Perhaps the most ingenious innovation of the Pharisees was to sanctify the people of Israel by teaching us to behave like “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). This gave the common Israelite who was not a Priest or Levite a connection to the Temple and its services. The Pharisees did not reject the Temple, as did the Essenes, nor try to compete with it. They taught that every man is a priest, his table is his altar, his food his sacrifice. Their vision made it possible for any Jew, in or outside of the land of Israel, to “participate” in the Temple service. Indeed, they gave the Jewish people the legal and spiritual tools to survive the destruction of Jerusalem, and to carry on wherever we find ourselves, until G‑d sees fit to restore the Holy Temple.
In Biblical reality, being unclean or eating unclean food only mattered if a person was going to the Temple, or handling or eating something from the Temple, where he had to be clean to enter and participate. (Any otherwise kosher food that has come in contact with an unclean person or utensil is unclean; nonkosher food is always unclean.) The Pharisees’ approach brought the Levitical world to life for the common people.
The main expression of this Levitical way of life was in the fellowship meal. A family, or a Rabbi with his disciples, would recline at a table, wash hands before eating bread, make the benedictions over wine and bread, then discuss Torah while enjoying the meal. Not all meals were fellowship meals. Some people had them on Shabbat and Festivals; some more often. Acts 2:46 says the apostles of Yeshua and their followers “broke bread” daily in one another’s homes. Yeshua himself was often invited to such meals at the homes of Pharisees and Scribes. On some such occasions, the issue of washing of hands comes up.
I believe that Yeshua accepted this innovation of the Pharisees in principle. However, the Gospels do relate some occasions where a dispute arose over the way it was practiced. On the surface it may appear that he rejected the idea of washing of hands for non-sacred food. But closer examination of the stories and the laws shows us that Yeshua was merely interacting with certain Pharisees on their own turf, precisely because these practices mattered to him and to them.
Transfer of Uncleanness to Vessels
The laws of uncleanness for vessels are complex in the Torah, and even more so in the Talmud. Here is a brief explanation of how it works. The sources of uncleanness, from most to least potent, are:
A human corpse, then the primary sources mentioned in the Torah, including a leper, a man or woman with an bodily discharge, the body of a dead unclean animal or insect, and someone who is unclean from contact with a corpse. The next level down, called first degree uncleanness, is any person or utensil that has had physical contact with one of the primary sources. Second degree uncleanness is limited to utensils—which include cups, pots, plates, as well as clothing, furniture, bedding—and hands.
Hands or items that are unclean in the second degree only make a holy utensil or food item invalid for sacred use, but not unclean. However, if something unclean in the second degree comes in contact with a liquid, the liquid becomes unclean in the first degree, and it can make other hands or utensils unclean in the second degree. This is all based on the commands in the Torah.
The fellowship meal is one situation in which vessels, hands, food and liquids come together, creating the danger of uncleanness contaminating clean hands, utensils, or food. Before we look at the meal situation, here is a summary of laws for different kinds of vessels.
Different Kinds of Cups and Vessels
The Torah distinguishes between utensils made of different materials, including clay (pottery), metal, wood, stone, leather or other fabrics. Glass and plastic were not yet known in Torah times. Pretty much any item made of any material other than clay could be cleansed of uncleanness. Cleansing was usually done with water.
Leviticus 6:28 An earthen (clay) vessel in which [a sin offering] was boiled shall be broken; but if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured and rinsed in water.
Leviticus 11:32 Anything upon which any [unclean animal or insect] falls when they are dead shall be unclean, whether an article of wood or cloth or skin or sacking, any article that is used for any purpose; it shall be dipped into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening, and then it shall be clean. 33 And if any of them falls into any earthen vessel, all that is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break the vessel.
However, in the instructions to soldiers who have touched a corpse in battle, whatever can stand it is purified by fire, and then water. Flammable materials are cleansed only with water.
Numbers 31:20 “… You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” 21 Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the L‑RD has commanded Moses: 22 gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, and lead– 23 everything that can withstand fire, shall be passed through fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless it shall also be purified with the water for purification; and whatever cannot withstand fire, shall be passed through the water.
Vessels of stone were the exception.
Stone vessels do not become unclean, and do not need to be cleansed. They were preferred for use by priests. We see this in the story of Yeshua at a wedding feast where the wine ran out and he was asked to provide more wine.
John 2:6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.
Stone vessels were more difficult to make, and therefore more expensive. Common people could not afford them. Most made their own vessels out of clay. Today, when archaeologists find stone vessels while excavating an ancient town, they know it was a Jewish town.
Clay pottery is the most fragile of the materials. It is easily made unclean, and there is no remedy except to break the vessel. Once it is broken, the pieces are clean. Broken pieces could be used to make notes, lists, business transactions, and other records of daily life. These pottery shards have become an important part of our archaeological records.
When Shaul the Apostle speaks of the knowledge of the risen Messiah as light from G‑d that shines in his heart, he writes:
2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to G‑d and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed …
G‑d has put this heavenly treasure into fragile clay vessels (human bodies), yet despite the many attempts to break them, they do not break, suggesting that the “vessels” remain clean.
Now let us return to the fellowship meal, and see how the uncleanness of hands and cups works out in practice.
Differences between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai at a Festive Meal
The Mishnah and Talmud record a dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who debated their many different halakhic positions during the first century, until the destruction. Their debates were hot news in the time of Yeshua.
Berakhot 8:2 The School of Shammai says, “Wash the hands, and afterward pour the cup [of wine for Kiddush]”. The School of Hillel says, “Pour the cup, and afterward wash the hands”.
Why? Because the School of Shammai requires that the entire cup must be clean inside and out. One must clean his hands first so he does not make the cup unclean. Hands and cup will then remain clean so they will not make the food unclean.
The School of Hillel allows a cup whose outside is unclean as long as the inside and the rest are clean, as the Talmud explains:
Talmud Berakhot 52a: We have learnt: If the outside of a vessel has been rendered unclean by liquids, its outside is unclean while its inside, its rim, its handle and its shaft are clean. If its inside has been rendered unclean, it is all unclean.
So they wash hands after handling the cup—pouring, making the blessing, and drinking the wine—in order to guard against making the hands, and then the food unclean. The Talmud goes on to explain:
52b What is the point at issue between them? — Beth Shammai hold that it is forbidden to use a vessel the outside of which has been rendered unclean by liquids for fear of drippings, and consequently there is no need to fear that the liquid on the hands will be rendered unclean by the cup. Beth Hillel on the other hand hold that it is permitted to use a vessel the outside of which has been rendered unclean by liquids, considering that drippings are unusual, and consequently there is a danger lest the liquid on the [undried] hands should be rendered unclean through the cup.
The School of Shammai is more strict. They prepared a clean table and utensils, and required the diners to wash hands immediately when they reclined at the table. This removed the second degree uncleanness from the hands, so there was no fear of contaminating the clean dishes or table, even if the hands were still wet after washing.
The School of Hillel was more lenient. They allowed the use of a cup that was unclean on the outside as long as it was clean on the inside. If they washed first, and the hands were wet from washing, or if some liquid spilled over onto the outside of the cup, the liquid would transfer uncleanness back to the hands, and that could contaminate the food. So they washed after handling the cup.
There is another reason of the School of Hillel mentioned in the Talmud, that is important not only for the Halakhah, but it is also a factor in the discussion between Yeshua and his dinner hosts.
52b Bet Hillel reasons, “… washing of hands for non-sacred food is not prescribed by the Torah.”
Remember that the Oral Torah held by the Pharisees sought to make the people of Israel holy by having them behave as if they were priests. This was not required by the Written Torah, but it was a practice that was widely adhered to by the Pharisees, Essenes, and yes, also by Yeshua and his followers, as we shall see. So what exactly did Yeshua do to draw criticism from some of his hosts? And how should we understand his replies?
Yeshua Dines with Pharisees and Scribes
(Some of the ideas in this section come from the book Mishnat Yeshua Rabbeinu, author anonymous, Torat rabbeinu, 2015, Chapter 7, pp. 62-69)
There were different kinds of Pharisees and Scribes in the first century—some from Bet Hillel, some from Bet Shammai, and probably others who held other halakhic positions, since the laws had not yet reached their final form. Those with whom Yeshua dined could be from any of these groups. None of them represent all Pharisees or Scribes. We must pay careful attention to learn exactly who Yeshua’s hosts were, and why he answered each one as he did.
There is only one case in the Gospels where Yeshua himself is criticized for not washing his hands before dining.
Luke 11:37 … a Pharisee invited [Yeshua] to dine with him; so he went in and took his place (Greek, “reclined”) at the table. 38 The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.
Yeshua reclined at the table. This meant that the meal would be a fellowship meal, beginning with a cup of wine, followed by the blessing and breaking of bread, and then the meal. If Yeshua’s host was a Shammaite, he would expect Yeshua to wash hands before taking the cup. Now, if Yeshua was acting in accordance with Bet Hillel, as he usually did, he would take the cup first, make the blessing and drink from it, and then wash hands for the bread. The Shammaite would be astonished because Yeshua had not washed his hands yet, before taking the cup. This was a hot topic at the time, so a discussion would likely break out. Watch how Yeshua answers him:
39 “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”
Yeshua is addressing the position of Bet Shammai, who requires the outside of the cup to be clean. Yeshua’s answer would not make sense to a Hillelite, who allows the use of a cup that is unclean on the outside. It is likely that Yeshua intended to wash hands after the cup, before the bread.
Two cases involving the disciples have a different set of circumstances, and a different answer.
Matthew 15:2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat [bread].”
The complaint is that they did not wash before eating “bread”. No mention is made of reclining for a fellowship meal. They simply ate without washing, violating the “tradition of the elders”, but not the Torah, as I explained.
In both passages, the text specifically says they were eating “bread”. Now “bread” could mean actual bread, or food in general, a common meal. Since a fellowship meal was not involved, bread did not have to be part of it. But even if it was, the violation was of a traditional rule, not the Torah. The incident in Mark raises another issue:
Mark 7:1 When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Yeshua], 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating [bread] with defiled (κοιναῖς) hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat [bread] with defiled (κοιναῖς) hands?”
The word translated “defiled” actually means “common (as opposed to sacred)”. They did not accuse the disciples of eating with unclean hands, but only unwashed hands. This went against the Pharisaic doctrine of behaving as if one were a priest about to eat holy food. So Yeshua retorts:
Matthew 15:18 “… but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles (κοινοῖ). 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
He is explaining that, according to the Torah, what comes out of the mouth is much more toxic than what goes in. What comes out is more likely to be a sin or cause a sin. But again, according to the Torah, eating non-sacred food with unwashed hands does not violate a Torah command, and it does not make a person common, since he is already common. This is the same position held by Bet Hillel, as I quoted above.
(There is another possibility. It could be that the disciples had earlier washed their hands, and kept them in a state of cleanness until they ate the meal. If that were the case, another washing would not be necessary. But the traditional halakhah required washing immediately before a meal to remove any doubt about uncleanness.)
Matthew 15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”
It is no wonder that the Pharisees—Hillelites and Shammaites—would be offended by Yeshua’s statement that “to eat with unwashed hands does not make one common (i.e., not holy)”, because this is contrary to their entire premise—that the people of Israel could be rendered more holy by behaving as if they were priests. As I stated earlier, I believe Yeshua, Paul, James and the other apostles accepted this Pharisaic premise. It appears in many ways in the New Testament. I will examine some examples of it in other articles. What Yeshua objected to was when some of them made it more important than the Torah itself.
When we put together the traditional Halakhah, the Torah, and the Gospels we begin to understand what Yeshua says and does in the context of first century Judaism. Reading the Gospels 2000 years later, in translations that have been influenced by Christian theology that is often against Judaism, can lead us to wrongly conclude that Yeshua rejected the Pharisees, the Oral Torah, and even the Written Torah. It takes some work, but when we begin to understand the laws, practices, and culture of the Jewish people of Yeshua’s time, it becomes easier to see that Yeshua is participating in the learning, teaching and practice of Torah. He debates with Pharisees as they debated with one another, as an insider, a participant, and a brother.
Concerning the laws of clean and unclean as they affect utensils and hands, we can see from the Written Torah that this is a complex field. The Rabbis tried to make sense of the Torah laws, to fill in the blanks (of which there are many!), and to apply them to real life. Even today, when a Jewish mother yells at her kids to wash their hands before they eat, there is a direct connection to these laws from both the Written and the Oral Torah of thousands of years ago. And this is part of the glory of Torah. Its very complexities keep it alive and relevant from generation to generation.