It is said that the company a person keeps says much about his character. Yeshua’s opponents loved to point out that he spent time with tax collectors, harlots, and other sinners. He did so to draw them near to the Torah and the love of G‑d. So we might find it surprising that, of all the various Jewish sects in his time, Yeshua was more engaged with the Pharisees than with any other. He debated Torah law with them because their understandings of Torah mattered to one another. He also ate with Pharisees and scribes in their houses.
Scribes and Pharisees and Oral Torah
Scribes and Pharisees were the main teachers of Oral Torah. They had a vision. They believed that Israel was meant to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Their vision was to sanctify the people by teaching every man to live as if he were a priest—his home was his Temple, his table was his altar, and his food was his sacrifice. They did not attempt to compete with the Temple and Levitical priests, only to reflect them in the lives of the people. So they tithed meticulously, to give to the Priests and Levites as the Torah commands. They also applied Levitical purity laws to the common food and utensils people used in their homes. They were popular among the people. They prayed and taught in the synagogues. They worked among the villages and towns of Israel. Indeed it was the genius of the Pharisees and the oral tradition that gave the people of Israel the spiritual tools they would need to survive the destruction of the Temple.
Oral and Written Torah
Yeshua expressed his attitude toward the Oral Torah while eating with some scribes and Pharisees.
RSV Mark 7:1 When the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate bread with unclean hands, that is, unwashed.
Note that some of his disciples are accused of this; but Yeshua apparently did wash his hands before eating bread.
7:5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”
That was a fair question. Some of his disciples were pretty rough characters. But there is no Torah command to wash hands before eating common (not sacred) food. It is purely a matter of oral tradition. Instead of answering their question, Yeshua asks them about an Oral Torah practice they do that side-steps a Torah command.
7:9 He said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of G‑d, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to G‑d) — 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of G‑d through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”
He refers to a practice that is found in the Mishnah, but ultimately was rejected by the Sages. According to some Rabbis, a person could make a “vow” that says, “Anything of mine that could benefit you is (as far as you’re concerned) Corban.” He did not actually dedicate his property to G‑d; but his parents had to consider it as dedicated. The person himself could use his “dedicated” property; the parents could not. Some authorities considered this “vow” binding, some did not. “Corban” (a sacrifice) was one of the key words used to make such a “vow”. This is an example of how the oral tradition could be used to make loopholes in the Torah.
The words “you” and “your” make me wonder if Yeshua could be addressing a case that involved the same people who were criticizing his disciples for not washing their hands. Perhaps one of them had done what this fellow did in this case from the Mishnah. (It does not match Yeshua’s example exactly, but it is similar.)
Mishnah Nedarim 5:6 … It once happened that someone’s father was forbidden by vow to benefit from him. The son was marrying off his son, and said to his friend: “May the courtyard and the festive meal be a gift unto you, on the condition that my father come and celebrate with us at the festive meal.” “If it is truly mine,” he said, “then let it all be consecrated to Heaven.” The son said to him: “I didn’t give my property to you for you to consecrate it to Heaven!” He replied: “You gave it to me so that you and your father can feast together, and be reconciled, while the transgression of breaking the vow will fall upon me!” When the case was presented to the Sages, they ruled: any gift not given in a manner allowing for consecration is not a gift at all.
So how does this answer the question about his disciples who did not wash their hands before eating? He goes on to explain his reasoning about the washing of hands.
Mark 7:18 … “whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and goes into the latrine, purging all foods.”
Washing hands before eating was a well-intentioned metaphor practiced by the Pharisees as a means of identifying with the priests and Temple, but it was not a Torah command. Eating common food without washing does not actually make a person unclean. The School of Hillel agreed with Yeshua, yet they still washed their hands before eating. It appears that Yeshua did also, since he is not criticized for not washing. He did not oppose oral tradition in general. But somebody who makes such a phony “vow” to prevent his parents from eating his food, as one of his dining partners may have done, was not honoring the Torah—Written or Oral.
Yeshua Affirms both Oral and Written Torah
The last phrase, “purging all foods”, is often mistranslated as, “He declared all foods clean”, giving the impression that Yeshua has cancelled the laws of purity, and maybe also the dietary laws. But this is not what the text says, nor is it consistent with Yeshua’s approach to Torah:
Matthew 5:18 “Truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota (yod, the smallest letter), not a tittle (tag, decorative crown), will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
Not even the tittles (tagin) attached to the letters of the Torah will pass away. It is interesting that the Talmud sees the tagin as the basis for laws that will be expounded later. There is a story of Moses climbing Mount Sinai and finding G‑d making tagin on the letters of the Torah. Surprised, he asks why G‑d would do this.
- Menakhot 29b [G-d] answered, “There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps of laws”.
If this idea was around in Yeshua’s time, he could have meant that the Oral Torah, along with the Written, will stand until the end.
Yeshua then points to the scribes and Pharisees as examples of righteousness, a minimum standard for the kingdom.
Matthew 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees in general were not enemies of Yeshua, and Yeshua did respect and observe Oral Torah as well as Written.
Some Examples of Yeshua Observing Oral Traditions
Reclining at a table for a sacred meal, and saying a blessing over food before eating it, are Oral Torah. Yeshua follows standard traditional practices.
Matthew 26:20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve disciples; … 26 Now as they were eating, Yeshua took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples … 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them …
Translations often do not recognize the difference between reclining and sitting. Reclining was the sign that a family or a company of students intended to have a fellowship meal, a sacred event.
Mishnah Berakhot 6:6 If they sat down to eat, each one blesses for himself. If they reclined, one blesses for all.
It was also Yeshua’s custom to pray in the synagogue:
Luke 4:16 He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day.
Praying in synagogue is not found in the Tenakh; it is an intertestamental development.
Another practice of the Rabbis was summarizing the Torah in one command. The “Golden Rule” is an example.
Matthew 7:12 Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
The Talmud records a nearly identical teaching of Hillel:
- Shabbat 31a … a non-Jew came before Shammai and said, “I will convert if you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him aside with his ruler. He came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and study.”
When Yeshua is asked by a scribe “what is the greatest commandment?” he cites the Shema as his answer. The text is from Deuteronomy; but it became one of the focal points of Jewish liturgical tradition known as “The Shema”, part of the daily morning and evening prayers.
Matthew 12:28 One of the scribes … asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Yeshua answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The L‑RD our G‑d, the L‑RD is one; 30 and you shall love the L‑RD your G‑d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Deut. 6:4-5). 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18).
Note that reciting the Shema is considered in Judaism an act of “taking upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven”. Yeshua uses this language to commend the scribe for his wise answer.
Matthew 12:34 When Yeshua saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of G‑d.”
Also, the fact that he uses two phrases—“with all your mind”, and “with all your strength”—for the one Hebrew word me’odekha shows that he is engaged in the contemporary discussion of the meaning of me’odekha. The word means “very much”, and its use as a noun is puzzling. The Mishnah also wrestles with this word. Their alternative interpretation is a clever word play.
Mishnah Berakhot 9:5 “And with all that you have” (me’odekha) – with all your money. Alternatively, “With all that you have” – with every measure (middah) that is measured (moded) for you thank (modeh) Him very much (me’od).
These are just a few examples that show how Yeshua was at home in the world of the Oral Torah. He even praises the ability of a scribe to make his unique contribution to the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 13:52 “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Yeshua’s Criticism of scribes and Pharisees
It is no secret that there was tension between Yeshua and some of the scribes and Pharisees. Much of that was merely debating points of law, “family arguments” that were a common part of the culture. Taken out of context, it looks more like an angry battle of wits, as is the unfortunate case in the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, however, there was indeed a growing tension between them. The grand example of this is found in Yeshua’s “denunciation” of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Yet even here, Yeshua begins with an acknowledgement of their authority to teach Torah in the synagogues.
Matthew 23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. …
Some synagogues have a Moses’ seat for the Rabbi or elders who are authorized to teach and judge. (There is a nice example in the ruins of the synagogue in Chorazin.) He goes on to point out several cases of the hypocrisy of some of them in their practice of a number of commandments.
23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their tefillin broad and their tzitziyot long,
Yeshua criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for making long tassels and wide phylacteries for show, but he does not fault them for wearing them. He himself wore tzitzit, as we saw in Matthew 9, and it is likely he also wore tefillin. Tzitzit are a Torah command (Numbers 15:38ff), though how to tie them is defined by Oral Torah. Tefillin are a Torah command (“tying ‘these words’ on your arm, and suspending them between your eyes”—Deut. 6:8), but how to make them is also defined by Oral Torah. The Mishnah says there are cases in which these scribal details carry legal weight over and above the Torah itself.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:3 A stringency of the words of the scribes over the words of the Torah: If one says that there are no tefillin, in transgression of the words of the Torah, he is not liable, (but if one says that) there are five (instead of four) frontlets (totafoth), adding to the words of the scribes, he is liable.
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Rabbis were the main influence who sought to keep the Jewish people united. They did not permit everyone to make his own rules.
Yeshua also says the Pharisees tithe meticulously.
Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Yeshua does not tell them not to tithe meticulously. He says they “ought to do” this. His criticism is that they neglect more important commandments.
The pronunciation of “woe” ought not to be taken too seriously here. It is common in Rabbinical debates over matters of Torah for one to use strong language against another:
Mishnah Yadayim 4:7 The Sadducees say: We denounce you, Pharisees, for you declare pure the stream [when liquid is poured from a clean into an unclean vessel]! The Pharisees say: We denounce you, Sadducees, for you declare pure a channel of water which flows from a cemetery!
The Sadducees and the Pharisees differed on many subjects, but they talked to one another, because they mattered to one another. They were not enemies; they were opponents in the debate. And so it was with Yeshua and most of the Pharisees.
In contrast to the heavy tone of Yeshua’s words, he goes on to level another charge against the Pharisees that should have made his audience laugh.
Matt. 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. 26 You blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
The inside and outside of cups and utensils were considered separate parts, also the handle, stem or base. One part could be clean while other parts were unclean, but to use a utensil, the inside must be clean. Cleaning the outside while the inside was unclean was funny!
Even while concluding his indictment of the scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy, Yeshua still says:
Matthew 23:34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes …
Sages and scribes are Oral Torah authorities. That Yeshua can say that G‑d will send sages and scribes just while he is delivering serious criticisms about them says much. In principle he was not opposed to their roles in Jewish life. On the contrary, he affirmed those roles. He only opposed the frequent failure of some of them to live up to their own teachings.
Of all of the kinds of Jews in the time of the Second Temple, Yeshua was more like the Pharisees than any other. He did not argue philosophy with the Hellenizers. He did not plan to overthrow Roman rule with the Zealots. He did not advocate assimilation to Greco-Roman culture like the Herodians. He did not run off to the desert to build separatist communities with the Essenes. No, he studied and taught and debated Torah with Pharisees and scribes. He ate sacred fellowship meals with them. He prayed with them in synagogues. The Judaism he observed included the oral tradition. True, he often disagreed with them over a practice or interpretation, just as they disagreed and debated with one another. This is the nature of Oral Torah.
I am not surprised that it was the Pharisees and their successors who became the teachers and preservers of what we have known for 2000 years as “Judaism”. Virtually all forms of Judaism that exist today are descended from the teachings and practices of the Pharisees. If Yeshua had hitched his wagon to any other group, his followers may well have died off with them, and today he would be only a footnote in history.
G‑d preserved both the Torah and the Gospel through two turbulent millennia in order to carry out his purposes in our day. In the land of Israel today, the study and practice of Torah in all its variety—except for the absence of the Holy Temple—are not unlike those of Yeshua’s time. This is the legacy of the Pharisees and the Oral Torah that they taught.