Please read Luke 11:37-54
As Yeshua spoke, a Parush asked him to eat dinner with him; so He went in and took His place at the table; and the Parush was surprised that he didn’t begin by doing netilat yadayim before the meal. Luke 11:37-38 CJB
The meal Yeshua was invited to partake in was Gk: ariston – not the principal meal of the day, but rather a noon-breakfast / luncheon. It was not a banquet or elaborate meal.
נטילת ידיים (netilat yadayim) was the Pharisee’s practice of ritual handwashing, which they expected every religious Jew to follow. Netilah can mean “washing” or “lifting up“, depending on context. By the time of Yeshua, the Parush (Pharisees) had instituted several ritual handwashing Mitzvot (commandments) that are still practiced today by religious Jews. The Mishnah (first work of rabbinic law) includes descriptions of how they required this ritual be done, what source of water had to be used, and when it was required.
Like many of the Pharisee’s Laws, this one had distant origins in Torah. Their ritual handwashing before meals drew its authority from God’s instructions for the priests in preparation for presenting a food offering to the Lord.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the Altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.” Exodus 30:17-21 NIV
From this had come the belief that failing to perform the ritual handwashing before a meal was a significant transgression. A rabbi who once failed to do this was considered excommunicated. One rabbi is recorded in the Talmud (collection of writings that covers the full gamut of rabbinical Jewish law and tradition – their Oral Torah) as saying that eating bread without ritually washing is tantamount to having sex with a prostitute, while another declared that acting contemptuously toward this ritual causes one to be uprooted from the world. In Eruvin 21b of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba is honoured because he refused to eat anything until he was given sufficient water to ritually wash his hands when confined in a prison-house [by the Romans], declaring: “for [neglecting] the words of the Rabbis one deserves death. It is better that I myself should die than that I should transgress against the opinion of my colleagues.” Yeshua was not so interested in the opinion of His colleagues as He was in the will of His Father.
Here are the requirements for this ritual that Yeshua chose not to follow in this Pharisee’s house:
- It was to be done before eating any meal that included bread or matzah.
- Hands had to be clean and free of anything that could obstruct water from reaching their entire surface before the ritual washing began.
- A cup is picked up with the non-dominant hand and filled with water, then poured twice (or three times) on the dominant hand, with fingers separated slightly so water can go between them. Repeat with the other hand, ensuring that water covers the entire hand to the wrist with each pour.
- After washing, hands are lifted chest-high and the following blessing said:
Blessed are you, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְווֹתָיו, וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם
(Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al netilat yadayim.)
- Hands are then rubbed together and dried.
- Care had to be taken not to speak or get involved in anything else until the blessing on their bread had been recited and some of it swallowed: Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
(Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam Hamotzi lechem min haaretz).
Each time Yeshua refused to comply with the rules and traditions that the Pharisees adhered to, they considered Him to be a sinner breaking G-d’s Torah and deserving of the harshest punishment. When this Pharisee saw that Yeshua had reclined at his table without first doing netilat yadayim he was surprised (Gk: thaumazo – wondered at this and was speculating within himself about what should happen next). Before he could act, Yeshua responded to his thoughts.
In His discourse here, and then in the temple after His Triumphal Entry (Matthew 23), Yeshua was fulfilling Isaiah 58 in crying loudly and not holding back, declaring to God’s people their wrongdoing in a call to repentance and restoration:
“Cry loudly, do not hold back;
Raise your voice like a trumpet,
And declare to My people their wrongdoing,
And to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,
As a nation that has done righteousness
And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
They ask Me for just decisions,
They delight in the nearness of God.
‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife, and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you have done today to make your voice heard on high!
Is it a fast like this that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
Is this not the fast that I choose:
To release the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the ropes of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free,
And break every yoke?
Is it not to break your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Yeshua was always calling people to repentance, by whatever means was most appropriate to that person. Such was His motive in refusing to participate in this ritual which the Pharisees and Torah teachers were relying on to demonstrate their righteousness and purity before God. Every eye was upon Him as the Pharisees gathered in this house inwardly judged Him.
While His host was speculating within himself about what should happen in response to Yeshua’s failure to follow their cherished ritual, he received an unexpected divine rebuke:
But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish; but your inside is full of greed and wickedness. You foolish ones, did He who made the outside not make the inside also? But give that which is within as a charitable gift, and then all things are clean for you. Luke 11:39-41 NASB
But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. Luke 11:41 NIV
Notice that in this passage Luke refers to Yeshua as “Lord”, the one to be obeyed. In His response Yeshua acknowledged that these Pharisees were very diligent in the externals of religious rituals yet reproved them for focusing on external observances which fall under the eye of man while neglecting, even expunging, more important matters of the soul which fall under the eye of God. Yeshua’s words: “be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” are a plain allusion to the law of Moses, by which it was provided that certain portions of the increase of their land should be given to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; and, when that was done, what was reserved for their own use was clean to them, and they could in faith pray for a blessing upon it, Deut. 26:12-15.
Now, these Pharisees were very diligent in their tithing, having developed laws concerning it that were as meticulous as their laws concerning the ritual washing of hands – even more so. They thought that the diligent keeping of all the intricacies of these laws was the fulfilment of God’s Torah, but Yeshua exposed it as a poor substitute for true heart obedience as He cried out six woes to them.
Woes to the Pharisees and Torah Experts
So it was, that Yeshua boldly declared to these religious leaders their wrongdoing even while sitting at their table.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”
One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in His wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’
Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” Luke 11:42-52 NIV
Woe – Οὐαί (Greek) is an expression of grief or denunciation, it warns of danger and the nearness of judgment with an expression of sorrowful pity towards those about to be judged. The Greek Οὐαί was used to translate two Hebrew interjections, Oy and Hoy, which are used as a cry of despair and/or a call for one’s attention because of impending divine judgment (cf Isa 5:8, Amos 6:1, Hab 2:9). God desires to bless us, but our sin and rebellion against Him and His ways necessitates judgment, so Yeshua cries out “woe“.
The first woe contrasts the pharisees’ meticulous focus on minute details of what should be tithed and when, against their laxity in obeying God’s moral law. The arguments put forward as “Oral Torah” by the different pharisaic schools at this time would later be recorded in the Mishnah, the first major work of rabbinic literature. The Mishnah is divided into six different sections (Seder): Seder Zeraim (Agriculture / “Order of Seeds”), Seder Moed (Holidays), Seder Nashim (Family law), Seder Nezikin (Damages), Seder Kodashim (Sacrifices) and Seder Tahorot (Purity). Maasrot (“Tithes”) is a tractate in Seder Zeraim that discusses tithes separated from agricultural produce and given to priests, Levites, the poor, or consumed in Jerusalem, depending on the circumstances. It devotes five chapters to focusing on the conditions that make produce liable to be tithed, like the types of crops that are included and the point at which produce cannot be consumed without tithing. Maasrot also discusses conditions under which one can assume produce was tithed. All of this was hotly debated and considered of utmost importance by the prevailing theological schools at that time, and there were even arguments over which parts of garden herbs had to be tithed (Mishna – Mas. Ma’aseroth). Micah 6:7-8 had long before given them God’s perspective on all this, yet still they were focused on the smallest of details of offerings to Him more than the bigger issues of love, mercy and justice for the poor, so Messiah cried out “woe”.
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:7-8
Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God kept impressing the need to provide justice for the poor and powerless. Justice that favours the wealthy and/or powerful is no justice at all in God’s sight. In their efforts to become strong and powerful, the dominant leaders of Jewish culture, these Pharisees had lost sight of God’s command to ensure justice for the weak and powerless.
“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Psalm 82:3
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:17
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you.” Leviticus 25:35-36
There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. … If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. Deuteronomy 15:4-11
“The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of His unfailing love.” Psalm 33:5
“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” Psalm 140:12
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” Proverbs 14:31
“Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.” Proverbs 17:5
“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13
“Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.” Proverbs 22:22-23
“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Proverbs 29:7
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Isaiah 85:6-10
“But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice and wait for your God always.” Hosea 12:6
“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.” Zechariah 7:9
Notice that Yeshua was not in any way suggesting that Jews should stop tithing but, like so many of the Jewish prophets before Him, decrying their substituting detailed, or even extravagant, observance of lesser things for the most important commandments: love of God and neighbour. Ensuring that those who could not provide for themselves received the correct number of mint leaves was not nearly as important as ensuring they received justice out of love for God. “Lord, break my heart with what breaks Yours!“
The most important seats were placed in the synagogue in a conspicuous semicircle facing the congregation, and round the bema of the reader. The Pharisee’s identity had become rooted in the deference others paid to them. They had thus unwittingly become slaves to the need to impress others and be held in the highest regard by their community. In so doing they’d lost the freedom to hear and obey God.
The Pharisees were judging Yeshua to be ritually unclean because He did not undertake their ritual handwashing before eating bread. Here He turns the tables on them, declaring that they make unsuspecting others unclean. According to the Torah, anyone who touches a grave (such as walking over it) is unclean for seven days thereafter.
Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. Numbers 19:16 ESV
The tax collectors and prostitutes were ‘marked graves’, everyone knew they would be contaminated by sin in joining with such. But the Pharisees were ‘unmarked graves’, they had the appearance of righteousness with all their meticulous adherence to ritual and their man-made laws, but the sin hidden in their hearts had not been dealt with and this would defile others just as surely as anything the tax collector or prostitute did. Those who claimed to be the pillars of righteousness in the community were, in fact, sources of defilement, ‘unmarked graves.’
All the pontificating and cleaver reasoning of the Torah scholars just added to the demands placed on everyday people, demands that had nothing to do with true love of God or service of others. These burdens of the Oral Law became yearly more and more grievous, till this excessive concern with minor details and rules and boundless ceremonies was later enshrined in the Talmud. But even during this period they were an intolerable yoke that failed to bring people any closer to God. What all the arguments over exact details of ceremonial washings and tithings and every other law failed to do was enable the people to walk humbly with God and fulfil His Torah.
There are still four tombs at the foot of Olivet, in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, that appear to have been built during this time. These conspicuous objects in the landscape, seen from the temple platform, and possibly others like them, which have since perished, were the tombs and sepulchres especially in our Lord’s mind when he was speaking to this Torah scholar. It was a speech of awful and cutting irony, suggesting that their attempts to make amends for the crimes of past generations by this show of ostentatious piety in building fancy tombs for the prophets failed to hide the true condition of their hearts. Truly honouring slain prophets consists not in building spectacular tombs for them, but in keeping their words alive through obedience to God’s heart in what He had these prophets declare. If they were really differed to their wicked fathers, if they indeed honoured, as they professed to do by this gorgeous tomb-building, the holy men of God whom their forefathers slew, they would not be plotting to take the life of the One to whom the prophets of old pointed – Yeshua.
The Greeks had two words for knowing, oida and ginosko (the noun form of which is gnosis). Oida, related to the Greek word for “seeing,” denotes “perception” and “absolute knowledge.” Once something is known, it is known for good—nothing can be added to it. Ginosko (gnosis) denotes “inceptive and ongoing knowledge.” It designates ongoing, personal knowledge, which implies a relationship between the person who knows and the person who is known. It is an “experiential” knowledge). (Gnosis) knowledge can grow and mature. By way of illustration, we can “know” (oida) someone’s name immediately, but it will take a lifetime to really “know” (ginosko/gnosis) that person. (Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained). These Torah experts had taken away the key to knowing God through relationship.
A key was the regular symbol of the function of a scribe, which was to open the meaning of the Holy Scriptures to the people. These Torah experts perpetuated the idea that ordinary people were incapable of properly understanding the Torah and had to rely on them to explain its meaning. Instead of teaching the plain meaning of scripture so the people could recognise Messiah when He came, they shifted the focus to the “correct” practice of traditions and ceremonies. The Torah, for example, commands: “Observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 6:12). These “Torah experts” (as later written in the Mishnah) specified 39 categories of forbidden labour which are prohibited by this commandment, adding dozens of other kinds of labour under these 39 headings. The Torah commands: “When you eat and are satisfied, give thanks to your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). These “Torah experts” spelled out specific blessings to be recited before and after each kind of food, and what to do if the wrong blessing is recited by mistake. They rejected the long-awaited Messiah and Lord of Glory because His perfect fulfilment of Torah was not focused on conforming to all their added traditions and intricate laws. They rejected the door to the kingdom (Yeshua) and thus failed to enter, and with their teaching hindered those who were coming to Yeshua in order to enter.
As Yeshua left that place, the Torah-teachers and the P’rushim began to oppose Him bitterly and to provoke Him to express His views on all sorts of subjects, laying traps to catch Him in something He might say. Luke 11:53-54 CJB
After uttering the last “woe,” Yeshua appears abruptly to have risen and left the house of His Pharisee entertainers. A crowd of angry men, composed of scribes and lawyers and Pharisees, appear to have followed the Rabbi, whose words just spoken had shown the estimation in which He held the great schools of religious thought which sort to guide public Jewish opinion. From henceforth they could countenance only one end to the unequal combat. The bold outspoken Teacher must, at all hazards, be put out of the way. These religious theologians and leaders were enraged against Him as they pressed upon Him; harassed Him with questions seeking to entrap Him, that they might accuse Him. They angrily proposed questions as fast as possible, and about as many things as possible, that they might get Him, in the hurry, to say something that would be wrong, that they might thus accuse Him and be done with Him.
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4. —. New American Standard Bible. LaHabra, CA : The Lockman Foundation, 1995, 2020.
5. The Pulpit Commentaries. Luke 11. Study Light. [Online] [Cited: December 9th, 2022.] https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/luke-11.html.
6. Jerusalem Talmud Maasrot. Jerusalem Talmud Maasrot. Sefaria. [Online] [Cited: December 9th, 2022.] https://www.sefaria.org/Jerusalem_Talmud_Maasrot?tab=contents.
7. Seder Zeraim (Agriculture). Mishnah. Sefaria. [Online] [Cited: December 9th, 2022.] https://www.sefaria.org/texts/Mishnah.
8. Mishnah Maasrot. Sefaria. [Online] [Cited: December 9th, 2022.] https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Maasrot?tab=contents.
9. Lang, Yehuda. Meal Hand-Washing – Beyond Pasteur! Chabad. [Online] [Cited: December 20th, 2022.] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/607403/jewish/Meal-Hand-Washing.htm.
10. Raskin, Rabbi Aaron L. Ritual Hand-Washing. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: December 20th, 2022.] https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/5572512/jewish/Ritual-Hand-Washing.htm.
11. YANKLOWITZ, Rabbi Shmuly. Netilat Yadayim: Sanctifying Our Primary Moral Instrument. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: December 21st, 2022.] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/netilat-yadayim-washing-hands-to-sanctify-our-primary-moral-instrument/.
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In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…
*Why do you think Jesus chose not to participate in the netilat yadayim (hand washing ritual) before eating?
* How was Jesus’ response to the Pharisee‘s unspoken concerns an act of love?
* In what ways have some religious leaders in your nation followed in the footsteps of the Pharisees and experts in the law?
* As leaders of God’s people how do we avoid the pitfalls Jesus exposed in the Pharisees and Torah experts here?