Parashat Yitro--Exodus 18:1-20:23
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Questions for Young Children
• What is a commandment? How many can you name?
• Which commandment do you think is the hardest to follow?
• What do you think it was like for Moshe to climb up Mt. Sinai alone to get the Ten Commandments? Do you think he was scared?

Questions for Older Children
• Which of the commandments do you think is the hardest to follow?
• Why do you think Moshe climbed Mt. Sinai alone, but all the people had to prepare for the giving of the Torah?
• At the beginning of the parasha, Moshe’s father-in-law offers him advice about how to organize the judicial system. What makes it hard for some people to accept advice? Share advice for giving advice. Share advice for receiving advice.

Questions for Teens and Adults
• Do you have other advice you would have offered to Moshe to help him in his leadership role?
• As you examine Yitro and Moshe’s relationship, what hints do you think the Torah offers about the ideal relationship between in-laws?
• What are the preparations necessary before Moshe can ascend Mt. Sinai and why are the preparations so prescribed and elaborate?


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Fun with Numbers in Exodus

  • In honor of the Ten Commandments, create a meal with 10 dishes (include pickles, etc. in your count so it’s not overwhelming) or a specific dish like a salad with 10 ingredients.
  • Talk about the number 2 and sh’nei luhot ha-brit (the two tablets). Reference the 2 hallot we bless and eat on Shabbat.
  • Prepare 3 desserts! Sweets, nuts, and fruits makes a good trio. The waiting time between the beginning of the preparations for Moshe’s ascent to Mt. Sinai and his actual climb is 3 days. The parasha also refers to the 3rd month after B’nei Yisrael  left Egypt as the time when they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai. (Exodus 19:1).
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Parashat Yitro--this is it—the week of Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Commandments). You might expect a title for the parasha that hints that Moshe is about to ascend to Mt. Sinai, and B’nei Yisrael are about to be transformed from a ragtag refugee rabble into a nation bound by laws. As with all parshiyot, the name of the parasha is derived from the beginning verse and doesn’t summarize the contents. Yitro (Jethro), a Midianite, is Moshe’s father-in-law. The parasha opens with Yitro observing his son-law at work and offering practical advice to his new son-in-law. The remainder of the parasha includes B’nei Yisrael’s itinerary up to Mt. Sinai, the preparations before Moshe’s ascent, and climaxes with God’s giving Moshe the Aseret ha-Dibrot—the Ten Commandments.

Find the food connection...

.וַיַּרְא חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-הוּא עֹשֶׂה לָעָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, מָה-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה לָעָם--מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב לְבַדֶּךָ, וְכָל-הָעָם נִצָּב עָלֶיךָ מִן-בֹּקֶר עַד-עָרֶב

"But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said: 'What is this thing that you have undertaken for all the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?'"
--Exodus 18:14

A recipe from your in-laws!
My mother-in-law, Shirley Abelson z”l welcomed guests—lots of them--and had a trove of delicious, easy, and quick recipes. Her food was delicious but what most people remember from her Shabbat table was the warmth and the easy flow of conversation. One of her signature quick recipes was Mock Potato Knishes.


Food for Thought

Like many children of the 1950s, I remember watching comedy shows on TV. Frequently, comedians would tell a string of mother-in-law jokes, mercilessly mocking them. Watching how respectfully my mom and dad treated their mothers-in-law and how loving my grandfather was with his live-in mother-in-law, I heard these jokes as if they were about an alien race. My own mother-in-law was the absolute best. She knew when to listen, when to offer advice, and when to give a hug. My wonderful daughter-in-law makes it easy for me to be a mother-in-law.

In this parasha Moshe marries and discovers the world of in-laws of another tribe—Midianite. His new father-in-law, Yitro, is respectful. He has heard of Moshe’s fame and God’s power but doesn’t withhold his advice when he feels it’s necessary. Moshe has had experience as a rebel and a spokesperson but not as a leader of thousands of people. Yitro offers needed business management advice suggesting that Moshe delegate more. Notice how tactful Yitro is when he frames advice as a rhetorical question rather than a dictate. Moshe heeds the advice and, as a result, the Israelites are better served by their justice system. I give Moshe credit that as a leader he accepted advice not just from God, but from others with good input.  Not a bad model for all leaders.

Married couples at the table may want to share the best advice they received from their in-laws. If you are an in-law, what relationship are you cultivating with you child-in-law? No mocking allowed.



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A Dash of Political Theory

You may have learned that the English philosopher John Locke (d. 1704) developed the theory of consent by the governed and the social contract, ideas that underpin the U.S. Constitutional government. Examining Parashat Yitro from the lens of a political scientist, you'll see that both consent of the governed and a social contract are part of this parasha and much of the Torah.  The brit, the covenant, is a social contract between God and the Jewish people.  When Avraham and his descendants accept the brit, they accept the reponsibilities it entails. Hesed, lovingkindness, is implicit in this brit.  Aseret haDibrot (the ten commandments) list the top ten responsibilities.  The contract involves a relationship between the individual and God (the first half of the commandments) and the relationship among individuals (the second half of the commandments).  There are an additional 603 commandments in the Torah that further delineate the proper relationship either between God and the individual and among individuals. Consent follows Aseret haDibrot in Exodus 20:15-16.  "All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. '"You speak to us,' they said to Moshe, 'and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die.'" Keeping your political theory lens at the ready, you'll also notice that the form of government is flexible and changes with the needs of the people.  Yitro is the astute observer who points out to Moshe it was time to delegate and reconfigure the governance system. The brit, the covenant, is permanent but the system of governing shifts as circumstances change in the next 4000+ years.


A Dash of Siddur

At Hebrew School I learned that each time we open a siddur (Prayerbook), we encounter Jewish theology threaded throughout the prayers. I'm not sure I understood the comment as a fifth grader, but it remained with me and slowly began to be part of my consciousness during t'filot (prayers).

The poet Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (16th century), addressed the knotty issue of having different versions of the fourth of the Ten Commandments. In our parasha we're instructed  to “Remember Shabbat.”  In Deuteronomy's repetition of Aseret haDibrot we're told to “Observe Shabbat” (Deuteronomy 5:12) Why two different verbs for the same commandment? The poem, L’kha Dodi, sung Friday evening during the Kabbalat Shabbat service, presents Alkabetz's elegant response, a summary of earlier commentators.  “Shamor v’zakhor b’dibur ehad”--“Observe and remember were uttered as one…”. 

A Dash of Music and Dance

L’kha Dodi is a poem that has been set to many melodies. Check and enter L’kha Dodi to hear a variety of versions. Yoav Ashriel choreographed an Israeli folk dance for L’kha Dodi. Check the website for more information or poll your Shabbat diners to see if someone already knows the dance and accompanying melody.

A Dash of Visual Midrash from TALI

The TALI program provides  pluralistic Jewish Studies in Israeli secular public schools. They have developed a website that links art with the Tanakh (Bible).  Artists interpret and translate their impressions--hence the term, visual midrash.  Imagine what would it have been like to be at Mt. Sinai. This website presents a variety of artists who have imagined this moment over the course of centuries.  Which visual most captures your sense of what revelation was like?  How do you visualize Matan Torah (the giving of Torah)?  If you're hosting guests who ask, "What can I bring?" you can respond by asking them to sketch their impressions of Matan Torah and bring their art to dinner.


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Mock Potato Knishes
Pareve and vegan—serves 6 generously


  • 1 package Pepperidge Farm puff pastry shells (contains 6).                    rsz 05 yitro potato knish
  • 1-1/2 cups prepared mashed potatoes (use instant or make your own)
  • 3 onions, sliced thin and carmelized in olive oil


  1. Prepare the mashed potatoes
  2. Carmelize the onions and add to the potatoes.
  3. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Keep the potato mixture warm in a double boiler over hot water.
  5. Follow the package directions for the puff pastry shells and bake until slightly golden.
  6. Fill each shell with mashed potatoes.
  7. Top with the round insert from the baked shell (see package directions) and return to the oven at the lowest possible temperature to keep warm until serving for Shabbat dinner.

As you can see, my knishes do not look picture perfect, but I can assure you that they were all devoured with gusto.

Variations: Use Athenos mini shells for smaller servings. These won’t look like traditional knishes but they are crowd pleasers.

Use phyllo dough, fill with the mashed potatoes like a jelly roll, bake and cut in slices.

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