Thursday, September 6, 2012

Examples of Halacha in the New Testament

The following excerpts from Jewish Law From Jesus to the Mishnah by E. P. Sanders show the Biblical grounding for each of the primary mitzvot and then shows how these mitzvot were treated by Yeshua (N.B. the author is non-Messianic).  This is not intended to be comprehensive--it's just to give you an idea of how the New Testament can be a source for halacha:


-primary issue:  how should "work" be defined

"Most passages in the Pentateuch simply prohibit 'work' but there are some specifications.  Exodus 34.21 explicitly requires that the day of rest be kept during plowing time and harvest, thus ruling out the appeal to the pressure of work to justify non-observance.  Gathering food, cooking and making a fire are prohibited in Ex. 16; 35.2f.  On the other hand, on eform of work is required:  the sabbath offerings (Num. 28.9).  Jeremiah opposed bearing a burden through the gates of Jerusalem or even carrying it out of one's own house on the sabbath (Jer. 17:19-27)."

"The need [of a definition for 'work'] is clear in Nehemiah, where there are several new restrictions.  According to Neh. 10.31 [Heb. v. 32] the Israelites pledged themselves not to buy things from Gentiles on the sabbath, as well as to let the land lie fallow and not to claim debts in the seventh year.  Nehemiah 13.15-22 narrates the governor's strong measures to prevent trading on the sabbath, both by Jews and Gentiles.  To do this he shut the gates of Jerusalem and posted Levites as guards."

"We turn now to 'the synoptic Jesus and the sabbath'.  The two principal passages in the synoptics are Plucking Grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23-28 and parr.) and the Man with the Withered Hand (Mark 3.1-6 and parr.)  In the case of the grain, the disciples (not Jesus himself) pluck grain on the sabbath in order to eat it.  'Plucking' is considered work by their opponents, identified as Pharisees."

"...if the disciples were hungry with good cause, rather than as a result of laziness the previous day, when food should have been prepared, few would have thought them guilty of a grievous offense."

"The Pharisees ask why the disciples are working, and Jesus says, in effect, because they are extremely hungry.  He adds that the sabbath is for humans, not humans for the sabbath, a principle with which most would have agreed.  The matter was then dropped.  The additional argument in Matthew adds little (though the self-claim 'greater than the temple' would be offensive if taken to apply to Jesus' disciples in particular rather than to hungry people in general)."

-healing.  this is a moot point since miraculous healing isn't work.

-Mark 3.1-5 is the healing of the man with a withered hand.  this did not involve work.

-Luk 13.10-17 Jesus healed a deformed woman and justified by saying that people routinely lead their animals to water on the sabath, and that it was all the more justifiable to heal the woman.

"I conclude, then, that the synoptic Jesus behaved on the sabbath in a way which fell inside the range of current debate about it, and well inside the range of permitted behavior."


"Food and purity laws may be placed alongside the sabbath as being especially important.  The reason, again, is that they define Jews as being distinct from others.  Food laws, like sabbath laws, are also subject to public scrutiny.  The basic food laws are found in Lev. 11 and Deut. 14, which forbid principally the following:  (I) all four-footed animals except sheep, goats, cattle, and some species of deer; (2) shellfish and molluscs; (3) birds of prey; (4) most insects and other things which crawl and creep, except locusts, crickets and grasshoppers.  In addition, Jews are forbidden to eat (5) all blood and fat, from whatever source (Lev. 3.17 and often).  In practice, this allows mutton, goat, beef, pigeon, dove and fish (with fins and scales).  Not explicitly forbidden by the Bible, but accdepted as prohibited by most Jews, was also Gentile wine, on the ground that some of it would have been poured as a libation to an idol.  These restrictions are seen in Dan. 1.12-16; Daniel and his friends lived on vegetables and water.  Gentile meat and wine were, pious Jews often assumed, unfit for their consumption.  The food laws, especially the prohibition of pork, stood out, and they attracted a good deal of comment by pagans..."

"In general, food laws did not develop in the way sabbath laws did.  The Biblical exclusions are perfectly clear, much clearer than the definition of 'Work'.

"There were, however, some extensions, and food restrictions were rigorously observed."

"The passage from the Mishnah...has as an introduction a more general rule:  No flesh may be cooked in milk excepting the flesh of fish and locusts; and no flesh may be served up on the table together with cheese excepting the flesh of fish and locusts.  A flow may be served...together with cheese...So the School of Shammai...Neither served nor eaten with it...So the School of Hillel."

-the author says that Mark 7 where Mark comments that Yeshua declared all foods to be clean, he says this is too revolutionary to have come from Yeshua.

-Tim Hegg proposes that this antinomian Markan parenthetical declaring all foods clean is actually a mistranslation (see article).  He also proposes a translation similar to the KJB.


"The Bible required bathing the body and washing the clothes--one or the other or both--to remove impurities which were caused by :  touching the carcass of an impure creature; eating an animal which died of itself; touching the carcass of a pure animal which died of itself; contact with semen; indirect contact with menstruation or with certain other bodily discharges....Handwashing figures only once:  a man with a discharge from his penis should rinse his hands before touching anyone else; if not, the person whom he touches becomes impure (Lev. 15.11)."

"The rabbinic passages which are assigned to the earliest, presumably pharisaic, layer discuss handwashing in three contexts:  handling food which would go to the priesthood; the Pharisees' own sabbath and festival meals; handling scripture....There is no evidence from rabbinic literature that Pharisees washed hands before eating ordinary meals."

"Jesus accuses the Pharisees, among other things, of 'straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel' (23.24).  According to Lev. 11, both gnats and camels are impure and may not be eaten..."

"How serious was it not to wash one's hands?  Not serious in the least.  Besides the fact that Pharisees themselves probably did not regard it as obligatory to wash their hands before every meal, the evidence is that they did not try to coerce others to follow their extensions of the biblical law."

"There are two further passages in the synoptics which involve purity.  ONe had to do with leprosy.  The laws on identification and purification are lengthy and complex (Lev. 13-14).  'Show yourself to the priest, and offer for cleansing what Moses commanded' (Mark 2.44) reflects knowledge of Leev. 13.49 ('show the priest'), the physical examination required in Lev. 14.1-2, and the sacrifices detailed in 14.3-32.  This is the clearest reference to biblical purity laws in the synoptics, and they are accepted.
Under this heading may also be mentioned the criticism of a priest and a Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30-37)...IN the parable, Jesus criticizes a priest and a Levite for not being willing to risk coming into contact with a corpse.  The point seems to be that they did not know whether or not the man by the side of the road was dead, and they were unwilling to risk incurring corpse-impurity simply on the chance that they might have been able to help."



"This passage, which is named after its first word, was fundamental to Jewish life and worship.  It begins 'Hear [shema], O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might' (Deut. 6.4-5).  It continues:  the commandments are to be 'upon the heart', taught to children, spoken of at home and abroad, and remembered before sleep and upon waking.  They are to be bound upon the hand, placed 'as frontlets' between the eyes, and put on the doorpost of the house and on the gate (vv. 6-9).  Most of Deut. 6.4-9 is paralleled in 11.13-21.
The plain meaning of the text is that one is to remember in these ways all of the commandments, especially those which immediately precede the Shema--the ten commandments of Deut. 5."

"Thus few would have found surprising Jesus' quotation of Deut. 6.4-5 when he was asked about the greatest commandment.  It is noteworthy that, according to Mark 12.28-34, a scribe agreed with him.
Jesus' selection of Lev. 19.18--'love your neighbor as yourself'--as a second 'core' commandment is equally unsurprising.  Leviticus 19 contains the priestly author's version of the ten commandments.  The prohibition of idolatry is in v. 4, of theft in v. 11, of swearing falsely in the name of God in v. 12, and so on.  There are also important commandments dealing with the treatment of others, such as leaving part of agricultural produce for the poor (vv. 9-10).  Leviticus 19.18 summarizes the particulars of loving the neighbour which are given in the preceding verses.  Subsequently there are commandments on the treatment of aliens, summarized by the admonition to love the stranger as one's self (vv. 33-34).  Thus the 'love commandments' are presented in Leviticus as summaries, and it was obvious to quote them, or one of them, as such.
While Deut. 6.4-5 summarizes or speaks for the commandments which govern relations between humans and God, Lev. 19.18 gives the gist of the 'second table' of commandments, those which govern relations among humans.  Jews in general were aware of the two categories."


The Shema requires that the commandments be placed on the hand, on the forehead and on the doorposts (Deut. 6.8f; cf. 11.18; Ex. 13.9,16), and there is good evidence that this was obeyed by the use of mezuzot and tefillin.  Mezuzah (plural -- ot) means 'doorpost', and it is the word used in Deut. 6.9 (// 11.20).  By extension it came to refer to containers with biblical passages in them which are attached to the doorpost.  Tefillin is a post-biblical Semitic word for the containers which are tied to the arm and head.  The latter are often called 'phylacteries' in English, because of the Greek word phylakteria in Matt. 23.5 and elsewhere.  'Phylactery', in turn, often means 'amulet', referring to a magical or semi-magical good luck charm against demonic forces....For this reason I shall use the Aramaic/Hebrew tefillin, which may be connected to the word for 'prayer'."

"The practice of putting key portions of the Bible into small containers, and fixing them to the doorpost (mezuzot), on the arm and on the brow (tefillin), is well attested for the ancient world."

"According to Matt. 23.5 Jesus criticized the Pharisees for making their tefillin (phylakteria) too broad, but not for wearing them, which shows that others wore them as well.  We note that the criticism has to do with a matter of degree, not the practice itself.  Consequently, the commandment is not challenged."


  1. The Torah forbids harvesting on the Shabbat (Ex. 34:21). But harvesting is not plucking. See the laws of Shemitta (The Shabbatical year). Deut. 23:24.

    1. What would be the distinction? Also, so I'm on the same page, are you looking at Shulchan or Mishneh Torah?

  2. Just the written Torah.

    Shabbatical year and Shabbat day, plucking is allowed.

    1. How does Deut. 23 apply to Shabbat?

    2. There's several things to note in Mark 2:

      (1) Yeshua didn't do any of the "plucking";
      (2) Yeshua said that David did something illegal but was justified because of a need. In context, that need was not just hunger but to have strength as David carried out the Divinely appointed mission of establishing his Davidic kingdom and kingship.

      Since Yeshua cited to an illegal activity that was justified through overriding circumstances, it follows that Yeshua felt that His disciples were also doing something illegal but that they were justified in a way that was similar to how David was justified.

      But, hey, I could be wrong.

    3. So in your opinion what determines, when a commandment can be broken?

      Yeshua said, the levites work on the sabbath and are innocent...

      But if the Levites are commanded to work on the Sabbath, then how are they breaking the Sabbath to begin with?

    4. I was reading a good book about halacha the other day, Not in Heaven: the Nature and Function of Halakha, by Eliezer Berkovits and he said it nicely:

      "Halakha is the application of the Torah to life. But since there is no such thing as life in general, since it is always a certain form of life at a specific time of history, in a specific situation, Torah application means application to a specific time in a specific situation. The result of this process I call Halakhic Judaism."

      And as to knowing when a specific commandment can be broken he had this to say:

      "We have seen it to be a well-established form of functioning Halakha that in case of a conflict between a specific law and another supervening concern of the Torah, one does the will of God by eliminating the specific law in the case at hand."

      Also, if a mitzvah is given to the Levite and it conflicts with something else then that's where you need a system of halacha for how to deal with such a conflict. But, right now that doesn't come up too often since we don't have a Temple.


  3. " When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hands, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor's standing grain." (Deut. 23:25).

    Note, to "wield a sickle" (=harvesting)is differentiated from plucking heads of grain. So while the Torah itself prohibits harvesting on the Shabbat, plucking heads of grain is not defines as harvesting and would therefore be allowed.

    1. I can see the differentiation. Though it seems like Yeshua implied that the activity of plucking was illegal by some sort of standard in that He cited to David's illegal activity with the shewbread and how it was justified by overriding need. Do you see what I mean?

    2. I think He used their methodology on determining what was legal or illegal to show that there are many examples of illegal activities going on, so how do that deal with those? They don't.

      I am also reminded of Acts 10, where Peter says that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a gentile, but unlawful here is clearly not referring to the Torah, but a legal structure that taught such.

  4. "But, hey, I could be wrong."

    Yes, I think you are wrong.

    Yeshua was highlighting the manner in which the Pharisees dispense their halacha inconsistently. The were using unjust weights in regards to their halacha. They exonerated David, who clearly violated Torah commandments, yet they condemn Yeshua and His disciples for failing to adhere to laws found nowhere in the Torah. In doing so, they have shown that they consider they halacha above the written Torah.

    Yeshua is arguing Kal Vachomer here. If david according to them is considered innocent violating clear torah commandments, how much should they consider Yeshua and Hid disciples innocent?

    1. I agree with you. But I still don't understand why the Pharisees would've expected everyone to be bound to Pharisaic halacha. But I guess it's the same today. You've got certain groups trying to dictate to all the other groups.

  5. "They exonerated David, who clearly violated Torah commandments, yet they condemn Yeshua and His disciples for failing to adhere to laws found nowhere in the Torah."

    "If david according to them is considered innocent violating clear torah commandments, how much should they consider Yeshua and Hid disciples innocent?"

    Thank you Dan, I appreciate what you said here! :)

  6. Cool article. A famous American rabbi, R. Shmuley Boteach, wrote a book entitled "Kosher Jesus" in which he demonstrates his belief that Yeshua was a rabbinical teacher of the Torah (both oral and written).