The Foundations of Pharisaic Judaism By James Scott Trimm
In Acts 23:6 Paul proclaims without reservation “I am a Pharisee”. This comes as a shock to many Christians who have a poor understanding of what it means to be a Pharisee.
Part of the reason for this is that the Christian understanding of what a Pharisee is has been defined by Christian commentators, not by Pharisaic sources. As a result, in Christian culture, the word “Pharisee” has come to be used idiomatically to mean “hypocrite”.
I recall some years ago seeing a Reverend Twistruth comic strip several years ago in which the Reverend had just been teaching on the parable of the Pharisee and the Plebian. He asked a church lady to close with a prayer and she begins “Thank you Lord for not making me like that Pharisee…”
Of course Rabbinic Judaism is the modern descendant of Phariseeism. If one wants a good understanding of what Phariseeism taught, one should look to primary sources of the actual teachings of the Pharisees, the Mishna, the Talmuds and the early Midrashim.
Upon the invasion of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity the monarchy of Israel was brought to an end. When the Babylonian captivity finally ended and exiles returned, Ezra reestablished the council of Elders:Ezra 7:25; 10:14, 16) which immediately began making halachic decisions (Ezra 10:10-19). This body became known as the Great Assembly.
The Mishna records the foundations of Pharisaic Judaism as follows:
Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua,
Joshua to the elders,
the elders to the prophets,
the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Assembly…
This was a body of 120 Elders and is said to have introduced a regular order of prayers including the Shemoneh Esreh (eighteen benedictions) which eventually evolved into the Siddur. The Great Assembly collected the sacred writings and determined which books were to be regarded as canonical.
We do not know much more about the Great Assembly. We do know that one of the last members of this counsel was “Simon the Righteous” (219-196 B.C.E.). The Mishna says:
Simeon the Righteous was of the remnants
of the Great Assembly. He used to say, “On three things
the world stands: On the Torah, On the [Temple] Service,
and on acts of piety (chasidim).
Ben Sira calls him “the leader of his brothers and the pride of his people.” (Sira 50:1) and dedicates an entire chapter to his good reputation. Simon was the earliest post-biblical sage cited in the Mishna. Simon was succeeded as High Priest by his son Onias III of whom we read in 2Maccabees:
While the holy city was inhabited in unbroken peace
and the laws were very well observed because of the
piety of the high priest Onias and his hatred of
About this time Antiochus Epiphanies rose to power over Israel and at about this same time period the High Priesthood passed from Onias III to his brother Jason by way of corruption:
…Jason the brother of Onias obtained the high priesthood
by corruption, promising the king at an interview three
hundred and sixty talents of silver and from another source
of revenue, eighty talents… he at once shifted his countrymen
over to the Greek way of life… and introduced new customs
contrary to the Torah.
(2Macc. 4:7-8, 10, 11)
Jason’s High Priesthood was illegitimate and not regarded as valid as we read in 2Maccabees:
…Jason, who was ungodly and no high priest…
The corruption of the High Priesthood and the banishment of the true High Priest must have forced the disbandment of the Great Assembly.
At this time (175-140 BCE) many who wished to remain true to Torah escaped into the wilderness (1Macc. 1:62-64; 2:29) These refugees became know as the Chassidim (pious ones) (1Macc. 2:42-43).
While we know little about these Chassidim, they were probably led by a certain Antigones of Soko. The Mishnah says of him:
Antigones of Soko received [Torah] from Simeon the Righteous.
He used to say, “Be not like servants who serve their master
for the sake of wages, but be like servants who serve their
master with no thought of a wage – and let the fear
of Heaven be upon you.”
The name “Chassidim” probably came from their devotion to the teaching of Simon the Righteous, that “CHASSIDIM” is one of the three things upon which the world stands.
The term CHASSEDIM is related to the same root as CHESED meaning “grace, mercy, loving kindness, charity”. You might say this was as “grace” movement.
One of Antigones’ talmidim (disciples, students), a certain Zadok, apostatized and formed the Sadducee sect (I laid this out in detail in my recent article “Paul argues Talmud Before the Sanhedrin).
The main line of Antigones’ talmidim went on to establish the body we know as the Pharisaic Sanhedrin (not to be confused with the political Sanhedrin that contained both Pharisees and Sadducees). In fact two of his talmidim went on to become the first Nasi and Av Beit Din of this Sanhedrin.
In other words Pharisaic Judaism was the succession of the Chassedim and the main line of Judaism. (The word “Pharisee” means “separate” and may well refer to the fact that the Chassidim had separated themselves from Jason’s corrupt apostasy from true Judaism). This was a CHESED (grace) based movement proceeding from the teachings of Simon the Righteous and Antigones of Soko.
Before proceeding let us therefore seek to understand the point of Antigones’ teaching:
“Be not like servants who serve their master
for the sake of wages, but be like servants who serve their
master with no thought of a wage – and let the fear
of Heaven be upon you.”
Antigones taught that we should observe Torah not as one trying to earn something, but as one who serves a master because he sincerely wants to from inside, out of respect and love for Elohim. He taught that Torah Observance meant nothing unless ones heart was right. Without this inner CHESED, Torah Observance was an empty outer expression, works without faith. This was the foundation of Pharisaic Judaism!
The earliest generations of the Pharisaic movement were known as the Zuggot (pairs). Hillel and Shammai were the last two “pairs” to lead the Pharisee Sanhedrin. The rift between them was so great that Shammai, who was known for his bad temper, forced Hillel to sit and listen to him at the point of his sword, as though he were his student. (b.Shab. 17a) The result was a complete split of Phariseeism into two Houses: The House of Shammai (the stricter school) and the House of Hillel (the less-strict school).
From this point forward the only Pharisee Sanhedrin we know of was led, not by “pairs” but by Hillel’s descendents.
Pharisees at this time polarized into two schools of thought: The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The two schools held differing view on many halachic issues and argued throughout the first century. Eventually the School of Hillel prevailed in these arguments and serves as the foundation of modern Rabbinic Judaism. There are also many important connections between the School of Hillel and the ancient sect of the Nazarenes.
Within Rabbinic literature we have record of over 350 disputes between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. Generally Shammai gave the stricter interpretation, while Hillels understandings were more relaxed. According to the Zohar (Ra'aya Meheimna 3:245a) The School of Shammai was based on GEVURAH ("severity") while the School of Hillel was based on CHESED ("grace"/"mercy").
A classic example of the conflict can be seen in one of the first passages of the Mishna, which records a conflict between the two houses over how to recite the Shema:
The House of Shammai says:
In the evening one should recline in order to recite the shema, and in the morning they should stand. As it is written “when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut. 6:7)
But the House of Hillel says:
Everyone may recite the Shema in his own way, as it is written:
“And you shall go by the way” (Deut. 7:7)
Note that the House of Shammai were concerned primarily with the outward expression, with whether one was standing or reclining, while the House of Hillel were less concerned with such outward expression and much more concerned with the way in which one recited the Shema, that they made it their own way, that they meant it and walked in it. Note the difference in emphasis of the two houses.
Hillel was more concerned with the inner man, while Shammai was more concerned with the outer man. Hillel was concerned with the Spirit of the Law, while Shammai was more concerned with the Letter of the Law.
This overriding concept of sincerity is also found in the Mishna in tractate Menachot:
“…all are the same, the one who offers much and the one who offers little,
on condition that a man will direct his intention to Heaven”
You can imagine that a movement founded on sincerity of heart, would have no tolerance for hypocrisy. The Talmud lists Hypocrites as one of four classes who will not receive the presence of the Shekhinah:
R. Hisda also said in the name of R. Jeremiah b. Abba: Four classes will not recieve presence of the Shechinah, — the class of scoffers, the class of liars, the class of hypocrites, and the class of slanderers. `The class of scoffers' — as it is written, He withdrew His hand from the scoffers.(Hosea 7:5) `The class of liars' — as it is written, He that telleth lies, shall not tarry in my sight.(Ps. 101:7) `The class of hypocrites' — as it is written, For a hypocrite shall not come before him.(Job 13:15) `The class of slanderers — as it is written, For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee,'(Ps. 5:5) [which means] Thou art righteous, and hence there will not be evil in thy abode.
The Talmud however does recognize a problem with hypocrisy among the ranks of the Pharisees:
King Jannai said to his wife', `Fear not the Pharisees and the
non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who are the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect a reward like Phineas'
It is this problem that Yeshua addresses when he criticizes hypocrisy among the Pharisees. Sincerity of heart is supposed to be the defining characteristic of the foundations of Pharisaic Judaism, Pharisaic Judaism stripped of its core principle became hollow. I believe this is what Yeshua meant when he said:
You are the salt of the earth,
and if the salt has lost its savor,
how will it be salted?
It is afterwards good for nothing,
But to be cast aside,
And trampled by men.
Note in Matthew Yeshua says:
…they [hypocrites] delight to stand in the assemblies
and at the corners of the streets to pray,
that men may see them.
Some wrongly imagine that this is a blanket attack on a Pharisaic practice. In reality a similar condemnation appears in the Talmud “‘One who says the Tefillah so that it can be heard is of the small of faith’.” (b.Ber 24b)
Yeshua continues his attack on hypocrites saying:
And when you pray,
multiply not your words like the Goyim do…
Like verse 5 many mistakenly take this verse as a reference to Jewish liturgy. In fact the Pharisaic Mishna itself contains a similar instruction for behavior when praying:
Rabbi Simeon says:
Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy
and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be He….
Yeshua continues his criticism of “hypocrites” saying:
…they begrime and disfigure their faces
that they may appear in the sight of men to fast…
when you fast anoint your head and wash your face…
Here Yeshua is not condemning a Pharisaic practice but an Essene practice as Josephus writes of the first century Essenes:
They think oil is defilement; and if one of them
is anointed without his own approbation,
it is wiped off his body; for they think to be
sweaty is a good thing…
(Josephus; Wars; 2:8:3)
Yeshua continues his criticism of hypocrites saying:
lay up for yourselves stores in heaven,
where caterpillar and moth waste not,
and where thieves do not steal,
for just where your store is,
there your heart will be also
A similar teaching appears in the Talmud with very similar wording:
Our Rabbis taught: It is related of King Monobaz
that he dissipated all his own hoards and the hoards of his
fathers in years of scarcity. His brothers and his father's
household came in a deputation to him and said to him, ‘Your
father saved money and added to the treasures of his fathers,
and you are squandering them.’ He replied: ‘My fathers stored
up below and I am storing above, as it says, Truth springeth
out of the earth and righteousness looketh down from heaven.
My fathers stored in a place which can be tampered
with, but I have stored in a place which cannot be tampered
with, as it says, Righteousness and judgment are the foundation
of his throne. My fathers stored something which produces no fruits, but I have stored something which does produce fruits, as it is written, Say ye of the righteous [zaddik] that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat of the fruit of their doings. My fathers gathered treasures of money, but I have gathered treasures of souls, as it is written, The fruit of the righteous [zaddik] is a tree of life, and he that is wise winneth souls. My fathers gathered for others and I have gathered for myself,
as it says, And for thee it shall be righteousness [zedakah].
My fathers gathered for this world, but I have gathered for the
future world, as it says, Thy righteousness [zedakah] shall go
before thee, and the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward.’
(b.Baba Batra 11a)
When Yeshua criticized Pharisees for hypocrisy he was challenging Pharisees to return to the Chassidic roots of Pharisaic Judaism. He was encouraging Pharisees to return to their foundational teachings, the Tanak and the teachings of Simon the Righteous and Atigones of Soko.
Yeshua was teaching CHESED, he was teaching Chassidism and he was teaching the values of Antigones of Soko. He was teaching us that we should not keep Torah as one wishing to earn something, but as one who has a sincere heart and inner desire to serve YHWH out of sincere love and respect for our Father.
In fact the ironic thing is that by this measure it is Christedom which is hypocritical. Talk to a Christian about Torah Observance and invariably they will respond that they do not have to keep Torah to be saved, and therefore they do not need to keep Torah. They are as ones only concerned with doing what they get paid for, and not as one serving YHWH simply out of love and respect for Him.
When Yeshua was criticizing hypocrisy among Pharisees, he was calling for a return to authentic Pharisaic Judaism, which is why Paul was able to say confidently “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6)
There is an interesting parallel in the teachings of a later movement that also took on the name Chassidic and whose founder the Baal Shem Tov (c. 1750) taught that Judaism must be centered not simply around doing the Torah, but around feeling the Torah.
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