What are the “Traditions of Men”?

What are the “Traditions of Men”?
James Scott Trimm

Many who attack Jewish tradition and the Oral Law cite Yeshua’s words in Matthew 15:1-9 (and paralleled in Mark 7:1-13) concerning the “traditions of men.”  These commentators argue that the “traditions of men” which Yeshua speaks of in this passage are either the traditions of the Talmud, Oral Law, or Jewish traditions in general.

But lets examine these verses to see if they can accurately be applied to the Jewish traditions of the Talmud.

1 Then came near to Him scribes and P’rushim from Yerushalayim, saying,
2 Why do your talmidim transgress the decrees of the elders? For they clean not their hands when they eat bread.
3 But He answered them and said: And why do you transgress the commandments of Elohim–by means of your decrees?
4 Is it not written in your Torah from the mouth of Elohim, Honor your father and your mother?(Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16) And moreover written, And he that curses his father and his mother will surely die? (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9)
5 But you say, Whoever says to father and mother, It is all an offering–[KORBAN] whatever of mine might profit you,
6 And he honors not his father and his mother. Thus have you made void the commandments of Elohim, on account of your judgments.
7 You hypocrites! Yesha’yahu did well indeed to prophesy concerning you, saying,
8 This people honors Me with their mouth and with their lips, but have removed their heart far from Me.
9 And their fear of Me, is a commandment learned of men.(Isa. 29:13)
(Matt. 15:1-9 HRV)

Now there are some important things we can immediately clean from these verses:

1. Yeshua is addressing a specific group of Pharisees whom he has encountered here, and not Phariseeism in general.
2. Yeshua is not criticizing “tradition” in general, but only “traditions of men” and specifically only “traditions of men” which conflict with the written Torah.

Now Yeshua gives us a very specific example of one of these “traditions of men,” a tradition that says that a man who makes a vow that his father or mother might not benefit from anything of his, even though this dishonors their mother or father.

Now interestingly exactly this question is dealt with in one of the many debates recorded in the Talmud.  We read in the Mishna Nedarim 9:1:

R. Elieazar says: they open a vow for a man by reference to the honor of his father or mother.
and the sages prohibit.
said R. Tzadok: before they open a vow for him by reference to his father or mother let them open his vow by reference to the honor of HaMakom.  
If so there will be no vow.
But the sages concede to R. Elieazar, that in a matter that is between him and his mother or father they loose his vow by reference to his father or mother.”
(m.Nedarim 9:1)

Here the exact same question is here debated.  (It is interesting to note that both Matthew 15 and the Talmud (m.Nedarim 9:1 and b.Nedarim 64a-64b) debate this same issue, but it is only the Talmud which gets criticized.)

The question is which commandment is weightier: the commandment to keep all of your vows (Num. 30:3(2)) or the commandment to honor your mother and father (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16).  What happens when there is a conflict between these two commandments and one must break one to keep the other?

Now for a complete understanding of this section of Talmud (m.Nedarim 9:1 and the Gemara at b.Nedarim 64a-64b) see my video “Talmud For Beginners Lesson One”.

It is sufficient here to show that the sages of the Talmud agreed that the type of vow that Yeshua discusses (one which involves “a matter that is between him and his mother or father”) is loosed (and therefore should not be kept) if it dishonors ones mother on one’s father.

So Yeshua and the Talmud agree with each other against the “traditions of men”.  For anyone to try to identify the “traditions of men” of Matthew 15 (and Mark 7) with the traditions of the Talmud, the Oral Law, or Jewish tradition in general, is either dishonest or very shoddy scholarship.

Yeshua’s point here is that a tradition that conflicts with the written Torah should not be kept, a point with which any Orthodox Rabbi would agree.

The “Traditions of Men” spoken of in Matthew 15 (and Mark 7) are not the Oral Law, the Talmud or Jewish traditions in general.  The Sages of the Talmud stand with Yeshua in opposing “Traditions of Men” that conflict with the written Torah, even in the specific example Yeshua gives in these verses.

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