The Eighteen Measures, Part 5: “Woe to You, Pharisees!”

Western wall in Jerusalem at night
Image via Wikipedia

Many of Yeshua’s attacks on the Pharisees who had fallen into hypocrisy seem to have been focused on the provisions in the Eighteen Measures and the environment of violence that their institution fomented:

  • The murder of the disciples of Hillel – “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city . . .” (Mat. 23:34).
  • An over-emphasis on ritual purity – “Woe to you, hypocrite scribes and Pharisees! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Mat. 23:25f).
  • Creation of a halakha too great to bear; so great, in fact, that it was repealed two generations later – “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Mat. 23:4).
  • Persecution of those who reached out to the Gentiles – “But woe to you, hypocrite scribes and Pharisees, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Mat. 23:13).

We have already seen that the House of Shammai was so much in control of the Pharisee sect that his students felt free reign to accost Shammai’s ostensible partner in leading the group.  In fact, it was so strong in the days of the Apostles that they simply identify the practices and sins of Beit Shammai as the practices of the Pharisees as a group!  Centuries later, as the Ekklesia separated itself from the synagogue and even from it’s own Jewish members, the division in the party of the Pharisees was forgotten, and the word Pharisee came to have its present, wholly vindictive connotation.  In the process, the Church overlooked the strange love/hate relationship between Yeshua and the Pharisees, ascribing every good deed by every member of that group (except Paul, of course) to hypocrisy.

The Rabbis of the Mishnah, from Wikipedia

What the Church never after registered is that the Measures that created “a yoke neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10) were largely repealed by the end of the Second Century (though practices derived from them do continue even today).  Indeed, Judaism ultimately honored R. Hillel above R. Shammai, even passing down a tradition in which a Bat Qol, an echo of the Holy One’s voice, declared from Heaven, “These [words of Hillel] and those [words of Shammai] are both the words of the living God, but the decided law is in accord with the House of Hillel” (b.Erubin 13b).  In fact, while we know of numerous rabbis that came from the school of Hillel, the Talmud does not record a single rabbi to come out of the school of Shammai.


In short, Judaism came to agree on its own with Yeshua on most of the matters in which He debated the rabbis of the time of His ministry.  The shallow, hypocritical caricature of the Pharisee that is still taught in most churches today is at least eighteen centuries out of date, as an increasing number of scholars on both sides are beginning to recognize.

Nevertheless, the sin of the Measures and the illegal and murderous way in which they were passed did have terrible consequences for our people in the 1st Century, as the Talmud itself attests and as we will see in the conclusion of this series.


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