|Should we Study Jewish Concepts and Ideas? If so, Why?
By Jim Lewis
Why should we study Jewish concepts and Jewish ideas? After all do we not have all that we need in the New Testament? These questions are troubling to many trying to walk in the ways of the Eternal, today. It is true that much within the concepts of Judaism are not to be applied to Gentile followers of the Messiah, but on the other hand there is much understand-ing to be gained to aid one in the growth of his or her spiritual walk. For this reason, listed below are TEN REASONS why one should study and learn all that you can about your Jew-ish roots.
The first Jewish concept that is often missed in English translations concerns the woman with the issue of blood in Matthew 9:21, who said within herself, "If I may but touch His garment, I shall be made whole." Verse 20 shows that it was the hem of His garment that she desired to touch. In the Hebrew, the term hem is the same as the word fringes or wing, and is a common word for the border of the prayer shawl worn by Yahshua and the Jewish men of the first century. This is called the tzitzit that was worn on any four cornered garment in ac-cordance with the commandment of Numbers 15:38-41, to remind them of Yahweh's Com-mandments. The tzitzit consisted of five double knots and eight threads making a total of 13. This number together with the Hebraic numeral value of the word tzitzit, which was 600, pointed to the 613 commandments found in the Torah.
During Yahshua's day the men dressed primarily in a halluq, which was a simple tunic worn both at home and at work. When appearing in public, the men covered their halluq with a large rectangular cloth that draped over the shoulder and fell to the ankles. This cloth was called a tallit, and served as protection from the cold or rain. Hanging from the end of each of its four corners was a tzitzit in obedience to the Biblical command. Through the years, be-cause of persecution of the Jews, they were often forbidden to wear the tzitzit on the outside of their garments, forcing them to wear a small four cornered tzitzit under their shirts. Today, the tallit has become the term used for the prayer shawl.
During the first century, there was a powerful concept concerning Messiah that was associ-ated with the tzitzit. It was believed in conjunction with the Biblical reference of Malachi 4:2 that when the Messiah came He would have "healing in His wings." Remember, in Hebrew the term for hem, fringe, or border is the same as wings. When one pulled the prayer shawl over the head in prayer, it appeared as if he had wings. An ancient Jew under the prayer shawl was described in references such as Psalm 91:1-4 as dwelling in the secret places of the Most High and being under His wings.
When one realizes the significance of this text in the Hebraic concept, it becomes clear why this woman was healed. She was by faith expressing her belief in Yahshua as the Son of Righteousness with healing in His wings, and declaring Yahweh's Word was true.
Now for those of you who have little or no understanding about things that are called Jew-ish, let me explain a few words from the above. The first is Torah. This is the Hebrew word for Law, and means the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Next, the prayer shawl or tallit was always pulled up over the head before prayer. Then, next, is that the Messiah's Name in the Hebrew was Yeshua (editor's note: His Name was (is) actually YAHshua. The Jews changed the first syllable to avoid using the YAH sound, thinking they might blaspheme the Supreme Being by pronouncing His true Name). He was a Hebrew and they would never have named Him with any name except a Jewish name as this was strictly forbidden. The name Jesus is a Greek word and was never used by the Messiah or anyone who knew Him. (Editor's note: A Latinized version of the Greek IESOUS, pronounced YAY-SOOS. This was as close as they could get in the Greek alphabet to transliterating His Name from the He-brew.)
Lastly, you need to know that each Hebrew letter represents a numerical value and this is why the word tzitzit represents that number 600. You need to know this to understand much that is written.
The second concept is found in Matthew 16:19 where Yahshua gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom and says, "what you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." This often misunderstood text has caused much confusion throughout the Christian world, but in Judaism has long been understood as accepted legal designation. By the time of Yahshua, Judaism had accepted these two antonyms to be relig-ious decisions. The term bind meant to forbid, and loose meant to permit. There are numer-ous illustrations of this in rabbinical literature. The first century rabbis were constantly called upon by their community to interpret scriptural commands.
The Bible forbids working on the Sabbath, for example, but does not define what con-stitutes work. As a result, the rabbis were required to rule on which activities were permitted on the Sabbath. They bound or prohibited certain activities, and loosed or allowed others. Peter was given the keys or authority to bind or loose concerning the scriptural solutions of the early church. One classic example of this in action within the early church is seen in Acts 15 during the controversy concerning whether Gentiles should be admitted into the fellowship without first being circumcised. After the apostles and elders convened in Jerusalem, Peter showed an example of loosing when he ruled that since both Jews and Gentiles were saved by faith, that circumcision was only a part of the Jewish Covenant (Acts 15:9). Then James, the pastor of the assembly at Jerusalem, gave an example of binding when he required the believ-ing Gentiles to abstain from the four characteristic practices of the pagans (Acts 15:13, 20).
The third reference is seen in Yahshua's reply to the Jewish crowd concerning John the Baptist in Matthew 11:7, when He asked, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken in the wind?" There was a common parable during first century Judaism known as The Reed and the Oak Tree, and without an understanding of this parable, it is difficult for us to grasp the imagery behind this passage.
According to this parable, there was a giant oak and a reed both planted by the river. When the storm came, the oak with its deep roots was firmly established and would not budge or compromise. The reed on the other hand would bend to the right or left with each wind. The concluding principle of the story is that the oak was rigid and, refusing to compromise, gave its life in the storm. Yahshua pointed to this familiar Jewish story when He said, "did you expect John to be a reed blowing in the wind?" The Jews who heard Him immediately understood what He was saying, and asked no questions.
The parables made up about one-third of Yahshua's teachings, and, according to the Gos-pels, He did not teach without them (Mark 4:34). This was a major form of Jewish teaching known as Aggadah, and literally thousands of these stories have been preserved. Ancient Jews believed that legal references were for details, but Aggadah was for inspiration.
The fourth Jewish concept is seen at the tomb of Yahshua after the resurrection when Pe-ter and John rushed to the empty grave. John 20:5 records that Peter went in immediately, but John stooped down and hesitated as he looked to see if a body was present before entering. John hesitated because he was from a family of priests and according to the Law would not defile himself by entering a room with a dead body. Note on other occasions John was per-mitted to enter the high priest's quarters while Peter was left outside (John 18:15). In Acts 4:6 we are informed that John was a kinsman of the high priest.
A fifth Jewish principle is seen in the illustration of the True Vine in John 15:1. On the four columns at the entrance to the Temple was draped a golden grapevine during the time of Yahshua. There are various references to it in ancient literature, and the Mishnah says often the people would give a freewill offering by purchasing a leaf, a berry, or a cluster and give to the priests who would place them on this vine. Josephus adds that its beauty was such that it was known as a "marvel of size and artistry to all who saw with what costliness of material it had been constructed." Often individuals who gave generously to the Temple had their names inscribed on the golden leaves. This was a wonder that all were familiar with in Jerusalem. When Yahshua depicts Himself as the True Vine, it is to this artificial vine of gold that He is pointing with the inference that if the disciples would invest in Him and His teachings what they had given to this golden symbol, the proceeds would be greater.
The sixth reference is seen in Peter cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest in Mark 14:47. This was not just a servant, but the chief assistant to the high priest known as the Segan ha cohanim (co-ha-neem). Western theologians often wittingly mention that Peter's intention was to take off the servant's head. Actually, Peter did exactly what he intended and according to Judaic laws this was an act that not only shamed the servant, but disqualified him as a man worthy of serving in the Temple.
The basis of this act of cutting the ear was known by all the Jews present and it dated back to Leviticus 21:18-21 where the text declares that no man with any blemish could work among the Temple projects. According to the Septuagint, the man with such a blemish could not come near the offering. There were several historical precedents to this act that Peter was duplicating. In 40 BCE, Antigonus, the Persian candidate for high priest purposely had the ear of his uncle Hyrcanus II cut off to shame and disqualify him from the office. During Herod the Great's reign, this occurred more than once and Josephus mentions it in his history of the first century. The Mishnah gives details of the practice, saying it was actually the ear lobe that was cut off.
The seventh concept involves the famous text where Yahshua declares, "if your right eye offends you, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is more profitable for you that one of your members shall perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:29-30). This verse, which seems impossible to understand when taken from its Jewish con-text, is a clear example of one of the most common Jewish teaching methods of Yahshua's day known as Kal va homer. This term means light and heavy and is used by Yahshua repeat-edly displaying the two stages of a sin as the lighter compared to the weightier (Matt. 23:23). The basis of this method of teaching illustrates that if one will nip the sin in the bud, as Yahshua says, "pluck it out or cut it off" while it is still in the light stage, you will prevent it from destroying you. The same wording is often seen in ancient Judaism where such phrases as "the hand that promotes self-abuse among men, let it be cut off" simply refers to stopping the act at an early or light stage, not the actual cutting off of a hand.
The eighth reference is taken from Matthew 8:21-22, where the disciple asked Yahshua to let him first go bury his father before continuing the ministry. The apparent piercing re-buke of Yahshua was not aimed at this disciple's care for his father, but toward a Jewish tradi-tion concerning burial that violated the Scripture.
The Jewish practice of burial required the body to be placed in the ground the day of the death (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31; Acts 5:6-10). The family was required to go through a mourning period of seven days known as shivah and were not even permitted to leave the house.
After the body was placed in the burial chamber, it was left to decompose. The Jerusalem Talmud says, "when the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in small chests called ossuaries. After the flesh had gone from the bones, and the bones were placed in the ossuaries, the son stopped mourning." This ossuary was known as a secondary burial that was done by the oldest son taking the bones of the father or family member to the holy city of Jerusalem or a family burial cave and placing them with the bones of their ancestors. The idea had become popular during the first century, but had an unscriptural concept behind it which Yahshua obviously did not approve.
There was a tradition that had developed over the years which held that the decomposition of the flesh between the first and second burial atoned for the sins of the dead person. At this secondary burial, the son could rejoice as the bones of his father were laid with his ancestors because only after the sinful flesh was off the bones were the sins atoned for.
Yahshua was not hindering the son in his fulfillment of the 5th Commandment of caring for and honoring his father, but was opposed to this secondary burial which promoted the un-scriptural idea that something other than the Messiah could deliver one from sin. In all prob-ability, the first burial of this disciple's father had taken place during the previous year. Oth-erwise, he would have been in mourning and not with Yahshua. And Yahshua would have permitted the burial in obedience to the command of honoring one's parents.
Many scholars believe this disciple was approaching Yahshua before the Feast of Taberna-cles, when they had purposed to be in Jerusalem, to let him use this occasion to take the ossu-ary of his father to the holy city.
The ninth example is seen in Matthew 6:1-4, where Yahshua warns the Pharisees about sounding the trumpet when giving their alms. The word alms was a synonym for charity to the poor during the first century. Since the Master had previously declared there would be a reward for charity and that He would bless all who participated, Yahshua was obviously not against the principle of giving (Deut. 14:28; 15:10). Ancient Jews were taught that the three virtues of prayer, charity, and repentance were the evidences of a true heart who had turned from sin.
In the women's court of the Temple during the first century, there were 13 trumpet-shaped collection boxes for alms that made a specific sound as the coins entered. These containers were wide at the bottom and narrow at the top and resembled a trumpet. Often the Pharisees who wished to boast would drop a large number of coins in at once, which was called "sound-ing the trumpet." It was this practice of letting every one know how much they were giving that Yahshua was opposing.
The tenth and final reference is the phrase good eye and bad eye used by Yahshua in Matt. 6:22-23. This was a popular term in ancient Judaism, but is often mistaken by modern readers. In first century Judaism, the term good or single eye (aiyin tovah) meant the individ-ual was generous. The bad or evil eye (aiyin ra'ah) meant the person was stingy. Jewish rabbis say, "if a person gives a gift, let him give it with a good eye." The rabbis during the first century in the School of Hillel said an individual who gave one-fortieth of his income had a good eye, but a person who only gave one-sixtieth of his income had a bad eye.
Of course, there are many, many more examples that could be pointed out with reference to knowing Jewish concepts and the relationships between them and what the Messiah said and did. These examples are given to show these relationships, and thus the importance of studying and understanding the Jewish roots.
Much of Judaistic writings do not relate to our subject, but on the other hand, much does. To know what was said and why it was said, leads to better understanding of His teachings, many of which cannot be understood without this knowledge. Yahshua was a Jew, a practic-ing Jew, and He walked the walk and talked the talk. He was talking to other Jews who un-derstood these Jewish concepts, not to English speaking people who do not understand Jewish idioms and manner of expression. To say we have the New Testament and need nothing else is to prevent us from having a better, more complete understanding of His precious Word.
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