Matthew 15:2
Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
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(2) They wash not their hands when they eat bread.—St. Mark (Mark 7:3-4), writing for Gentiles, explains the nature of the tradition more fully. What the Pharisees insisted on was not cleanliness as such, but the avoidance of ceremonial pollution. They shrank not from dirt, but from defilement. If they had been in the market, they might have come in contact with the heathen or the publican. If they ate or drank out of a metal or earthenware cup, the last lip that touched it might have been that of a heathen, and therefore that too needed purification. The pride which led them to stand aloof from the rest of mankind showed itself in this, as in all their other traditions. Indifference to their rules in peasants and fishermen, as such—as belonging to the crowd whom they scorned as the brute “people of the earth”—they could afford to tolerate. What shocked them was to see the disciples of One who claimed to be a Prophet or a Rabbi indulging in that indifference. According to their traditions, the act of which they complained stood on the same level as sexual impurity, and exposed those who were guilty of it to the excommunication of the Sanhedrin, or great Council.

15:1-9 Additions to God's laws reflect upon his wisdom, as if he had left out something which was needed, and which man could supply; in one way or other they always lead men to disobey God. How thankful ought we to be for the written word of God! Never let us think that the religion of the Bible can be improved by any human addition, either in doctrine or practice. Our blessed Lord spoke of their traditions as inventions of their own, and pointed out one instance in which this was very clear, that of their transgressing the fifth commandment. When a parent's wants called for assistance, they pleaded, that they had devoted to the temple all they could spare, even though they did not part with it, and therefore their parents must expect nothing from them. This was making the command of God of no effect. The doom of hypocrites is put in a little compass; In vain do they worship me. It will neither please God, nor profit themselves; they trust in vanity, and vanity will be their recompence.Transgress the tradition of the elders - The world "elders" literally means "old men." Here it means the "ancients," or their "ancestors." The "tradition of the elders" meant something handed down from one to another by memory; some precept or custom not commanded in the written law, but which scribes and Pharisees held themselves bound to observe.

They supposed that when Moses was on Mount Sinai two sets of laws were delivered to him: one, they said, was recorded, and is that contained in the Old Testament; the other was handed down from father to son, and kept uncorrupted to their day. They believed that Moses, before he died, delivered this law to Joshua; he to the Judges; they to the prophets; so that it was kept pure until it was recorded in the Talmuds. In these books these pretended laws are now contained. They are exceedingly numerous and very trifling. They are, however, regarded by the Jews as more important than either Moses or the prophets.

One point in which the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees was in holding to these traditions. It seems, however, that in the particular traditions mentioned here, all the Jews were united; for Mark adds Mark 7:3 that "the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders." Mark has also added that this custom of washing extended not merely to their hands before eating, but in coming from the market; and also to cups, and pots, and brass vessels, and tables, Mark 7:3-4. They did this professedly for the sake of cleanliness. So far it was well. But they also made it a matter of superstition. They regarded external purity as of much more importance than the purity of the heart. They had many foolish rules about it respecting the quantity of water that was to be used, the way in which it should be applied, the number of times it should be changed, the number of those that might wash at a time, etc. Our Saviour did not think it proper to regard these rules, and this was the reason why they "found fault" with him.

2. Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.Ver. 1,2. Mark relates this piece of history more largely, Mark 7:1-5, Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain, of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? This portion of Scripture cannot be well understood without understanding something of the Jewish government as to matters ecclesiastical; in which the high priest was the chief. God addeth seventy men more to Moses and Aaron, Numbers 11:25, to bear a share in the government; these were called the sanhedrim; and this was the supreme court of judicature amongst the Jews, as to all things which respected the laws of God, whether moral, judicial, or ceremonial, and every one was bound to abide by their determination. These sat in Jerusalem, but had their inferior courts in other places, from which they appealed to the sanhedrim, who finally determined, Deu 17:8-13. It was the great business of this court to take care that there should be no corruption in religion. These were they therefore that sent messengers to John, when he began to preach, to inquire what he was, and by what authority he baptized, John 1:19. The Pharisees (as we before heard) had charged our Saviour’s disciples with violation of the sabbath by plucking and rubbing ears of corn, and himself also with the same crime for healing the sick. It is very like these accusations were got to Jerusalem, and that these were emissaries sent from the sanhedrim to watch our Saviour, or possibly they came out of their own curiosity. They could find in our Saviour no guilt as to any violation of the law of God, but they pick a quarrel with him for some rites and ceremonies of their church, which he and his disciples were not so strict in the observation of. They say, Why do thy disciples transgress the traditions of the elders? The word traditions signifies only things delivered, and is as well applicable to the law of God as any thing else. Thus the whole law of God was but a tradition, a doctrine of life, delivered to the Jews by Moses from God: thus the apostle bids the Thessalonians, Hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle, 2 Thessalonians 2:15. But the term of the elders is that which restraineth it, for as the papists in our time hold that, besides what we have in the New Testament, the apostle delivered many things to the primitive church only by word of mouth, which have since that time been imparted to succeeding churches, to the observation of which Christians are as much obliged as to the written word, so the Jews did formerly. For though, for some tract of time, they kept to the Divine law, yet in process of time they abused that text, Deu 4:14, to found a new invention upon it: That while Moses was in the mount of God forty days and forty nights, God in the day time revealed to him the law written in the five books of Moses, and in the night he revealed to him several other things, as to which his will was they should not be written, for fear the heathens should transcribe them, but be delivered only by word of mouth to the sanhedrim, and be to them as much a rule of judgment as any part of the law which was written. By which means they gained themselves a liberty of making the law of God what they pleased, for their traditions were of several sorts. Some were determinations of what in the law seemed doubtful. Others were determinations of what the law left at liberty. Others they called sepimenta legis, rules they gave under pretence of a guard to the Divine law; for the more caution, that they might not transgress it. These things at first were not imposed as laws, but commended by way of advice and counsel, afterward they came to be looked upon as laws, and grew almost infinite. They tell us that Ezra was he who gathered those traditions together, and made the Cabbala in seventy-two books, which was kept by Gamaliel and others till the destruction of Jerusalem. A hundred and twenty years after, they tell us Rabbi Judas, the son of Simon, composed a book of them, called Misna. Three hundred years after this, they tell us R. Johanan found more, and he and others, his colleagues, collected them into a larger book, called the Jerusalem Talmud. A hundred years after this, another rabbi made a collection of the traditions amongst the Jews that remained in Babylon, which he called the Babylonish Talmud; by which two the Jews are governed in ecclesiastical matters, all the world over, at this day. Their whole Talmud is divided into six parts. The sixth is about purifications; it containeth twelve books, and every book hath twenty or thirty chapters, all treating about the purifying of houses, clothes, vessels, human bodies, and their several parts. The Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem were in such an afflicted state, that though their Talmud was not perfected of five hundred years and more after Christ, yet it is probable they added not much to what they had in use in Christ’s time. The Pharisees were very severe as to these traditions. The Sadducees kept more to the written law. But the Pharisees were in far greater credit with the Jews, therefore Paul called them the strictest sect of the Jewish religion, Acts 26:5. The Jews have several ordinary sayings, that show in what esteem they had these traditions, as, If the scribes say our right hand is our left, and our left hand our right, we are to believe them. And, There is more in the words of the scribes than the words of the law, & c. These scribes and Pharisees accuse our Saviour’s disciples for the violation of one of these traditions. Mark saith, that the Pharisees, and all the Jews, ( that is, the major part of those that followed the Pharisees’ faction), except they wash their hands oft, eat not. They thought it sinful to eat unless they often washed their hands. The foundation of this tradition was doubtless in the Levitical law. God by that law had declared him unclean that should touch the carcass of any unclean thing, Leviticus 5:2,3. Upon this (as some think) they had superstructed a tradition of washing their hands, pots, cups, vessels, when they had been at the market, or almost any where, for fear they, or their pots, cups, &c., should have touched any unclean person or thing. In this they were guilty of several errors:

1. Extending the law to the touching of things and persons, of whom the law had said nothing.

2. In cases where such touches happened accidentally, and were not made on purpose.

3. In thinking that the stain of sin could be washed away by a ritual action, which God never commanded.

We must not think that they charge the disciples here with a neglect of a civil washing for cleanliness, but of a religious superstitious washing.

Mark saith, koinaiv cepsi, that is, with common hands; we translate it, polluted: so Acts 10:14 11:8: hands not first separated to God by the religious rite of washings. Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?.... Having observed, for some little time, the conduct of Christ and his disciples, they thought proper to take no notice of him as yet, but of them; and of them, not as transgressing any command of God, but of men; not being able to charge them with any breach of the law of God: and could they have done this with any show of truth, yet they might choose rather to accuse them of breaking the rules of the elders; by whom they mean, not the elders of the present sanhedrim, but Hillell and Shammai; the two heads of their famous schools, and other ancient doctors; from whom were delivered by one to another, certain rules and laws of their own devising, which had no foundation in the word of God; and of these the Scribes and Pharisees were more tenacious, than of the Scriptures; and indeed they preferred them before them: most extravagant are their praises and commendations of these unwritten traditions; thus they say (d),

"Know then, that "the words of the Scribes" are more lovely than the words of the law: for, says R. Tarphon, if a man does not read, he only transgresses an affirmative; but if he transgresses the words of the school of Hillell, he is guilty of death, because he hath broke down a hedge, and a serpent shall bite him. It is a tradition of R. Ishmael, the words of the law have in them both prohibition and permission; some of them are light, and some heavy, but "the words of the Scribes" are all of them heavy--Mynqz , "weightier are the words of the elders", than the words of the prophets.''

And elsewhere (e), this advice is given;

"My son, attend to "the words of the Scribes", more than to the words of the law; for in the words of the law, are affirmatives and negatives; but the words of the Scribes , "everyone that transgresses the words of the Scribes", is guilty of death.''

This is what they charge the disciples with here, and could they have had their wills, would have put them to death for it: the particular tradition, they accuse them with the breach of, follows,

for they wash not their hands when they eat bread; common bread, an ordinary meal; for, for eating of holy things, more than bare washing was required, even an immersion of them in water; but the hands were to be washed before eating common food, whether they were known to be defiled or not: "bread" is particularly mentioned, as including all sorts of food, and as distinct from fruit; for, for eating of common fruit, there was no need of washing of hands; he that washed his hands for eating fruit, was reckoned an ostentatious man (f), who were the first authors of this tradition, it is not certain; it is said (g), that

"Hillell and Shammai decreed , "concerning the purification of the hands"; R. Jose ben R. Bon, in the name of R. Levi, says, so was the tradition before, but they forgot it; and these two stood up, and agreed with the minds of the former ones.''

"However, it is a certain point, that the washing of the hands, and the dipping of them, are , "from the words of the Scribes" (h).''

The breach of this rule was reckoned equal to the most flagitious crimes (i): R. Jose says,

"whoever eats bread without washing of hands, is as if he lay with a whore: and, says R. Eleazer, whoever despiseth washing of hands, shall be rooted out of the world.''

And elsewhere it is said by them (k), that

"he that blesseth (food) with defiled hands, is guilty of death.''

And again (l),

"whoever does not wash his hands as is fitting, although he is punished above, he shall be punished below.''


Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they {a} wash not their hands when they eat bread.

(a) Which they received handed down from their ancestors, or their elders allowed, who were the governors of the Church.

Matthew 15:2. Παράδοσις] ἄγραφος διδασκαλία, Hesychius. The Jews, founding upon Deuteronomy 4:14; Deuteronomy 17:10, for the most part attached greater importance to this tradition than to the written law. Hence, Berachoth f. 3. 2 : הכיבים דברי סופרים מדברי תורה. Comp. Schoettgen. They laid special stress upon the traditional precept, founded on Leviticus 15:11, which required that the hands should be washed before every meal (ὅταν ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν, a rendering of the Hebrew אָכַל לֶחֶם). See Lightfoot, Schoettgen, and Wetstein. Jesus and His disciples ignored this παράδοσις as such.

τῶν πρεσβυτ.] which had been handed down from the men of olden time (their forefathers). It is not the scribes that are meant (Fritzsche), nor the elders of the nation (Bleek, Schegg), but comp. Hebrews 11:2. It is the wise men of ancient times that are in view. Observe, moreover, the studied precision and peremptory tone of the question, which has something of an official air about it. The growing hostility begins to show itself in an open and decided manner.Matthew 15:2. διατί οἱ μαθ. σου παραβ.: no instance of offence specified in this case, as in Matthew 9:10 and Matthew 12:1. The zealots must have been making inquiries or playing the spy into the private habits of the disciple circle, seeking for grounds of fault-finding (cf. Mark 7:2).—παραβαίνουσι: strong word (Mk.’s milder), putting breach of Rabbinical rules on a level with breaking the greatest moral laws, as if the former were of equal importance with the latter. That they were, was deliberately maintained by the scribes (vide Lightfoot).—τὴν παράδοσιν τ. π.: not merely the opinion, dogma, placitum, of the elders (Grotius), but opinion expressed ex cathedra, custom originated with authority by the ancients. The “elders” here are not the living rulers of the people, but the past bearers of religious authority, the more remote the more venerable. The “tradition” was unwritten (ἄγραφος διδασκαλία, Hesych.), the “law upon the lip” reaching back, like the written law (so it was pretended), to Moses. Baseless assertion, but believed; therefore to attack the παράδοσις is a Herculean, dangerous task. The assailants regard the act imputed as an unheard-of monstrous impiety. That is why they make a general charge before specifying the particular form under which the offence is committed, so giving the latter as serious an aspect as possible.—οὐ γὰρ νίπτονται, etc.: granting the fact it did not necessarily mean deliberate disregard of the tradition. It might be an occasional carelessness on the part of some of the disciples (τινὰς, Mark 7:2) which even the offenders would not care to defend. A time-server might easily have evaded discussion by putting the matter on this ground. The Pharisees eagerly put the worst construction on the act, and Jesus was incapable of time-serving insincerity; thus conflict was inevitable.—νίπτεσθαι, the proper word before meat, ἀπονίπτεσθαι, after, Elsner, citing Athenaeus, lib. ix., cap. 18.—ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν, Hebrew idiom for taking food. The neglect charged was not that of ordinary cleanliness, but of the technical rules for securing ceremonial cleanness. These were innumerable and ridiculously minute. Lightfoot, referring to certain Rabbinical tracts, says: “lege, si vacat, et si per taedium et nauseam potes”.2. the tradition of the elders] The elders, or presbyters, were the Jewish teachers, or scribes, such as Hillel and Shammai. The traditions were the rules or observances of the unwritten law, which they enjoined on their disciples. Many of these were frivolous; some actually subversive of God’s law; and yet one Rabbinical saying was, “The words of the law are weighty and light, but all the words of the scribes are weighty.”

when] Rather, whenever.Matthew 15:2. Τῶν πρεσβυτέρων, of the ancients) The word πρεσβύτερος sometimes denotes a dignity or office; sometimes it is opposed to youth; sometimes, as in this place, to later generations.—ἄρτον, bread) The Jews eat other kinds of food without washing their hands more readily than bread. See Wall’s[677] Critical Notes, p. 47.

[677] WILLIAM WALL, D. D., sometime Vicar of Shoreham, a learned divine of the English Church; born 1645 or 1646; died 1727–8. The work here alluded to is entitled—

“Brief Critical Notes, especially on the various readings of the New Testament Books; with a Preface concerning the Texts cited from the Old Testament, as also concerning the use of the Septuagint Translation. 8vo. London, 1730.”—(I. B.)Verse 2. - Thy disciples. They had watched our Lord and his followers partaking of some meal, and doubtless Christ had acted in the same manner as his disciples. Open houses and food partaken of in public allowed this close observation without any infringement of Eastern courtesy. They come to Christ with the insidious question, because they consider him answerable for his disciples' doings (comp. Matthew 9:14; Matthew 12:2). They imply that his teaching has led to thee transgression on which they animadvert. Doubtless the apostles, from Christ's instruction and example, were learning to free themselves from the endless rules and restrictions which were no help to religion, and to attend more to the great realities of vital piety and holiness. The omission of the outward acts, rabbinically enjoined, was readily marked and censured. The tradition. This formed a vast collection of additions, explanations, etc., of the original Law, partly, as was affirmed, delivered orally by Moses, and handed down from generation to generation; and partly accumulated by successive expounders. St. Paul refers to this when he speaks of himself before his conversion as being "exceedingly jealous for the tradition or my fathers" (Galatians 1:14). From it, in the course of time. was formed the Talmud, with its text (Mishna) and its commentary (Gemara). It was not put into writing till after our Lord's time (hence called ἄγραφος διδασκαλία), but was taught authoritatively by accredited teachers who, while retaining the letter of the Law abrogated its spirit, nullifying the broad line of God's commandments by enforcing minute observances and puerile restrictions which were a burden and impediment to purity and devotion, rather than an aid and encouragement. The elders (τῶν πρεσβυτέρων); the ancients. The older expositors and rabbis, whose commentaries had been orally handed down.. Such traditions were regarded with more respect than the letter of Scripture, and the latter had to give way when it seemed to be antagonistic to the former. Wash not their hands when they eat bread. To eat bread means to take food of any kind. The fear of legal defilement led to a multitude of rabbinical rules of the most vexatious and troublesome nature, the infringement of any of which endangered a man's ceremonial purity (see Mark 7:3, 4). These frivolous regulations had been built upon the plain Mosaical enactments of Leviticus 11, etc. St. Matthew, writing for those who were well acquainted with these glosses, enters into no details; St. Mark is more explicit. It is to be remarked that the Pharisees were extending and enforcing these traditions just when the Law was to be superseded by something more spiritual and doing so in spite of the interdiction "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2). Wash not their hands

Washing before meals was alone regarded as a commandment; washing after meals only as a duty. By and by the more rigorous actually washed between the courses, although this was declared to be purely voluntary. The distinctive designation for washing after meals was the lifting of the hands; while for washing before meat a term was used which meant, literally, to rub. If "holy," i.e., sacrificial food was to be partaken of, a complete immersion of the hands, and not a mere "uplifting" was prescribed. As the purifications were so frequent, and care had to be taken that the water had not been used for other purposes, or something fallen into it that might discolor or defile it, large vessels or jars were generally kept for the purpose (see John 2:6). It was the practice to draw water out of these with a kind of ladle or bucket - very often of glass - which must hold at least one and a half egg-shells (compare draw out now, John 2:8). The water was poured on both hands, which must be free of anything covering them, such as gravel, mortar, etc. The hands were lifted up so as to make the water run to the wrist, in order to insure that the whole hand was washed, and that the water polluted by the hand did not again run down the fingers. Similarly, each hand was rubbed with the other (the fist), provided the hand that rubbed had been affused; otherwise, the rubbing might be done against the head, or even against a wall. But there was one point on which special stress was laid. In the "first affusion," which was all that originally was required when the hands were not levitically "defiled," the water had to run down to the wrist. If the water remained short of the wrist, the hands were not clean. See Mark 7:3 (Edersheim, "Life and Times of Jesus").

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