Christians follow the Bible, and the Bible starts with the five books of the Law, Genesis through Deuteronomy. Those five books are called the Torah to Jews. The rest of the Jewish Bible includes the Prophets also called the Nevi’im, and the Writings also called the Ketuvim. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings combined are called TaNaKH which is an acronym of the first letters of the Jewish names of the sections. These books are the same as the Protestant Old Testament.
Jewish interpretation of the Bible is not literal. While many Jews believe that the Tanakh contains the word of God, they don’t believe that the words just mean what they say. Rather rabbinic teaching says that there are 70 interpretations for every word in Torah and that they’re all right!i
To the Jews this diversity of interpretation means that there are no clear answers as to how to follow the Law so they look beyond the Torah for answers. Thus the reason for the Talmud.
Traditional Jews believe that Moses not only received the written word but be also was given the Oral Law to be handed down from generation to generation. This, in fact, is part of the Talmudii
A verse used to substantiate this claim is Exodus 24:12:
The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (Exo 24:12 ESV)
Judaism teaches that the addition of the word commandment infers that there are commandments not included in the Law (Torah) and this proves the existence of the Oral Torah.iii
The Oral Law, the Talmud, is broken down further into the Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnah is a collection of Rabbinic interpretations. The Gemara has explanations of the Mishnah. The Talmud is a huge part of Jewish tradition. Furthermore, it was completely oral until about the second century when it was finally written down.
The Jewish Virtual Library says:
“The Oral Law is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone, even with its 613 commandments, is an insufficient guide to Jewish life.”.iv
The Jewish Virtual Library gives an example of the limitations of the Law, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. The Torah says that on the Sabbath it is forbidden to light a fire, go away from one’s dwelling, cut down a tree, plow or harvest. But the Talmud adds to it, rituals for candle lighting, reciting the kiddush (a ceremony of prayer and blessing over wine ) and reading the Torah.
That’s just one example of tradition stemming from interpretation about Law specifics with a view of steering followers into strict adherence of the Law and there are many examples.
The scope of tradition in Judaism is huge. Look at this statement from Encyclopedia Britannica:
“Judaism is the complex phenomenon of a total way of life for the Jewish people, comprising theology, law, and innumerable cultural traditions.”v
Innumerable cultural traditions the above statement says. The Jewish religion is rife with traditions and this appears to have been the situation all along. Remember, traditional Jews place the status of the Talmud as equal to the Torah with the declaration of calling it the oral Torah, and crediting its origin to God and Moses on Mount Sinai.
One such tradition is the Haggadah which is “the text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of the Jewish Passover, including a narrative of the Exodus”. vi. One source puts the origins of the Haggadah to bits in the Mishnah which dates to 220 BC although the Haggadah in its current form took form in the middle ages vii See 1.1 Worship Changes with the Giving of the Law; Part 2 – the Feasts for more details on that tradition. Additionally, there is a Haggadah pdf file online that shows all the steps to the Seder Tradition including readings, songs, what foods to eat in what order, what the different cups of wine mean and so forth. viii
Another set of traditions that were in full force at the time of Jesus concerned the synagogues. The word synagogue doesn’t appear in the Old Testament. The closest thing to synagogue references to are appearances of elders before Ezekiel in Ezekiel 14:1 and 20:1. Yet the synagogue liturgy, as well as items in the design of the physical building, are guided by tradition. There is an order of service, different seating sections including men’s and women’s galleries, and chief seats as well as the tradition of people seated facing Jerusalem. See 1.2 The Synagogue Became a Substitute For The Temple for more details.
Here’s a few more examples of how the Talmud’s instruction form many traditions in Jewish life: tefillin straps must be black, a sukkah must have at least two and a half walls, and all the different Halachic measurements and sizes.”ixTefillin straps are the cubic boxes with black leather straps that Jewish man wear during morning prayer. They can only be made by qualified people and there are strict rules for each phase of their production and certification.x A sukkah is a temporary booth or hut that people sit in during a Jewish festival to provide shade.xi Merriam Webster defines Halacha as “the body of Jewish law supplementing the scriptural law and forming especially the legal part of the Talmud.” Thus the Talmud sets measurements that are legal requirements for Jews.
In Judaism there are edicts. The biblical basis for these is:
If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the LORD will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. (Deu 17:8-11 ESV)
The above is part of the law, But there is tradition involved here also as Judaism takes the Deuteronomy passage to mean that it has the right to expand upon what is in the Law and pronounce edicts for all future instances of a possible occurrence. Chabad.org cites the example of the law against eating leavened products on Passover which begins at noon on the fourteenth of Nissan, Rabbis added to hours to this ban for safety and made it an edict, The result is that while the law says not to eat leavened products after noon, one could be guilty of an offense if they ate an hour before noon even though that is not in the law. There is a provision for leniency on violations of edicts as opposed to strict enforcement when in violation of the law.xii But it is still changing the Law, adding to its requirements.
So from the above, we see that throughout history Judaism has maintained that the law as set forth in Genesis through Deuteronomy is insufficient for faith and practice and has thus supplemented it with the Talmud, and traditions that rule Jewish life,
It’s not that everything about the Talmud and Jewish tradition isn’t carefully thought out. There appears to be careful reasoning at every turn. It is a very disciplined approach resulting in a very disciplined lifestyle.
But our interest is to look at it in light of Jesus Christ’s criticism of Jewish tradition, That criticism leveled the charge that in the process of their careful reasoning the Word of God was broken.
In another place Jesus said this:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, 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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mar 12:28-31 ESV)
Jesus’ focus was on the application of the love of God in every instance of life. That requires the flexibility to look at every person and situation and apply the love of God. Setting edicts for every instance of Jewish life in advance of their occurring shows no flexibility and is just legalism.
I talk about an example of this in Did Jesus Really Break God’s Rules by Healing on the Sabbath? As I write in the post there are teachers that say Jesus broke the Law by healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus’ point was that the only thing that was broken was a Jewish tradition. Jesus pointed out that someone would be penalized for not helping ox out of a ditch even on the Sabbath. Getting a farm animal out of a ditch is hard work, but you were to be penalized for not doing it even on the Sabbath! That means that some kinds of work were not only okay on the Sabbath, but those works were also mandatory! Jesus taught us that we are more important than livestock so it must be okay for someone to rescue someone by healing them on the Sabbath.
Paul speaks of the importance of this in Romans:
For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
(Rom 13:9-10 ESV)
In the example of rescuing people or animals on the Sabbath, it is the loving thing to do! When certain Jews accused Jesus of breaking the Law by healing they were not following the great commandment by loving enough to rescue and heal, instead they were just being legalistic.
While they may have continued to develop throughout the ages, Jewish traditions trace back through history. From the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai Judaism has added traditions that set the stage for how so many things in Jewish life are to be carried out. One example is a Jewish tradition for services that gives specific instructions on rituals including the order of service, the songs, the readings, and how people are to act. It also adds more details than the law gives on how things in daily life are to be handled on everything from worship services to what can be done with your hair.
When we look at Christian traditions we will see how some Christian traditions have followed a similar path of adding to the doctrine of the original apostles and disciples.
Remember that we are charged as believers to follow the tradition handed down from the Apostles. Not all Christian traditions are handed down from the Apostles even though parts of the tradition may be. Remember Jesus’ charge that for the sake of tradition people have made void the word of God. We need to be careful to filter out any part of any Christian tradition that negates the Word that Jesus came to fulfill.
i Judaism For Dummies, Rabbi Ted Falcom Ph.D. and David Blatner, John Wiley and Sons Inc, Hoboken NJ, 2013 p.38
ii Ibid, p.39
iii What is the “Oral Torah”? By Naftali Silberberg, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/812102/jewish/What-is-the-Oral-Torah.htm
iv Judaism: The Oral Law -Talmud & Mishna, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-oral-law-talmud-and-mishna
vii UNDERSTANDING THE ROOTS OF THE HAGGADAH, KATJA VEHLOW, http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/the-haggadah.html
viii Passover Haggadah, A Guide To The Seder, http://jewishfederation.org/images/uploads/holiday_images/39497.pdf
For more on Jews and Tradition see LP4000 The Role of Tradition and its Old Testament Influence