Matthew 15:1-2,7-9 (NIV)
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
"'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"
Ok, so which men?
Some said it was Hillel and Shammai:
'And the hands'. Did then the disciples of Shammai and Hillel decree this: Shammai and Hillel decreed it! For it was taught, Jose b. Jo'ezer of Zeredah and Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem decreed uncleanness in respect of the country of the heathens and glassware. Simeon b. Shetah instituted the woman's marriage settlement and imposed uncleanness upon metal utensils. Shammai and Hillel decreed uncleanness for the hands.
Others said that they just revived it:
The washing of hands and the plunging of them is appointed by the words of the scribes: but by whom, and when, it is doubted. Some ascribe the institution of this rite to Hillel and Shammai, others carry it back to ages before them: "Hillel and Shammai decreed concerning the washing of hands. R. Josi Ben Rabbi Bon, in the name of R. Levi, saith, 'That tradition was given before, but they had forgotten it': these second stand forth, and appoint according to the mind of the former."
So if it wasn't them, who else could it have been?
Talmud - Mas. Eiruvin 21b:24-28*
Rab Judah stated in the name of Samuel: When Solomon ordained the laws of erub and the washing of the hands a bath kol issued and proclaimed: My son, if thy heart be wise, my heart will be glad and, furthermore, it is said in Scripture: My son, be wise, and make my heart glad, that I may answer him that taunts me.
What is a bath kol ?
(Lit., 'daughter of a voice'); (a) a reverberating sound; (b) a voice descending from heaven (cf. Dan. IV, 28) to offer guidance in human affairs, and regarded as a lower grade of prophecy.
Now King Solomon lived about 10th century BC but Hillel and Shammai lived at the same time as Jesus did. Wikipedia says this:
Shammai (50 BCE–30 CE, Hebrew: שמאי) was a Jewish scholar of the 1st century, and an important figure in Judaism's core work of rabbinic literature, the Mishnah.
Shammai was the most eminent contemporary and the halakhic opponent of Hillel, and is almost invariably mentioned along with him.
Shammai's school of thought became known as the House of Shammai (Hebrew: Beit Shammai), as Hillel's was known as the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel). After Menahem the Essene had resigned the office of Av Beit Din (or vice-president) of the Sanhedrin, Shammai was elected to it, Hillel being at the time president. After Hillel died, circa 20 CE, Shammai took his place as president but no vice-president from the minority was elected so that the school of Shammai attained complete ascendancy.
So before Hillel died, in 20 AD, he was the president and Shammai was the vice president of the Sanhedrin, afterward, Shammai became president, and his rules became law. While they were both alive, one could follow the rules of either. Once Hillel died, you had to follow Shammai's rules. After the fall of the temple though, Hillel's rules won out and Shammai's rulings were overturned, apparently because of another voice from heaven. Wikipedia says:
Hillel's grandson Gamaliel succeeded to the position of president after Shammai in the year 30, but the Sanhedrin would remain dominated by the house of Shammai until around 70 (see Council of Jamnia). A "voice from heaven" is said to have nullified the legality of the rulings of the house of Shammai (Yerushalmi Berakhot, 1:7), which is why Rabbinical Judaism follows Hillel.
So at the time Jesus was teaching, Shammai's rules were still in effect. Here are both their opinions on washing:
Berakoth 51b: 13-16
MISHNAH. THESE ARE THE POINTS [OF DIFFERENCE] BETWEEN BETH SHAMMAI AND BETH HILLEL IN RELATION TO A MEAL. BETH SHAMMAI SAY THAT WASHING THE HANDS PRECEDES THE FILLING OF THE CUP, WHILE BETH HILLEL SAY THAT THE FILLING OF THE CUP PRECEDES THE WASHING OF THE HANDS. BETH SHAMMAI SAY THAT AFTER WIPING HIS HANDS WITH A NAPKIN THE DINER PLACES IT ON THE TABLE, WHILE BETH HILLEL SAY THAT HE PLACES IT ON THE CUSHION. BETH SHAMMAI SAY THAT [AFTER THE MEAL] THE FLOOR IS SWEPT BEFORE THE WASHING OF THE HANDS, WHILE BETH HILLEL SAY THAT [THE DINERS] WASH THEIR HANDS AND THEN THE FLOOR IS SWEPT.
Is there a reason given for the washing of the hands? Look at this passage:
Talmud - Mas. Yoma 77b: 4-8*
Our Rabbis taught: It is forbidden to wash part of the body [on the Day of Atonement], as [it is forbidden to wash] the whole body. But if one was soiled with mud or excrement, he may wash in his usual way without any fear. It is forbidden to anoint part of the body [as it is forbidden to anoint] the whole body. If, however, one was sick or had scabs on his head, he may anoint himself in his usual way without any fear. The School of R. Menasseh taught: R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: A woman may wash one of her hands in water to give bread to an infant without any fear. It was reported about the older Shammai6 that he would not [hand food] to be eaten even with one hand, whereupon the Rabbis decreed that he must do so with both hands. Why that? Abaye said: Because of Shibta.
What is Shibta? The footnote* says:
An evil spirit, or odour, that endangers the health of those that eat food touched with unwashed hands.
So why did the Rabbis make him wash both hands before feeding his child? The footnote says*:
Shammai did not wish to allow himself the concession made by the Rabbis, since he always took the severer view for himself, when two interpretations of ritual obligations were involved. But the Rabbis decided that their permission to wash one's hand was a matter of safeguarding the child's health, and Shammai's unwillingness to accept their rule was unjustified. To emphasize that they imposed upon him the obligation to wash both his hands before handing food to his infant.
Here's some more info on Shibta by John Lightfoot (1602-1675). He said:
To these most rigid canons they added also bugbears and ghosts to affright them.
It was the business of Shibta. Where the Gloss is, "Shibta was one of the demons who hurt them that wash not their hands before meat." The Aruch writes thus, "Shibta is an evil spirit which sits upon men's hands in the night: and if any touch his food with unwashen hands, that spirit sits upon that food, and there is danger from it."
Note, John Lightfoot quoted this about 200 years before germ theory was first stated, so, he could laugh but if you were explaining to a child why they had to wash their hands, what would you say?
“Well, there's these invisible creatures that are on your hands and that can make you sick if you don't wash them off before you touch food that's going to go into your mouth.”
Sounds a lot like a Shibta doesn't it?
Talmud Passages are from http://www.come-and-hear.com/tcontents.html
Note the numbers given are not passage numbers, they are footnote numbers- I put them in so the passage would be easier to find.
* Starred passages are from the Talmud, but not available on the above site. They are from The Soncino Talmud (©1973 Judaica Press, Inc. and ©1965, 1967, 1977, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, & 1990 Soncino Press, Ltd.)
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