TWO SCHOOLS OF PREVAILING THOUGHT AMONG JEWS OF THE FIRST CENTURY
To the ears of most modern followers of Jesus, the mere mention of the term Pharisee invokes echoes of John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth shouting caustically, “You brood of vipers!” One could surmise the cousins painted all Pharisees and scribes with a broad brush; but in actuality, they castigated a small group of the religious elite of their day, whose practice was in opposition to Moses and the prophets. The importance of this cannot be overstated, for without it, we completely misunderstand Jesus’ controversy with them.
First century rabbis were essentially divided between two camps: the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. American Christians might perhaps best relate this difference to two viewpoints of the Christian faith, let’s say Protestant and Catholic. Just as Protestants and Catholics have the same foundational beliefs, but vastly different practices of walking it out, so it was with the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.
Followers of Shammai, generally, were known for legalistic viewpoints. In other words, they adhered mostly to the letter of the law and/or the rulings of the rabbis. More about that as we go. In contrast, followers of Hillel were more lenient, seeking to express the spirit of the law.
Hillel’s position was far more merciful. A story is told in rabbinical literature that a non-Jewish man approached Rabbi Shammai and asked him to teach him the five books of Moses, Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy, while standing on one foot. After being dismissed by Rabbi Shammai with disgust, he appealed to Rabbi Hillel, who, by the way, refused the title “rabbi.” The kind teacher stood on one foot and said gently to the non-Jew, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” Yeshua put it in a similar fashion: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat. 7:12)
The legalistic House of Shammai may well be the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9, 3:9) to which John the Revelator refers. The House of Shammai is most certainly the primary object of Yeshua’s stern warnings found in the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Please click to read Yeshua’s charges. Note, in particular, his accusation, “you shut up the kingdom of Heaven” (vs. 13). Count the number of times Yeshua says, “woe to you”! He did not hesitate to blast rulings and traditions that contradicted Moses and/or piled unnecessary burdens on the people.
At first glance, the chapter seems to open with Yeshua contradicting himself:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” (Mat 23:2-3)
Yeshua instructs His audience to “do and observe” what the scribes and Pharisees say, then rails at the religious leaders for their ludicrous and heinous rulings! This could confuse a 21st century reader who doesn’t understand the purpose of Moses’ “seat.”
The synagogues featured a raised platform, called a bimah, from which the weekly Torah portion (parsha) and the haftarah are read. In antiquity the bimah was made of stone, but in modern times it is usually a rectangular wooden platform approached by steps.
The bimah was not unlike pulpits today. But, unlike most pulpits today, the books of Moses and selections from the prophets were to be read every Sabbath. This practice can clearly be seen in the New Testament.
Acts 15:21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Acts13:27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.[note: Moses was a prophet]
Luke 4:16 And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.
Yeshua did not contradict Himself when He instructed the people to “do and observe” what the scribes and Pharisees said—what they SAID from the bimah is what they READ to the people, the words of Moses and the prophets! God’s instruction through Moses was to be read every Sabbath to the people.
What is really interesting is that the exact portion of scripture was read each Sabbath in every synagogue in the First Century. This valuable tradition of being on the same page remains in place today in the majority of Jewish, Messianic, and Hebrew Roots congregations worldwide. Ezra and the men of the Great Assembly who returned to Jerusalem from 70 years of Babylonian captivity, divided the books of Moses into 54 segments and assigned them positions in a yearly cycle that commences each year on the Sabbath following the close of Sukkot [Feast of Tabernacles]. On October 22, 2022, the torah portion B’Resheet [In the Beginning] will be proclaimed in assemblies around the world. [If you would like to follow me, we will not only progress through the annual torah portion cycle, we will also read through the entire bible in a year, starting with Genesis 1:1 on October 19. I think you are going to be amazed what will be revealed as we traverse the bible together in this year of Jubilee, 5783 on the Hebrew calendar.
The men of the Great Assembly devised the annual reading cycle to prevent the remnant that had returned from the Babylonian exile, and their offspring, from ever being exiled again. Judah didn’t learned from their brothers, the northern kingdom, the so-called House of Israel, who was first to go into exile around 722BCE due to gross idolatry, including child sacrifice. This northern kingdom is still today in exile, having been scattered by the king of Assyria throughout the whole earth, they remain today, assimilated among the nations and mostly unaware of their identity. Judah, on the other hand, who had taken up the idolatrous ways of the northern kingdom, returned after 70 years in Babylon by the hand of a merciful God.
For the reading cycle to remain in place all these years, it must have been God-breathed. While some “tradition” is suspect, not all needs to be thrown out. Some of God’s instructions for the Feast Days are so sparce they beg to be fleshed out with liturgy, food, decor, song, and dance. Thus, rich and meaningful customs have grown up in Jewish communities throughout history and the world that enhances the beauty of God’s appointed times, solidifies communities, and acts a teaching aids that are particularly effective to ground children and youths in God’s cycles of righteousness.
An excellent example is Jewish tradition for the Passover seder [order of service]. We will highlight one, the afikomen. During the service, three pieces of matzah (unleavened bread) are placed inside a bag with three compartments [which, to Christians, can be seen as emblematic of Father, Son, and Holy Spirt]. Early in the Seder, the middle piece of matzah is removed, broken in half, and one half is hidden. This hidden matzah is called the afikomen. At the end of the meal, the children are sent out, with the promise of reward, to locate the hidden afikomen, which is then broken into small pieces for everyone to eat as dessert. Christians can readily see, although most Jews are still blind, that the afikomen pictures Yeshua’s broken body going into the grave and then being resurrected, and his body, the “bread of life,” being taught to the nations. There are many other such pictures of Yeshua in a traditional Passover event; but that is a story for another day.
Yeshua’s use of symbolism spawned church tradition. At the last meal, the Passover, with his disciples, he broke the bread and declared it, “my body.” He took up the cup and declared it “the blood of the covenant, poured out for many.” (Mark 14:22,24). Thus, eating the Passover meal has been reenacted in the form of communion services in congregations throughout the earth. The liberty afforded believers includes the freedom to develop traditions, so long as they are neither burdensome nor legislated, or, most important of all, do not violate the word of God–which was Yeshua’s chief controversy with the religious elite.
Yeshua declared, “…for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Mat. 15:6) This is at the core of every “woe to you!” in Matthew chapter 23. According to Yeshua, the elite who added to or took away from God’s word are in grave peril. Instead of welcoming converts, the very purpose of God’s family, the proud religious elite wanted to exclude them. [That, by the way, is what is at the root of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans.] And when they made a convert, they required him to obey regulations that God never imposed, rules that were cumbersome to their own people as well. Peter said, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)
It wasn’t God’s law Peter was talking about, it was man-rules and regulations. God’s instructions were never intended to be a burden. Before his death Moses reminded the children of Israel that God’s law “is not too hard for you.” (Deut. 30:11) Yeshua echoed by stating, “My yoke is easy; my burden is light.” (Mat. 11:30)
The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10) when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 11) “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12) It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14) But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut. 30:9-14)
How is it “in your mouth” and “in your heart”? It is to be in the mouths of the leaders of every assembly on Shabbat. The leaders of God’s people should be those on whose hearts are written His law. As they walk it out, they become examples of holiness, a light in a dark world, imitated by their children and congregations. It takes time for the uninitiated. We have to learn new habits and routines. It takes an effort but, oh, it is SOOO worth it!
While rabbinical rules surely began as helpful instructions, ultimately they became cumbersome. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions, known also as the Oral Torah, contains thousands of additions to God’s instructions. What most people do not understand is that in the New Testament, both are called “law.” To understand the controversies between Yeshua and his followers and the religious elite, one must be able to distinguish between God’s law given to Moses and the laws instituted by the rabbis, not a simple task for the uninitiated.
To give a few examples, when Yeshua’s disciples were charged with breaking the Sabbath by walking through a field of grain and eating the kernels, it was a rabbinical rule they were accused of breaking, just as it was when the man whom Yeshua instructed to pick up his mat and get up and walk was rebuked by the Pharisees. There are no rules in the books of Moses forbidding harvesting grain to eat as a snack or for lunch or picking up a mat on the Sabbath.
Another very important example is the law Peter mentions when defending his trip to the house of Cornelius. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
Again, this was a man-made prohibition and, further, it was the polar opposite of God’s intent to bring the nations of the earth into relationship with Him, teach them His principles that they might enjoy the blessings of peace, safety, health, financial well-being, and sound relationships and to teach these things to their children.
It’s easy to see that one of the chief reasons Yeshua had to come to earth as a man was to blast open the doors that had been cemented by well meaning, but mistaken and overly zealous rabbis. They weren’t by the way, the only religious leaders who made wrong interpretations and caused God’s people to err. The church fathers made some pretty serious mistakes, as well.
 https://israelmyglory.org/article/hillel-the-kind-pharisee/ accessed 10/10/2022
 Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” Schocken Books of Random House, New York, 2010 p. 19, Shabbat 31a.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder#cite_note-32 accessed 10/13/2022
 The student will likely encounter numerous and varied spellings of the first torah portion, including B’resheet, B’raishiyt, Bereshit, etc. Transliteration is the process of forming words by sounding out the original, which can be accomplished with varying combination of English letters.