The Commandments - Impossible to keep?

The Jews of Jesus’s day believed that the only way to be put right with God was by strict observance of all the 613 commandments laid down in the Torah – the Law of Moses.


The Ten Commandments

In the Old Testament, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments that form the basis of the Jewish Law:

“Then God spoke all these words: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt where you were slaves. You must not have any other gods except me… You must not make for yourselves an idol that looks like anything in the sky above or on the earth below… You must not use the name of the LORD your God thoughtlessly… Remember to keep the Sabbath holy… Honour your father and your mother… You must not murder anyone… You must not be guilty of adultery… You must not steal… You must not tell lies about your neighbour… You must not want to take your neighbour’s house… or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’” (Exodus 20:1-17) (see also Deuteronomy 5:1-21)

In order to amplify and expand on these broad instructions, the  religious laws laid down in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy included detailed instructions on, for example, Relationships, Sabbath observance and Food preparation.


Sefer Torah at Glockengasse Synagogue, Cologne (Willy Horst)

Sefer Torah at Glockengasse Synagogue, Cologne  (Willy Horst)


Relationships in the Jewish law

“Do not cheat a widow or an orphan. If you do, and they cry out to me for help, I certainly will hear their cry.” (Exodus 22:22-23)

“Do not cheat or hurt a foreigner, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

“You must not speak against God or curse a leader of your people.” (Exodus 22:28)

“You must not do wrong just because everyone else is doing it.” (Exodus 23:2)


Sabbath observance in the Jewish law

“You should work six days a week, but on the seventh day you must rest.” (Exodus 23:12)

“Anyone who works on that day must be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)

“On the Sabbath day you must not light a fire in any of your houses.” (Exodus 35:3)


Food preparation in the Jewish law

“Don’t eat meat that still has blood in it, because the animal’s life is in its blood.” (Leviticus 17:14)

“You must not offer animal blood along with anything that has yeast in it.” (Exodus 23:18)

“You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19)

“You may [only] eat any animal that has split hoofs completely divided and that chews the cud.” (Leviticus 11:2)

“If any dead, unclean animal falls on something, it becomes unclean. If it is a clay oven or a clay baking pan, it must be broken into pieces.” (Leviticus 11:35)

Permitted food that is prepared and eaten strictly in accordance with the Jewish dietary laws is called 'Kosher'.


Kosher McDonalds restaurant in Ashqelon, Israel (Ingsoc)

Kosher McDonalds restaurant in Ashqelon, Israel  (Ingsoc)


Other Jewish laws

Numerous detailed laws covered virtually every aspect of life, from clothing and hairstyle, to commerce and property laws:

“You must not wear clothing made from two different kinds of material mixed together.” (Leviticus 19:19)

“You must not cut the hair on the sides of your heads or cut the edges of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27)

“Do not cheat when you measure the length or weight or amount of something.” (Leviticus 19:35)

“If someone sells a home in a walled city, for a full year after it is sold the person has the right to buy it back.” (Leviticus 25:29)


To this day, strict orthodox Jews attempt to keep every single commandment and are meticulous, for example, in their food preparation and Sabbath observance.


Two orthodox Jews in Jerusalem in 2013 (Paul Arps)

Two orthodox Jews in Jerusalem  (Paul Arps)


Jesus’s attitude towards keeping the Jewish Law

In the New Testament, Jesus recognised that keeping the minutiae of the Jewish law is not necessarily, in itself, doing what God wants us to do. When Jesus met a rich young man who asked him how to gain eternal life, he replied, initially, that he should obey the Ten Commandments:

“You must not murder anyone; you must not be guilty of adultery; you must not steal; you must not tell lies about your neighbour; honour your father and mother; and love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Matthew 19:16-19)

But the young man said, “I have obeyed all these things. What else do I need to do?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, then go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. If you do this, you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.” But when the young man heard this, he left very sad, because he was rich.” (Matthew 19:20-22)


In this encounter, Jesus showed that, however hard someone tries to keep the Jewish law, you can't be put right with God unless you love your neighbour from the bottom of your heart, and treat them like your own family.

In fact, it’s impossible to keep all the commandments all the time. None of us is perfect, and each one of us ‘sins’ (we go against God’s wishes). Paul says that what the commandments do is tell us that we have sinned: “because no one can be made right with God by following the law. The law only shows us our sin.” (Romans 3:20)


Jesus’s attitude towards Sabbath observance

Jesus objected to the Pharisees’ attempts to impose every detail of the Law, as he saw that mindless slavery to the law could so easily result in uncaring decisions. Nowhere was this more obvious than in keeping the Sabbath law which demanded no ‘work’ be done on the Sabbath.

By interpreting acts of generosity and healing as ‘work’, the Pharisees' legalism prevented good deeds on the Sabbath. When Jesus healed a man with a paralysed hand, the Pharisees were furious that Jesus was doing ‘work’ on the Sabbath. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath day: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy it?’ Jesus looked around at all of them and said to the man, ‘Hold out your hand.’ The man held out his hand, and it was healed. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were very angry and discussed with each other what they could do to Jesus.” (Luke 6:6-11)


Jesus objected to the Pharisees’ whole attitude towards Sabbath observance: “One Sabbath day, as Jesus was walking though some fields of grain, his followers began to pick some grain to eat. The Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Why are your followers doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath Day?’” (Mark 2:23-24)

In response, Jesus reminded them how even King David had disregarded the Jewish law when he ate the holy bread from the Temple. “Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘The Sabbath day was made to help people; they were not made to be ruled by the Sabbath day.'” (Mark 2:25-27)


A field of wheat in Israel

A field of wheat in Israel


Jesus’s attitude towards the Jewish food laws

Jesus also objected to the detailed Jewish food laws which laid out what was regarded as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food. Jesus observed that it’s what comes out of a person that makes him acceptable to God, not what goes in:

The Pharisees “saw some of Jesus’s followers eating food with hands that were not clean, that is, they hadn’t washed them… The Pharisees and the teachers of the law said to Jesus, ‘Why don’t your followers obey the unwritten laws which have been handed down to us? Why do your followers eat their food with hands that are not clean?’” Mark 7:2-5)

After pointing out how the Pharisees had twisted the Jewish law to escape their obligation to care for their elderly parents, Jesus said, “There is nothing that people put into their bodies that makes them unclean. People are made unclean by the things that come out of them.” (Mark 7:15)

Jesus went on to explain that it’s people’s evil deeds that make people ‘unclean’ in God’s eyes, not whether they eat the ‘correct’ foods in the ‘correct’ way: “All these evil things begin inside people, in the heart: evil thoughts, sexual sins, stealing, murder, adultery, greed, evil actions, lying, doing sinful things, jealousy, speaking evil of others, pride and foolish living. All these evil things come from inside and make people unclean.” (Mark 7:21-23)

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