"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

by Gretchen S.

I have all too often seen the Pharisees insulted and degraded, and have, therefore, written this post in their defense. Modern Jews are decended from the Pharisee sect, so I think it is important to teach you a bit about who the Pharisees were.



The Pharisees were Rabbis and their followers, in the time before the destruction of the Second Temple. There were other sects. After the destruction, the other sects disappeared, and the Pharisaic Sages were hence forth simply called rabbis.

The Saducees were Hellinistic in their bent, and, like the Herodians, collaborated with the Romans. The Rabbis teach that the Saducees were orignally followers of a student of a Antigonos, leader of Socho who lived aprroximately early second century B.C.E., shortly after the building of the Second Temple. Antigonos taught “Be not as servents who serve the master [GS note: refering to G-d] for the sake of receiving [even a token] reward, but rather, be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving [a token] reward; and [nontheless] the fear of Heaven [GS note: ie, G-d] should be upon you.” (Pirke Avot 1:3 Art Scroll translation). This is to say we should serve G-d out of love and awe (sometimes translated fear, but awe is more in keeping with the nuanced meaning of the Hebrew), not for expected reward. Unfortunatly, 2 of his students, Zaddok and Boethus, misunderstood what he was trying to say. They thought that there was no reward at all, and thus the words of the Sages were meaningless. They founded 2 sects, the Sadducees (founded by Zaddok) and the Boethusians (founded by Boethus), rejecting all of the Oral Torah given at Sinai and any subsequent case law or expoundings of the Sages and at first also the Written Torah. Only when they were unable to convince others of their heresy did they decide to accept the Written Torah while still rejecting the Oral Torah. Eventually, the Sadducee movement gained wide acceptance with those people who wanted to Hellenize and collaborate with Hellinists such as Rome (based upon the footnote in ArtScroll’s Pirke Avot translation). By rejecting the Oral Torah they were able, in essence, to interpret Torah as they saw fit and ignore the will of G-d. (see On the Oral Torah for more information on the Oral Torah)

We Jews tend to think of the Pharisees as representing normative Judaism, and the other sects as later developments — of course, until the later sects developed, there was no need for the Pharisee label. It is possible that the Essense were of the family of the rightful high priest whom the Romans had replaced with their own Saducee appointees. The Zealots were more of a political group, and were often times drawn from the ranks of the Pharisees. Okay, back to the Pharisees themselves.

The Pharisees (prushim in Hebrew, meaning separate), kept themselves separate from the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks and Romans. They clung tenaciously to the Torah, and to the Jewish religion. The Pharisees were great moral teachers. It is the Pharisees who had rabbis, and who, after the destrution of the Second Temple, preserved the Oral Torah so that it would not be lost. The Pharisees were the only sect to survive the destruction, since Saducees could not long survive without the Temple in which they served or without the backing of their Roman masters. Once again, the Pharisees were Judaism, and there was again no need for an extra label.



Some Moral Teachings of the Pharisees

The following were said before the birth of Jesus:

Be deliberate in Judgement (Mishnah, Avot 1:1): Judges must take care that even if they have judged similar cases two or three times before, they must take care in deliberating before issuing a ruling. (“Justice, Justice, shall you pursue” Deut. 16:20)

The world stands on three things on the Torah, on the service [of G-d], and upon acts of loving-kindness. (Mishnah, Avot 1:2)

How to be a servant of G-d Antigonus…used to say “Be not as servants who serve the master [ie G-d] for the sake of receiving [even a token] reward, but rather, be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving reward; and [nonetheless] the fear [or awe] of Heaven should be upon you.” (Mishnah, Avot 1:3) What does this mean? It does not mean that we will not be rewarded ever (Zaddok and and Boethus mistakenly thought this, and started two new sects, rejecting the Oral Law. Zaddok founded the Sadducees, and Boethus founded Boethusim). I means that we should do G-d’s will because it is G-d’s will, and not for the sake of reward.

Treatment of the poor Yose ben Yochanan…say: “Let your house be open wide [ie for guests, hopitality, anyone in need]; treat the poor as members of your household…” (Mishnah, Avot 1:5)

Judge everyone favorably This was said by Yehoshua ben Perachyah in Mishnah, Avot 1:6. It means that we should not jump to conclusions, but think the best of a person about whom we do not know all the facts. If something looks as if a person is doing something bad, we must assume that there is something we do not yet know, and find out the facts.

Hillel says: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah” (Mishnah, Avot 1:12) Hillel may have still been alive when Jesus was born, since he lived in the time of Herod “the Great”

Note: The above quotes from Mishnah, Avot all come from The Pirkei Avos/Ethics of Fathers Treasury: the Sages’ Guide to Living. Art Scroll, 1996

Of splinters and beams Rabbi Yochanan, quoting a saying from the judges (the same judges the book of Judges talks about), said (after the destruction of the Second Temple) “If [a judge] would say to [a defendant], ‘Remover the splinter from between your teeth (ie refrain from a minor infraction),’ [the defendent] would retort to [the judge], ‘Remove the beam from before your eyes [ie refrain from a major transgression]'” (Talmud, Bava Batra 15b3, Art Scroll translation)

I could go on for pages. There are many great parable that the Rabbis used to teach moral lessons. Parables were designed to make it easier to understand those lessons, and they accomplish that goal very well. While Greeks did not use parables, the Rabbis were quite adept at making and using them in their teachings. The Rabbis also use true-life stories to teach lessons in morality. I realize that I only included a very small selection of the moral teachings of the Pharisee Rabbis (ie, normative Jewish Rabbis), but it would take volumes and a lifetime to learn and teach a great amount of their wisdom (there is too much to ever teach it all).



Some Moral Stories from the Talmud


Eiruvin 54b

R. Pereda had a pupil whom he taught his lesson four hundred times before the latter could master it. On a certain day having been requested to attend to a religious matter he taught him as usual but the pupil could not master the subject. ‘What’, the Master asked: ‘is the matter (see footnote 50) to-day?’ — ‘From the moment’, the other replied. ‘the Master was told that there was a religious matter to be attended to I could not concentrate my thoughts,(51) for at every moment I imagined, now the Master will get up or now the Master will get up’. ‘Give me your attention’, the Master said, ‘and I will teach you again’, and so he taught him another four hundred times. A bath kol issued forth asking him,(52) ‘Do you prefer that four hundred years shall be added to your life or that you and your generation shall be privileged to have a share in the world to come?’ — ‘That’, he replied. ‘I and my generation shall be privileged to have a share in the world to come’. ‘Give him both’, said the Holy One, blessed be He.


(50) Lit., ‘what is the difference’
(51) Lit., ‘I removed my mind’.
(52) R. Pereda.

What does this story teach us? Not only that one must educate those with learning disablilities or those who are mentally handicapped, but that everyone can teach us something. Not only did the rabbi teach his student, but he also learned from him. We, too, can learn from everyone. The Talmud also says “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone”. This story shows how true it is.

Shabbat 31a

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand.(12) When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour:(13) that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’


(12) Rashi: a cubit to measure off the amount of work done by a builder.

(13) The golden Rule; cf. Lev. XIX, 18: but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.- V. Hertz, Leviticus, pp.22 or 223, and cf. R. T. Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 148.

The lesson of this story is what has become known as the golden rule. Hillel lived in the time of Herod the Great, before the birth of Jesus.


Ta’anit 20a-b

Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar. Once R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor,(22) from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his ass by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, ‘Peace be upon you, Sir’. He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, ‘Raca, how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’ The man replied: ‘I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, “How Ugly is the vessel which you have made”.’ When R. Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted from the ass and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, ‘I submit myself to you, forgive me’. The man replied: ‘I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him,”How ugly is the vessel which you have made”.’ He [R. Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, ‘Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,’ the man asked them, ‘Whom are you addressing thus’? They replied, ‘The man who is walking behind you.’ Thereupon he exclaimed: ‘If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel’! The people then asked him: ‘Why’? He replied: ‘Such and such a thing has he done to me. They said to him: ‘Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.’ The man replied: ‘For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.’ Soon after this R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Law, Phylacteries and Mezuzoth.(2)


(22) probably in Judah. V. Josh. XV, 36.
(1) ‘Empty one’, ‘Good for nothing’.
(2) V. Glos. s.v. mezuzah.

This story teaches that we should judge people not on their exterior appearance, but on what is inside. We should always remember that G-d created all people in His Image, so all are special to Him. We should also be flexable, like the reed.


Ta’anit 7a-b

R. Hanina b. Ida said: Why are the words of the Torah likened unto water-as it is written, ‘Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye for water’? This is to teach you, just as water flows from a higher level to a lower, so too the words of the Torah endure only with him who is meekminded. R. Oshaia said: Why are the words of the Torah likened unto these three liquids, water, wine and milk — as it is written, ‘Ho, everyone that thirsteth come ye for water’; and it is written, Come ye, buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money, and without price?(27) This is to teach you, just as these three liquids can only be preserved in the most inferior of vessels, so too the words of theTorah endure only with him who is meekminded. This is illustrated by the story of the daughter of the Roman Emperor(28) who addressed R. Joshua b. Hanania, ‘O glorious Wisdom in an ugly vessel’. He replied, ‘Does not your father keep wine in an earthenware vessel?’ She asked, ‘Wherein else shall he keep it?’ He said to her, ‘You who are nobles should keep it in vessels of gold and silver’. Thereupon she went and told this to her father and he had the wine put into vessels of gold and silver and it became sour. When he was informed of his he asked his daughter, ‘Who gave you this advice?’ She replied. ‘R. Joshua b. Hanania’ — Thereupon the Emperor had him summoned before him and asked him, ‘Why did you give her such advice?’ He replied, ‘I answered her according to the way that she spoke to me’. But are there not good-looking people who are learned? — If these very people were ugly they would be still more learned.(1) Another explanation: Just as these three liquids can become unfit for consumption only through inattention,(2) so too the words of the Torah are forgotten only through inattention.


(27) Isa. LV, 1.
(28) Hadrian.
(1) They would be meek and devote themselves even more to their studies.
(2) If one neglects to cover them.


Berakot 61b

Our Rabbis taught: Once the wicked Government (14) issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practise the Torah. Pappus b. Judah came and found R. Akiba publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the Government? He replied: I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors? They replied: Art thou the one that they call the cleverest of animals? Thou art not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die! So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, For that is thy life and the length of thy days,(15) if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be! It is related that soon afterwards R. Akiba was arrested and thrown into prison, and Pappus b. Judah was also arrested and imprisoned next to him. He said to him: Pappus, who brought you here? He replied: Happy are you, R. Akiba, that you have been seized for busying yourself with the Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things! When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven.(16) His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all thy soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if He takes thy soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of(17) fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it? He prolonged the word ehad(18) until he expired while saying it. A bath kol(19) went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, Akiba, that thy soul has departed with the word ehad! The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Such Torah, and such a reward? [He should have been] from them that die by Thy hand, O L-RD.(20) He replied to them: Their portion is in life.(21) A bath kol went forth and proclaimed, Happy art thou, R. Akiba, that thou art destined for the life of the world to come.


(14) I.e., Roman.
(15) Deut. XXX, 20.
(16) I.e., recited the Shema’. V. supra 130.
(17) Lit., ‘when will it come to my hands’.
(18) ‘One’ in Hear, O Israel etc.
(19) V. Glos. [note: a Bat kol = a voice from Heaven]
(20) Ps. XVII, 14. E.V. ‘From men by thy hand, O L-RD’.
(21) Ibid.

This story teaches many things. The parable of the fox and the fish, teach us that Jews are should not leave the environment of the Torah in order to try and be safe. This is, I think, an anti-assimilation message. It also tell us than only through Torah will the Jewish people be able to serve G-d with all of our souls.

Ta’anit 23a

R. Johanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, A Song of Ascents, When the L-RD brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream.11 Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?(12) One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. hereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his ass who had given birth to several generations of mules;(13) and he returned home. He there enquired, Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive? The people answered him, His son is no more, but his grandson is still living. Thereupon he said to them: I am Honi the Circle-Drawer, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Beth Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer, for whenever he came to the Beth Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, I am he; but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died. Raba said: Hence the saying, Either companionship or death.


(11) Ps. CXXVI, 1.
(12) Cf. Jer. XXV, 11; XXIX, 10.
(13) [MS.M. omits the last sentence.]


Bava Metzia 59a-b

We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of ‘Aknai.(1) Why [the oven of] ‘Aknai? — Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments(2) as a snake, and proved it unclean. It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument,(3) but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.'(4) What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.(5)


(1) This refers to an oven, which, instead of being made in one piece, was made in a series of separate portions with a layer of sand between each. R. Eliezer maintains that since each portion in itself is not a utensil, the sand between prevents the whole structure from being regarded as a single utensil, and therefore it is not liable to uncleanness. The Sages however hold that the outer coating of mortar or cement unifies the whole, and it is therefore liable to uncleanness. (This is the explanation given by Maimonides on the Mishnah, Kel. V, 10. Rashi a.l. adopts a different reasoning). ‘Aknai is a proper noun, probably he name of a master, but it also means ‘snake’. (Gr. ** ) which meaning the Talmud proceeds to discuss.
(2) Lit., ‘words’.
(3) Lit., ‘all the arguments in the world’.
(4) Deut. XXX,12.
(5) Ex. XXIII,2; though the story is told in a legendary form, this is a remarkable assertion of the independence of human reasoning.

This story, as well as a verse in Deuteronomy 17:8-10 “If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controvercy over homicide, civil law, or assault–matters of dispute in your courts [in Judaism, all of life if governed by Torah, and is a matter for the courts]–you shall promptly repair to the place that the L-RD your G-d will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrates [judges, prophets, or rabbis, depending on the time] in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you…” G-d, Himself, told us Jews to follow the decisions of the judges of the time, to follow the decisions of the court of rabbis.


All quotes from the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) above, come from the Soncino Talmud. The quote from the Tanakh immediatly above, is from the JPS Tanakh.

I hope this sheds some light on who the Pharisees really were.


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This page was made by Gretchen S., © copyright 1997-2007




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