Passover: Handwashing?

As Passover gets near, I plan to blog more and more about aspects of the holiday. Be sure and check out various articles under the category Passover (see categories to the right), including a series on Preparing for Passover and a popular article which people from all over the web have been coming here to Messianic Musings to read, “Resurrection, Passover, and Constantine.”

This time, we consider the Passover custom of handwashing and Yeshua’s attitude toward it . . .
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For those who are not strictly observant of Jewish traditions, ritual handwashing is a less than familiar custom. If you are in a kosher restaurant or in an Orthodox synagogue preparing for minyan (the group of men praying) or in Israel at the Western Wall or a similar site, you wil see these strange two handled pitchers lying on the sink. These are handwashing vessels.

Ritual handwashing (netilat yadayim) is not about washing away germs. It is about ritual cleansing from impurities (check Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19 for details).

Ritual handwashing is not a biblically prescribed ordinance, but a tradition adapted from the temple into the home and the synagogue. The priests had to wash their hands and feet before entering the Holy Place in the temple. The Pharisees began a process long ago of bringing sanctity rites from the temple into the home and synagogue. The table in the home became like the altar at the temple, under the traditions of the elders. In many ways they were trying to bring sanctity out to the people, especially considering how corrupt the temple leadership was at the time.

If you ask ten people, Christians or Messianic Jews, if they think Yeshua was against the handwashing custom, at least nine out of ten will likely say he was.

This is a misunderstanding.

Consider Mark 7, the classic text in which Yeshua discusses handwashing with the Pharisees. I will list the pertinent scripture in both the ESV and the CJB:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. Mark 7:1-2, ESV

The P’rushim and some of the Torah-teachers who had come from Yerushalayim gathered together with Yeshua and saw that some of his talmidim ate with ritually unclean hands, that is, without doing n’tilat-yadayim. Mark 7:1-2, CJB

Notice something important: the Pharisees did not say that Yeshua abstained from washing his hands or even that all of his disciples abstained. They said that some of his disciples abstained.

Now, Yeshua did have an issue with the Pharisees and with their handwashing ceremony. I won’t attempt a detailed exegesis of Mark 7 here, but I will summarize a few brief points:

1. The Pharisees taught man-made commandments as though they were divinely ordained commands (Mark 7:7). In other words, Yeshua recognized handwashing as a fine custom of holiness, but objected to people requiring it as though God had commanded it.

2. The Pharisees wrongly believed that ingesting food touched by ritually unclean hands could make a person unclean (Mark 7:14). This is a slightly complicated point of halakhah that I don’t want to get bogged down with. Let me say that secondary uncleanness is possible and even common (touching something unclean and becoming unclean). But pouring water over the hands before eating won’t prevent secondary uncleanness, because it has already been contracted by touch. Eating does not then make the uncleanness worse. This is why Yeshua says nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean.

Note: Yeshua is not addressing, as too many Christian commentators fail to notice, the issue of unclean meat such as pork. It is foolish and amateurish to read that into this discussion of an entirely different area of Torah. The forbidden meats of Leviticus 11 are more than just unclean. God says they are forbidden. Furthermore, Yeshua is discussing secondary uncleanness here, not primary.

3. Yeshua condemned them for making a priority of the wrong things (Mark 7:20-21). Instead of worrying about secondary uncleanness contracted by eating with impure hands, they ought to worried about other things, like what comes out of the mouth. This is similar to other sayings of Yeshua such as in Matthew 23 where justice, love, and compassion are the greater issues of Torah and tithing on herbs, which should still be done, is lesser issue. Many time religious people have a tendency to focus on the wrong things, minor observance that are much easier to follow than the true work of righteousness. In a Christian context, I might mention people who get apoplectic if a pastor drinks a glass of wine or a bottle of beer, but who seem to care very little about issues like slavery and injustice.

In spite of all this, it appears that Yeshua still participated in the handwashing ceremony. This ceremony occurs twice during the Passover Seder. Should Yeshua’s followers engage in the handwashing as part of Passover?

The first and simplest answer is that we can if we like. Yeshua still saw some value in the ceremony, not as a hyper-legalistic need to maintain purity, but perhaps as an act of devotion symbolizing our need for purity. As we pour the water over our wrists and let it run down our hands and fingers and back into the bowl, we can imagine the priests at the temple washing their hands and feet. We can think of Yeshua washing his disciples’ feet. We can picture our need for purification, which can come only from God.

Second of all, I think as we Messianic Judaism recognizes more and more that we are part of the Jewish world, and not a sect of Christianity per se, then we will want to join the community fully in celebrating Passover. The times when we choose to depart from the common custom should be only when necessary.

If Yeshua washed his hands with the Pharisees, can we do any less this Passover?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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