TRADITIONS OF THE ELDERS
James Scott Trimm
In Matthew 15:1-23 and Mark 7:1-23 there is a record of a conflict between Yeshua and a group of Pharisees. This conflict has been mischaracterized by many as a conflict between Yeshua and the Oral Law in general, rather than a typical debate of the time about the validity or invalidity of a given tradition of the Elders.
OK lets break this event into parts A, B and C:
A. Matt. 15:1-2 = Mark 7:1-5
Introduces a conflict between Yeshua and a group of Pharisees over Netilat Yadayim
(ritual hand washing).
B. Matt. 15:3-9 = Mark 7:6-13
Yeshua responds with a parantheical counter issue: Why do you transgress the Torah by means of the Tradition of the Elders? Yeshua points out that commandment to honor parents outweighs a vow.
C. Matt. 15:10-20 = Mark 7:14-23
Yeshua further responds that wicked speech is a weightier commandment than purity regulations.
Now it should be remembered in understanding this event that Matthew wrote first and Mark makes use of Matthew. (http://nazarenespace.com/profiles/blogs/the-gospel-according-to-the… ) So Matthew’s account is guided by his witness of the event itself, and the account of Markl is guided by Matthew. The additional information in Mark is mostly intended to elaborate on the subject matter rather than the event itself.
It should also be remembered that the oldest most original Aramaic text of the Gospels is the Old Syriac while the Peshitta has been revised to have greater agreement with the Greek (see detailed proof of this fact in The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament at http://nazarenespace.com/page/books-dvds ). In the HRV passages which appear in the Peshitta but not in the OK now lets examine what took place.
First off there is the initial conflict. Matthew Says only:
1 Then came near to Him scribes and P’rushim from Yerushalayim, saying,
2 Why do your talmidim transgress the decrees of the elders? For they clean not their
hands when they eat bread.
(Matthew 15:1-2 HRV)
1 And the P’rushim and scribes gathered around Him, who came from Yerushalayim.
2 And they saw some of His talmidim who were eating bread, while their handswere not
washed, <and they complained. >
(Mark 7:1-2 HRV)
3 For all the Judeans and P’rushim, unless they wash their hands <carefully, >do not
eat bread: because they hold to the tradition of the elders.766
4 And they do not eat things from the marketplace unless they are immersed. Andthere
are many other things that they have received to observe: immersing of cups, and of
pots, <and of bronze vessels, and of biers. >
5 And the scribes and P’rushim asked Him, Why do Your talmidim not walk according to
the tradition of the elders: but eat bread while their hands are not washed?
(Mark 7:3-5 HRV)
Again it should be noted that Mark’s statement here is an elaboration on the subject of ritual washings, and not necessarily related to this particular event.
OK now lets look at part B.
3 But He answered them and said: And why do you transgress the commandments of
Elohim–by means of your decrees?
4 Is it not written in your Torah from the mouth of Elohim, Honor your fatherand your
mother?527 And moreover written, And he that curses his father and his mother will
5 But you say, Whoever says to father and mother, It is all an offering–529whatever
of mine might profit you,
6 And he honors not his father and his mother. Thus have you made void
the commandments of Elohim, on account of your judgments.
7 You hypocrites! Yesha’yahu did well indeed to prophesy concerning you, saying,
8 This people honors Me with their mouth and with their lips, but have removed their
heart far from Me.9 And their fear of Me, is a commandment learned of men.530
(Matt. 15:3-8 HRV)
6 And Yeshua said to them: Well, did Yesha’yahu the prophet, prophesy concerning you.
Hypocrites! As is written, This people honors Me with its lips: but their heart, is
very far from Me.
7 And vainly they fear Me, while teaching teachings of the commandments of men.767
8 <For you have left, the commandment of Eloah: and you have grasped the tradition, of
the sons of men–immersions of cups, and of pots, and many things that resemble
9 He said to them: Well did you reject the commandment of Eloah, that you
might establish your [own] commandment.
10 For Moshe said, Honor your father and your mother:768 and he who reviles father
and mother will indeed die.769
11 But you say, If a man should say to his father or to his mother, What you would
have gained from me, is my offering [to the Temple].
12 Then you permit him, not to do a thing for his father or his mother.
13 And you reject the Word of Eloah,
(Mark 7:6-13 HRV)
Notice verse 8 which does not appear in Matthew’s account, also does not appear in the more primtive Old Syriac Aramaic version of Mark. When both of these points of evidence are taken together it would appear that verse 8 is a scribal gloss.
Now Yeshua’s drash here not only shows he is well aware of the halachic controversy mentioned above, but his answer to the issue is presented in such a way as to show that Yeshua was anything but an ignoramus. This is because Yeshua deals with the issues intelligently and formats his drash in a complex form known as a Yelammedenu Homiletic Midrash.
In a Yelammedenu Homiletic Midrash begins with a question or problem which it answers in its exposition. This involves the use of Hillel’s second rule G’ZIRAH SHAVAH “equivalence of expressions” which ties scriptures and expositions together through common catchwords. The format for a Yelammedenu Homiletic Midrash involves four steps: 1) the question or problem; 2) an initial text; 3) the drash/exposition; 4) a final text.
Yeshua’s Yelammedenu Homiletic Midrash goes like this:
QUESTION/PROBLEM: (catchwords: JUDGMENT; COMMANDMENT)
1 Then came near to him scribes and P’rushim from Yerushalayim saying,
2 “Why do your talmidim transgress the judgments of the elders?
For they clean not their hands when they eat bread.”
3 But he answered them and said, “Why do you transgress the
commandments of Elohim because of your judgments?
INITIAL TEXT (Ex. 20:12; 21:17): (catchword: HONOR)
Is it not written in your Torah from the mouth of Elohim,
“honor your father and your mother.”
And more-over written, “And he who curses his father
and his mother will surely die?”
DRASH/EXPOSITION: (catchwords: HONOR; COMMANDMENT; TRADITION)
but you say, “Whoever says to his father and mother,
It is all an offering, whatever of mine might profit you..’
A marginal note to some Greek copies says: The Judaikon [Jewish version]: “corban [an offering] is what you should have obtained from us.] (compare Mark 7:11)
6 and he honors not his father and his mother.’ Thus you have
made void the commandments of Elohim on account of your judgments?.
FINAL TEXT (Is. 29:13-14): (catchwords HONOR; COMMANDMENTS)
You hypocrites, Yesha’yahu did well indeed to prophecy concerning you, saying, This people honors me with their mouth, and with their lips, but have removed their heart far from me. And their fear of me is a commandment learned from men..”
The vow Yeshua mentions is as follows:
“It is all KORBAN (an offering), whatever of mine might profit you”
This is the typical wording for such a vow by Phaisaic tradition. For example the wording in m.Nedarim 8:7 is “KONAM is that which you might have profited by me.” And m.Nedarim 1:2 tells us “He who says to his fellow, `KONAM’, `KONAH’, or `KONAS’; behold, these are euphemisms for KORBAN”
Exactly this sort of vow, made by a son, against his father, was permitted under Pharisaic Halacha and is discussed in the Mishna:
There was one in Beit Horon whose father was bound by a vow from deriving profit from him. And he was marrying off his son, and he said to his fellow, `The courtyard and the banquet are given over to you as a gift. But they are before you only so that [my] father may come and eat with us at the banquet.’ The fellow said, `Now if they are really mine, then behold, they are consecrated to heaven.’ He said, `I did not give you what is mine so you could consecrate it to heaven!’ He said to him, `You did not give me what is yours except so that you and your father could eat and drink and be friends again, and so the sin [of violating the vow] could rest on my head!’ (some mss. have `his head’) Now the case came before sages, They ruled, `Any act of giving that is not such that, if one sanctified it to heaven, it is sanctified, is no act of giving.”
Under Yeshua’s halacha, such a vow would be regarded as dishonoring ones father in the first place, but clearly it was allowed under Pharisaic halacha.
Now this brings us to the matter of comparing the halachic weight of keeping a vow to that of honoring ones parents, an issue addressed directly in the Mishna:
R. Elieazar says: they open a vow for a man by reference to the
honor of his father or mother.
and the sages prohibit.
said R. Tzadok: before they open a vow for him by reference to his father or mother let them open his vow by reference to the honor of HaMakom. If so there will be no vow.
But the sages concede to R. Elieazar, that in a matter that is between him and his mother or father they loose his vow by reference to his father or mother.”
Now the Mishna preserves minority and majority opinions. In this case
Rabbi Elieazer presents the minority opinion:
“They loose a vow for a person by reference to the honor of his father or mother”
But the Mishna goes on to say “and the sages prohibit (or “bind”).
The terms “bind” and “loose” are used throughout the Mishna and Talmud to describe the permitting and forbidding of certain acts. This is the power to “bind” and “loose” Yeshua speaks of in Mt. 18:18 and in Mt. 16.
When the Mishna attributes a position to “the sages” this is the Mishna’s way of describing the majority consensus of the sages, i.e. the majority position. In other words the majority of Pharisaic sages over ruled Elieazer’s position on this issue.
The Mishna goes on to lay out an expaination of the ruling of the sages on this subject put forward by Rabbi Tzadok:
before they loose a vow for him by reference to his father or mother let them loose his vow by reference to the honor of the omnipresent. If so there will be no vow.”
In other words, they are saying that if a man could absolve himself of
his vow because keeping it would dishonor his parents, then he would
also be able to loose his vow by claiming that keeping it would
dishonor Elohim, but this, they argue, would allow anyone to absolve
his vow for any reason that he subjectively decided it would dishonor
Elohim, thus making vows of little value.
The Mishna goes on to tell us that:
The sages concede to R. Elieazar, that in a matter that is between him and his mother or father they loose his vow by reference to his father or mother.
In other words the Halacha presented in the Mishna is that a vow is not loosed by reason of honoring ones father or mother unless the vow is one that only involved the father and/or mother and no other parties were involved (as is the case in Matthew 15:5).
Now if we look in the Talmud we find that the Gemara to Nedarim 9:1
GEMARA. What is meant by THERE ARE NO VOWS? — Abaye said: If so, Vows are not properly revoked. Rabba explained: If so no one will seek a Sage’s absolution for his vow.
“We learnt: BUT THE SAGES ADMIT TO R. ELIEZER THAT IN A MATTER CONCERNING HIMSELF AND HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, THEIR HONOR IS SUGGESTED AS AN OPENING.
Now, as for Abaye, who explains [it as meaning], if so, vows are not properly revoked, it is well: here, since he has been [so] impudent, he is impudent.
But on Rabba’s explanation. Viz., if so, none will seek a Sage’s Absolution for his vow, why is such an opening suggested to him here?
I will tell you. Since all [other] vows cannot be annulled without a Sage it may be offered as an opening here too.”
In other words, a man who is truly concerned with honoring his parents, would not have made a vow that dishonored them in the first place.
So while the halacha of m.Nedarim 9:1 would allow a man to absolve himself of the type of vow mentioned in Matthew 15:5, the Mishna would still allow such a vow to be made and upheld as is the case in Nedarim 5:6. Yeshua’s halacha does not allow this sort of vow to be made in the first place, and discourages making any oaths or vows at all in the first place.
Yeshua’s point here is simply that the Pharisees he is debating with have been guilty of giving greater weight to traditions of the Elders than to the Word of Elohim. This issue however relates not to the original question of hand washing, but to a new issue concerning the weight of vows.
There in no reason that a counter question mut relate directly to a question. For example in 2Esdras chapter 3 Ezra raises some perplexing questions to YHWH and in chapter 4 YHWH sends the angel Uriel with three counter questions, saying “If you can solve one of them for me, I also will show you the way you desire to see, and will teach you why the heart is evil.” (2Esdras 4:3). The purpose of the counter questions, was not to answer Ezra’s questions, but to demonstrate Ezra’s own lack of knowledge. This is the case in “Part B” of this event.
In fact the point of part B is that these Pharsiees have a halacha which conflicts with the Word of Elohim and actually violates the “Word of Elohim”. However there is absolutely no indication that Yeshua in any way indicates that washing one hands violates Torah or can be used to circumvent keeping soe Torah commandment. Yeshua’s purpose in presenting the argument in part B therefore seems to be simply to show his opponents had made faulty halachot.
Yeshua comes to a conclusion any of us could agree to, that judgments of the Elders
are not of greater weight that the “Word of Elohim”.
Then we move on to part C:
10 Then He called the crowds to Himself, and said: Hear, and know,
11 What enters into the mouth defiles not the man: but what proceeds out of the mouth, that, defiles the man.
12 Then His talmidim approached Him, and said, Know you that the P’rushim which heard this saying were annoyed.
13 But Yeshua answered and said: Every plant, which My Father which is in heaven has not planted, will be uprooted.
14 Leave them alone, for they are blind. And if the blind lead another blind,both of them will fall into the ditch.
15 Then answered Kefa and said to Him, Explain to us this parable.
16 And Yeshua said: Are you also still without understanding?
17 Do you not understand, that whatever enters into the mouth enters into the belly, and is cast out in the latrine?
18 But those things which come out of the mouth–they come from the heart: and they are those things which defile the man.
19 For from the heart proceeds: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and blasphemies.
20 These are those things which defile the man: but that a man should eat without washing his hands, that defiles not the man.
(Matt. 15:10-20 HRV)
And Mark writes:
14 And Yeshua called the entire crowd and said to them: Hear Me, all of you, and be persuaded.770
15 There is not a thing that is outside of a son of man and enters him, that is able [to] defile him: but the thing that goes out from him, that, defiles a son of man.
16 He who has ears to hear let him hear.
17 And when Yeshua entered the house from the crowd, His talmidim asked Him concerning that saying.
18 He said to them: Are you likewise also slow to understand? Do you not know that a thing that enters a son of man from the outside, can not defile him,
19 Because it does not enter his heart but his belly: and it is thrown away and cleansed, even all food.771
20 But a thing that goes out from a son of man, that, defiles a son of man.
21 For from within, from the heart of a son of man, evil thoughts proceed; adultery,fornication, murder, theft,
22 Covetousness, wickedness, craftiness, perversion, the evil eye,772
23 All these evils proceed from within, and defile a son of man.
(Mark 7:14-23 HRV)
Here Yeshua’s point is simply that wicked speech comes from a wicked heart and that YHWH is more concerned with the inner man that with outward expressions. Pharisees at this time polarized into two schools of thought: The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The two schools held differing view on many halachic issues and argued throughout the first century. Eventually the School of Hillel prevailed in these arguments and serves as the foundation of modern Rabbinic Judaism. There are also many important connections between the School of Hillel and the ancient sect of the Nazarenes.
Within Rabbinic literature we have record of over 350 disputes between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. Generally Shammai gave the stricter interpretation, while Hillels understandings were more relaxed. According to the Zohar (Ra’aya Meheimna 3:245a) The School of Shammai was based on GEVURAH (“severity”) while the School of Hillel was based on CHESED (“grace”/”mercy”).
A classic example of the conflict can be seen in one of the first passages of the Mishna, which records a conflict between the two houses over how to recite the Shema:
The House of Shammai says: In the evening one should recline in order to recite the shema, and in the morning they should stand. As it is written “when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
But the House of Hillel says: Everyone may recite the Shema in his own way, as it is written: “And you shall go by the way” (Deuteronomy 7:7)
Note that the House of Shammai were concerned primarily with the outward expression, with whether one was standing or reclining, while the House of Hillel were less concerned with such outward expression and much more concerned with the way in which one recited the Shema, that they made it their own way, that they meant it and walked in it. Note the difference in emphasis of the two houses. Hillel was more concerned with the inner man, while Shammai was more concerned with the outer man. Hillel was concerned with the Spirit of the Law, while Shammai was more concerned with the Letter of the Law.
This overriding concept of sincerity is also found in the Mishna in tractate
“…all are the same, the one who offers much and the one who offers little, on condition that a man will direct his intention to Heaven.”
Yeshua’s point here is that these Pharisees (probably from the House of Shammai) were more concerned with the outward expression of ritual than with the inner man.
So now let us return to our original subject, the tradition of hand washing. We read of the tradition in the Talmud as follows:
Our Rabbis taught: The absence of oil is a bar to the saying of grace. So said
R. Zilai. R. Ziwai said: It is no bar. R. Aha said: Good oil is indispensable.
R. Zuhamai said: Just as a dirty person is unfit for the Temple service, so
dirty hands unfit one for saying grace. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: I know nothing
either of Zilai or Ziwai or Zuhamai, but I do know the following teaching, viz.:
Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: some say it was taught in a Baraitha,
Sanctify yourselves:(Lev. 11:44) this refers to washing of the hands before the
meal;And be ye holy: this refers to washing of the hands after the meal; `For
holy’: this refers to the oil; `Am I the Lord your God’: this refers to the
(A Baraitha is a tradition in the Oral Law which was not incorporated into the Mishnah.)
This Baraita is drawn from:
For I am YHWH your Elohim: sanctify yourselves therefore, and be you Set-Apart,
for I am Set-Apart; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming
thing that moves upon the earth.
(Lev. 11:44 HRV)
The Baraita in question teaches that the phrase “sanctify yourselves” is fulfilled by ritual hand washing. The concept is that in order to be “sanctified” so that one is ritually clean before saying grace prior to a meal, one must perform the ritual hand washing.
Now there were a number of ongoing debates in the first century over when hand washing was required and when it was not required. For example the sages ruled that a warrior in a millitary camp was exempt from the requiremet of the hand washing (m.Eruvim 1:10) and Rabbi Ziwai argued that if no oil was present (for the hand washing) it was permitted to say grace and eat without performing the ritual hand washing (b.Berachot 53b).
So certain Pharisees saw Yeshua’s talmidim eat without performing the ritual handwashing. Since Yeshua and his Talmidim were travelling it was probably not possible to perform the handwashing at the time, and yet Yeshua’s Talmidim ate anyway.
The context of the passage (Lev. 11:44) is not the defilement of hands, but the defilement of the soul, not by having unclean hands, but by eating unclean foods. Yeshua’s point here is not that the Oral Law is not valid, but rather Yeshua was participating in the halachic debates which were ongoing at the time.
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