the son of Rechav, our father, to all that he commanded us, not to drink wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons, and our daughters. And not to build houses for our dwelling, and not to have a vineyard, a field, or seed. And we have dwelt in tents, and we have harkened and done according to all that Yonadav our father has commanded us.”
G-d contrasted their steadfast adherence to their forefather’s wishes with the Jewish people of that era who were not following G-d’s wishes. And He blessed them through the prophet Yirmiyahu saying, “So said the L-rd of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: Because you have obeyed the commandment of Yonadav, your father, and you have kept all his commandments and have done according to all that he commanded you, therefore, so said the L-rd of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: There shall not be cut off from Yonadav the son of Rechav, a man standing before Me for all times.”
This means that the descendants of this family were in the Sanhedrin (as long as there was a Sanhedrin).
It can also mean that daughters of the family married Kohanim and their descendants were Kohanim Gedolim (high priests) who served in the Holy of Holies.
Greater than King David
points out that the covenant G-d made with the family of Yonadav, son of Rechav was even greater than that made with King David as the covenant with King David was conditional on the good behavior of his family. The Psalmist said, “If your sons keep My covenant and this, My testimony, which I shall teach them, also their sons will sit on your throne forever,”
whereas G-d said, if they sin, “I shall punish their transgression with a rod, and their iniquity with stripes.”
Concerning the family of Yonadav, however, the blessing has no conditions attached as the verse (quoted above) says, “So said the L-rd of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: there shall not be cut off from Yonadav, the son of Rechav, a man standing before Me for all times.”
says that the covenant made with Yonadav resembles those made with the Jewish people regarding the Torah and with the family of Aharon HaKohen. The Torah was given unconditionally, as it says, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is a legacy for the congregation of Jacob.”
The covenant with Aharon that his descendants would be kohanim is also unconditional as it says, “It is like an eternal covenant of salt before the Lord, for you and your descendants with you.”
In the second Temple era, the family of Yonadav would always donate wood to the Bait HaMikdash on the seventh of the month of Av.
The Jerusalem Talmud says that a scroll with people’s lineage was found in Yerushalayim. It stated (among other things) that Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Chalafta (he was one of Rabbi Akiva’s primary students and the father of Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yossi who was a colleague of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi) was a descendant of Yonadav ben Rechav.
Based on the above verses from Jeremiah, it would seem that these Tannaim would never drink wine or live in houses or plant vineyards or fields!
It is noteworthy that although this particular family was praised for this ascetic behavior, generally, the rabbis discouraged it as they felt that one should not mourn excessively for the Bait HaMikdash
and should rather lead a more balanced lifestyle.
May we merit to learn from our holy forbearers!
Rashi on the verse based on the Mechilta. See also Targum Yonatan. But see Ibn Ezra and Rashbam who hold that it goes without saying that Moshe partook in the meal since it took place in his tent.
Mechilta. The Talmud in Brachot 64a interprets this verse to mean that whoever eats from a feast where a Torah scholar is present is considered to have benefited from the radiance of the Shechina. The Maharsha explains that this is due to the fact that the Torah scholar will certainly share a Torah thought during the meal.
Keni was one of the seven names of Yitro. This name indicates that Yitro was a descendant (i.e. a reincarnation) of Kayin (Zohar, 1:28b) and that he acquired Heaven and earth (i.e., both this world and the World to Come) and Torah (Sifri, Bamidar, 78).
Yalkut Me’am Loez on ibid
See Numbers, 21:1 and Rashi
The verse (quoted above from Chronicles I, 2:55
) says that Rechav was from the family of the Kenites. The Kenites were descendants of Yitro as evidenced from the verse (also quoted above) in Judges, 1:16
It is interesting to note that the Druze, originally a nomadic people, consider themselves to be descendants of Yitro.
Ibid, verses 18 and 19
See also Divrei HaYamim I, 4:23
as explained in Bava Batra, 91b
Yalkut Shimoni on the verse
According to the second opinion, that the blessing was referring to the descendants of his daughters, it may be that the instructions regarding not drinking wine etc. also applied to those same descendants.
Mechilta, Yitro, Parsha 2
Ta’anit, 4:2 (20b) and Bereishit Rabbah, 98:13
It is possible that they were not direct (patrilineal) descendants and that these rules did not apply in that case. Just like Hillel, who is listed there as a descendant of David HaMelech but was, in fact not a direct patrilineal descendant. But see note 27
See Bava Kama, 59b and Tosefta, Sotah, 15:5
See Rambam, Hilchot De’ot, chapter 1 at length.