Clash of Tradition and Torah

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 & Mark 7:1-23

Then some P’rushim (Pharisees) and Torah-teachers from Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) came to Yeshua and asked him,  “Why is it that your talmidim (disciples)  break the Tradition of the Elders? They don’t do n’tilat-yadayim (ritual hand-washing) before they eat!”  
He answered, “Indeed, why do you break the command of God by your tradition?  For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother, and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If anyone says to his father or mother, “I have promised to give to God what I might have used to help you,”  then he is rid of his duty to honor his father or mother.’ Thus by your tradition you make null and void the word of God! You hypocrites! Yesha‘yahu (
Isaiah) was right when he prophesied about you,
These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far away from me.
Their worship of me is useless,
because they teach man-made rules as if they were doctrines.’”

Matthew 15:1-9 CJB

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 with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.  For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.  And when they come from the market, 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 do 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. For Moses said, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’; and, ‘Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death’: But ye say, ‘If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.’  And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
Mark 7:1-13 KJV

We learnt something of the Jewish purification rituals in the section on Mikveh here: Yochanan & Yeshua as God Sent Jewish Reformers . As we read in Mark, they had many other traditions for ritual cleansing with water. These had been part of the developing Halakhah ( הֲלָכָה, the Way, ie the way a Jew should walk, – the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from both the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah”), which began being developed during the Babylonian captivity (A New Judaism – without Land or Temple (586 – 537 BC)) and continued under Persian Occupation (Developments in Judaism under Persian Occupation (430 – 332 BC), and then further under Greek and Roman occupation.

Mitzvot D’rabbanan (Aramaic for “from the rabbis”)  all three categories of rabbinic commandments, which also became known as the “Oral Torah” and came to be attributed to Moses’ revelation on Mount Sinai, thus giving them, according to many Pharisees, the same status as the Written Torah (ie. books of Moses, first 5 books in the Bible).  They consisted of:
Gezeirah – laws instituted by the rabbis/“elders” to prevent people from accidently violating a Torah Mitzvot (law).  Commonly referred to as a ‘fence’ around the Torah.
Takkanot – laws unrelated to the Biblical commandments that were created by the rabbis/“elders” for the public welfare, to ‘make the world a better place’. 
Minhag – long-standing customs of the community.

By the time the Jewish schools of Hillel and Shammai became well established, during Yeshua’s childhood, disputes on the Oral Torah had become so widespread that there was fear that it would eventually seem like there were really “two Torahs” prescribing two different ways to live as Jews.  It was in the context of this time of contest and debate within Judaism that Yeshua trained His talmidim, sometimes in agreement with the prevailing opinions of the Torah scholars, and sometimes in stark contrast to them.  

As the Son of God and as Messiah, Yeshua was not bound to submit to the authority of earthly religious leaders in determining how to live as a Torah observant Jew. Prophetically, Deuteronomy 18:15-19 speaks of God raising up a prophet like Moses for the people of Israel:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him.  And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.” Deuteronomy 18:15-19 NKJV

Yeshua was this prophet like Moses who would speak to the Jewish people all that God commanded. The Sanhedrin (who were the supreme religious council, or court, in Israel during His time) claimed to trace their origin and authority to the elders appointed by Moses (Exodus 18:25-26 & Numbers 11:16-30). These were appointed to serve under Moses in judging the people so that they would follow God’s Torah as He had delivered it to Moses. No Jew would suggest that Moses was helplessly bound to accept the rulings of these elders. His role rather, was to teach these elders to make rulings he would be agreeance with even as he sort to hear from God to rule in such manner that agreed with God.  Yeshua, as Messiah, held Moses’ own authority and, like Moses, had the right to approve, modify or reject any ruling by the elders, the Sanhedrin and all the Jewish religious leaders. Yeshua was thus perfectly within His right, and fulfilling His God-given role, to put aside the traditions of the elders (takkanot and gereirah) that He  disagreed with.  Thus it was in uniformity with Torah that Yeshua put aside some of the traditions of the elders in order to teach the people how to truly obey God’s commandments and live in His halakhah.

Jewish Ritual Handwashing

As would later be written in the Talmud, Jews are required to wash their hands and say a blessing before eating any meal that includes bread or matzah (the unleavened cracker-like bread eaten at Passover). The ritual, known as netilat yadayim, is typically done using a two-handled cup, but other vessels can be used. There are various customs regarding how the water should be poured, but a common practice is to pour twice on the right hand followed by twice on the left (this is reversed for those who are left-handed). Hasidic custom is to pour three times on each hand.

Using the non-dominant hand to pour first can feel unnatural or awkward, highlighting that the washing is done for ritual rather than pragmatic purposes. The tradition is unrelated to personal hygiene, and a person is still required to perform this ritual even if his or her hands are clean. It is also customary not to speak following the recitation of this blessing until reciting the blessing for bread and partaking of some.

Some passages in the Talmud indicate that failing to undertake the ritual hand washing before a meal is a significant transgression. One talmudic sage even said that eating bread without ritual washing is tantamount to having sex with a prostitute, while another stated that acting contemptuously toward this ritual causes one to be uprooted from the world.

So it was that these Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem “found faultμέμφομαι – a deeply personal rejecting as fully blameworthy, disgraceful and condemnable due to deep wrongs done by omission or commission. Their condemning question: “Why is it that your talmidim (disciples)  break the Tradition of the Elders? They don’t do n’tilat-yadayim (ritual hand-washing) before they eat!”, or “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders?” was a back-handed way of condemning Yeshua, for His talmidim were doing what talmidim do – following in their rabbi’s footsteps and imitating His ways. Yeshua had chosen to avoid complying with this tradition of His people in order to provoke a response that would provide a teaching opportunity. He shunned their valued tradition because He wanted to open their eyes to the ways in which they were using their traditions, which they were claiming as commandments from God, to avoid obedience to God’s actual commands. Yeshua was teaching His talmidim, and us, the dangers of unwittingly substituting the commandments and teachings of men for God’s commands. The Jewish religious leaders thought their developing Halakhah dictating every aspect of their lives, ensured walking in meticulous obedience to God’s commandments, when it was actually enabling a rejection of God’s commands, as so much religious activity can do.

What lesson did Yeshua consider to be so important that He led His talmidim in disregarding the traditions of His people in order to highlight it? The 5th commandment – honour your father and mother. Yeshua accused the religious leaders of encouraging the breaking this command of God in the most practical, life affecting way. Here Yeshua was not presenting honouring our parents as some warm emotion or thinking them to be the best people in the world, although it can include such. Nor was He highlighting the need for children to obey their parents, as important as that is. He was speaking to adults about our obligation, before God, to provide for our parent’s needs as they age. His rebuke of these religious leaders was scathing: “But you say, ‘If anyone says to his father or mother, “I have promised to give to God what I might have used to help you,” then he is rid of his duty to honour his father or mother.’ Thus by your tradition you make null and void the word of God! You hypocrites!”

Giving into the hands of religious leaders is no excuse for failing to meet the needs of our aging parents. Building a church is no substitute for meeting the needs of our aging parents. Religious rituals or gifts are no substitute for treating others right and fulfilling our obligations towards them. Paul understood what Yeshua was talking about when he wrote: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8). This reformation that Yeshua was bringing to Judaism refocused attention on God’s commands to love one another and to honour parents in real and practical ways.

When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand:  Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”

Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.”
So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding?  Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated?  But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man.  For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.  These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
Matthew 15:10-20 NKJV

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.  Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.  “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?  For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,  adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.
” Mark 7:14-23 NIV

Yeshua was giving them a big priority reset. Through the generations the Jews had developed multitudes of religious rituals which they equated with God’s commands, and so much of their theological debate centred on the “correct” way to undertake these rituals in order to be acceptable to God. Yeshua contended that godliness was not about how one performed a series of religious rituals but about how one treated others. No ritual could cleanse the heart, nor was it ritual failure that defiled the heart before God. In both accounts Yeshua lists actions that defile and these are all about how we treat others, not about religious rituals. These are the things that Yeshua declared defile us:

  • evil thoughtsπονηρός διαλογισμός – ponērós dialogismos.
    πονηρός ponērós= pain-ridden, having a miserable preference for choosing actions that exacerbate and spread their emotional pain and then blame others, ponērós is “like a nasty cloud – always ready to spread its misery”, laborious trouble, the active outworking of sin spreading contagious suffering and hardships.
    διαλογισμός dialogismos = back and forth reasoning, self-based reasoning which inevitably grows in confusion as it seeks ones own purposes, the prefix dia indicating going too far, over to the other side – this reasoning will reinforce others who share the same personal prejudice.
    So, πονηρός διαλογισμός – ponērós dialogismos are pain-ridden self-based reasonings that exacerbate and spread their misery.
  • murdersφόνος phónos = to slay, murder, slaughter, intentional unjustified homicide.
  • adulteriesμοιχεία moicheía = adultery, adulteries, sexual actions with, or thoughts focused on, another person’s spouse.
  • fornicationsπορνεία porneía = a selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity, promiscuity of any and every type, any sexual impurity in mind or body, includes all forms of sexual sin from impure sexual thoughts to prostitution, unchastity, fornication and every kind of unlawful (contrary to Torah) sexual intercourse, πορνεία is also used metaphorically of the worship of idols. Any sexual activity that is not a loving total giving of husband to his wife and wife to her husband, or any worship that is not a loving total giving of oneself to God.
  • theftsκλοπαί  klopé = theft done secretly, not out in the open or with violence, fraud, stealing.
  • false witnessψευδομαρτυρία pseudomartyria = false testimony, false witness, lying about others.
  • blasphemies / slanderβλασφημία blasphēmia = from blax, “sluggish/slow,” and phḗmē, “reputation, fame” –  literally, slow (sluggish) to call something good (that really is good) and slow to identify what is truly bad. Slander, detraction, speech injurious to another’s good name, vilification (especially against God):—blasphemy, evil speaking, railing. Reversing moral values – calling evil good and calling good evil, redefines what is moral as immoral, a perversion of spirit which, in defiance of the truth, chooses to call light darkness.
  • evil thoughtsκακός διαλογισμός kakós dialogismos. = inwardly foul,  rotten (poisoned); inner malice flowing out of a morally-rotten character, wickedness, worthless, depraved, bad, harm, inner evil, sinful nature, the intrinsic indwelling principle of evil. 
  • coveting” πλεονεξίαι pleoneksía from pleíōn, “numerically more” and éxō, “have”) – properly, the desire for more (things), i.e. lusting for a greater number of temporal things, covetousness, converting, desiring that which is outside of God’s will for you, greed, stooping to unscrupulous behaviour to gratify the longing to have more, in placing the desire for money or things above the desire for God pleoneksía is a form of idolatry. 
  • malice” πονηρία ponēria = depravity, iniquity, wickedness, malice, evil purposes and desires, spreading evil – emphasises the painful effects of sin.
  • deceit” δόλος dólos = to catch with a bait, deceit, trickery, guile, to speak deceitfully, uses decoys to snare and deceive people and hence implies treachery to exploit the undiscerning, baiting people through their own greed or sinful desires in order to deceive and exploit them.
  • lewdnessἀσέλγεια asélgeia = unbridled lust, excess, licentiousness, lasciviousness, wantonness, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence; reckless action that utterly disregards others, wanton disregard for what God defines as decent; behaviour that completely lacks moral restraint; Barclay (New Testament Words, p. 62) said aselgeiais a grim word.  It is the wanton insolence that is lost to shame.  It is a grim commentary on human nature that a man can be so mastered by sin that in the end he loses even shame.
  • envyὀφθαλμός πονηρός ophthalmós ponērós = literally “eye evil“, “an evil eye,” which is a Semitic term for stinginess (Deuteronomy 15:9). It means to sin with one’s eyes or to see something with a wicked intent. In the Bible the expression is synonymous with envy, jealousy and some forms of covetousness.
  • arrogance ὑπερηφανία hyperēphanía = excessive shining, ie self-exaltation, pride, haughtiness, arrogance; the character of one who, with a swollen estimate of his own powers or merits, looks down on others and even treats them with insolence and contempt.
  • follyἀφροσύνη aphrosýnē = lack of perspective, want of sense, foolishness, impiety, wickedness, thoughtlessness, recklessness.

Yeshua described all these as evils that defile a person, strip what is sacred of its specialness to God, remove them from being sanctified (set apart to God). He was not an “anything goes” reformer. His dismissal of ritual washings was not an invitation to lawlessness but to true righteousness. The heart had greater need of cleansing with true washing than the hands had of cleansing with ritual washings. Being set apart to God is not a matter of ritual but of heart attitude which is displayed in our actions. Engaging in any of the above defiles us, causes us to cease being set apart to God.

Reference List

1. HELPS Ministries. The Discovery Bible. [Online]
2. Andrews, Edward D. Why Is the Greek Verb Pisteuo (faith, Believe, trust in) Rendered Differently at Times? Christian Publishing House. [Online] November 1st, 2016.
3. Shurpin, Yehuda. What Is the Talmud? Definition and Comprehensive Guide. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: January 9th, 2021.]
4. Commentaries. John 6:36. Bible Hub. [Online]
5. Garcia, Vince. Should Jews be “Targeted” for conversion? or Sharing one’s faith with a Jewish person. A New Christian’s Handbook. [Online] [Cited: February 6th, 2021.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

*What can we learn from Jesus’ attitude towards His people’s ritual cleansing of hands?
* What traditions and rituals have been established in your church and what effect do they have on the people’s walk with God?
* What teachings have you identified that hinder people from obeying God’s Word in the scriptures?
* How can we avoid being like the religious leaders who “found fault” μέμφομαι – a deeply personal rejecting as fully blameworthy, disgraceful and condemnable – with Jesus when He was only doing the Father’s will?
*What does it mean to honour our father and mother and why do you think Jesus placed so much importance on this?
* When dismissing the ritual washing of hands as having any relevance to our being set apart to God, Jesus gave us a long list of sins that defile and interrupt our relationship to the Father – which of these sins in most prevalent in your church or in your culture and what difference would it make to your community if people repented of those sins and truly lived as disciples of Jesus?