Written and Oral Torahs
important remarks about Torah are found in Matthew 5:17-19 where he stated,
"Do not think that I have come
to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but
to complete. Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth
pass away, not so much as a yod or a stroke will pass from the Torah –
not until everything that must happen has happened.
So whoever disobeys the least of these commandments and teaches
others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the
Kingdom of Heaven."
The word Torah in Hebrew means
'instruction.' The written Torah consists of the five books of Moses
and the oral Torah consisting of additional oral instructions passed
down from generation to generation. The Written Torah is viewed as God's
expressed will, and the Oral Torah viewed as the detailed instructions on
how to fulfill that expressed will.
rabbis taught that the revelation granted to Moses
had been delivered in
two forms, a smaller revelation in writing
and the larger one kept orally. This 'Oral Torah' had been
transmitted faithfully by the
leaders of each generation to
their successors, by Moses to Joshua, and
then to the elders,
then to the prophets, to the men of the Great
Assembly, to the
leaders of the Pharisees, and finally to the earliest
Thus only these rabbis knew the whole Torah - written and
and only such knowledge could qualify anyone for legitimate
leadership over the people of Israel." 1
After the destruction of the Second
haNasi (Judah the Prince) began to collect,
sift, arrange, classify and edit the great body of Oral Torah into a basic
compendium of authoritative Torah Law called the
However Rabbi Yehudah was compelled to omit large portions of the
overwhelming mass of material. Much of that material
deleted by him was preserved by his disciples in other works know as
Over succeeding generations, as rabbis
continued their study of the Oral Torah, a tradition of commentary and
explanation began to grow. This expanding mass of material became an
object of study in its own right and was called the
in Aramaic - meaning study. Both the Mishnah and Gemara were combined into
a single document and called the
- meaning 'to study' in Hebrew. The Talmud is divided into six
divisions, in which there are various tractates on different topical
areas. Today, there are only 37 of the original sixty tractates of the
Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) and 39 of the original sixty-three tractates of
Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi).
is Halacha and Aggadah?
Within the Mishnah (Oral Torah) are
two different types of literature. The first is known as
Halacha is the body of literature that interprets Torah and seeks
evidence to establish judicial laws, both civil and religious, that
consist of codes of behavior and religious practice and procedures. For
instance, the requirements for waving the lulav and etrog on the holiday
of Sukkot, the laws of marriage and divorce, the ethics of giving charity,
and the requirements for returning lost property would all be considered
as halacha. The second type of literature is know as
and is all material contained in the Talmud that isn’t halacha. It
consists of the "wise sayings or tellings" of the sages.
Aggadah is much looser than halacha and refers to literature, parables,
theological or ethical statements, and homilies. Both aggadah and
halacha may be found mixed together, with aggadah teaching a principle
based upon a halachic text.4
The Hebrew word "halacha" means "to walk in the way." It is
a term used for the rules that govern religious life. Halacha
is an ancient term reflected in the New Testament meaning someone who
"walks in the way." A few examples of this are found in
Luke 1:6; Acts 21;21; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 7:17; Ephesians
4:17; 5:15; Colossians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 4:1; 12:2; 2 Peter 2:10;
2 John 4-6. From these passages there seems to be a clear indication that
in the first century congregations, there was a Messianic Jewish halacha
being made, and that it was often referred to as a "walk."
In the book of Acts we find reference to a
group of believers who walk in "the Way." We find mention
of them before Sha’ul’s (Paul's) encounter with Yeshua; also during
ministry after receiving Yeshua; and at the end of his ministry as he is
standing trial. In Acts 24:14 he says this,
this I do admit to you: I worship the God of our Fathers in accordance
with the Way, which they call a sect. I continue to believe everything
that accords with the Torah and everything written in the Prophets."
Both Yeshua and Shaul
observed and upheld the Torah according to what has been written
about them. To teach anything different is to read the New
Testament outside of the Jewish context in which it was written.
First, the "Way" was referred to
as a sect within Judaism. Secondly, we read
that Sha’ul continued to believe everything in accordance with the Torah
and Nevi’im. How else was it that Sha’ul could enter a synagogue
and be allowed to teach openly from the beema? Because he had not
forsaken his Jewish heritage. He never states, "I am no longer
a Jew, now I am a Christian." In fact we read about
him spending months inside synagogues teaching and reasoning with the Jews
and the Greeks. The "Messiahship of Yeshua" was always the issue that
ultimately got him cast out of the synagogue. The reason the leaders of the synagogues allowed Sha’ul to
come in was due to his halacha - his walking in "the Way."
In Acts 21 we read about the leaders in
Jerusalem telling Shaul how many believers there were and how they
were all zealous for the Torah. He then goes and purifies himself at the
Temple for seven days. Why? Because he was walking in halacha.
In Acts 22 he tells the people that he was trained under Rabbi Gamaliel
and was thoroughly trained in Torah. In Acts 23 Sha’ul is taken
before the Sanhedrin - a Jewish court of law. If Sha’ul was no
longer considered Jewish because of his renunciation of Judaism, then he would
have never been allowed to enter into the inner court of the Temple, get
up and speak and teach in their synagogues, and then be taken before a
Jewish court of law. Sha’ul addresses the Sanhedrin,
fellow Jews…" and he tells them
I myself am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees." In
Acts 24 he says,
"I worship the God of
our fathers in accordance with halacha (the Way)."
Did Rav Sha’ul, Paul, throw out the
Torah and denounce it as legalism? There are many today who believe
and teach just that. In Romans 3:31 he asks,
abolish the Torah? Heaven forbid! On the contrary, we confirm Torah." In Romans 7:12 he wrote,
"so the Torah is holy; that is, the commandment is holy, just and
Yeshua and Halacha
So, how did Yeshua relate to the halacha
teaching of his day? As might be suspected, there is some difference of
opinion over this question, as is illustrated by the following: At times
Yeshua speaks about the permanent validity of the Torah in Matt. 5: 17-18;
yet his actions and words often seem contrary to the Torah as we see in
Mark 2:18-27. Where did Yeshua stand in relation to the
Judaism of his day? Did he place himself against the traditions and
practices, within them, or somewhere in between? The answers to
these questions have significant ramifications for us today, especially
within Messianic theology and practice.
The New Testament accounts (Luke
2:39-52, John 8:46; Galations 4:4) stress that Yeshua was brought up
as a Jewish child in the traditions and faith of his ancestors. His
later life was also stamped by his Jewish heritage. He used and
taught the traditional prayers of his time such as the Amidah - the
"Lord’s Prayer" (Matthew 6:9-13). His special
prayer is merely a shortened form of the third, fifth, sixth, ninth and
fifteenth of the Eighteen Benedictions of the
Amidah. He used the
familiar blessings over bread and wine when he gave thanks at meals (Luke
22:19-20). He was quite Jewish in his dress. When the
woman with the hemorrhaging reached for him, she grabbed the hem of his
garment (Mark 6:56; Matthew 9:20; Luke 8:44). What was on the hem
of a Jewish man’s garment? The
or fringes, which
God had commanded the Jewish people to wear (Numbers 15:37-41).
His way of life reflected other Jewish
customs as well. He followed the custom of not only preaching in the
synagogue, but in the open air like the rabbis who preached everywhere, on
the village square and in the countryside as well as in the synagogue.
The frequent use of baptism associated with his ministry was also
quite common to his time, as the Talmud itself testifies in Sanhedrin
39a. Whether one accepts it or not, it is a fact attested to by
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that even in his final hour, Yeshua
did not stop practicing the basic rites of Judaism.
Perhaps, most significant was his
relationship to the Torah (Law) and traditions, which some have
described as "entirely orthodox." He declared the permanence of the
whole Torah in Matthew 5:17-19 and even accepted Pharisaic
extensions in Matthew 23:2-3 when he said,
whatever they tell you, but not as they do."
Some of these include: tithing of herbs (Matthew 23:23), grace
at meals (Mark 6:4 1; 8:6), blessings over wine, and the reciting
of the Hallel at the Passover seder (Mark14:22-23, 26).
In the Encyclopedia Judaica (vol.10,
p.14) it says that
"the Gospels provide sufficient evidence to
the effect that Jesus did not oppose any prescription of the written or
oral Mosaic Law." Another Jewish author, Yehezkel Kaufmann, puts it
"The attitude of Jesus to the Torah is the very same
attitude one finds among the masters of halacha and aggadah who
followed in the Pharisaic tradition."
Remember that Yeshua preached regularly in
the synagogues. This would not have been possible if his lifestyle
or teachings had been profoundly different from the current halacha of his
day. In fact, even the "Sermon on the
Mount," often viewed as an overview summary of Yeshua’s teaching,
reflects concepts familiar to the Jews of his day, consistent with
rabbinical teaching. Much of his teaching consists of
illustrations of the proper understanding of the Torah, spelling out its
wider implications. Many illustrations he used were common to the
rabbis. He uses a midrashic style which is an interpretation of the
Scriptures, much like we find in the Talmud.
The famous "turn
the other cheek" passage (Matthew 5:38-48) is
often cited as an example of the radical newness of Yeshua’s
teachings. But it is the same spirit which inspired the best
teaching of the rabbis. The point Yeshua emphasized here is the
proper response to insult, "the slap in the face." A
person is not to seek retaliation but should endure the insult
humbly. This the rabbis agreed with, and counseled that a person
struck on the cheek should forgive the offending party even if he does not
ask forgiveness (Tosefta Baba Kanima 9:29).
The Talmud commends the person who accepts offense without retaliation and
submits to suffering and insult cheerfully (Yoma
23a). In fact, one can find parallels in the rabbinical
material to almost all of Yeshua’s statements in verses 5:38-42.
Going on in Matthew 5, verses 43-47, he
builds on "loving your enemy."
Here, too, statements expressing similar ideas can be found in the
writings of the rabbis. For example,
anyone seeks to do evil unto you, do you in well that you pray for
him" (Testament of Joseph
XVIII.2 ). While it is true that the rabbis did not always
agree over how to treat an enemy, many of them taught perspectives similar
The Schools of Shammai and Hillel
At the time of Yeshua there were debates
between the teachings of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel on
the interpretation of the tradition and its application to contemporary
life. While Yeshua was very in tune with his times and
his people, there were nevertheless, points of conflict between him and
some of the religious leaders over interpretations
of the Torah. It must
be remembered then that he did not violate generally accepted
customs and practice; he simply disagreed with certain specific
pronouncements put forward by some teachers.
When Yeshua appeared before the Sanhedrin (Mark
14:55), there is no proven basis for any accusations leveled
against him. Yeshua took the clear position, not against Torah,
but against excessive importance that particular Pharisees added to them. He spoke out about a tendency to put the 'letter'
of the Torah before the 'spirit' of the Torah.
A number of Yeshua’s comments also indicate that he interacted with the
discussion between the schools of
Shammai. Therefore he would
naturally be in conflict with one or the other. For example, the statement
about tithing mint and dill (Mt. 23:23f.) reflects one of the things
included for tithing by Shammai, but not by Hillel (Maaserot 1.1 cf. 4.6;
Eduyyot 5.3; Demai 1.3). The reference to enlarging the tzitzit alludes to
another discussion between the two schools. In response to the command to
make tzitzit (Deutoromony 22:12), Shammai wanted to make broader tzitzit than the
followers of Hillel (Menahot 4).
What then was the major focus of the
conflict between Yeshua and some of the religious leaders of his
day? Was it simply differing interpretations or applications of the
Torah? A disagreement over halacha? Or, was it something
entirely different? The key to the conflict between him and
some of the rabbis of his day revolved around Yeshua’s uniqueness and
authority as Messiah, and as the Second Moses. Not unlike
today. Yeshua did not abrogate the provisions of the Torah but
did elaborate on the implications of its guidelines and principles, as was
expected in the Messianic Age.
Often his statements were "you have
heard it said, but I say". This is not an indication of him
setting aside the Torah. Rather, these statements function to get
the listener to hear and understand a more deeper, fuller meaning of the
Torah. Matthew 5:17-20 brings this point
home. He states
"don’t think for a moment that I have come to
abolish Torah, but rather to fulfill it." Never think that I
have come to abolish the Torah, Yeshua says. Rather I came to
"fulfill" the Torah. Not to make an end of it. In
the Jewish authored Septuagint the word "fulfill" means to
completely fill up, to make full.
As it turns out, the words
"abolish" and "fulfill" were part of a scholarly
debate and rabbinical discussion. A sage was accused of abolishing
or canceling the Torah if he misinterpreted a passage, nullifying its
intent. If he fulfilled it, he had properly interpreted Scripture so
as to preserve and correctly explain its meaning. When Yeshua talked
of not even the smallest letter - yod or the least stroke of a pen passing
away, he spoke in terms similar to the sages: The rabbis wrote,
the whole world were gathered together to destroy the yod which is the
smallest letter in the Torah, they would not succeed" (Canticles Rabbah
5.11; Leviticus Rabbah 19).
"Not a letter shall be abolished from the
Torah forever" (Exodus Rabbah 6.1).
Did Yeshua Condemn The Pharisees?
Yeshua arguments with the Pharisees were
typical of those between Jewish yeshiva students and their rabbis. In Matthew 23:1-4 we read,
Yeshua said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the
law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do
everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not
practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s
shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move
Is Yeshua condemning the Pharisees in Matthew 23? Yes, he condemns their
hypocrisy, not their teachings. We find that even in the Talmud, the
Pharisees criticize those who are hypocrites and insincere. They are
labeled "sore spots" and "plagues" and
"destroyers of the world" (Berakot 14b; Hagigah 14a; Sotah
Matthew 5:21- 48:
"You have heard, Do not murder,’
but I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be
subject to judgment"…. You have heard "Do not commit
adultery, but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has
already committed adultery"… You have heard "eye for an eye
and tooth for a tooth, but I tell you turn your cheek"… You have
heard "love your neighbor, but I say love your enemies."
Frequently, this phrase
"You have heard it said ... but I say to you" found in
the Sermon on the Mount, is presented as evidence of his opposition to the
traditions. Actually, this statement reflects a rabbinical approach used
to indicate that there is a deeper meaning to a particular passage found
in the Bible. In fact, this is a phrase that Rabbi
Ishmael, a contemporary of Yeshua and one of the foremost scholars cited
in the Talmud, used frequently (Mekilta 3a, 6a). You think that
the Scripture has a certain meaning, but there is a deeper meaning that we
need to learn to understand. This was a rabbinical way of refuting an
inaccurate or incomplete understanding of Scripture.
of Yeshua’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount are paralleled in the
rabbinical materials. Several examples are:
who is merciful to others shall receive mercy from Heaven"
(Shabbat 151b; vs. Matthew 5:7);
"Let your yes be yes and your no
be no" (Baba Metzia 49a vs Matthew 5:37);
they say, 'Take the splinter out of your eye?' He will retort,
the beam out of your own eye'" (Baba Bathra 15b vs
Yeshua did not oppose the Torah. Rather he was contrasting two interpretations, his,
based on his own
authority - and some other commonly accepted one. In effect he intensified the Torah with his
The passage in that same chapter where he
states, "I did not come to destroy Torah or the Prophets, but to make
it complete." The rabbis taught that if you did not live out Torah in
your lives, then you were destroying Torah. On the other hand if you were
obedient to God’s instruction, Torah, you were fulfilling it.
Mark 2:23- 28; Matthew 12:1- 5:
The account of Yeshua and his talmidim going through some wheat
fields. They were hungry, so the talmidim picked off the heads of grain and
eat them. They are accused by the Pharisees of desecrating Shabbat.
The gospels record a number of discussions
and differences between Yeshua and some of the religious leaders regarding
activities appropriate to the Sabbath. Some people have seen in these
accounts teachings of Yeshua setting aside the Torah
concerning the Sabbath. It is important to
remember that certain "violations" of the Sabbath were allowed
by the rabbis.
The prevailing view was,"It
is right to violate one Sabbath in order that many may be observed; the
laws were given that men should live by them, not that men should die by
them." All the following were permitted: saving life, alleviating acute pain, curing snake bites and
cooking for the sick were all allowed on the Sabbath (Shabbat 18.3;
Tosefta Shabbat 15.14; Yoma 84b; Tosefta Yoma 84.15).
Yeshua did not deny the validity of the
Torah or halacha but merely countered these extreme interpretations
promoted by some. In this, he usually opposed the views of School of
Shammai in favor of those of School of Hillel. More in tune with doing
good and people’s needs.
There was disagreement and discussion in
Yeshua’s time over what was and was not lawful; it was not a settled
matter. He entered this discussion in rabbinical manner and proclaimed his
teachings. In them he acknowledged the prohibitions against working on the
Sabbath and explained their applications and qualifications. But then,
this is exactly how the Sabbath regulations were handled by the religious
The fact that he took the
trouble to argue and to declare certain things lawful, and did not just
say the Sabbath traditions were suspended. It means he
acknowledged that certain actions were unlawful on the Sabbath. If he had
broken the Sabbath traditions, evidence of this violation would have been
used against him at his trial before the Sanhedrin. Yet there is no trace of it (Mark 14:55-64).
The argument Yeshua presented here was
familiar to his opponents for several reasons. The key phrase,
Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," appears in the rabbinical material (Mekilta
103b, Yoma 85b). Also, the Rabbis frequently used the quotation from
Hosea 6:6 to argue that helping people was of greater importance than
observing the rituals and customs (Sukkah 49b, Deuteronomy Rabba on
16:18, etc.), as Yeshua did here. In fact, they used the same examples Yeshua presented—David’s eating the Tabernacle bread and the Temple
offerings made on the Sabbath—to demonstrate the same general principle,
that the needs of life override the Sabbath restrictions (Y’lomm’denu,
Yalkut II, par. 130, Tosefta Shabbat 15b).
Matthew 15:1-1 8; Mark 7:1- 19
we read about some Pharisees and Torah teachers asking Yeshua,
is that your disciples do not wash before they eat?"
Yeshua responds that it is not that which goes into your stomach that
makes you unclean, but rather that which comes out.
In pre-Pharisaic times the washing of
hands was necessary for handling holy objects (Shabbat 14b).
This was later extended to the handling food. But once again there
was a debate between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel. Shammai
insisted on washing the hands before filling the cup. Yeshua
referred to this when he said,
clean, or declare pure, the outside of the cup."
Hand washing was not, then, a universal command although some chose to
live under such restrictions. Apparently, at this time a majority of
purity laws applied only to priests, or to laymen who had occasion to
enter the Temple.
Yeshua’s response to this situation
compared favorably with other rabbis of his time. The famous First
Century rabbi, Yohanan ben Zakkai, stated: "In
life it is not the dead who make you unclean; nor is it the water, but
rather the ordinances of the king of kings that purifies."
Much later, Maimonides made the same comment,
confine oneself to cleaning the outward appearance through washing and
cleaning the garment, while having at the same time a lust for various
pleasures and unbridled license ... merits the utmost blame." So,
Yeshua’s analysis and criticism were quite Jewish and most
appropriate. The evil things that come out of our heart make us
Many have interpreted the passage in Mark
7:17-19 to mean that Yeshua set aside the food laws - clean and unclean
foods. But by doing so he would have contradicted himself. His
detractors had just accused him of not observing their traditions, and he
had responded that they did far worse; they did not observe the
commandments of the Torah (v. 9-13). For Yeshua to set aside
a commandments of the Torah would have undermined the
point he was trying to make. What Yeshua was saying bottom line was this,
washing or not washing of hands before you eat does not make you
ceremonially clean or unclean, but it is what comes out of your heart that
makes one unclean. Therefore the foods you eat, pass through you,
and have no affect on the cleanliness of the heart. Therefore all food God
has given you to eat is ritually clean, whether you have washed or not
One cannot assume here that Yeshua
was opposing the Jewish dietary
food laws established by God. But by the third century, the Egyptian
it as signifying the rejection of Jewish dietary laws by Jesus. The
overwhelming majority of modern translators accept Origen’s
interpretation when they take Mark 7:19 to mean "Thus
he declared all foods clean."
If this was so, why did Peter react so strongly against the possibility
of eating non-kosher food when he saw the vision in Acts 10? He
expressed great indignation and shock. In Acts 11 Peter
does not respond,
"Oh yes, now I remember, Yeshua
declared all foods clean."
said nothing of the sort, because Yeshua never set aside the
dietary laws of the Torah.
In Luke 4:16 we read that Yeshua attended a synagogue, participated in its service,
and read the
Haftorah portion which was Isaiah 61. Much of the traditional synagogue service was intact
during Yeshua’s time. And, his followers shared the same
attachment to these traditional institutions (Acts 13:14-15; 14:17).
In John 8:46 Yeshua challenged the people,
including the religious leaders,
"Who among you can accuse me of any wrong?"
No one came forward to claim he had violated any of the biblical laws or
any of the Jewish traditions. Not one religious leader was able to point
to a flaw in his behavior or conduct, even with respect to the traditions!
Yeshua stood before the
14:55-56). Some of the religious leaders tried to find something
of which to accuse him. Nevertheless, they were unable to find one
thing in his life that they could present as a violation; he had lived
flawlessly according to the traditions. But finally, they found
something. As a man he had claimed to be God, blasphemy from their
perspective. They could accuse him of no other violation of
the Torah or the traditions! Was Yeshua Torah observant? You
Yeshua was a Pharisee in good
standing. An Orthodox scholar and rabbi,
Pinchas Lapide, wrote,
never and nowhere broke the law of Moses, nor did he in any way provoke
its infringement—it is entirely false to say that he did ... In this
respect you must believe me, for I know my Talmud more or less ... This
Jesus was as faithful to the law as I would hope to be. But I suspect that
Jesus was more faithful to the law than I am—and I am an Orthodox
As a result of Yeshua’s example and
teaching, we find his followers remained fully involved in the Jewish
community. They continued to worship in the Temple (Acts 2:46;
3:1). They continued to worship in the synagogue and to pray the
liturgy (Acts 2:42). In fact we find that several centuries later, Jewish believers were
still observing Jewish traditions, as Epiphanius (
375-400 C.E.) noted about the Nazarenes (Panarion 30:18; 39:7).
"They make use not only of the New
Testament, but they also use the Old Testament of the Jews; for
they do not forbid the books of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings
... so that they are approved of by the Jews, from whom the Nazarenes do
not differ in anything; and they profess all the dogmas pertaining to the
prescriptions of the Law and to the customs of the Jews, except they
believe in Christ."
Jerome indicates that the
Nazarenes are to be found "in all the
synagogues of the East among the Jews." Viewing
the first century, it is accurate to say that the talmidim and their
followers remained a part of the "traditional" Jewish community,
as Yeshua had instructed them.
Who's Authority Are We Under?
Doing good deeds to obtain a reward was
opposed by the rabbis, not just by Yeshua. The Midrash expounds on
that this way.
"David said, 'Some trust
in their fair and upright deeds, and some in the works of their fathers,
but I trust in you. Although I have no good works, yet because I
call upon you, you answer me.'" Likewise, the
Pharisees criticized those among them who continually asked, "What
good deed may I do?" In their discussions and
commentaries, the rabbis repeatedly refer to God’s grace. Psalm 119:124
with your servant according to your grace."
The Midrash on Psalms comments,
"Perhaps you take pleasure in our good works? Merit and good works we have
not; act toward us in grace." (Tehillim, on
The Torah is Jeremiah 31:31-34
God’s grace is an important concept in
rabbinical teaching; it is a significant and representative aspect of
the rabbis’ thinking. Pinchas Lapide once again makes this quite clear,
"It is evident to all Masters of
the Talmud that salvation, or participation in the world to come, as it
is called in Hebrew, can be attained only through God’s gracious love
statement of the Talmud says this, "then came the prophet Habakkuk and reduced all the commands to one, as it
is written: ‘the just shall live by his faith’." (Makkot