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Parashat Yitro 5784

What Do We Know About Moses and Tzipporah's Marriage?

January 31, 2024
by Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

Moses was famously close with his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), the Priest of Midian. This week’s Torah portion is named after Yitro, celebrating the reunion between Moses and Yitro shortly after the Exodus from Egypt.

But another reunion in the early verses of our Torah portion is not quite as joyful. We read: “So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons…. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. He sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.’ Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.” (Exodus 18)

When Yitro goes to meet Moses, he is accompanied by three other people — his daughter Tzipporah who is Moses’ wife, and the two children of Tzipporah and Moses (whose names are Gershom and Eliezer). But these verses are cryptically fraught.

First, what does it mean “after she had been sent home”? Whereas the Torah has not yet specifically told us that Tzipporah was sent away, Tzipporah and the children have been notably absent for the last several chapters. We last read about them in Exodus chapter 4. Moses had put them on a donkey to have them accompany him to Egypt, followed by a brief and obscure scene in which God seeks to kill Moses, and Tzipporah, seemingly in response to this, circumcises their son. Thereafter, Moses engages in the negotiations with Pharaoh for the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and the whereabouts of his family are unstated until now.

Some commentators suggest that Moses had made the sensible decision to regard this period of his leadership as an extended business trip, and it would not be prudent for Tzipporah and the kids to come along. It could be dangerous for them, or they could be distracting to Moses at this critical time. (See Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Amalek 3:16, which suggests that Aaron encouraged Moses to send his wife and children back to Midian for their own safety.) According to such an interpretation, Exodus 18 now presents the beautiful reunion scene as Moses is reunited at last with his wife and children.

But there are hints that this isn’t a beautiful reunion scene after all. Moses greets and kisses his father-in-law and they go into the tent. There is no word about Moses hugging and kissing his wife and children. Additionally, the fact that the children are, twice, described as “her two sons” rather than “their two sons” could indicate that the distance between Moses and his children was not merely geographic but also emotional.

The ancient midrashic text Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el focuses on the words “ahar shiluheha,” “after she was sent away” or “after she was sent home.” Noting that this root ש.ל.ח. is used elsewhere in the Torah to refer to the termination of a marriage (see Deuteronomy 24:1), the midrash says that these words allude to the fact that Moses and Tzipporah were divorced, and that (though this is an obvious anachronism) Moses gave Tzipporah a Get, a Jewish divorce document.

Following on this interpretation, the Zohar – the classic text of Jewish mysticism – suggests that the sons are referred to as “her two sons” because Tzipporah raised them without her husband. (Zohar Volume 2 59b, Yitro 2:54)

These texts don’t give us a reason for this divorce – whether it was prompted by the stress of Moses’ leadership position, or disagreements about religious practices in their family (which might be alluded to in the circumcision scene in Exodus 4:24ff), or a long-simmering marital incompatibility, any of the multitude of other reasons why marriages dissolve. There is also disagreement in the commentaries about whether Moses’ Kushite wife described in Numbers 12:1, years later, is Tzipporah or a subsequent wife. As is often the case with the private lives of famous people, there’s a lot that we just don’t know.

But some of us may find it edifying to think of Moses as simultaneously the greatest Jewish leader who ever lived, and as a divorced man and non-custodial father, and to note that there is no necessary contradiction between these facets of his life.

There are few common denominators in the experience of divorce, and all the more so when comparing divorce in the ancient world with divorce today. (For one thing, men had every shred of power in the divorce process in the ancient world. Additionally, divorce in earlier generations carried a powerful stigma that we are working to mitigate today.) One of the few commonalities, though, may be a feeling of disappointment that a hope and dream was not ultimately fulfilled. We couldn’t say for sure, but the Torah can be read to suggest that such a disappointment was part of Moses’ life story (as well as Tzipporah’s). And if so, it adds a dimension of resilience to his already remarkable story of heroic leadership, and an additional reminder that life challenges and life triumphs are usually intertwined.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.