Is Hand Washing Commanded? Yes… and No. Matthew 15 and Mark 7 In Context.

There is a lot of misinformation circulating about the ritual handwashing debated in the time the Gospels were written, and so let’s make the waters a bit clearer. For now we will just cover the actual hand-washing prayers because sometimes people get upset about them. In the future, we will cover the general first-century belief that not ritually washing the hands would defile food. I have to lay a groundwork in Temple purity before I even go there or it will not be understandable. There is a big difference between holy and common, and clean and unclean. We have to understand them all to understand what was going on here – otherwise we end up thinking that Messiah overturned the Laws of Moses and rebelled against God! There is so much more to these passages than meets the eye.

(EDIT #2 – this is a many part teaching designed for beginners. I have to teach things layer by layer. I am getting a lot of comments about “what I don’t seem to understand” that are going unpublished because a lot of those comments don’t reflect accurate information and sometimes steer people towards teachers who are a big part of the misunderstandings over this issue. In this teaching I ONLY covered the charge that the prayer itself is somehow sinful or adding to the Torah. I still need to talk about clean/unclean, holy/common before even get to first century ideas about ritual purity. I am not willing to publish comments that want to jump the gun without providing foundational background. I realize that this is unusual, but it is how I teach beginners – I am not teaching to impress people or to just spew information for people to accept. A lot of the comments I am getting would take another five blogs to deal with some of the problems. So, realize this is a place for beginners to learn, and I am starting off small and working my way to larger issues – but I am not going to just regurgitate information and expect people to accept it without actually teaching them why certain things are and are not true.)

I am sure you’ve all heard of the Pharisees, right? But what you probably don’t know is their history and how few there actually were in the first century – somewhere between five and six thousand. The Pharisees, or P’rushim (from the Hebrew meaning “to separate”) came to prominence, and often ruin, during the times of the Hasmoneans after the death of the last of the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt, Simon. During the reign of his grandson Aristobulus I (the first Hasmonean to describe himself as an actual king), some very bitter and deadly disputes rose up between the Pharisees, who believed in using the entire Hebrew Scriptures (like all Jews today), and the Sadducees, who believed in only the bare minimum of Torah (the first five books of Moses) – and what they did believe was very much twisted by their belief that there was no resurrection, nor final judgement, and so blessings had to be taken in this life. Note that when the Scriptures say “chief priests” or “High Priest” they are talking about the Sadducees, who were then buying the High Priesthood yearly from Rome. Although the Sadducees made up the chief priests and high priesthood, they were not the rank and file priests – like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. As the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of Moses and had zero fear of judgment, it made them very dangerous and they were actually the party responsible for turning Yeshua/Jesus over to Rome to be executed as a political rebel against the Empire. The Pharisees, on the other hand, actually once warned Him away from a plot by Herod Antipas to kill Him (Luke 13.31).

The Pharisees, like most folks, were a mixed bag who were really hamstrung by living in a hyper-honor/shame culture. They were raised in a society where they had to compete for a perceived limited amount of honor (reputation) on behalf of their families. As Yeshua’s star rose, theirs fell and some responded by attacking Him, while others responded by following Him (Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and later, in the book of Acts, many others as we see in Acts 15). Paul and Gamaliel, who spared the apostles, were both Pharisees (Paul never renounced his Pharisee status as per Acts 23.6).

So besides the resurrection, what else did the Pharisees believe? Well, as with most Jewish groups during this time period, they believed that they were a living Temple. Yes, that isn’t a Christian concept. The Second Temple stood and the Jews believed that they were the living stones that made up a spiritual Temple – they embraced both the physical and spiritual realities. BECAUSE they believed that the people of God were collectively His Temple, they had some interesting views on having a relationship with God outside of the Jerusalem Temple – again, not really different than Christians. Most notably, because they saw themselves as a kingdom of priests (again, not a Christian concept), they believed in bringing some Temple purity standards into the home and most importantly, to the dinner table. The table was seen as the altar of the home, where covenant meals could be shared between themselves and God.

So what does this have to do with the prayers that Jews pray even today?

“Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.” (and there is a similar one spoken at the lighting of the Sabbath candles)

Wait, there is no commandment for that, is there? Yes… and no. The Pharisees, and to a large extent, other Jews of the time, considered themselves part of the living Temple, their table an altar, and each Israelite a priest of God’s Kingdom. Are you beginning to see where I am headed? Although they knew they were not and could not be Temple priests, they saw themselves as mediators and servants of God in the world, which are priestly functions. They began looking at the Temple commands for priests and bringing them into their daily lives. Was there a commandment regarding the washing of the hands and lighting of the lamps in the Temple? Absolutely. What we moderns get hung up on is the word “us” in those prayers. As part of a dyadic social group, they were not individualistic. When the priests in the Temple kept a commandment, they were all keeping it by extension. If a priest broke a commandment, they were all breaking it – the Nation was not so much a collection of individuals, but a single people. This is where the Jews and ancient Christians fundamentally differ from us. A commandment for one was considered to apply to all, even if a particular person could not physically perform it themselves. Did Messiah keep every single law? Only if we consider Him to be as one with the nation. He obviously could not physically keep the laws for women, or kings, or those for priests. But as each member of the nation kept the laws, they were collectively considered to be in good standing with God.

Ex 30 17 The Lord said to Moses, 18 “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19 with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

As the altar was a place of food offering for the Lord, the priests were required to wash hands and feet before even approaching it. So, the Pharisees honored God in their homes by reenacting this – were they wrong to call it a commandment? Nope. However, we see that Yeshua did not do this Himself – but He doesn’t criticise them for doing it either. Instead, He deftly changes the subject to how they ought to be cleansing themselves on the inside, as was commanded at Sinai, in the circumcision of their hearts. Ritual purity was nothing unless it was accompanied by the inner transformation that we should experience as God’s people.

What about the lighting of the Sabbath candles? I won’t do an extensive cut and paste here, but the priests were commanded to care for and light the Menorah in the Temple, as well as the fire on the altar. So was the lighting of the Sabbath flame (in those days an oil lamp) commanded? Yes, in a way. Remember, they are bringing the Temple into the home, as living stones.

Let’s look at the prayer again:

“Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

Nowhere does it say that God commanded us regarding the washing of hands in the home – and so this prayer is not a lie. God really did command us, as His Nation, concerning the washing of hands!

My reason for addressing this is neither to promote nor decry the prayers or the traditions, merely to explain the underlying thought. I honestly don’t approve or disapprove, I am ambivalent.  If you do it, I don’t care. If you refrain – you get the picture, I don’t care. Much gets obscured when folks have a definite stand on the issue – sometimes they feel the need to make intentions sinister or to overly excuse what was going on. I don’t participate in the hand washing or much other halakah, but it is very important to me to address the misinformation and knee-jerk negative reactions regarding this tradition. Sometimes we get pushed into judging something before we really understand why it was done, and when we are judging first-century biblical writings, it is incredibly important that we get things right. Yeshua didn’t do it, but He didn’t condemn anyone for doing it either. There are wars to be fought, and stands to be taken, but only a fool fights every tumbleweed that crosses his path just because it seems a bit foreign and sketchy. Let’s be wise and discerning before we plunge into battle with one another over things that Messiah Himself let go unchallenged.

Now, as for the belief that the actual eating with unwashed hands caused the food to become defiled – that’s another matter entirely. We will cover that in the future.

EDIT: I have been asked about this several times and so I will add a bit more. “We only know that Yeshua’s disciples didn’t wash their hands, not that He didn’t.” So to clarify this, we have to look at the Sage/disciple relationship (it is actually anachronistic to call the religious teachers of the day Rabbis – that will come later). Teachers took mainly young teenage boys as their disciples, and I imagine that all these young men were actually quite young, except for Peter (although I am 48 now so in my estimation, Peter probably counts as “very young” as well). The goal of a disciple was to learn everything their teacher knew, and to emulate him in every day. So really, when he was challenged as to the behavior of the disciples, the charge was more likely, “Why are you corrupting the youth?” – a far worse charge than simply personally transgressing their tradition. That being said, the Galillean Jews were very observant of the Traditions of the Elders, far more so than in Judea – and so I imagine he grew up doing this at home. I believe he stopped as an adult because of the need to address the faulty assumption that clean food could become defiled outside the Temple simply because of having unwashed hands – when we get to the next part, we will address that because Yeshua specifically talks about the inability to defile clean foods with unwashed hands.

 

 

image_pdfimage_print

20 Comments


  1. There’s more context explained here than in all my years of church combined. So appreciated!

    But now you’ve got me thinking…when Yeshua commented about a host not washing his feet, was that also related to temple-in-the-home thinking (because he was there for a meal, right?), or was that simply an ancient near East custom in general?

    Reply

    1. Good question – that was straight up a hospitality issue. If you have ever spent a day in thick dirt and sandals, you know how your feet look and feel at the end of it. First reference we see to the washing of feet is actually with Abraham inviting the three visitors (Gen 18.4,5) to rest in the shade, eat, and wash their feet. It was sometimes combined with oil for the head (washing the hair was rare).

      Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”

      Luke 7.44-46 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.

      Reply

  2. Thank you for this article, and your effort to explain ‘tradition’s’. I also hear a lot of people judging things the Jews do, without ever wondering why they do it. So thanks for this explanation!

    One small thing; almost at the end you say that Yeshua didn’t wash his hands. I’m not so sure about that; in the story in Mark 7 we read that the Pharisees saw that ‘some of His disciples’ didn’t wash hands. It doesn’t say that Yeshua himself didn’t keep that tradition, or did I miss something…?

    Just questioning another presumption 😉

    Reply

    1. Actually it is a good question and one of these days I will write about the ancient Sage/Disciple relationship (it is actually an anachronism to call them rabbis at this point). Disciples trained to be exactly like their rabbis, honoring them in every way by emulating them not only in their teachings but in their actions. The relationship was considered to be far more sacred and closer than the father/son relationship. They would not dare go anywhere without doing exactly what Yeshua did. Another way to translate what his challengers were saying was, “Why are you leading these youths astray!?” It was a far worse charge than simply challenging Yeshua Himself. It labeled him not only as a transgressor, but also a corruptor of the youth 😉

      Reply

    2. I went ahead and edited the end of article, since this is the second question I have gotten on that.

      Reply

      1. I saw tge note. Thanks for the extra information, I didn’t know that!

        Reply

        1. Shalom,

          Thanks for the article :D,

          Just thinking out loud, if all the disciples didn’t wash their hands in following their Teacher’s example, the why would it say “some”.

          It seems to me that would imply that some did wash their hands, and if some did why could’t they be following His example?

          Also, that would put Yeshua in almost the same mindset as you (or actually the other way around) because then He did wash His hands, and most disciples did, but some didn’t AND He was ok with that…

          The difference would be that you don’t do the ritual and He (that time) did.
          We can read in Luk 11:38 that He also refrains from another ritual concerning eating food….

          It seems to me that the point Yeshua wanted to make was: it is halacha NOT Torah, and thus it is ok as long as we keep the difference in mind (and don’t actually violate Torah f.e. Mar 7:9,13)

          Yah bless

          Ps How’s the finger?

          Reply

          1. That is actually an AWESOME question! I didn’t even consider answering it, so thanks for bringing it up. Yes, Mark 7 reads differently so I obviously can’t speak with authority but I can give you my gut feeling. Yeshua’s “disciples” would not be limited to the twelve, those who traveled closely with Him. In fact, we also see reference to seventy-two in Luke 10 and I seriously doubt there were 72 people who were following Him absolutely everywhere. So there were people who followed Him and people who FOLLOWED Him. The core group would behave as He did, but people on the fringes, not so much – which is why He chose twelve core disciples. They would be His serious talmidim, not just people who learned from Him, but people who were intimate with Him – they would do everything He does. However, He may very well have allowed them to chose because, as I said, that was the common practice in Galilee where they were all from.

            And yes, He did follow quite a bit of Halakah – like the Sabbath day journey and blessing the food after eating it, etc. Tradition isn’t all bad and in fact, Dr Hollisa Alewine as a book called Tradition, Truth or Tares? that talks about that. I always tell people that we all have traditions, and unless they violate a certain portion of Scripture, there is nothing wrong with them.

            The finger is still alive, thank God for His mercy. Thanks for asking. We pray it is still alive in the morning, they have him in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber two hours a day now. It’s kind of a day by day sort of thing – but so far, so great 🙂


  3. Hello Tyler, I confess to being severely challenged by the conclusions you’ve reached on this topic. Having shelved it for a time, it recently resurfaced when a sister in the faith shared on her new position of embracing this ritual along with other codified traditions of Jewish Law which are elaborated in the Mishnah & Talmud.

    I have learned of the specific procedure and that there are several kinds of hand washing and how it is believed it removes an evil spirit from one’s fingers.

    When you say to be ambivalent on this matter as neither good or bad I get apprehensive. Doesn’t that leave an open door for folks to elevate tradition over the Creator’s commandments? Deu 4:2; 12:32 Revelation 22:18-19…. I see no compelling reason in the context of Messiah’s response to cut out the plain sense. A good rule of interpreting scripture is to prefer the simple obvious meaning.

    I’m thinking that if in fact the tradition were so noble, why do they neglect washing the feet? In Exodus 30:19 the instruction given to the Levitical Priests in the service of the Mishkan included both.

    In Matthew 15 Messiah warns the disciples not to follow the Pharisees enactment to wash their hands before eating meals.

    Reply

    1. I am speaking of the first-century beliefs – not modern ones. For a while in the middle ages, things got really hinky and very few people still believe in the removal of evil spirits from the fingers. This is a context lesson for what they believed in the first century – I don’t do any further into history because I am setting up for a larger lesson at the end of the series. Personally, I don’t know of anyone who isn’t doing it just because of their belief that the dinner table is an altar. Please give me time to work this out without jumping to conclusions about my promoting something that I do not promote. I clearly said that Yeshua didn’t do it – but the aspect of it He disagreed with comes in a future blog. In the Matthew 15 reference, he actually changes the subject to their twisting of the laws of korban in order to break the commandment to honor their mothers and fathers. He totally bypasses the hand washing issue. He actually does that a lot in Scripture, they challenge Him on one thing and He throws a weightier matter into their faces. What Yeshua balked at in the handwashing was the idea that food which is clean could be defiled by a refusal to follow this tradition.

      Reply

  4. Hi, I appreciate the clarification you’ve made and will wait anxiously for further study on this topic.

    As an aside, at our last Passover Seder we thought it worthwhile to institute Messiah’s instruction to wash one another’s feet John 13:12-17 but some found it trite/blasé and by passed it altogether.

    Washing feet is certainly a humbling action!

    Is it possible that this commandment may well have been built on the ancient ritual carried out by the priesthood?

    Much yet to learn…

    I will look into the resource by Hollisa Alewine, thank you!

    Shalom!🙏

    Reply

    1. yeah, not my favorite thing to do for sure….

      Reply

      1. Geez! Perhaps we ought to all get pedicures beforehand! 👣Lol!

        Reply

        1. that would be the compassionate thing to do – someone might get lacerated otherwise

          Reply

  5. Very interesting, thank you.

    I’ve been saying the candle blessing just because I don’t think us newcomers have all the answers and I have a debt to Jews, who never abandoned Torah. Now I can continue to say the blessing with a scriptural reason.

    David Fohrman of alephbeta has a video about oral law and takes the issue of a cheeseburger head-on and, I think makes the case.

    After so many years of dissing Torah, I’m very reluctant now to dis Jewish tradition, though I know theee are cases I must.

    Reply

    1. I very much enjoy their videos – even when I don’t agree with them so they must be doing something right 😀

      Reply

  6. Tyler the first time I did it, it hit me like a ton of bricks on my chest. I said to myself : I have never washed my father’s or my brothers’ feet and here I am washing the feet of someone I’m not related to. I realized that Yeshua who is YHVH Himself washed His disciples’ feet so so am I not to do the same thing the master did? Truly a very humbling experience.

    Reply

    1. beautiful brother, thanks for sharing

      Reply

  7. Finally got around to reading this. Wonderful explanation. I really enjoy seeing how the basis for these traditions is in the Temple service. Thanks for adding some needed nuance to this fascinating study. Looking forward to the next part!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *