on Matthew 15 :2
Elders - Rulers and magistrates among the Jews. For they wash not their hands - What frivolous nonsense! These Pharisees had nothing which their malice could fasten on in the conduct or doctrine of our blessed Lord and his disciples, and therefore they must dispute about washing of hands! All sorts of Pharisees are troublesome people in religious society; and the reason is, they take more pleasure in blaming others than in amending themselves.
The tradition of the elders - The word παραδοσις, tradition, has occupied a most distinguished place, both in the Jewish and Christian Church. Man is ever fond of mending the work of his Maker; and hence he has been led to put his finishing hand even to Divine revelation! This supplementary matter has been called παραδοσις, from παραδιδομαι, to deliver from hand to hand - to transmit; and hence the Latin term, tradition, from trado, to deliver, especially from one to another; - to hand down. Among the Jews Tradition signifies what is also called the oral law, which they distinguish from the written law: this last contains the Mosaic precepts, as found in the Pentateuch: the former, the traditions of the elders, i.e. traditions, or doctrines, that had been successively handed down from Moses through every generation, but not committed to writing. The Jews feign that, when God gave Moses the written law, he gave him also the oral law, which is the interpretation of the former. This law, Moses at first delivered to Aaron then to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar; and, after these to the seventy-two elders, who were six of the most eminent men chosen out of each of the twelve tribes. These seventy-two, with Moses and Aaron, delivered it again to all the heads of the people, and afterwards to the congregation at large. They say also that, before Moses died, he delivered this oral law, or system of traditions, to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders which succeeded him, They to the Prophets, and the Prophets to each other, till it came to Jeremiah, who delivered it to Baruch his scribe, who repeated it to Ezra, who delivered it to the men of the great synagogue, the last of whom was Simon the Just. By Simon the Just it was delivered to Antigonus of Socho; by him to Jose the son of Jochanan; by him to Jose, the son of Joezer; by him to Nathan the Arbelite, and Joshua the son of Perachiah; and by them to Judah the son of Tabbai, and Simeon, the son of Shatah; and by them to Shemaiah and Abtalion; and by them to Hillel; and by Hillel to Simeon his son, the same who took Christ in his arms when brought to the temple to be presented to the Lord: by Simeon it was delivered to Gamaliel his son, the preceptor of St. Paul, who delivered it to Simeon his son, and he to Rab. Judah Hakkodesh his son, who compiled and digested it into the book which is called the Mishna; to explain which the two Talmuds, called the Jerusalem and Babylyonish Talmuds, were compiled, which are also called the Gemera or complement, because by these the oral law or Mishnah is fully explained. The Jerusalem Talmud was completed about a.d. 300; and the Babylonish Talmud about the beginning of the sixth century. This Talmud was printed at Amsterdam in 12 vols. folio. These contain the whole of the traditions of the elders, and have so explained, or rather frittered away, the words of God, that our Lord might well say, Ye have made the word of God of no effect by your traditions. In what estimation these are held by the Jews, the following examples will prove: "The words of the scribes are lovely beyond the words of the law: for the words of the law are weighty and light, but the words of the scribes are all weighty." Hierus. Berac. fol. 3.
"He that shall say, There are no phylacteries, though he thus transgress the words of the law, he is not guilty; but he that shall say, There are five Totaphot, thus adding to the words of the scribes, he is guilty."
"A prophet and an elder, to what are they likened! To a king sending two of his servants into a province; of one he writes thus: Unless he show you my seal, believe him not; for thus it is written of the prophet: He shall show thee a sign; but of the elders thus: According to the law which they shall teach thee, for I will confirm their words." - See Prideaux. Con. vol. ii. p. 465, and Lightfoot's Hor. Talmud.
They wash not their hands - On washing of hands, before and after meat, the Jews laid great stress: they considered eating with unwashed hands to be no ordinary crime; and therefore, to induce men to do it, they feigned that an evil spirit, called Shibta שיבתא, who sits on the hands by night, has a right to sit on the food of him who eats without washing his hands, and make it hurtful to him! They consider the person who undervalues this rite to be no better than a heathen, and consequently excommunicate him. See many examples of this doctrine in Schoettgen and Lightfoot.
on Matthew 15 :2
Transgress the tradition of the elders - The world "elders" literally means "old men." Here it means the "ancients," or their "ancestors." The "tradition of the elders" meant something handed down from one to another by memory; some precept or custom not commanded in the written law, but which scribes and Pharisees held themselves bound to observe.
They supposed that when Moses was on Mount Sinai two sets of laws were delivered to him: one, they said, was recorded, and is that contained in the Old Testament; the other was handed down from father to son, and kept uncorrupted to their day. They believed that Moses, before he died, delivered this law to Joshua; he to the Judges; they to the prophets; so that it was kept pure until it was recorded in the Talmuds. In these books these pretended laws are now contained. They are exceedingly numerous and very trifling. They are, however, regarded by the Jews as more important than either Moses or the prophets.
One point in which the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees was in holding to these traditions. It seems, however, that in the particular traditions mentioned here, all the Jews were united; for Mark adds Mark 7:3 that "the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders." Mark has also added that this custom of washing extended not merely to their hands before eating, but in coming from the market; and also to cups, and pots, and brass vessels, and tables, Mark 7:3-4. They did this professedly for the sake of cleanliness. So far it was well. But they also made it a matter of superstition. They regarded external purity as of much more importance than the purity of the heart. They had many foolish rules about it respecting the quantity of water that was to be used, the way in which it should be applied, the number of times it should be changed, the number of those that might wash at a time, etc. Our Saviour did not think it proper to regard these rules, and this was the reason why they "found fault" with him.
on Matthew 15 :2
15:2 The elders - The chief doctors or, teachers among the Jews.