In addition to the Mosaic laws, Jews at the time of Jesus were also familiar with the law of the rabbis. The rabbis were the scholastic arm of the Pharisees, and they took the responsibility of ensuring that the Mosaic law remained relevant to the people. The rabbis counted 613 laws in the five books of Moses (including 39 pertaining to the Sabbath), and they used these laws as the basis for their legislation. They supplemented these written laws with an oral law that consisted of the interpretations of leading rabbis.
Oral law is known as halakah, which means
to walk. The rabbis felt that if the people adhered to their numerous halakoth (plural of halakah), they would walk in the way of the 613 major laws. Although originating as oral law, the rabbinic halakoth were collated and recorded in book form. Some of the interpretations from Jesus’ day survive in commentaries known as Midrash, while others are recorded in a legal collection called Mishnah. Many religious Jews through the ages, and even today, seek to adhere strictly to these laws.
Read Luke 14:1-6 and John 9. Although Jesus was accused of violating the Sabbath with His miraculous healings, where can you find in the Old Testament that it’s a sin to heal on the Sabbath day? How does the answer help us to understand some of the issues with which Jesus had to deal? More important, what lessons can we learn from these incidents that could help us to make sure that we don’t make similar mistakes in our attempts to seek to
walk in the way faithfully?
Though it’s easy from our perspective today to deride many of these oral laws, especially when they were used as they were against Jesus, the fault exists more with the attitude of the leaders and not with these laws themselves. Though often kept very legalistically, halakoth were meant to be very spiritual, infusing a spiritual element into the most mundane of actions, giving them a religious significance.
How can we learn to give even the most mundane tasks a religious significance?