“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
It is quite often said that Yeshua (Jesus) had little appreciation for Judaism’s oral laws.
But a great many Jewish people recognized Yeshua as being a holy man, an observant Jew. In fact, many called Him Rabbi, which at the time meant Master or Teacher of the law, both oral and written.
Rabbi Yeshua, likewise, told the crowds and His talmidim (disciples) that the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. In saying this, He recognized their official right to make rulings and judgments according to Scripture and the oral tradition.
These oral laws or traditions are somewhat akin to judges interpreting the law of the land based on past interpretations by other judges.
This authority to rule and make judgments about God’s instructions likely began when Moses accepted his father-in-law’s advice to share the burden of leadership with 70 elders of the community (Exodus 18:13–26).
The oral law itself is thought to originate with the instructions that Adonai gave Moses on Mount Sinai. These laws were passed down orally as well as through the written word.
The first Mishnah (compilation of oral traditions), Tractate Avot states:
“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders transmitted it to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”
Pirkei Avot, a section of the Mishnah (first major written redaction of the Oral Law) devoted to ethics, traces an unbroken span of teachings that originate at Sinai. Although those teachings began to be written down nearly 1,500 years after Sinai, it is believed they have been faithfully preserved.
Judaism traditionally believes that the Torah cannot be fully understood without the Oral Law.
If one rejects the oral law, such as the Karaite Jews do, it is said that one will only end up creating a new oral law that does not originate from Sinai, but from subjective interpretations or imagination.
The oral law deals with two main categories: Halakha — legal decisions regarding the precise way a commandment is to be performed; and Haggada — nonprescriptive elements meant to inspire and edify, such as rabbinic stories, sermons and commentaries relating to the Tanakh [Old Covenant] and Jewish life.
The Babylonian Talmud contains much of the Halakha and Haggada and was compiled in written form by AD 600 with about 2.5 million words. Within these words are a wide variety of traditions, folklore, and laws.
Many are at odds with one another and with Scripture; yet, there is room for this in traditional Judaism, which by its nature is based on evolving traditions and ideas.
The Customs That Yeshua Challenged
Some of the elders and teachers of the law in Yeshua’s day claimed that He wanted to destroy the Temple and change the traditions as delivered through Moses (Acts 6:12–14).
But Yeshua did not come to do away with the Temple, the law, or the customs of His day; rather, He foresaw the Temple’s destruction due to sin and came to reveal the One to whom the Scriptures point, the One the traditions were intended to honor.
Yeshua was fully conversant with the Word of God and the oral laws to such a degree that He amazed the elders and teachers of the Law.
On several occasions, He revealed deeper spiritual truths within the traditions of the day, and sometimes objected to traditions that nullified the Torah. This caused friction with some Pharisees.
An example of this is found in the elaborate system of ablutions (the act of washing parts of the body), which were carried out with prescribed gestures. This system developed out of the Levitical law regarding cleanliness.
The traditions that developed regarding these ablutions became so embedded in Jewish thought that, for example, the Talmud says Rabbi Akhibha would have proudly died of thirst rather than omit the preliminary washing of hands. His adamant view about this ritual could be because the Talmud also explains that a demon sits on unwashed hands.
Today, for instance, in public bathrooms in Israel a plastic bucket is tied to the bathroom faucets for the Orthodox Jews to use. To complete the washing properly, the water is poured three times, intermittently, over each hand.
By contrast, when a Pharisee asked Yeshua to eat with him, Yeshua “went in, and reclined at the table. When the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal.”
Yeshua used this tradition to help the Pharisees see a deeper truth about the importance of spiritual cleanliness and holiness, especially for those in spiritual leadership. Yeshua told them, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness.” (Luke 11:37–39)
In another example the Pharisees berate Yeshua for allowing His disciples who were hungry to “glean” wheat while passing through a field on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–8).
The written law states that no work is to be done on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), but what exactly does “work” mean? The oral laws and traditions define work, interpreting it to mean that picking grain is work.
But Yeshua placed the hunger of His talmidim over concerns about working on the Shabbat, and there is definitely room for this within Judaism. Yeshua reminded them that King David and his men ate the priestly showbread in the Temple. This was unlawful to do because it was only for the priests — but they were hungry.
In highlighting this principle, Yeshua revealed that both God and David elevate mercy. But that’s not the only lesson here. Yeshua proclaims His authority and again points these spiritual leaders to an even deeper spiritual truth, saying:
“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. … for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
This radically bold declaration by Yeshua placed Himself above the Sabbath, Sabbath traditions and interpretations, and the teachers of the Law.
But Yeshua did not challenge all aspects of keeping the Shabbat.
For instance, He and His followers participated in the order of service in a synagogue even though Scripture does not prescribe that order. It is traditional.
The first synagogue Yeshua entered after His mikvah (baptism) by (Yohanan) John was in His hometown of Nazareth on Shabbat. He used the custom of the liturgical reading to declare that He is the fulfillment of what Isaiah wrote (61:1–3):
“The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:17–21; see also Isaiah 61:1–3)
Likewise, as was his custom, the apostle Paul also entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. In front of the people he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Yeshua I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said.” (Acts 17:2–3; see also Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 9:6–7; 52:13–53:12; Zechariah 12:10–13:1; Psalm 16:7–11, 22:1–31; Micah 5:2)
Yeshua Lived As an Observant Jew
Most people don’t realize that Yeshua was born into a traditional Jewish family that followed the Jewish laws and traditions of His day. He was circumcised and presented at the Temple for the purification ritual.
Throughout His life, He dressed as a Jew, prayed as a Jew, and lived as a Jew. This is reflected in the New Covenant writings.
“When the set time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” (Galatians 4:4; see also Isaiah 7:14; Luke 2:21–52)
Yeshua not only followed the written Torah, He practiced the oral law.
Therefore, Yeshua wore tefillin (phylacteries) in the way prescribed by tradition. We know that He conformed to the accepted dress code by wearing the tallit with the tzitzit, since a woman seeking healing touched the fringes or tassels of His garment (Matthew 9:20; see also Mark 6:56).
He also participated in the Holy Day festivals, including those that are not commanded in the Torah.
For instance, He walked through the colonnade at the Temple during the traditional Feast of Dedication, otherwise known as Hanukkah. On at least one occasion, He used this tradition as an opportunity to shine the light on the truth of His identity as Messiah, telling the Jews that had gathered:
“The works I do in my Father’s name testify about Me, but you do not believe because you are not My sheep. My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:25–28)
Yeshua proclaimed His authority often. We see this again when He attended the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles):
“On the last and greatest day of the festival, Yeshua stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’” (John 7:37–38)
Yeshua proclaimed His Messiahship the same moment at which the Kohen (Priest) poured out a water oblation to God in thanksgiving. (See also Leviticus 23:33–44)
We also see from Luke 22:7–22 that the night Yeshua was arrested, He led a traditional Passover Seder. In doing so, He clearly linked the Seder’s liturgical custom of breaking unleavened bread and drinking wine to His own body, which would be pierced, and His blood, which would be spilled to cover the sins of the world.
“He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way, after the supper He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.’” (Luke 22:19–20)
As a master Jewish teacher, Yeshua was deeply concerned about sharing Kingdom truth that leads to eternal life with God. Therefore, He sharply rebuked those who led people away from that truth with man-made laws and practices that are not divinely inspired.
For instance, He recognized both the authority and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and called them out on it:
“Yeshua said to the crowds and to His disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.’” (Matthew 23:1–4)
Yeshua also warned against the hypocrisy of the pharisaical leaders who elevated custom and tradition in a way that contradicted the written commands of God Himself. He told these leaders:
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: … They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6–8; Isaiah 29:13)
The Oral Law After the Temple
Today, the oral traditions are studied and taught by ordained Rabbis who sit in an official capacity as scholar, interpreter, and even judge of the law, much like the Pharisees — only without a Temple system.
To guide them in their interpretation of the law is the Mishnah and Gemorah — the Talmud.
Included in their resources are such notables living at the time of Yeshua as Hillel (110 BC–AD 10) and Shammai (50 BC–AD 30), two scholars with often opposing ideas.
Sadly, the vast majority of the traditions, folklore, and interpretations that developed after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 about the identity of the Messiah refute Yeshua’s claim to be the Messiah and deny the arrival of the New Covenant that the prophet Jeremiah (31:31–34) prophesied.
In fact, many profound prophecies about the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures are not even read in the synagogues.
It is the mission of Bibles For Israel to bring these prophecies to the Jewish People in a context that is sensitive to Jewish tradition and custom so that the identity of the Messiah is no longer hidden but revealed.
Yeshua says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
The Messianic Prophecy Bible intends to lift Yeshua up so that the Jewish People will be drawn to Him and receive salvation.