This article reveals the truth about the Jews’ laws which turned the Sabbath from a blessing into a burden and how close some today approach this narrow-minded attitude toward the Sabbath.
In the last article we found that the Pharisees were divided into two Schools, the Hillel and Shammai.
The Hillel School emerged the victorious Pharisee group among the Jews. Within one to two hundred years after Christ, the Jews, as a whole, gravitated to completer devotion to the teachings of this School. There remained remnants of the older denomination which existed in Christ’s day, but these remnants were only individuals scattered here and there. Only Pharisaic Judaism became the real teaching of the Jews, and to this day it is the basis of contemporary Judaism.
The many commandments that had been enacted by the Pharisees from the time of Joseph Ben Joezer, “the Permitter,” until a short time after the destruction of Jerusalem, were compiled into a book about A.D. 200. This book was later incorporated into the Jewish Talmud. It was called Mishnah
The Jewish Talmud was written over a period of years from A.D. 200 until about A.D. 500. The Talmud is composed of two sections: the original Mishnah called the Gemara. The commentary, the Gemara, is the largest part of the Talmud. Both sections together comprise 34 huge volumes in the English translation of the Jewish Talmud!
The Talmud is a vast storehouse of Jewish laws and commandments, plus the discussion and commentaries on them. It is not necessary to review the whole of the Mishnah in order to understand the spirit behind the Pharisaic commands. Only certain special examples of Jewish teachings are necessary to notice. These examples illustrate that the Judaism of Christ’s time was not the religion of Moses!
The basic Sabbath Law of God was not annulled by the Jewish leaders. However, it was modified in many, many ways which are only hinted at in the Scriptures.
In the Bible God does not take volumes of verses to explain what a person’s every activity on the Sabbath should be. Rather, we find basic and fundamental principles of Sabbath observance. See especially Isaiah 58:13-14. But the Jews of Christ’s day were not content with Sabbath principles the principles of rest from labor, of having time to study, pray, mediate and go to Sabbath service. They sought to do what the inspired Moses and the prophets never thought necessary.
The Pharisees enacted law after law to regulate every single activity that could be done on the Sabbath. They discarded the plain principles of the Scriptures. They instituted in their place, without any Scripture authority, the cold and formal Sabbath rules of legalistic Pharisaism, in which no real principles were left only a maze of exacting and over-burdensome laws.
The Sabbath laws of the Pharisees were part of the erroneous teaching which prompted Christ to denounce their binding heavy burdens “which were to grievous to be borne” (Matt. 23:4). And burdensome they were! And absurd!
Edersheim has this to say concerning these man-devised Sabbath laws of the Pharisees. “They will show how utterly unspiritual the whole system was, and how it required no small amount of learning and ingenuity to avoid committing grievous sin” (Life and Times of the Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 779).
There is a direct analogy between the laws of the Rabbis and those of the Greek philosopher Plato. The Jewish historian, Moses Hodas, admits: “The rabbis were men of faith, and their object was the service of religion, but their method for securing discipline was, like Plato’s to provide authority for men’s smallest actions” (Hellenistic Culture, p. 82).. Such laws as enacted by the Rabbis were never conceived until after Hellenistic influence had implanted itself strongly in Palestine.
Let us notice some of their man-made commandments concerning Sabbath observance.
First of all, the Pharisees decreed a person would be guilty of breaking the Sabbath if he carried from one place to another any food which weighed as much as a dried fig! Only the weight of half a dried fig or an olive was allowed, otherwise it would be considered, by the Pharisees, as work, and was prohibited (Sabbath, 28a, 70b, 71a).
A person would also be guilty of desecrating the Sabbath in their eyes, if he carried more than one swallow of milk or enough oil to anoint a small part of the body (Sabbath, 76b). Even to carry a sheet of paper was forbidden (Sabbath, 78a).
If a fire broke out on the Sabbath in a person’s home, he could carry out only the necessary food for the Sabbath. It was interpreted in this manner: If a fire broke out Sabbath evening (Friday night), the owner could take out enough food for three meals, if the fire broke out on Sabbath afternoon, he could take out only enough food for one meal. All the rest of the food had to be left to burn up with the building, for the Pharisees prohibited putting out such a fire, that would be working and constitute a previous sin (Sabbath, 115a 118b).
Also, the victim could take out only necessary clothes. It was permissible, however, for a person to put on a few extra cloths, as long as they were worn. Thus, a person could take out some clothes from the burning building, take them off, then go back and put on more clothes, continuing until he was unable to reenter the building (Sabbath, 120a).
It would be possible to go on and on with a multitude of similar examples. But these few, the carnal spirit of Sabbath legislation of the Pharisees can be seen.
Christ taught the Jewish people the true spiritual intent of the Sabbath. God’s Sabbath is not a burden to man. It is a spiritual blessing. Christ said: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
To do good works on the Sabbath, however, was forbidden by the Pharisees. Notice how they sought to accuse Christ for healing a person on the Sabbath. “And He entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day: That they might accuse Him. And He saith unto the man which has a withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil” (Mark 3:1-4)? The Pharisees could hardly answer the question, and they did not! They knew that they could not say it was right to do evil. But they also knew that their laws forbade doing this kind of good on the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees, “held their peace.”
The Pharisees had many other burdensome commandments such as the ritualistic washing of the hands before eating. The Bible records the attitude of Jesus and His disciples to these commandments of men.
“Then came together unto Him the Pharisees and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of His disciples eat bread which defiled, that is to say with unwashen hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they wash, they eat not. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands’” (Mark 7:1-5)?
The Pharisees called this rite a custom of the elders, of Moses and the prophets. But it was nothing of the kind. Edersheim gives reference to the fact that the washing of the hands was similar to rites that were used in heathen religious ceremonies (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 9). There can be no doubt that many of these foolish rites of so-called cleanliness came directly from heathenism during the time the Jews were under the domination of Hellenism. As Lauterbach says:
“Certain religious practices, considered by the later teachers as part of the traditional law, or as handed down from Moses, originated in reality from other, perhaps non-Jewish sources, and had no authority other than the authority of the people who adopted them. This, of course, reflects unfavorably upon the authority of the traditional law in general” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 241).
The first traces of the tradition of washing the hands before meals, in a ritualistic sense (the rite was never intended to be strictly a Mosaic hygienic one), is found in certain Jewish writings having their origin in Egypt immediately following the period of the religious anarchy about 160 B.C. In the Sibylline Books, there is mention of some Egyptian Jews continually washing their hands in connection with prayer and thanksgiving (Sibyl, iii, 591-593). The Jews in Palestine where also using this new custom. However, Edersheim tell us: “It was reserved for Hillel and Shammai, the two great rival teachers and heroes of Jewish traditionalism, immediately before Christ, to fix the rabbinic ordinance about the washing of hands. This was one of the few points on which they agreed” (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 13).
This particular rite was made into law just before the days of Christ. Edersheim continues, concerning this rite: “It was so strictly enjoined, that to neglect it was like being guilty of gross carnal defilement. Its omission would lead to temporal destruction, or, at least, to poverty. Bread eaten with unwashen hands was as if it had been filth. Indeed, a Rabbi who had held this command in contempt was actually buried in excommunication” (ibid., vol. ii. pp. 9-10).
Connected with the religious rite of washing the hands before meals was the custom of ritualistically cleansing any article which might be considered to have ever come in contact with any unclean thing. The Pharisees were ever meticulous in matters such as this. They were especially concerned about cleansing any article that may have been touched or manufactured by a Gentile.
“They (the Gentiles) should, as far as possible, be altogether avoided, except in cases of necessity or for the sake of business. They and theirs were defiled; their houses unclean, as containing idols or things dedicated to them; their feasts, their joyous occasions, their very contact, was polluted by idolatry, and there was no security, as if a heathen were left alone in a room, that he might not, in wantonness or by carelessness, defile the wine or meat on the table, or the oil or wheat in the store. Under such circumstance, therefore, everything must be regarded as having been rendered unclean” (ibid., vol. I, p. 92).
Theirs was a physical carnal religion not spiritual worship.
“Milk drawn by a heathen, if a Jew had not been present to watch it, bread and oil prepared by them, were unlawful. Their wine was wholly interdicted - the mere touch of a heathen polluted a whole cask; nay, even to put one’s nose to heathen wine was strictly prohibited” (ibid., vol. i. p. 92).
Because the Pharisees did not want to take any chances on any of their utensils being defiled, they kept up the meticulous custom of washing their cups, pots, brazen vessels, and their tables (Mark 7:4). Indeed, not only were the Pharisees afraid the heathen might deliberately defile some of their utensils, but even the Common People of the Jews were distrusted and looked upon with disdain by the Pharisees.
”As an Israelite avoided as far as possible all contact with a heathen, lest he should thereby be defiled, so did the Pharisees avoid as far as possible contact with the non-Pharisee, because the later to him included in the notion of the unclean Am ha-aretz (the common Jews)” (Schurer, The Jewish People in the Times of Jesus Christ, sec. ii. vol. ii, p. 24).
The Common People of the Jews were considered unclean by the Pharisees because they did not hold to the strict rules of the traditions of the elders. Notice some of the opinions about the Common People that the Pharisees held, in the Talmud.
“The garments of the Am ha-aretz (the common people) are unclean for the Perushim (the Pharisees)” (Chagigah, ii. 7).
“If the wife of a Chaber (an associate, member of the Pharisees fraternity) had left the wife of an Am ha-aretz grinding in her house, the house is unclean if the mill stops. If it goes on grinding, it is only unclean so far as they can reach by stretching out her hand” (Tohoroth, vii. 4).
The meaning of the last quotation is that only the flour that was in arm’s reach of the Commoner was unclean, all the rest, which could not be touched by her, out of arm’s reach, was still clean.
From these quotations, you can see just how ridiculous, how absurd the Pharisaic commandments were!
Even though the Pharisees were the rulers of the synagogues, and though some of the Common People consistently attended them, nevertheless, the Pharisees remained aloof socially. The Pharisees were not to invite a common person into his home, nor was he to go into the home of a commoner.
“A Chaber (an associate of the Pharisees fraternity) does not go as a guest to an Am ha-aretz nor receive him as a guest within his walls” (Demai, ii, 3).
You can imagine what this snobbish exclusiveness of the Pharisees did to the religious zeal of the Common People. No wonder that most of the people stayed away from the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees.
The Pharisees looked upon the Common People as having on them a curse of God since they did not follow the rules of the Pharisees. In the New Testament it is recorded that the Pharisees accusingly asked an officer: “Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on Him? But this people (the multitudes, the Am ha-aretz) who knoweth not the law are cursed” (John 7:47-49).
The example of Christ and the disciples by contrast, was one of love and compassion for the people at large. No wonder many of the people were beginning to believe on Christ these were the Am ha-aretz.
“And He went forth again by the seaside; and all the multitude resorted unto Him, and He taught them. And as He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, ‘Follow me.’ And he arose and followed Him. And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans (tax collectors) and sinners (the ordinary term used by the Pharisees for the Common People) sat also together with Jesus and His disciples; ‘How is it that He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners?’ When Jesus heard it, He saith unto them, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:13-17 Matt. 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32).
The Pharisees would not have thought for a moment of going into the home of a commoner and partaking of a meal with him. That was just not done! It was the practice of Christ and His disciples to eat with the Am ha-aretz the Common People.
Christ’s opinion of the ridiculous and snobbish commandments of the Pharisees is summed up in Mark 7:4-8. Notice! “And when they come from the market (where many Common People worked), except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” He answered and said unto them, well hath Isaiah prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain to they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups; and many other such like things ye do: and He said unto them, full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.’”
Christ taught the disciples to obey the commandments of God and reject the commandments of men. Actually, Christ came to restore the Laws of God among a people who had lost them. The Pharisees had become blind leaders of the blind (Matt. 15:14).
“Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. The disciples, upon hearing this remark of Christ, thought He was talking of leavening that was put in bread to make it rise. Then Christ answered: “How is it that ye do not understand that I spake not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then they understood how that He bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6-1`2).
Christ came to a Jewish world which, in most part, had totally left the simple Laws of Scriptures. Most of the people were not really religious at all. The Common People, over 95% of the population, were truly sheep without a shepherd.
Christ came into a world which needed Him and His Message. They needed God’s Laws and His commandments restored. God the Father, at the appropriate time, sent His Son into the world to give it the unadulterated Laws of the Scripture in their full spiritual significance. Christ not only came to restore the Scripture as the proper guide to the people, He also came with the New Testament revelation which gave completeness to the Scripture.
Be watching for our next installment of “Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?”