A total of 613 laws made up the Torah and the job of the Rabbis was to interpret them to the people, so they could live holy lives before God. They were split into positive and negative commands as we are reminded here ...
The Talmud tells us (Tractate Makkot 23b) that there are 613 commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah; 248 Positive Commandments (do's) and 365 Negative Commandments (do not's). However, the Talmud does not provide us with a list of these commandments.
The burning question of the day was, of all the commandments: What is the greatest? Do they all carry equal validity? The nature of the debate was to get to the meaning of these rules and discover what lay at the heart of the commandments: What was their purpose?
So, they would debate them. And they were debating them when Jesus came. The two principal schools of rabbinical teaching during the time of Jesus came from Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel.
Rabbi Shammai was active in 1st Century BC and known for his strict approach to interpreting the laws of the Torah. Rabbi Hillel lived slightly later and he was known for his gentleness and moderation in the interpretation of the law.
Let’s notice how Hillel summarized the law to the way Jesus summarized it 40 years later. One day an impatient Gentile asked Hillel to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot! Hillel's response was: ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.'
When Jesus came, he said, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’
This, the Golden Rule as it was known was a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18.
18 ‘“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Which we will come back to later….
When Jesus came, he exposed the hypocrisy of the system that had built around the Pharisees and the religious system by showing how readily they missed the point.
Here’s a prime example from Mark 7
He pointed out how they were using a religious term Corban to justify not looking after elderly parents.
7 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’
6 He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘“These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.”
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
9 And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, “Honour your father and mother,” and, “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’
Thus… Using the Oral Torah (their own Traditions) to allow people to devote to Temple worship what they should have been using to care for their elderly parents.
…. And you do many things like that.
Many things - like - that.
They were missing the point.
Not only did Jesus point out but also entered into the debates of the day like around divorce for example when he sided more with Rabbi Shammai in terms of his own interpretation.
Jesus' Own Interpretation of the Law
Jesus seeks to take his followers back to the heart of what Torah was all about and he does this by rewriting parts of it. Like in this example here…
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
And by highlighting how they were missing the heart of what Torah was all about ....
23 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
And so to Matthew 22
The Greatest Commandment
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
37 Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
So, there we have it - the whole 39 books of the Hebrew scriptures hang off two hooks - and both are based around love. Which Paul points out here:
14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
1 John 4:7-12
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
So, what does love look like and what does it mean to love well? For us all 1 Corinthians 13 would be a good place to start!