Jewish Perspectives

The Jewish People and Tanakh

The word Tanakh serves as an acronym for the Old Testament scriptures in their threefold division: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. In Hebrew that would be the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. When speaking to Jewish people the Tanakh is a far better expression to use than the term Old Testament because the implication they take from it very often is that it is old in the sense that it should be discarded. In the New Testament this threefold division was accepted acknowledged by the Saviour when he spoke in Luke 24 of "all things … which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms". However, as we shall see, the word Torah - the first section in that threefold division - can be interpreted in a far broader sense.

The Oral Law

One other factor to which we shall have cause to refer is that, traditionally, Jewish teachers have contended that God has spoken to them in two ways. First of all through that which Moses and the prophets were instructed to commit to writing and, secondly, through a law which was delivered to Moses but kept by oral tradition until it was finally committed to writing in the Talmud after the destruction of the temple.

"Moses received the Torah on Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Synagogue." (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1)

They contend that a law was given to Moses which was never written down but was passed by word of mouth from teacher to disciple. In New Testament times this "oral law" was referred to as "the tradition of the elders" and by the year 200 AD one rabbi, Judah the Prince, had gathered this body of tradition together and committed it to writing. After that the rabbis in the schools considered every phrase, every line and every word of these teachings and added their comments. Those writings to which the rabbis added their comments we call Mishnah, which simply means "repetition", a reference to the way it was passed down by means of repetitive teaching. The second part, which consists of rabbinic comments, we call Gemara. Together Mishnah and Gemara comprise the Talmud, which consists of some 63 tractates in seven volumes. This insistence upon a second God-given law must of necessity influence the Jewish people in their attitude to the written word of God and I believe that it constitutes the principle cause of their stumbling that continues to the present day.

Bible and Synagogue

The traditional orthodox Jewish attitude toward the Word of God, expressed in "the prayer of elevation", is made even more clear in the Thirteen Principles of Faith, formulated by the influential Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. In the eighth principle he states, "I believe with perfect faith that the whole law now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be unto him."

Anyone who has the opportunity to attend a synagogue service on a Saturday morning must be impressed by the centrality of God’s Word and the way in which it is reverenced in the worship. At the front of the synagogue is the Ark, an ornate cupboard-like structure, which is the focal point of the synagogue. At the beginning of the service the people stand and sing praise to God for this great gift of the Torah as, with great reverence, the sacred scrolls are removed from the Ark and carried around the synagogue on the shoulders of the rabbi and his helpers. Some of the men will reach out to touch the scroll as it passes them, kissing the fringe as a demonstration of their reverence for the Word of God. Finally, the scroll is brought to the reading desk, the covers are ceremonially removed and the scroll is lifted high in one final expression of praise to God. As the scrolls are lifted the prayer of elevation is recited: "And this is the Law which Moses set before the children of Israel according to the commandments of the Lord by the hand of Moses . . ." confessing the traditional view that this scroll is the very Word of God. And so begins the reading of the Law.

The Weekly Readings

In the reading of the Law, to prevent the hand coming into contact with the sacred page a yad, a pointer, is used to trace the words. The five books of Moses, which they divide into 53 weekly portions, or sidrot, will be read in every synagogue throughout the world every Sabbath. Of these 53 sections, twelve are from the book of Genesis, eleven from Exodus, ten from Leviticus, ten from Numbers and ten from Deuteronomy. Each sidra is divided into seven portions related to the number of men who are called up to read the Law in the synagogue.

In addition is the reading of the Prophets. These weekly readings don’t run consecutively, so from week to week one may find oneself jumping from Ezekiel to Kings and then to Isaiah. The theory behind this practice is that when the Jews were in captivity and were forbidden to read the set portions from the Law they very cleverly chose portions from the Prophets that would be very similar in content. After the captivity, having made that very careful selection, the habit was formed and the practice has continued. In the calendar of readings it is interesting to note that following the reading of Isaiah 51:12 to 52:12 the set reading for the following week is Isaiah 54:1. The idea has arisen that the Jews have deliberately avoided Isaiah 53 but, remembering that the content of these passages is linked with the section of the Law I think we would be unwise to try to make a too much of a point of this. There are many parts of the prophets that are not read.

That Moses and the prophets are still read in the synagogue is very significant. I always think of Paul’s words in this connection remember he said, "What advantage then has the Jew? ... Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God" (Romans 3:1,2). The greatest gift the Jew has are these God-breathed words and one cannot but be impressed by that thought that their greatest gift is still central to their whole worship. Dr John "Rabbi" Duncan expressed it very beautifully when he wrote:

"All these means fitted to their beliefs believing upon Christ have been in the providence of God over these two thousand years kept up among them and all you have to do is remove the veil and the synagogue becomes the church."

The Scrolls

In looking at the scrolls themselves, the first thing we notice is that they are written in Hebrew without vowels and one’s Hebrew has to be very good in order to read them. The absence of vowels in the text is, I suspect, to safeguard the purity of this gift of God because in its original form Hebrew was a language spoken without vowels. This reminds us of the providential overruling of God in retaining the purity of Scripture. From the completion of the canon at the time of Ezra to the final work of the Massorettes in about 600 AD, when they added a system of vowels to the Hebrew text, very exacting rules governed the copying of the Scriptures. The care the scribes took to preserve the purity of Scripture is amazing. They noted, for instance, the number of verses in Scripture and the number of letters; they noted how often each word was used and how often each letter was used. They established the number of verses in the Torah as 23,206 and could point you to the middle letter of the law which is in Leviticus 11:42. The middle word of the law is in Leviticus 10:16 and the middle verse is 13:33. When a book was copied the number of letters in the exemplar and the copy was counted and if there was a discrepancy the copy was refused. All this care was a means, in the providence of God, for keeping the Word pure during its transmission down through the centuries.

In spite of the care and reverence shown for the Word of God some disturbing features begin to emerge. Though there is a three fold division in Scripture which was recognised by the Saviour and acknowledged by the New Testament writers, by the time the Talmud was written around 200 AD the rabbis were contending that there were differing degrees of revelation in the various parts of Scripture. That which was given by direct revelation to Moses, the Torah, was considered the most excellent; that which was given by the Spirit of prophecy was considered to be a lesser degree of revelation and that which was given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit was put in the lowest place. By the Middle Ages the great Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides taught there were eleven degrees of inspiration. Today, Jewish practice forbids the placing of any other book from the Bible on the top of the Law and also forbids the placing of any of the Writings on top of the Prophetic books.


In the synagogue one sees the men wearing the kippah or yarmulke, because it is a strict law that Jewish men must cover their heads in worship. But where does one find in the Bible the precept that a Jewish man should wear a yarmulke? The very existence of such a strict ordinance is an indication that another law is in existence. I once asked a rabbi why Jewish men wear the yarmulke. He replied, rather facetiously I think, that they wear it because Christians don’t. However, I would not be surprised if, in the juxtaposition between Christianity and Judaism, over the centuries some traditions in Judaism have developed out of the natural defensive position against Christianity.

In the synagogue Orthodox Jewish men wear the tallit, the fringed prayer shawl. That custom, some will say, has a biblical foundation: "You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself. (Deuteronomy 22:12). But the fringe on the modern prayer shawl is always made in a special way.

In modern times, each fringe, or zitzit consists of one long and three short white threads which are passed through the holes in the four corners of the garment and folded so as to make eight threads. They are then fastened with a double knot. The long thread, called the shamash, or servant, is wound around the other threads seven, eight, eleven, and thirteen times - a total of 39 times, equal to the number of books in the Tanakh - and the four joints are separated by a double knot. The zitzit thus consists of five double knots, (equal to the number of books in the Torah) and eight threads (a total of 13). The rabbis point out that 13, together with the Hebrew numerical value of zitzit (600), amounts to the number of the commandments of which the zitzit are to remind the wearer. That the fringes have to conform strictly to this pattern and that the threads if broken or defaced must be replaced under rabbinic supervision is very fascinating. But it is not part of biblical law that the fringe has to be constructed that way.

One also sees the extra-biblical law at work in the regulations concerning the wearing of tefillin, or phylacteries. These little boxes containing four passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy are strapped to the head as a "frontlets" between the eyes in obedience to that command in Deuteronomy 11:18. The other, with its long single strap is bound to the left arm near to the heart with seven twists of the strap around the forearm, three times around the hand to form on the back of the hand the first Hebrew letter of God’s name, and three times round the middle finger to signify the marriage covenant to God. That, again, is strict law for the Jew but it is Talmudic law and not Mosaic law.

We have already referred to the Oral Law that the rabbis teach was delivered to Moses but let us quote from the Mishnah itself:

Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] Law. If a man said, ‘There is no obligation to wear phylacteries’ so that he transgresses the words of the Law, he is not culpable; [but if he said], ‘There should be in them five partitions’, so that he adds to the words of the Scribe, he is culpable. (Sanhedrin 11:3)

By What Authority?

The rabbinic scholar Herbert Danby, responsible for the standard English translation of the Mishnah, sums up the Jewish attitude very precisely when he writes that there is in Jewish thought an "assertion . . . that side by side with a written code there exists a living tradition with power to interpret the written code, to add to it, and even at times to modify it or ignore it as might be needful in a changed circumstance, and to do this authoritatively. Inevitably the inference follows that the living tradition (the Oral Law) is more important than the Written Law, since the ‘tradition of the elders’, besides claiming an authority and continuity equal to that of the Written Law claims also to be its authentic and living interpretation and its essential compliment." (Introduction to The Mishnah, page xvii).

Rabbi Ibn Ezra makes the statement in his preface to the Law, "And this is a sign to us that the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart." Rabbi Bethai states that "the Oral Law is the foundation of the Written Law; nor can the Written Law be expounded but by the Oral Law."

This second law, therefore, is seen as absolutely essential to the Jew and without it he cannot properly interpret the Scriptures. Therefore rabbinic students are advised to prefer the study of Talmud before the study of Scripture.

This emphasis on the Talmud rather than the Bible was brought rather forcefully to my attention when I attended a memorial service for the son of a Jewish friend at which two rabbis were officiating. Both made lengthy speeches that were typically talmudic in that they referred throughout to the utterances of various rabbis: "Rabbi Isaac said such-and-such; Rabbi Yohanan said so-and-so and Rabbi Judah and said something else on this same subject and we derive such from this . . ." And so their speeches proceeded, very cleverly winding diverse strands of rabbinic wisdom concerning truth that could be applied to the man they were remembering. The remarkable feature of the service, however, was that throughout the length of the two discourses there was not one quotation from the Word of God.

Fencing the Law

But how do the rabbis defend this attitude to the Word of God? I once questioned a prominent rabbi about the rabbinic prohibition of eating meat and milk at the same meal. The prohibition actually goes beyond the eating of meat and milk; one can’t, for example, put milk in one’s tea for at least four hours after eating meat. In Orthodox Jewish homes there are two sets of crockery: one for meat, the other for dairy products, and in really Orthodox homes the kitchens have two sinks and two tea towels - one for meat utensils and the other for milk utensils. On what authority, I asked the rabbi, do the Jewish people base these regulations?

He told me that they derive these laws form the verse, "You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk" (Exodus 23:19). And that to this day Arabs still have a dish called "kid in its mother’s milk". But how is it, I asked, that the fathers added further prohibitions to the command of God. "We add laws to God’s Law to strengthen God’s Law", he said. "God gives one Law and we add many more laws to fence God’s Law. Our people may break the man-made laws but they’ll not reach God’s Law."

Secondly, we may question the basis that the rabbis claim for accepting that the Oral Law was given to Moses on the mount. The same rabbi defended his position regarding the rabbinic additions to the Law from Exodus 24:12: "Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them’."

Notice that the Lord gives Moses "the Law" and "commandments", Torah and Mishnah. Those, the rabbi argued, are the Written Law and the Oral Law. However, in verse 4 of the same chapter it says that "Moses wrote all the words of the LORD". There is therefore no Scriptural basis of accepting that there was ever a second law, an Oral Torah.

Adding to God’s Words

Again, we may question the rabbis’ authority to add to God’s Law. The same rabbi defended his position from Deuteronomy 17:8,9: "If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge . . . then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgement. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the LORD chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you."

"That’s us", said the rabbi. "The rabbis occupy the place of the priests and Levites and have the authority to add to God’s laws."

But what about Deuteronomy 12:32: "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it."? How do the rabbis deal with that command? Their greatest rabbi, Moses Maimonides comments: "‘They shall not add’, He says, for, speaking of the moral law and the laws that are given there, he says, ‘For they say not that the Holy blessed God has commanded these things, for instance, that the book of Esther should be read with fasting - for if they should say so they should add to the Law - but that such and such a prophet or the Great Council commanded and appointed that the book of Esther be read with fasting’."

So it would seem that the rabbis can add what they want as long as they do not prefix the name of God to it. So we must bring them back to the Torah, in the strict sense of the written Word of God.

Wider still and wider. . .

One of our leading rabbis of the present day, Dr. Louis Jacobs, defines Torah as coming from a root word meaning ‘to teach and is used in three distinct but complimentary senses. It is used, first of all, of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. But, says Rabbi Jacobs, when the rabbis spoke of Torah in reference to the five books of Moses they meant not only the written text but also its official interpretation the Oral Law. He goes on to explain that the rules governing ritual slaughter of animals, for instance, though not mentioned explicitly in the Written Law are considered to belong to the Torah and have the status of Pentateuchal law because they were delivered orally to Moses. Similarly, those teachings derived by the process known as Midrash (a word meaning to search out or to enquire), a commentary in which the Torah text is closely examined so as to draw out its full implications, have the full status of Torah Law. Rabbi Jacobs goes further, and states "Torah" is used at times for the teaching found in the Prophets and the Writings though, he says, the inference is that these laws were not accorded the full status of Torah Law due to the fact that, as we have seen, the Prophets and the Writings are not given the status of full Torah law.

Once, while speaking to a Jew, I thought I had brought to his attention a particularly pertinent passage from the prophet Isaiah and I thought he would have no answer to the point I was making. He was obviously moved by the verse but after a pause he said to me, "That’s only commentary, that’s not the Law". The Scripture was not from Moses and therefore occupied only a secondary place.

Thirdly, Rabbi Jacobs points out that "Torah" can be used to embrace the sum total of Jewish religious teaching. In other words, everything that the diligent student adds to the understanding, elucidation, elaboration and application of Jewish religious truth is included in the term. In this sense "the Torah", says Louis Jacobs, extends beyond the limits of Scripture and thus "the Torah" is conceived of as a great dynamic idea stimulating Jewish minds to search for moral truth.

We can begin to see how Orthodox Judaism has destroyed the authority of the Word of God. Well did the Saviour in his day, "You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. It is not to "Torah" that we would turn the Jew, for that term can embrace so much, but rather it is to Tanakh for that confines us to those 39 books in their threefold division which are divinely inspired.

But not all Jews hold this Orthodox position. In present day Judaism we encounter three basic attitudes to the Bible. That which we have already considered but then there are Jews who totally accept the "higher critical" theories concerning the origins of Scripture which rejects much of the Written Law as well as the Oral Law. This is the position of the Reform movement. They do not accept the Bible the Old Testament as the Word of God Their attitude to the Tanakh would be much the same as the modernist scholar and they therefore no longer continue the traditional practices derived from the Oral Law.

To Err is Human…

A third segment of religious Jews seeks a synthesis between the higher critical theories and traditional Judaism. They contend that reverence for and obedience of Jewish observances are not affected by adopting the higher critical views regarding Scripture. Rabbi Louis Jacobs is one of the leading advocates of this position and has led a movement which has actually caused a split in Orthodox Jewry. I suspect that a large body of Orthodox Jewry holds something like that position though not officially. What is instructive, however, is the place that Jews such as Louis Jacobs give to the Oral Law. Obviously, one of the basic factors underlying the critical position is the necessity of biblical fallibility because of human instrumentality. How can the Bible be the Word of God and at the same time be the words of man?

Rabbi Jacobs says the divine will be perceived often by the heart: if one reads the statement "Love thy neighbour as thyself" one’s heart responds to it. The heart instinctively recognises such a statement to be divine truth but, also, the divine is also perceived through generations of Jewish tradition contained in the Oral Law. In support of this contention he quotes a Hasidic sage: "The Written Torah contains the divine eternal light". He is not saying that the Written Law is the divine light but that it "contains the divine eternal light" which, he says, cannot be endured by itself. The Oral Torah is the human restriction of that light so that it can be endured and allowed to illumine life. The word of God, Rabbi Jacobs believes, must be constantly applied to life, its potentialities realised and its rigours softened so that men may live by it. One needs the Oral Law, he insists, for the interpretation of the Word of God and its application to one’s experience and life. He goes so far as to attack Christianity for being too literal in its interpretation of Scripture, which resulted in centuries past in the burning of witches. Lack of an oral law, he charges, has been the downfall of Christianity.

It is against this background that the missionary to the Jew seeks to proclaim the Word of God to the Jewish people and to establish the supreme authority and the sole authority of the "God-breathed" Scriptures and to set before them the only rule and guide we have as to what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.

© Christian Witness to Israel      +44 (0) 1865 887830   •   charity registered nos: 271323/SCO41720  •   privacy policy