This clip from Fiddler on the Roof speaks to both the good and bad sides of tradition. On the one hand, tradition can be a helpful and stabilizing force in the community, for good. On the other hand, tradition can be and is mistaken for being the word of G-d itself, sometimes in disastrous ways, though not always.
It’s true among Jew and Gentile alike. Religious Jews make a point of keeping their heads covered, for example, while Gentiles often make a point of removing their head dress when entering a building or sitting at a table. Tradition!
Make no mistake about it, everyone has their customs and traditions.
If you ever wear a suit or a dress for a formal occasion, you are upholding a social tradition. If you believe men should wear pants and women should wear dresses, you are upholding a social tradition. If you work a nine-to-five job, you are upholding a social tradition. Do you eat certain foods or recipes that are common to your ethnic group or region? Tradition!
Some people even have a tradition of deriding tradition. To speak against Jewish tradition at large, for example, is a sadly well-established tradition among “Christians”, yet one that is actually not consistent with the teaching of Rabbi Yeshua and his disciples, in context.
Clearly, not all tradition is of G-d. Yet not all tradition is condemned by G-d either. How do we know this? And how do we know the difference between good and bad customs and traditions?
Customs and Traditions in the Bible
One day, when Ya’akov (Jacob) was returning to the Promised Land, he was met by a mysterious figure who wrestled with him until dawn. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Ya’akov, he touched his hip socket and Ya’akov’s hip was put out of joint (cf. Bereishit / Genesis 32:24-25). Thus was born the ancient tradition in Yisrael (Israel) of not eating the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket (Ibid v.32), while the Torah relates no such instruction from HaShem.
Another great example of the nature and validity of tradition is recorded in Sefer Yirmeyahu (the Scroll of Jeremiah). HaShem sends Yirmeyahu HaNavi (the Prophet Jeremiah) to bring the Rekhavim (Rechabites) into the House of HaShem, to speak with them, and to give them wine to drink.
‘But they answered, ‘We will drink no wine, for Yonadav ben Rekhav, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine, neither you nor your sons until the World to Come. You shall not build a house, you shall not sow seed, you shall not plant or have a vineyard, but you shall live in tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn.’ We have obeyed the voice of Yonadav ben Rekhav, our father, in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, or our daughters, and not to build houses to dwell in. We have no vineyard or field or seed, but we have lived in tents and have obeyed and done all that Yonadav our father commanded us.’’
— Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) 35:6-10
The sons of Yonadav ben Rekhav perpetually submitted not only themselves but also their wives, their sons, and their daughters to the extra-biblical commandments of their father to drink no wine, to build no houses, to sow no seed, to plant or own no vineyard, and to live in tents. Talk about family tradition!
None of Yonadav’s instructions are commanded in the Torah by HaShem, yet the authority of a father to command his children is established in the Scriptures (Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:16, Mishlei / Proverbs 6:20, Colossians 3:20). Therefore, when their father commanded them, the righteous Rekhavim obeyed, as did their families and their offspring after them. Family tradition was born.
And what was HaShem’s response to the Rekhavim obeying their father and transmitting his instruction to their descendants from generation to generation, as their father had commanded them? Did HaShem condemn them for adding to His Torah? Not at all!
‘But to the house of the Rekhavim Yirmeyahu said, ‘Thus says HaShem of hosts, Elokei Yisrael: Because you have obeyed the command of Yonadav your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, therefore thus says HaShem of hosts, Elokei Yisrael: Yonadav ben Rekhav shall never lack a man to stand before Me.’’
— Yirmeyahu 35:18-19
Yonadav is not alone in the Scriptures of Yisrael in instituting tradition for his people and his descendants. Yet another biblical example of tradition being established by the “powers that be” is the traditional, and late-biblical, festival of Purim. Being more broadly decreed, this becomes Jewish law.
After the destruction of the First Temple, well-after Torat Moshe (Instruction / Teaching, a.k.a. Law of Moses) was given, while the citizens of the Kingdom of Yehudah (Judah) were in exile in Persia, Haman, the most powerful man in Persia other than the king himself, devised a plan to destroy Mordechai and the Jewish people.
After a miraculous turn of events, however, Haman fell into the pit that he had dug for Mordechai and the Jews (Ester 7:7-10, cf. Kohelet / Ecclesiastes 10:8a, Tehillim / Psalms 57:6b). Furthermore his evil schemes came to nothing and the Jewish people prevailed against their enemies (Cf. Ester 8). Mordechai and Queen Ester then instituted the now biblical festival of Purim (Cf. Ester 9).
‘Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.’
— Ester (Esther) 9:26-28
The traditional festival of Purim therefore continues to this day among the Jewish people, as well as among many believing Gentiles. And the story of Purim brings to mind another example of tradition: fasting (cf. Ester 4:16).
While the Torah nowhere commands anyone to fast (i.e. refrain from eating or drinking something for a time), the Jewish people have long understood the instruction to afflict their souls on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) as a call to fasting (cf. Vayikra / Leviticus 16:31), and there are also a number of other traditional Jewish fasts. While these traditions are ancient, none of these fasts are anywhere condemned in Scripture, although they are mentioned.
‘And the word of HaShem of hosts came to me, saying, ‘Thus says HaShem of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Yehudah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.’
— Zekharyah 8:18
From these examples and more, one can clearly see that tradition is not condemned in the Scriptures by HaShem, as some have endeavoured to teach. Neither are extra-biblical laws, which every nation has. On the contrary, everyone has customs and traditions, including Mashiakh Yeshua (Messiah / Christ Jesus) and his faithful servants.
The Customs of the Disciples of R. Yeshua
There is certainly discussion in the writings of the disciples of Yeshua about customs and traditions as they relate to and oppose the Way of Righteousness. Two Greek words are of particular interest to the discussion: ethos and paradosis.
“usage prescribed by law, institute, prescription, rite”
— Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
While the definition of ethos may seem to indicate it would refer to the written Torah of Moshe, the word is actually used in the writings of the disciples of Yeshua to refer to Jewish law and practice.
‘So they took the body of Yeshua and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial ethos of the Yehudim (Jews).’
— Yokhannan (John) 19:40
You will not find such burial customs delineated in the Torah, but Jewish custom addresses the matter, as Yokhannan says. The Lord Yeshua was buried by his disciples according to Jewish custom.
From the beginning of his account of the things that HaShem has accomplished among us, Luke speaks favourably of those who observe Jewish customs. Righteous Zekharyah, the Father of Yokhannan HaMetabel (John the Immerser), a Kohen (Priest), received word of the forthcoming miraculous birth of his son when burning incense in the Temple of HaShem in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), having been chosen by lot to do so.
‘In the days of Herod, king of Yehudah [Judah], there was a kohen [priest] named Zekharyah, of the division of Abiyah [Abijah]. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aharon [Aaron], and her name was Elisheva [Elizabeth]. And they were both righteous before Elokim [G-d], walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of HaShem. But they had no child, because Elisheva was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as kohen before Elokim when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the Temple of HaShem and burn incense.’
— Luke 1:5-9
Not only was Zekharyah righteous before Elokim, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of HaShem, but he also submitted to the prevailing customs of the Kohanim as to how the service of the Temple was to be ordered.
Luke also records that the Lord Yeshua shared the custom of being in the synagogue on the Shabbat, an institution dominated by the Perushim (Pharisees) of the days of Yeshua’s flesh (Pharisee, Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica.com).
‘And he came to Natzerat [Nazareth], where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went into the synagogue on Yom HaShabbat [the Sabbath day], and he stood up to read.’
— Luke (Luke) 4:16
We find the Lord Yeshua here participating in the customary Shabbat service, being called upon for the Haftarah reading, the traditional weekly reading from the Nevi’im (Prophets), a custom which continues in the Jewish synagogue to this day.
Shaul (Paul), too, a Pharisee, upheld such customs, as Luke records.
‘Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Shaul went in, as was his custom, and on three Shabbat days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures…’
— Ma’asei (Acts) 17:1-2
There are, nevertheless, some people today who ignorantly deride such customary observances as godless foolishness, joining with the false accusers who say Yeshua’s message is to supplant Jewish customs.
‘And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the Torah, for we have heard him say that this Yeshua of Natzerat will destroy this place [the Temple] and will change the customs that Moshe delivered (Gk. paredōken) to us.’’
— Ma’asei 6:12-14
These false witnesses are speaking of Jewish customs transmitted orally, said to originate with Moshe (Moses) at Mount Sinai. The Greek word paredōken is a form of the word paradidómi, the root of the word paradosis, which refers to tradition.
To the undiscerning eye, it may seem to be the case that Yeshua came to abolish such Jewish customs and traditions. While Jewish people were deceived into thinking this early on by the false witnesses, as some believers from among the nations have also later come to believe, it is in spite of the words of the disciples of the Lord Yeshua, which do not agree.
Luke records Shaul’s visit to Ya’akov (“James”) in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) after many years of proclaiming the Good News abroad, with all of the elders of the Way present.
‘And they said to him, ‘You see, Brother, how many tens of thousands there are among the Yehudim [Jews] of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been informed about you, however, that you teach apostasy from Moshe to all the Yehudim who are among the nations, telling them to not circumcise the children or to walk according to the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you… Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you…’
— Ma’ase 21:17-23a,24b
Ya’akov and the elders at Yerushalayim knew these accusations against Shaul to be false, and instructed him in how to demonstrate his faithfulness to Moshe and to Jewish custom alike. Not only does Shaul follow their advice, but his own words in his defence while in Rome confirm that he was not opposing the “customs of the fathers”.
‘After three days he called together the local leaders of the Yehudim, and when they had gathered, he said to them, ‘Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Yerushalayim into the hands of the Romans.’’
— Ma’asei 28:17
If Shaul had done nothing against the customs of the Jewish people, should those who profess to believe in Yeshua among the nations be denigrating Jewish customs and traditions in general?
Tradition, Good & Bad
Paradosis is an important Greek word found in a variety of places in the Greek manuscripts of the writings of the disciples of the Lord Yeshua in the first century.
“a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing, i. e. tradition by instruction, narrative, precept, etc.”
— Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
Like ethos, paradosis refers to matters above and beyond the Commandment of G-d, as written down by Moshe in Bereishit (Genesis) through Devarim (Deuteronomy). While Jewish traditions were originally transmitted orally, they also came to be transmitted in writing, as we will see.
Mattityahu (Matthew), Mark, and Luke all record the lack of observance by Yeshua and his talmidim (disciples) of a Pharasaic tradition called netilat yadayim. This tradition of washing one’s hands before eating bread is modelled after the biblical commandment that the Kohanim (Priests) wash their hands and feet before approaching the altar in the Temple to burn a fire offering to HaShem (Cf. Shemot / Exodus 30:17-21).
‘While he [Yeshua] was speaking, a Parush [Pharisee] asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Parush was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Perushim [Pharisees] cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.’’
— Luke 11:37-39
Mattityahu and Mark tell us that Yeshua’s immediate talmidim followed the lead of their rabbi in not observing the tradition of netilat yadayim.
‘Then Perushim and sofrim [scribes] came to Yeshua from Yerushalayim and said, ‘Why do your talmidim break the tradition of the ziknim [elders]? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.’’
— Mattityahu 15:1-2
As in the case when Yeshua himself was opposed for failing to wash before eating bread, the Lord uses the opportunity to address the hypocrisy of being more concerned with the observance of traditions than with keeping the Commandment of HaShem. Remarkably absent from the examples of their hypocrisy is the tradition of netilat yadayim itself.
‘He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of Elokim for the sake of your tradition? For Elokim commanded, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is given to Elokim,’ he need not honour his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of Elokim, you hypocrites. Well did Yeshayahu [Isaiah] prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’’
— Mattityahu 15:3-9, Cf. Yeshayahu 29:13
Notice carefully and understand the point the Lord Yeshua is making.
‘…thus making void the word of Elokim by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.’
— Mark 7:13
The tradition of netilat yadayim is not commanded by HaShem in the Torah, and was not observed by Yeshua and his disciples. He does not, however, teach against this tradition, nor does he condemn tradition in all its forms at any time.
Rabbi Yeshua does, however, take the opportunity to teach us the truth that to break the Commandment of G-d for the sake of traditions, particularly while representing the traditions as being given by G-d, is hypocrisy and vanity, which demonstrates a heart that is not near to HaShem. One should be careful to neither add nor subtract from the commandments of HaShem, as the Torah says (Cf. Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:2).
These are the things to watch out for: traditions through which people nullify the Commandment of G-d. Meticulously submitting to the traditions of the elders yet while violating the Commandment of G-d by dishonouring one’s own parents (Cf. Shemot / Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:2) is hypocrisy. The problem is when a person permits tradition to justify disobedience to HaShem, yet being deceived by them into believing HaShem’s will is being done.
As for netilat yadayim, while it is not a tradition observed by Yeshua and his disciples, one does not violate HaShem’s commandment by washing their hands before eating bread. As you can see, the error concerning traditions is not primarily in having them, but in permitting and transmitting traditions which contradict HaShem’s Word, as received and written down by His servants, the Prophets, and also for unlovingly condemning others for the sake of tradition alone.
The fact is, however, everyone has customs and traditions, including the followers of the Lord Yeshua. When your lord commands you to keep a tradition, that tradition is as law for you. As are customs and traditions that become prescribed by law, such as those decreed by the scribes and the Pharisees who sat down in the judgement seat of Moshe (cf. Mattityahu 23:2-3).
We must therefore be careful to observe the traditions delivered to us through the Shlikhim (Emissaries / Apostles) of our Rabbi.
As Shaul says,
‘So then, Brothers, stand firm and hold to the paradoseis [traditions] that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.’
— 2 Thessalonians 2:15
‘Now we command you, Brothers, in the name of our Lord Yeshua HaMashiakh, that you keep away from any Brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the paradosin [tradition] that you received from us.’
— 2 Thessalonians 3:6
Shaul is referring to important traditions instituted by the Lord Yeshua, which must be observed by his disciples.
At the traditional Passover seder he observed with his disciples before he was betrayed, he instructed us to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of his body and his blood, which was given for us (E.g. Luke 22:19-20), for example. He also instructed his disciples to make disciples of all nations and to immerse (baptize) them in the authority Yeshua for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). We must certainly comply with these traditions, for example.
Additionally, over the centuries, various traditions have developed among the disciples of the Lord Yeshua among the nations; some lawful, some not. Some assemblies of Yeshua prefer to sing hymns to the tune of the old organ, while some prefer a more modern style of praise and worship. Some meet on certain days of the week and not others. Some prefer one translation of the Bible to another, modelling their speech after the language of their preferred translation.
What’s important is discerning what is necessary and what is lawful/permissible vs. unlawful/impermissible, and to be sure to speak the truth in love once you yourself are walking in it.
As Shaul says,
‘Why do you pass judgement on your Brother? Or you, why do you despise your Brother? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of Elokim…’
— Romans 14:10
And as Ya’akov (“James”) says,
‘Do not speak evil against one another, Brothers. The one who speaks against a Brother or judges his Brother, speaks evil against the Torah and judges the Torah. But if you judge the Torah, you are not a doer of the Torah, but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?’
— Ya’akov 4:11-12, ESV
While we should be careful to discern whether our traditions are contrary to the Commandment of G-d, as recorded in the Scriptures of Yisrael, we must be gracious with the people around us and give them room to learn, and grow, and observe their own customs and traditions, provided they are not contrary to the truth.
The question every disciple of the Lord Yeshua must be careful to ask for themselves is whether or not they are annulling the word of G-d by their personal, congregational, and/or denominational traditions. Such customs and traditions must surely be rejected, and it behoves the servants of Messiah to speak frankly about these things with their neighbour, yet in a spirit of gentleness (cf. Galatians 6:1, 2 Timothy 2:25).
‘…but test everything; hold fast what is good.’
— 1 Thessalonians 5:21
May the G-d and Father of the Lord Yeshua send His spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him upon us, that we may abide in the love of Messiah Yeshua, always.
‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from Elokim, and whoever loves has been born of Elokim and knows Elokim. Anyone who does not love does not know Elokim, because Elokim is love. In this the love of Elokim was made manifest among us, that Elokim sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved Elokim but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if Elokim so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen Elokim; if we love one another, Elokim abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’
— Yokhannan Alef (1 John) 4:7-12