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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Alfred Edersheim :: Sketches of Jewish Social Life

Alfred Edersheim :: Chapter 13. Among the People, and with the Pharisees

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It would have been difficult to proceed far either in Galilee or in Judaea without coming into contact with an altogether peculiar and striking individuality, differing from all around, and which would at once arrest attention. This was the Pharisee. Courted or feared, shunned or flattered, reverently looked up to or laughed at, he was equally a power everywhere, both ecclesiastically and politically, as belonging to the most influential, the most zealous, and the most closely-connected religions fraternity, which in the pursuit of its objects spared neither time nor trouble, feared no danger, and shrunk from no consequences. Familiar as the name sounds to readers of the New Testament and students of Jewish history, there is no subject on which more crude or inaccurate notions prevail than that of Pharisaism, nor yet any which, rightly understood, gives fuller insight into the state of Judaism at the time of our Lord, or better illustrates His words and His deeds. Let us first view the Pharisee as, himself seemingly unmoved, he moves about among the crowd, which either respectfully gives way or curiously looks after him.

There was probably no town or village inhabited by Jews which had not its Pharisees, although they would, of course, gather in preference about Jerusalem with its Temple, and what, perhaps would have been even dearer to the heart of a genuine Pharisee-its four hundred and eighty synagogues, its Sanhedrims (great and small), and its schools of study. There could be no difficulty in recognising such an one. Walking behind him, the chances were, he would soon halt to say his prescribed prayers. If the fixed time for them had come, he would stop short in the middle of the road, perhaps say one section of them, move on, again say another part, and so on, till, whatever else might be doubted, there could be no question of the conspicuousness of his devotions in market-place or corners of streets. There he would stand, as taught by the traditional law, would draw his feet well together, compose his body and clothes, and bend so low "that every vertebra in his back would stand out separate," or, at least, till "the skin over his heart would fall into folds" (Ber. 28 b). The workman would drop his tools, the burden-bearer his load; if a man had already one foot in the stirrup, he would withdraw it. The hour had come, and nothing could be suffered to interrupt or disturb him. The very salutation of a king, it was said, must remain unreturned; nay, the twisting of a serpent around one's heel must remain unheeded. Nor was it merely the prescribed daily seasons of prayer which so claimed his devotions. On entering a village, and again on leaving it, he must say one or two benedictions; the same in passing through a fortress, in encountering any danger, in meeting with anything new, strange, beautiful, or unexpected. And the longer he prayed the better. In the view of the Rabbis this had a twofold advantage; for "much prayer is sure to be heard," and "prolix prayer prolongeth life." At the same time, as each prayer expressed, and closed with a benediction of the Divine Name, there would be special religious merit attaching to mere number, and a hundred "benedictions" said in one day was a kind of measure of great piety.

But on meeting a Pharisee face to face his identity could still less be doubted. His self-satisfied, or else mock-modest or ostentatiously meek bearing would betray him, even irrespective of his superciliousness towards others, his avoidance of every touch of persons or things which he held unclean, and his extravagant religious displays. We are, of course, speaking of the class, or, rather, the party, as such, and of its tendencies, and not of all the individuals who composed it. Besides, there were, as we shall by-and-by see, various degrees among them, from the humblest Pharisee, who was simply a member of the fraternity, only initiated in its lowest degree, or perhaps even a novice, to the most advanced chasid, or "pietist." The latter would, for example, bring every day a trespass-offering, in case he had committed some offence of which he was doubtful. How far the punctiliousness of that class, in observing the laws of Levitical purity, would go, may be gathered from a Rabbi, who would not allow his son to remain in the room while he was in the hands of the surgeon, lest he might be defiled by contact with the amputated limb, which, of course, was thenceforth dead. Another chasid went so far in his zeal for Sabbath observance, that he would not build up again his house because he had thought about it on the Sabbath; and it was even declared by some improper to intrust a letter to a Gentile, lest he should deliver it on the holy day! These are real, but by no means extreme cases. For, a Rabbi, contemporary with the apostles, was actually obliged to denounce, as incompatible with the continuance of society, the vagaries of the so-called "Chasid Shoteh," or silly pietist. What was meant by these will appear from such instances as the refusal to save a woman from drowning for fear of touching a female, or waiting to put off the phylacteries before stretching out a hand to rescue a child from the water!

Readers of the New Testament will remember that the very dress of the Pharisees differed from that of others. Simple as the garb of Orientals is, it must not be thought that, in those days, wealth, rank, and luxury were not recognisable quite as much, if not more, than among ourselves. No doubt the polished Grecian, the courtly Herodian, the wealthy Sadducee, as well as many of the lady patronesses of the Pharisees (Josephus, Ant. xvii, 32-45), would have been easily recognised. At any rate, Jewish writings give us such descriptions of their toilette, that we can almost transport ourselves among the fashionable society of Tiberias, Caesarea, Jerusalem, or that of "the dispersed," who were residents of Alexandria or of the wealthy towns of Babylonia.

Altogether, it seems, eighteen garments were supposed to complete an elegant toilette. The material, the colour, and the cut distinguished the wearer. While the poor used the upper garment for a covering at night, the fashionable wore the finest white, embroidered, or even purple garments, with curiously-wrought silk girdles. It was around this upper garment that "the borders" were worn which the Pharisees "enlarged" (Matt 23:5). Of these we shall speak presently. Meantime we continue our description. The inner garment went down to the heels. The head-dress consisted of a pointed cap, or kind of turban, of more or less exquisite material, and curiously wound, the ends often hanging gracefully behind. Gloves were generally used only for protection. As for ladies, besides differences in dress, the early charge of Isaiah (3:16-24) against the daughters of Jerusalem might have been repeated with tenfold emphasis in New Testament times. We read of three kinds of veils. The Arabian hung down from the head, leaving the wearer free to see all around; the veil-dress was a kind of mantilla, thrown gracefully about the whole person, and covering the head; while the Egyptian resembled the veil of modern Orientals, covering breast, neck, chin, and face, and leaving only the eyes free. The girdle, which was fastened lower than by men, was often of very costly fabric, and studded with precious stones. Sandals consisted merely of soles strapped to the feet; but ladies wore also costly slippers, sometimes embroidered, or adorned with gems, and so arranged that the pressure of the foot emitted a delicate perfume. It is well known that scents and "ointments" were greatly in vogue, and often most expensive (Matt 26:7). The latter were prepared of oil and of home or foreign perfumes, the dearest being kept in costly alabaster boxes. The trade of perfumer was, however, looked down upon, not only among the Jews, but even among heathen nations. But in general society anointing was combined with washing, as tending to comfort and refreshment. The hair, the beard, the forehead, and the face, even garlands worn at feasts, were anointed. But luxury went much farther than all this. Some ladies used cosmetics, painting their cheeks and blackening their eyebrows with a mixture of antimony, zinc, and oil. The hair, which was considered a chief point of beauty, was the object of special care. Young people wore it long; but in men this would have been regarded as a token of effeminacy (1 Cor 11:14). The beard was carefully trimmed, anointed, and perfumed. Slaves were not allowed to wear beards. Peasant girls tied their hair in a simple knot; but the fashionable Jewesses curled and plaited theirs, adorning the tresses with gold ornaments and pearls. The favourite colour was a kind of auburn, to produce which the hair was either dyed or sprinkled with gold-dust. We read even of false hair (Shab. vi. 3), just as false teeth also were worn in Judaea. Indeed, as in this respect also there is nothing new under the sun, we are not astonished to find mention of hair-pins and elegant combs, nor to read that some Jewish dandies had their hair regularly dressed! However, the business of hairdresser was not regarded as very respectable, any more than that of perfumer.[51]

As for ornaments, gentlemen generally wore a seal, either on the ring-finger or suspended round the neck. Some of them had also bracelets above the wrist (commonly of the right arm), made of ivory, gold, or precious stones strung together. Of course, the fashionable lady was similarly adorned, adding to the bracelets finger-rings, ankle-rings, nose-rings, ear-rings, gorgeous head-dresses, necklaces, chains, and what are nowadays called "charms." As it may interest some, we shall add a few sentences of description. The ear-ring was either plain, or had a drop, a pendant, or a little bell inserted. The nose-ring, which the traditional law ordered to be put aside on the Sabbath, hung gracefully over the upper lip, yet so as not to interfere with the salute of the privileged friend. Two kinds of necklaces were worn-one close-fitting, the other often consisting of precious stones or pearls, and hanging down over the chest, often as low as the girdle. The fashionable lady would wear two or three such chains, to which smelling-bottles and various ornaments, even heathen "charms," were attached. Gold pendants descended from the head-ornament, which sometimes rose like a tower, or was wreathed in graceful snake-like coils. The anklets were generally so wrought as in walking to make a sound like little bells. Sometimes the two ankle-rings were fastened together, which would oblige the fair wearer to walk with small, mincing steps. If to all this we add gold and diamond pins, and say that our very brief description is strictly based upon contemporary notices, the reader will have some idea of the appearance of fashionable society.

The sketch just given will be of some practical use if it helps us more fully to realise the contrast presented by the appearance of the Pharisee. Whether sternly severe, blandly meek, or zealously earnest, he would carefully avoid all contact with one who was not of the fraternity, or even occupied an inferior degree in it, as we shall by-and-by show. He would also be recognisable by his very garb. For, in the language of our Lord, the Pharisees made "broad their phylacteries," and "enlarged the borders of their garments." The latter observance, at least so far as concerned the wearing of memorial fringes on the borders of the garments-not the conspicuous enlargement of these borders-rested really on a Divine ordinance (Num 15:37; Deu 22:12). In Scripture these fringes are prescribed to be of blue, the symbolical colour of the covenant; but the Mishnah allows them also to be white (Men. iv. 1). They are not unfrequently referred to in the New Testament (Matt 9:20, 14:36, 23:5; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44). As already stated, they were worn on the border of the outer garment-no doubt by every pious Israelite. Later Jewish mysticism found in this fringed border deep references to the manner in which the Shechinah enwrapped itself in creation, and called the attention of each Israelite to the fact that, if in Numbers 15:39 we read (in the Hebrew), "Ye shall look upon him" [not "it," as in our Authorised Version] "and remember," this change of gender (for the Hebrew word for "fringes" is feminine) indicated-"that, if thou doest so, it is as much as if thou sawest the throne of the Glory, which is like unto blue." And thus believing, the pious Jew would cover in prayer his head with this mysterious fringed garment; in marked contrast to which St. Paul declares all such superstitious practices as dishonouring (1 Cor 11:4).[52]

If the practice of wearing borders with fringes had Scriptural authority, we are well convinced that no such plea could be urged for the so-called "phylacteries." The observance arose from a literal interpretation of Exodus 13:9, to which even the later injunction in Deuteronomy 6:8 gives no countenance. This appears even from its repetition in Deuteronomy 11:18, where the spiritual meaning and purport of the direction is immediately indicated, and from a comparison with kindred expressions, which evidently could not be taken literally-such as Proverbs 3:3, 6:21, 7:3; Canticles 8:6; Isaiah 49:16. The very term used by the Rabbis for phylacteries-"tephillin," prayer-fillets-is comparatively modern origin, in so far as it does not occur in the Hebrew Old Testament. The Samaritans did not acknowledge them as of Mosaic obligation, any more than do the Karaite Jews, and there is, what seems to us, sufficient evidence, even from Rabbinical writings, that in the time of Christ phylacteries were not universally worn, nor yet by the priests while officiating in the Temple. Although the words of our Lord seem only expressly to condemn the making broad of the phylacteries, for purposes of religious ostentation, it is difficult to believe that He Himself had worn them. At any rate, while any ordinary Israelite would only put them on at prayer or on solemn occasions, the members of the Pharisaic confraternity wore them all day long. The practice itself, and the views and ordinances connected with it, are so characteristic of the party, that we shall add a few further particulars.

The "tephillin" were worn on the left arm, towards the heart, and on the forehead. They consisted-to describe them roughly-of capsules, containing, on parchment (that for the forehead on four distinct parchments), these four passages of Scripture: Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. The capsules were fastened on by black leather straps, which were wound round the arm and hand (seven times round the former, and three times round the latter), or else fitted to the forehead in a prescribed and mystically significant manner. The wearer of them could not be mistaken. But as for their value and importance in the eyes of the Rabbis, it were impossible to exaggerate it. They were reverenced as highly as the Scriptures, and, like them, might be rescued from the flames on a Sabbath, although not worn, as constituting "a burden!" It was said that Moses had received the law of their observance from God on Mount Sinai; that the "tephillin" were more sacred than the golden plate on the forehead of the high-priest, since its inscription embodied only once the sacred name of Jehovah, while the writing inside the "tephillin" contained it not less than twenty-three times; that the command of wearing them equalled all other commands put together, with many other similar extravagances. How far the profanity of the Rabbis in this respect would go, appears from the circumstance, that they supposed God Himself as wearing phylacteries (Ber. 6 a). The fact is deduced from Isaiah 62:8, where the "right hand" by which Jehovah swears is supposed to refer to the law, according to the last clause of Deuteronomy 33:2; while the expression "strength of His arm" was applied to the "tephillin," since the term "strength" appeared in Psalm 29:11 in connection with God's people, and was in turn explained by a reference to Deuteronomy 28:10. For "the strength" of God's People (Psa 29:11) is that which would cause all to "be afraid" of Israel (Deu 28:10); and this latter would be due to their seeing that Israel was "called by the name of Jehovah," this ocular demonstration being afforded through the "tephillin." Such was the evidence which traditionalism offered for such a monstrous proposition.

The above may serve as a specimen alike of Rabbinical exegesis and theological inferences. It will also help us to understand, how in such a system inconvenient objections, arising from the plain meaning of Scripture, would be summarily set aside by exalting the interpretations of men above the teaching of the Bible. This brings us straight to the charge of our Lord against the Pharisees (Mark 7:13), that they made "the Word of God of none effect" through their "traditions." The fact, terrible as it is, nowhere, perhaps, comes out more strongly than in connection with these very "tephillin." We read in the Mishnah (Sanh. xi. 3), literally, as follows: "It is more punishable to act against the words of the Scribes than against those of Scripture. If a man were to say, 'There is no such thing as "tephillin," ' in order thereby to act contrary to the words of Scripture, he is not to be treated as a rebel. But if he should say, 'There are five divisions in the prayer-fillets' (instead of four in those for the forehead, as the Rabbis taught), in order to add to the words of the Scribes, he is guilty." Assuredly, a more signal instance could scarcely be found of "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," and of, even on their own showing, "laying aside the commandment of God," in order to "hold the tradition of men" (Mark 7:7-8).

Before passing from this subject, it may be convenient to explain the meaning of the Greek term "phylacteries" for these "tephillin," and to illustrate its aptness. It is now almost generally admitted, that the real meaning of phylacteries is equivalent to amulets or charms. And as such the Rabbinists really regarded and treated them, however much they might otherwise have disclaimed all connection with heathen views. In this connection we are not going to enter into the unsavoury subject of their heathen superstitions, such as where to find, how to detect, and by what means to get rid of evil spirits, or how to conjure up demons-as these are indicated in the Talmud. Considering the state of civilisation at the time, and the general prevalence of superstition, we should perhaps have scarcely wondered at all this, had it not been for the claims which the Rabbis set up to Divine authority, and the terrible contrast exhibited between their teaching and that-we will not say of the New, but-of the Old Testament. In reference to the "phylacteries," even the language of Josephus (Ant. iv, 212-213) savours of belief in their magical efficacy; although in this matter also he is true to himself, showing us, at the same time, that certain proverbial views of gratitude were already in vogue in his time. For, writing of the phylacteries, which, he maintains, the Jews wore in remembrance of their past deliverance, he observes, that this expression of their gratitude "served not only by way of return for past, but also by way of invitation of future favours!" Many instances of the magical ideas attaching to these "amulets" might be quoted; but the following will suffice. It is said that, when a certain Rabbi left the audience of some king, he had turned his back upon the monarch. Upon this, the courtiers would have killed the Rabbi, but were deterred by seeing that the straps of his "tephillin" shone like bands of fire about him; thus verifying the promise in Deuteronomy 28:10 (Jer. Ber. v. 1). Indeed, we have it expressly stated in an ancient Jewish Targum (that on Cant 8:3), that the "tephillin" prevented all hostile demons from doing injury to any Israelite.

What has been said will in some measure prepare the reader for investigating the history and influence of the Pharisees at the time of Christ. Let it be borne in mind, that patriotism and religion equally combined to raise them in popular esteem. What made Palestine a land separate and distinct from the heathen nations around, among whom the ruling families would fain have merged them, was that Jewish element which the Pharisees represented. Their very origin as a party stretched back to the great national struggle which had freed the soil of Palestine from Syrian domination. In turn, the Pharisees had deserted those Maccabees whom formerly they had supported, and dared persecution and death, when the descendants of the Maccabees declined into worldly pomp and Grecian ways, and would combine the royal crown of David with the high-priest's mitre. And now, whoever might fear Herod or his family, the Pharisees at least would not compromise their principles. Again, were they not the representatives of the Divine law-not only of that given to Israel on Mount Sinai, but also of those more secret ordinances which were only verbally communicated to Moses, in explanation of, and addition to the law? If they had made "a hedge" around the law, it was only for the safety of Israel, and for their better separation from all that was impure, as well as from the Gentiles. As for themselves, they were bound by vows and obligations of the strictest kind. Their dealings with the world outside their fraternity, their occupations, their practices, their bearing, their very dress and appearance among that motley crowd-either careless, gay, and Grecianising, or self-condemned by a practice in sad discord with their Jewish profession and principles-would gain for them the distinction of uppermost rooms at feasts, and chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi ("my great one, my great one"), in which their hearts so much delighted.

In very truth they mostly did represent, in some one or other degree of their order, what of earnestness and religious zeal there was in the land. Their name-probably in the first instance not chosen by themselves-had become to some a byword, to others a party title. And sadly they had declined from their original tendency-at least in most cases. They were not necessarily "scribes," nor "lawyers," nor yet "teachers of the law." Nor were they a sect, in the ordinary sense of the term. But they were a fraternity, which consisted of various degrees, to which there was a regular novitiate, and which was bound by special vows and obligations. This fraternity was, so to speak, hereditary; so that St. Paul could in very truth speak of himself as "a Pharisee of the Pharisees"-"a Pharisee the son of a Pharisee." That their general principles became dominant, and that they gave its distinctiveness alike to the teaching and the practices of the Synagogue, is sufficiently know. But what tremendous influence they must have wielded to attain this position will best appear from the single fact, which has apparently been too much overlooked, of their almost incredibly small numbers. According to Josephus (Ant. xvii, 32-45), the number of the fraternity amounted at the time of Herod only to about six thousand. Yet this inconsiderable minority could cast Judaism in its mould, and for such terrible evil give its final direction to the nation! Surely the springs of such a movement must have reached down to the very heart of Jewish religious life. What these were, and how they affected the whole community, deserves and requires not merely passing notice, but special and careful attention.


[51]The learned Lightfoot has expressed a doubt whether the name "Magdalene" is to be rendered "from Magdala" or "the hairdresser." We have noted in a previous chapter, that the inhabitants of Magdala engaged in such and similar business. But the Rabbinical passages to which Lightfoot refers are not satisfactory, since they are evidently dictated by a special animus against Christ and Christianity.

[52]The practice of modern Jews is somewhat different from that of ancient times. Without entering into details, it is sufficient here to say that they wear underneath their garments a small square, with fringes, called the little tallith (from "talal," to overshadow or cover), or the "arbah canphoth" (four "corners"); while during prayer they wrap themselves in the great tallith, or so-called prayer-cloak.

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