Commentary on Matthew 5:13-14

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Translator’s Preface

The following was translated from Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament on the Basis of the Talmud and Midrash), vol. 1, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (The Gospel According to Matthew) (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1922), p. 232-238.

I translated it to help with sermon preparation for Epiphany 5, when the appointed Gospel is Matthew 5:13-20. It will also serve as the starting point for the February 2013 posts on my blog Jeshua at Bread for Beggars.

For more information on the authors, click herehere, or here.

If you would prefer a PDF version of this translation (especially for reading the Hebrew), you may download one here.

The numbered endnotes are original; the ones marked by symbols (*, †, etc.) are mine.

An acquaintance of mine, after hearing how much the ancients used and valued salt, said that a “preacher could spend the entire sermon just talking about how great salt is. Then, all he’d have to do is conclude by saying, ‘See, that’s how great Jesus thinks you are.'” May the translation that follows underscore this truth, which is only true through the purifying and preserving blood of Jesus.

Commentary on Matthew 5:13-14

5:13a. You are the salt of the earth.

1. Different types of salt

a. Sodomitic salt (מֶלַח סְדוֹמִית), produced by the evaporating saltwater of the Dead Sea, was considered to be especially sharp and was used for salting the offerings.1

Josephus mentions it only in passing in Antiquities 13, 4, 9. Here King Demetrius II includes the λίμνας τῶν ἁλῶν, i.e. the salt pools of the Dead Sea, in the inventory of revenue sources on whose earnings he was renouncing his claim as a favor to Jonathan the High Priest (161-143 bc); likewise in 1 Maccabees 11:35.

‘Erubin 17b: “Abaye [d. 338/339 ad] stated: This [i.e. the stipulation in ‘Erubin 1:10 (17a Mishnah) that the troops serving in the field were exempt from washing their hands at mealtime] was taught only in respect of the washing before a meal [lit.: the first water], but the washing after a meal [lit.: the second water] is obligatory. R. Hiyya b. Ashi [c. 270] stated: Why did the Rabbis rule that washing after a meal is obligatory? Because of the Sodomitic salt that [when it gets onto the hands from the food, and then from the hands into the eyes] causes blindness.”2 In Hullin 105b R. Hiyya b. Ashi’s question is instead asked by R. Judah b. Hiyya, c. 240.3

Sifre to Leviticus 2:13 (54a): “‘You shall salt all your grain offerings with salt’ (Lev 2:13). ‘With salt’ – One might think that he should just give it somewhat of a salty flavor [for which only a little salt would be necessary]; therefore it also says, ‘You shall salt’ [i.e. the combination במלח תמלח is meant to teach that the offering should be heavily salted]. If it only said, ‘You should salt’ [without the addition of ‘with salt’], then one might think that it should be done with brine; therefore it says, ‘with salt.’ ‘You shall not let salt be missing [תשבית]’ (Lev 2:13), that is, use salt that does not take a break [שובתת]. What kind of salt is that? That is Sodomitic salt [for the Dead Sea does not observe the Sabbath; it produces salt through evaporation day in and day out].” This is a Baraitha in Menahoth 21a;4 it appears in abridged form in Tosefta, Menahoth 9:15 (526).

b. Salt from Ostrakine (Ὀστρακίνη; Latin: Ostracena),5 a city on the Palestinian-Egyptian border (מֶלַח אִסְתְּרוֹקָנִית).

Sifre to Leviticus 2:13 (continuation from the citation in note a): “Why may one use salt from Ostrakine if he has no Sodomitic salt? Because it says at the end of the verse [Lev 2:13], ‘You shall offer salt’ – salt in the broadest sense of the word.” The same is found in Tosefta, Menahoth 9:15 and Menahoth 21a.6

The salt from Ostrakine is also contrasted with Sodomitic salt in other cases. Baba Bathra 20b: “Rab [d. 247] said: A partition may be made with anything save salt and grease. Samuel [d. 254] said: Even with salt. R. Papa [d. 376] said: There is no conflict between them [Rab and Samuel]; one speaks of Sodomitic salt and the other of the salt of Ostrakine.”7 Rashi remarks on this: “The Sodomitic salt was as firm and hard as a rock.” The same sentence is used to settle a different disagreement in Bezah 39a.8

c. Seasoned salt (מֶלַח סַלְקוֹנְטִית), probably = sal conditum (seasoned salt). For other spellings and definitions, see at Levy, Neuhebräisches und Chaldäisches Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midraschim 3:538a, and Krauss, Griechische und Lateinisch Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum 2:396.

‘Abodah Zarah 2:6 (35b Mishnah): “The following articles of heathens are prohibited but the prohibition does not extend to all use of them [but only to the enjoyment of them]: milk which a heathen milked without an Israelites watching him; their bread and oil – Rabbi [Judah II Nesiah] and his court permitted the oil – stewed, and preserved foodstuffs into which they are accustomed to put wine or vinegar, pickled herring which has been been minced, brine in which there is no kalbith-fish floating,  helek [a sauce made from small fish], drops of asafetida, and sal-conditum [seasoned salt]. Behold, these are prohibited but the prohibition does not extend to all use of them.9 For the explanation, see at Strack, ‘Abodah Zarah (1909), p. 8f.

Tosefta, ‘Abodah Zarah 4:12 (467): “Black seasoned salt is permitted, but white is prohibited. Thus said R. Meir [c. 150]. R. Judah [c. 150] said black is prohibited, but white is permitted. R. Judah b. Gamaliel [c. 250] said in the name of R. Hananiah b. Gamaliel [c. 120] that both were prohibited.” This appears as a Baraitha in ‘Abodah Zarah 39b; here Rabbah b. Bar Hanah appends the remark in the name of R. Johanan (d. 279): “In the opinion of him who declared the white to be prohibited, the intestines of unclean white fish are mixed with it; in the opinion of him who declared the black to be prohibited, the intestines of unclean black fish are mixed with it; and in the opinion of him who declared both kinds to be prohibited, [the intestines of] both species of fish are mixed with them.”10 It also appears as a Baraitha in JT ‘Abodah Zarah 2:9 Gemara,11 but is established anonymously.

‘Abodah Zarah 39b: “What is sal-conditum [מלח סלקונדרית]? Rab Judah [d. 299] said in the name of Samuel [d. 254]: Salt of which all סַלְקוּנְדְּרֵי of Rome partake.”12 Rashi defines the foreign word as נַחְתּוֹמִין, “bakers, confectioners,” and so has sal conditum (seasoned salt) in mind. Levy, Neuhebräisches und Chaldäisches Wörterbuch 3:538, emends the word to סלוקתי: salt with which one enjoys all boiled foods in Rome. Fleischer, cited in Levy 3:724b, thinks the word is a derivative of σαλάκων and translates: a type of salt enjoyed by all the pompous people of Rome – probably because it is more rare and expensive than other salt.

d. Rock salt (?) (מִילְחָא גְלָלָנִיתָא) = salt formed in lumps, coarse salt.

Hullin 113a: “R. Dimi of Nehardea [c. 320] used to salt meat with coarse salt and then shake it off.”13

Kiddushin 62a: “What is the meaning of, ‘ye shall be fed with the sword’ [Isa 1:20]? — Said Raba [d. 352]: Coarse salt, hard baked barley bread, and onions; for a Master said: Stale bread baked in a large oven with salt and onions is as harmful to the body as swords.”14

2. Uses for salt

Joshua ben Sirach includes salt in the most basic necessities of life (Sirach 39:26): “water and fire and iron and salt, wheat flour, milk and honey, the blood of the grape, oil, and clothing.” If one disregards this use of salt for the preparation of human nourishment, then the rabbinic literature still mentions the following possible uses:

a. All offerings were salted; see at Mark 9:49.

b. Middoth 5:3 attests the curing of animal hides with salt: “There were six chambers in the azarah [outer court], three on the north and three on the south. On the north were the Salt Chamber, the Parwah Chamber [פַּרְוָה apparently was the name of the builder] and the Washers Chamber [for washing off the sacrificial meat]. In the Salt Chamber they used to keep the salt for the offerings. In the Parwah Chamber they used to salt the skins of the animal-offerings [these belonged to the priests]…”15 The Baraitha in Menahoth 21b is at variance: “And so you find that salt was used in three places: in the salt chamber, on the ascent [on the south side of the altar of burnt offering, 32 cubits long and 16 cubits wide, according to Middoth 3:316] and at the head of [or on top of] the altar. In the salt chamber…they used to salt the hides of animal-offerings; on the ascent…they used to salt the sacrificial meat; at the head of [or on] the altar…they used to salt the handful [the memorial portion taken from grain offering], the frankincense, the incense-offering, the meal-offering of the priests, the anointed [High] Priest’s meal-offering, the meal-offering that is offered with the drink-offerings, and the burnt-offering of a bird!”17 King Antiochus’ letter in Josephus, Antiquities 12, 3, 3, shows what amounts of salt were required for the temple supply. In the letter he orders that 375 medimni (Greek bushels)* of salt be delivered to the temple.

c. ‘Erubin 10:14 (104a Mishnah): “Salt may be scattered [on the Sabbath] on the altar’s ascent that the priests shall not slip.18

d. Shabbath 6:5 (64b Mishnah): “A woman may go out [on the Sabbath, without making herself guilty of desecrating the day]…with a peppercorn, with a globule of salt [in her mouth, for potential toothaches]…”19

e. Sotah 9:14 (49a Mishnah): “During the war with Vespasian they [the rabbis] decreed against [the use of] crowns worn by bridegrooms and against [the use of] the drum.20 The Gemara comments on this in 49b: “Rab [d. 247] said: [The decree against the use of a crown] applies only to one made of salt and brimstone, but if made of myrtle or roses it is permitted; and Samuel [d. 254] said: Also one made of myrtle or roses is prohibited, but if made of reeds or rushes it is permitted; and Levi [ben Sisi, c. 200, is meant] said: Also one made of reeds or rushes is prohibited. Similarly taught Levi in his [personal collection of] Mishnah: It is also prohibited if made of reeds or rushes.”21 Rashi comments on this passage: “They were made of salt because it is as clear as a gemstone… They were made of brimstone because they looked like crown made of gold and silver.”† Johann Christoph Wagenseil conveys the following tradition: “The crowns of bridegrooms were made from sulfur and salt in order that they might call to mind once again the sin of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, who were perversely yielding themselves entirely to adulteries and to the sexual love of males, and for that reason had to bear the penalty of having their land turned into salt and sulfur. Therefore those crowns of salt and sulfur were warning the bridegroom that he should cling to his wife and guard himself against the sins of the men of Sodom.”‡

f. Sukkah 48b Baraitha: “It once happened that a certain Sadducee poured the water libation over his feet [on the Feast of Tabernacles, instead of into the silver basin on the altar] and all the people pelted him with their ethrogs [probably oranges, which were part of the makeup of the לוּלָב, the festive wreath or bundle for the Feast of Tabernacles]. On that day [as a result of the disturbance] the horn of the altar became damaged, and a handful of salt was brought and it [the damaged spot] was stopped up, not because the altar was thereby rendered valid for the service, but merely in order that it should not appear damaged, for an altar which has not the ascent, the horn [sharp corner], the base and the square shape is invalid for the service. R. Jose b. Judah [c. 180] adds, Also [it must have] the circuit [or ledge; סוֹבֵב corresponds to כַּרְכֹּב in Exodus 27:5].”22 The same is found in Zebahim 62a;23 the beginning comes from Sukkah 4:9 (48b Mishnah).24

g. Shabbath 67b Baraitha: “A lump of salt may be placed in a lamp in order that it should burn [more] brightly…”25

h. The custom of rubbing newborn children with salt, taken as a given in Ezekiel 16:4, is utilized as Halacha in Shabbath 129b: “R. Nahman [d. 320] also said in Rabbah b. Abbuha’s [c. 270] name in Rab’s [d. 247] name: All that is mentioned in the chapter of rebuke [namely Ezekiel 16] may be done for a new mother on the Sabbath. As it is said, And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, neither were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not salted at all, nor wrapped up at all [Eze 16:14]. ‘And as for your birth, on the day you were born’: hence a person may assist with the birth of a child on the Sabbath; ‘your cord was not cut’: hence the navel-cord may be cut on the Sabbath: ‘neither were you washed in water to cleanse you’: hence the infant may be washed on the Sabbath; ‘you were not salted at all’: hence the infant may be rubbed with salt on the Sabbath; ‘nor wrapped up at all’: hence the infant may be wrapped on the Sabbath.”26

3. Salt as a picture of utter devastation and destruction, as it is in Deuteronomy 29:23; Judges 9:45; Jeremiah 17:6; Zephaniah 2:9; and Job 39:6.

Midrash on Lamentations, Introduction 9 (31b): “R. Isaac [c. 300] opened his lecture with Jeremiah 51:51. — You will find that when the enemies penetrated into Jerusalem, the Ammonites and Moabites penetrated with them. ‘Heathens…who should not come into the assembly [= Ammonites and Moabites (Dt 23:3)] came into the sanctuary’ [Lam 1:10]. There they found the two cherubim. They took them, placed them in a basket, and carried them through the streets of Jerusalem calling out, ‘Have you not said that this nation worships no idols? Now see what we have found in their possession and what they have worshiped! Then all people are just like yourselves!’ For it says, ‘Because Moab and Seir say, “Look, the house of Judah is like all other nations,”’ etc. [Eze 25:8]. At that hour God swore that he would exterminate them from the world by the very roots. For it says, ‘Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah…a salt pit and wasteland forever.’”

JT Qiddushin 4:1 Gemara: “‘These are they who came up from Tel-Melah, Tel-Harsha…and they were not able to show that their family and their seed were descended from Israel’ [Ezr 2:59]. R. Levi [c. 300] said in the name of R. Simeon b. Laqish [c. 250], ‘They were worthy of being turned into a hill of salt [Tel-Melah]; only the Divine Righteousness, the Hill of Silence [Tel-Harsha], kept silent in their favor.’”27

Yoma 54a: “R. Jose said: For seven years sulphur and salt [Dt 29:22] prevailed in the land of Israel.”28 Cf. Pesikta 114a besides the parallels.

4. Salt as a purifying, seasoning, and preservative agent (cf. Job 6:6).

Berakoth 5a (according to the unabridged text from Dikduke Soferim, cited in Wilhelm Bacher, Die Agada der Palästinensischen Amoräer 1:355): “R. Simeon b. Lakish [c. 250] said: The word ‘covenant’ is mentioned in connection with salt and with chastisements [sufferings]: In connection with salt, as it is written, ‘Neither shall you let the salt of the covenant to be lacking with your grain offering’ [Lev 2:13]. And in connection with chastisements, as it is written, ‘These are the words of the covenant’ [Dt 29:1]. [This passaged does not fit; using Dikduke Soferim, Bacher refers to Ezekiel 20:37: ‘I will bring you into the discipline of the covenant.’] As in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt makes the offering fit [for offering to God], so in the covenant mentioned in connection with chastisements, the chastisements make the sin fit [for forgiveness]. As the salt purifies the meat, so the chastisements purify the entire body of a man.”29

Niddah 31a Baraitha: “When his time to depart from the world approaches the Holy One, blessed be He, takes away his share [the soul] and the share of his parents [the body] remains lying before them. R. Papa [d. 376] observed: It is this that people have in mind when they say, ‘Shake off the salt and cast the flesh to the dog.’”30

Maseketh Soferim 15:8: “The Torah is like salt, the Mishnah like pepper, the Gemara like spices. The world cannot continue without salt, pepper, or spices, and the rich man enjoys all three in his sustenance. So too the world cannot continue without Scripture, the Mishnah, or the Gemara.”

Philo, De Sacrificantibus §6 (Mangey edition, 2:255): Μετὰ ταῦτά φησιν, Ἐπὶ παντὸς δώρου προσοίσετε ἅλας· δι᾽ οὗ, καθάπερ καὶ πρότερον εἶπον, τὴν εἰς ἅπαν διαμονὴν αἰνίττεται. Φυλακτήριον γὰρ οἱ ἅλες σωμάτων, τετιμημένοι ψυχῆς δευτερείοις. Ὡς γὰρ αἰτία τοῦ μὴ διαφθείρεσθαι τὰ σώματα ψυχὴ καὶ οἱ ἅλες ἐπὶ πλεῖστον αὐτὰ συνέχοντες καὶ τρόπον τινὰ ἀθανατίζοντες. “After this it says, ‘Add salt to every offering’ [Lev 2:13]. He thereby figuratively implies an absolute duration, just as I said before. For salts are a preservative for bodies, having been judged worthy of second place only to the soul. For as the soul is a cause of bodies not being destroyed, so are salts, since they keep bodies intact to the greatest extent and, in a way, make them immortal.”

Shabbath 31a: “Raba [d. 352] said, When man is led in for [divine] Judgment he is asked, Did  you buy and sell in honesty? Did you make time for study of the Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you watch for the [messianic] salvation? Did you debate [the Halacha] with wisdom? Did you explain one word on the basis of another? And even if he has, if ‘the fear of the Lord is his treasure’ [Isa 33:6], then it will go well; but if not, then not. It is like a man who instructed his agent, ‘Bring a cor of wheat to the loft for me,’ and he went and brought it up. He then said to the agent, ‘Did you mix in a cab of salt-sand [חוּמְטוֹן, in order to preserve the grain]?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Then it would have been better if you had not brought it up,’ he retorted.”31

5. A proverb of Jerusalem (Kethuboth 66b Baraitha;32 Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 17), which stems already from the time of Jesus, very closely resembles the form of Jesus’ words here. It has been handed down in two versions:

a. “The salt of money is want” (מלח ממון חסר). The proverb could mean that only when a person has experienced want does he know how to value money. However, this sense does not fit in the context. The proverb is the answer to the question that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai (d. c. 80) directed at the daughter of Nakdomon b. Gorion: “What has become of the wealth of your father’s house?” It must therefore contain an assertion about the spending of money. So Rashi probably hit upon the right sense: “Whoever wants to salt his money, i.e. wants to make it so that his wealth retains permanence, he should always let it get lost to alms. Its loss is its permanence.” If this interpretation hits upon the actual sense of the proverb, then the second version only appears to be a reading intended to make the meaning more easily understood:

b. “The salt of money is benevolence” (מלח ממון חסד): Riches only have worth and duration when they are used to practice mercy.

In the same way Jesus’ disciples are to be the salt of the earth. They should impart the value of eternity to humanity and thus make them to be of eternal worth.

What is new and, as far as we can tell, without analogy in ancient Jewish literature is the personal slant that Jesus has given to the picture: Humans are to be a salt.

5:13b. But if salt becomes insipid, with what shall it be salted (ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται)?

Bekoroth 8b: (R. Joshua b. Hanania, c. 90, is asked by the wise men of the Athenian school in Rome:) “‘Tell us some stories [fables].’ He said to them: ‘There was a [female] mule which gave birth, and round its neck was a document in which was written, “There is a claim against my father’s house of one hundred thousand zuz.”’ They asked him: ‘Can a mule give birth?’ He answered them: ‘This is one of those stories [you asked for].’ [Then they asked him:] ‘When salt becomes unsavory, wherewith is it salted [מילחא כי סריא במאי מלחי לה]?’ He replied: ‘With the after-birth of a mule.’ ‘And is there an after-birth of a mule [if a mule cannot give birth in the first place]?’ [He replied:] ‘And can salt become unsavory?’”33 The reference to Matthew 5:13 stands out so clearly that one cannot help but see in the entire passage a cynical mockery of Mary and Jesus. The implication is this: The salt of Israel never becomes insipid and thus does not need any freshening, least of all by a man like Jesus!**

5:13c. Except to be poured out.

Cf. the saying in Niddah 31a Baraitha above.

5:14a. You are the light of the world.

In rabbinical literature “light of the world” is expressed by נֵרוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם and אוֹרוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם. The original distinction between נר and אור – namely that the former designates that which produces the light, the lamp, and the latter the bright and shining light itself, the flame34 – has not been upheld in the combination above. Rf. 2 Samuel 21:17, where David is called נר ישראל already at that time.

The following are designated as “light” or “lamp of the world”:

a. God. Midrash Tanhuma בהעלותךi204a: “‘When you set up the lamps’ [Num 8:2]. This is also what Psalm 18:28 means: ‘You make my lamp bright.’ The Israelites spoke in God’s presence: ‘Lord of the world, you say that we should make bright [light up] before you, but it is you who are the lamp of the world [נרו של עולם], and light dwells with you [Dan 2:22], yet you say, “When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps should light the area in front of the lampstand” [Num 8:2]!’ God said to them: ‘It is not as though I have need of you. You should rather shine for me as I have shone for you [with the pillar of cloud during the wandering in the wilderness]. For what purpose? In order to exalt you [make you glorious] before all nations, so that they say, “See how Israel shines for the One who shines for all!”’” In the parallels, Midrash Tanhuma B בהעלותךi§5 (24a) and Numbers Rabbah 15:5, God is not called נרו של עולם, but אורו של עולם, “light of the world.”35 In Exodus Rabbah 36:2 there is no corresponding designation for God.36

b. Individual humans. JT Shabbat 2:6 Gemara: “The first man was the lamp of the world [נרו של עולם], as it is written, ‘The soul of Adam was a lamp of the Lord’ [Pr 20:27; thus probably the Midrash]. Since Eve caused him to die, therefore the requirement concerning the [kindling of the Sabbath] lamp [מצות הנר] was assigned to the woman.”37 In Genesis Rabbah 17:8 there is no designation of Adam as “lamp of the world.”38

Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 25: “When the time came for Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai [d. c. 80] to depart this world, he raised his voice and began to weep. His students said to him, ‘Rabbi, exalted pillar, lamp of the world [נר עולם], mighty hammer, why do you weep?’” The parallel passage in Berakoth 28b has נר ישראל instead of נר עולם, in keeping with 2 Samuel 21:17.39

c. Israel. Midrash on Song of Songs 1:3 (85a): “As the oil of the world produces light, so is Israel the light for the world [אורה לעולם], as it is written, ‘Nations will journey to your light’ [Isa 60:3].” Cf. Exodus Rabbah 36:1: “Our forefathers were accordingly called ‘a leafy olive tree’ [Jer 11:16] because they gave light to all.”40

Midrash on Song of Songs 1:15 (94a): “As the dove of the world brought light [rf. Gen 8:11], so you too [Israel] should bring light to the world, as it is written, ‘Nations will journey to your light’ [Isa 60:3].” According to the parallel passage in Midrash Tanhuma B תצוהi§1 (48b), R. Isaac, c. 300, is the author of this statement.

d. The Torah and the temple. Baba Bathra 4a: “[After Herod I had the rabbis killed, he asked Baba b. Buta:] Now tell me what amends I can make. He replied: As you have extinguished the light of the world [אורו של עולם], as it is written, For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah a light [Pr 6:23], go now and attend to the light of the world [אורו של עולם, namely the temple], of which it is written, All nations will journey to it [Isa 2:2].”41

e. Jerusalem. Genesis Rabbah 59:5: “Jerusalem is the light of the world [אורו של עולם], as it says, And nations shall journey to your light [Isa 60:3]; and who is the light of Jerusalem? God, as it is written, The Lord shall be your light [Isa 60:20].”42

Just as the rabbis speak of the lamp or light of the world, so they also speak of the lamp or light of Israel:

‘Arakin 10a: “[Rabbi] answered [his son Simeon]: Light of Israel [נר ישראל]! So it was!”43 For more, see Berakoth 28b above in note b.

Midrash on Psalm 22 §3 (91a): “As the scent of myrtle is pleasant but its taste is bitter, so Mordecai and Esther were a light for Israel [אור לישראל] but darkness for the peoples of the world.”

The synonym בוֹצִינָא can also substitute for נר and אור:

JT Shabbat 6:9 Gemara: “R. Jonah [c. 350] and R. Yosé [c. 350] went up to visit R. Aha [c. 320], who was failing. They said, ‘We shall follow the counsel of an echo [here = omen].’ They [then] heard a woman saying to her friend, ‘Has the light [בוצינה] gone out?’ The other said to her, ‘It will not go out!’ And the light of Israel [בוציניהון דישראל = R. Aha] did not go out.”44

Genesis Rabbah 85:4: “‘And Judah saw there the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua’ [Gen 38:2]. She was the daughter [read בת with the Targum Onkelos instead of בר] of a merchant who was the lamp of that place [בוצינא דאתרא].”i45

It is said of the righteous in general, in Pesahim 8a: “To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah [Divine Being]? To a lamp [נר] in the presence of a torch [אַבוּקָה].”i46

The expression “sun of a righteous man” (שמשו של צדיק), which has been cited more than once, does not belong in this discussion. It occurs, for example, in Genesis Rabbah 58:2: “[R. Abba b. Kahana, c. 310, said]: [B]efore the Holy One, blessed be He, causes the sun of one righteous man to set, he causes the sun of another righteous man to rise. Thus, on the day that R. Akiba died [d. c. 135], our Teacher [namely, Rabbi] was born…”47

5:14b. A city on a mountain cannot be hidden.

In Megillah 3b, a city “situated on the top of a mountain” (דיתבה בראש ההר) is contrasted with another which “is situated in a valley” (שיושבת בנחל). The passage reads: “R. Joshua b. Levi [c. 250] said: A [fortified] city [כָּרָךְ] and all that adjoins it and all that is taken in by the eye with it is treated as [a fortified] city. [The suburbs are reckoned as the city.] A Tanna commented: Adjoining, even if it is not visible, and visible even if it is not adjoining [is treated as a city]. Now we understand what is meant by ‘visible even though not adjoining’: this can occur for instance with a city situated on the top of a mountain. But how can there be ‘adjoining but not visible’? R. Jeremiah [c. 320] replied: If [the city] is situated in a valley.”48

One example of a city situated on a mountain was Sepphoris. Megillah 6a: “Zeira [c. 250] said: Kitron [Jdg 1:30] is Sepphoris. And why is it called Sepphoris? Because it is perched on the top of a mountain like a bird [שיושבת בראש ההר כצפור].”i49

Pesikta Rabbati 8 (29a): “‘I am making a thorough search of Jerusalem with lamps’ [Zph 1:12]. The Israelites said, ‘Lord of the world, when will you do this?’ He replied, ‘When I have done what was written first: “On that day, declares the Lord, a loud cry will go up from the Fish Gate,” and so on [Zph 1:10f].’ ‘A loud cry from the Fish Gate’ – that applies to Akko, which lies in the lap of the fish. ‘Wailing from the second city [i.e. the new quarter of the city]’ – that applies to Lydda, which was second to Jerusalem. ‘A loud crash from the hills’ – that applies to Sepphoris, which is situated on hills [שנתונה בגבעות]. ‘Mourn, you inhabitants of the mortar’ – that applies to Tiberias, which is deep like a mortar. God said, ‘When I have carried out my judgement on those four places for what the idolaters have done in them, in that hour I will make a thorough search of Jerusalem with lamps.’” This interpretation is also familiar to Rashi in his commentary on Zephaniah 1:10f. Heinrich Graetz, in Geschichte der Juden (2nd ed.) 4, 490f, applies it to the destruction of the aforenamed cities by Gallus.


1 Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie 1:119, thinks that the Sodomite salt was “salt mined from the salt mountains near the Dead Sea.”

2 Soncino, 117, alt.

3 Ibid., 584.

4 Ibid., 135-136.

5 Thus Krauss, Griechische und Lateinisch Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum 2:99 and Talmudische Archäologie 1:500. Dalman has Istrian (?) salt (Istrisches [?] Salz).

6 Soncino, 136.

7 Ibid., 102, alt.

8 Ibid., 195.

9 Ibid., 171-172.

10 Ibid., 195.

11 Neusner, 92.

12 Soncino, 195, alt.

13 Ibid., 620.

14 Ibid., 310-311.

15 Ibid., 21-22.

16 Ibid., 12.

17 Ibid., 137.

* In Attic medimni, this would be about 559 US bushels.

18 Soncino, 723.

19 Ibid., 306. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, said that the popular wisdom of his day maintained “that teeth neither rot nor decay if one daily while fasting in the morning keeps a piece of salt under the tongue until it melts” (Book 31, Chapter 45). The context of this mishnaic quote makes clear that this wouldn’t be taking place in the morning, since the peppercorn or salt globule had to be placed in the woman’s mouth before the Sabbath, which commenced at 6 p.m. on Friday. However, the practice of placing salt in the mouth to help one’s teeth could have been a more general one among the Jews. – trans.

20 Ibid., 265.

21 Ibid., 267-268.

† The Soncino edition also includes this note: “Rashi explains that it was a crown cut out of a block of salt upon which figures were traced with brimstone” (ibid., 267, fn. 9).

‡ The particular work of Wagenseil in which he conveys this tradition is not given.

22 Ibid., 229.

23 Ibid., 306.

24 Ibid., 226-227.

25 Ibid., 322.

26 Ibid., 647-648, alt.

27 Cf. Neusner, 188,189.

28 Soncino, 253.

29 Cf. ibid., 19. The Hebrew of the Soncino only has one comparison, which reads: “As in the convenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt makes the meat more palatable, so in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.”

30 Ibid., 214, alt.

31 Cf. ibid., 141-142.

32 Ibid., 405.

33 Ibid., 53, alt.

** The mockery of Jesus seems more perceptible here than the mockery of Mary by comparing her to a mule. But since neither is explicit, the reader must be careful not to make absolute assumptions.

34 Midrash on Psalm 22 §3 (91a): “According to common custom, a man lights the lamp [הנר] in his palace. Is it possible for him to say, ‘So and so, who is my friend, may enjoy [avail himself of] the light of the lamp [לאור הנר], but my enemy may not enjoy the light of the lamp’? No, all enjoy it at the same time.”

35 Sonc. MR, 645.

36 Ibid., 439.

37 Cf. Neusner, 93.

38 Sonc. MR, 139.

39 Soncino, 173.

40 Sonc. MR, 438.

41 Soncino, 11, alt.

42 Sonc. MR, 519, alt.

43 Soncino, 53.

44 Neusner, 180, alt.

45 Sonc. MR, 791, alt.

46 Soncino, 32.

47 Sonc. MR, 509.

48 Soncino, 14.

49 Ibid., 27.

Commentary on Luke 7:36-50

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Translator’s Preface

The following was translated from Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament on the Basis of the Talmud and Midrash), vol. 2, Das Evangelium nach Markus, Lukas und Johannes und die Apostelgeschichte (The Gospel According to Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles) (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1961), p. 162-163.

I translated it to help with sermon preparation for Pentecost 4, when the appointed Gospel is Luke 7:36-50. It will also serve as the starting point for the June 2013 post on my blog Jeshua at Bread for Beggars.

For more information on the authors, click herehere, or here.

If you would prefer a PDF version of this translation (especially for reading the Hebrew), you may download one here.

May the Holy Spirit use what follows to give the Christian readers a better understanding of the context of the sinful woman’s anointing of Jesus, so that we, like she, may love much because we have been forgiven much.

Commentary on Luke 7:36-50

7:37. And behold, a woman in the city, a sinner, when she learned…

γυνὴ ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἁμαρτωλός, καὶ ἐπιγνοῦσα. This is a complex sentence like those found in rabbinical literature: אשה שבעיר חוטאה כשׂירעה = a woman in the city, a sinner, when she learned. ἁμαρτωλός should therefore not be taken as a predicate of ἦν, but as an appositive to γυνή. — γυνὴ ἁμαρτωλός can refer very generally to a woman whose character fell short of the pharisaic standards.

Cf. Kethuboth 72a Mishnah: “These are to be divorced without receiving their kethubah [marriage contract or settlement]: A wife who transgresses the Law of Moses or [one who transgresses] Jewish practice [דַּת משׁה ויהודית]. And what is [regarded as a wife’s transgression against] the Law of Moses? Feeding her husband with untithed food [Num 18:21-32], having intercourse with him during the period of her menstruation [Lev 18:19], not setting apart her dough offering [Num 15:18-21], or making vows and not fulfilling them [Dt 23:21-23]. And what is [deemed to be a wife’s transgression against] Jewish practice? Going out with uncovered head, spinning in the street [and thereby exposing her bare arms], or conversing [flirtatiously] with every man. Abba Saul [c. 150] said: [Such transgressions include] also that of a wife who curses her husband’s parents in his presence. R. Tarfon [c. 100] said: Also one who screams [קוֹלְנִית]. And who is regarded a screamer? A woman whose voice can be heard by her neighbors when she speaks inside her house.”1 — Parallel passage: Tosefta, Kethuboth 7:6f. — For an explanation of the Mishnah, see JT Ketubot 7:6 Gemara;2 Kethuboth 72a,b.3

However, it appears that γυνὴ ἁμαρτωλός should be taken more specifically as referring to a prostitute. Even the verb חָטָא,iחֲטָא is used in an absolute sense to mean to live unchastely or to engage in sexual immorality.

JT Ta‘anit 1:4 Gemara: “A certain ass-driver appeared before the rabbis [in a dream] and prayed, and rain came. The rabbis sent and brought him and said to him, ‘What is your trade?’ He said to them, ‘I am an ass-driver.’ They said to him, ‘What good deed have you done?’ He said to them, ‘One time I rented my ass to a certain woman, and she was weeping on the way, and I said to her, “What troubles you?” She said to me, “The husband of that woman [me] is in prison [for debt], and I want to see what I can do to free him.” [She wanted to yield to prostitution in order to use the proceeds to get him out.] So I sold my ass and I gave her the proceeds, and I said to her, “Here is your money, free your husband, but do not sin [ולא תחטיי] [by becoming a prostitute to raise the necessary funds].”’ They said to him, ‘You are worthy of praying and having your prayers answered.’”4 — Then follows a second story, similar in content, with the same encouragement to the woman in the story: לא תחטיי. Shabbath 55b: “R. Samuel b. Nahman [c. 260] said in R. Jonathan’s [c. 220] name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned [חטא; rf. Gen 35:22] is merely making an error.”5 The same assertion is made about David in reference to 2 Samuel 11:4 in Shabbath 56a,6 and about the sons of Eli in reference to 1 Samuel 2:22 in Yoma 9a.7 • Siphre to Leviticus 20:15 (371a): “If the man has sinned [חטא; rf. Lev 20:15f], what sin has the animal committed [חטאה]?” For more, see Pesahim 113a at Matthew 19:22, p. 826.

7:37b. A small alabaster bottle of anointing oil.

See at Matthew 26:7.

7:38a. Standing behind at his feet.

The feet of those reclining at the table were stretched out behind them on the cushion; see the excursus “An Ancient Jewish Banquet” [Ein altjüdisches Gastmahl].

7:38b. She kissed his feet.

See at Matthew 26:49, p. 995f. [What follows are two quotes from that section.]

Sanhedrin 27b: “Thereupon Bar Hama [who was accused of murder] arose and kissed his [R. Papi’s, c. 360] feet [since he had R. Papi to thank for his acquittal], and undertook to pay his poll-tax for him for the rest of his life.”8 • JT Pe’ah 1:1 Gemara: “R. Yannai and R. Jonathan [c. 220] were in session. Someone came and kissed the feet of R. Jonathan [out of thankfulness]. R. Yannai said to him, ‘What is the meaning of this [honor that] he pays you today?’ [Jonathan] said to him, ‘One time he came to complain to me about his son, so that the son would support him. I said to him to go to the synagogue and get some people to rebuke him [and tell him to support his father].’”9

7:41. A devout man had two debtors.

A rabbinical parable about a devout man who had two debtors is found in ‘Abodah Zarah 4a: “R. Abbahu [c. 300 in Caesarea] commended R. Safra [a Babylonian, c. 320] to the Minim [מינין, “heretics”; here: Christians] as a learned man, and he was thus exempted by them from paying taxes [in Caesarea] for thirteen years. One day, on coming across him, they said to him, ‘It is written: You only have I known [or loved] from all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities [Amos 3:2]. If one is in anger does one vent it on one’s friend?’ But he was silent and could give them no answer; so they wound a scarf round his neck and tortured him. When R. Abbahu came and found him [in that state] he said to them, ‘Why do you torture him?’ Said they, ‘Have you not told us that he is a great man? He cannot explain to us the meaning of this verse!’ Said he, ‘I may have told you [that he was learned] in Tannaitic teaching; did I tell you [he was learned] in Scripture? [Only in the former is Safra an authority.]’ ‘How is it then that you [Palestinians, like R. Abbahu] know it?’ they contended. ‘We,’ he replied, ‘who are frequently with you [Christians], set ourselves the task of studying it thoroughly, but others [like the Babylonians] do not study it as carefully [because there are not any מינין by them].’ Said they, ‘Will you then tell us the meaning?’ ‘I will explain it by a parable,’ he replied. ‘To what may it be compared? To a man who is the creditor of two persons, one of them a friend, the other an enemy; of his friend he will accept payment little by little whereas of his enemy he will exact payment in one sum! [In other words, that is also God’s position toward Israel and the heathens: Israel God punishes gradually in this world until the guilt is atoned for, so that a fuller reward may be theirs in the world to come. But the heathens God lets go about securely in this world, in order to bring upon them the entire punishment in one fell swoop in the world to come.]’”10

7:44. You have not given [poured] any water on my feet.

Regarding foot washing, see at John 13:5. Regarding the washing of a guest’s feet, see Siphre to Deuteronomy 33:24 §355 (148a) at Matthew 6:17, p. 427, note f.

7:45. You have not given me a kiss.

Regarding kissing, cf. at Matthew 26:49. For more, see Tosefta, Niddah 5:15 (646) at Luke 2:47, p. 151.

7:50. Go in [to] peace.

On the distinction between “Go בשלום [in peace]” and “Go לשלום [to peace],” see Berakoth 64a at Luke 2:29, p. 138.


1 Soncino, 448,449.

2 Neusner, 185,186.

3 Soncino, 449-453.

4 Neusner, 24,25.

5 Soncino, 256.

6 Ibid., 259.

7 Ibid., 38.

8 Ibid., 163.

9 Neusner, 20.

10 Soncino, 14.

John 10 and Hanukkah

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Translator’s Preface

The following was translated from Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament on the Basis of the Talmud and Midrash), vol. 2, Das Evangelium nach Markus, Lukas und Johannes und die Apostelgeschichte (The Gospel According to Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles) (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1961), p. 539-541.

I translated it as part of my sermon preparation for Easter 4, when the appointed Gospel is John 10:22-30. It will also serve as the starting point for the April 2013 post on my blog Jeshua at Bread for Beggars.

For more information on the authors, click here, here, or here.

If you would prefer a PDF version of this translation (especially for reading the Hebrew), you may download one here.

May the Holy Spirit use what follows to give the Christian readers a better understanding of the Jewish culture, thus bridging more gaps between Christians and religious Jews for the purpose of sharing the only saving gospel of Jesus, and may he use it to give better understanding of the context of Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse.

Commentary on John 10:22-30

10:22a. The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple was taking place in Jerusalem.

1. The word חֲנוּכָּה, “inauguration,” is rendered ἐγκαινισμός by the translators of the Septuagint in Numbers 7:11; Psalm 30:1; and Ezra 7:7 (= 6:16 in the Hebrew) of the Septuagint, and ἐγκαίνια in Daniel 3:2. — The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple is called “the feast of tabernacles of the month of Kislev” (ἡ σκηνοπηγία τοῦ Χασελεῦ μηνός) in 2 Maccabees 1:9, precisely because it was celebrated like the actual Feast of Tabernacles (2 Macc 10:6f). Josephus calls it Φῶτα, the Festival of Lights, in Antiquities 12, 7, 7. In the rabbinical literature it bears the name חֲנוּכָּה, “Feast of Dedication,” throughout. John translates it ἐγκαίνια.

2. The occasion of the festival was the dedication of the temple on 25 Kislev in 165 BC by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc 4:47ff). At that time it was commanded that the festival be celebrated annually for eight days starting on 25 Kislev (1 Macc 4:59). 2 Maccabees 1:1—2:18 contains two letters in which the Egyptian Jews are called upon to celebrate the festival.

Josephus only briefly mentions the Hanukkah festival in Antiquities 12, 7, 7: “So much pleasure did they find in the renewal of their customs [on 25 Kislev, 165 BC] and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to have their own service after so long a time, that they made a law that their descendants should celebrate the restoration of the temple service for eight days. And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the festival of Lights [Φῶτα], giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared [φανῆναι, ‘came to light’] to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.”1

More detailed accounts about the festival are available in the rabbinical literature. Megillat Ta‘anit 9: “The twenty-fifth of the same month [i.e. Kislev, roughly equivalent to December] is the day of the dedication of the temple, eight days long, during which no public mourning observance may be held. When the Greeks entered the temple by force, they defiled all the oil in the temple. But when the hand of the Hasmoneans grew strong and they overcame the Greeks, they made a search and found only one flask [of oil] in the safekeeping of the high priest that was not defiled. But there was only enough [oil] to light [the holy lampstand] for one day. Then there was a miracle with the oil, so that the lampstand kept burning for eight days from it. The next year those eight days were appointed as festival days. And on what basis was the Hanukkah festival celebrated for eight days? Was not the consecration festival that Moses observed in the wilderness only observed for seven days, as it says in Leviticus 8:33: ‘You should not leave the entrance of the tent of revelation for seven days’? See also Numbers 7:12: ‘The one who brought his offering on the first day…’; and on the seventh day Ephraim brought their offering (vs. 48). And we find the same thing with the dedication festival that Solomon observed; he only observed it for seven days. See 2 Chronicles 7:9: ‘They celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival lasted seven days.’ So on what basis did they celebrate this dedication festival [on 25 Kislev, 165 BC] for eight days? In the days when Greece was ruling the Hasmoneans went into the temple and built the altar and covered it with lime and prepared the worship utensils for it. They were occupied with this for eight days. [Thus the eight days of the dedication corresponded to these eight days]. And on what basis did they ordain the kindling of the lights? When the Hasmoneans went into the temple at the time when Greece was ruling, they had seven iron spears in their hands, which they covered with firewood, in order to light the lamps. [Covering the spears with firewood was supposed to prevent the pure oil from becoming unclean; see the commentary ad loc.] On what basis did they decide to recite the entire Hallel [Ps 113-118; see at Mt 21:9, p. 845]? Because every time God includes them in an act of deliverance, the Israelites come before him with the Hallel, with song, with praise and thanks, as it says in Ezra 3:11: ‘They sang with praising [בהלל] and commending of the Lord, that he is good.’ The rule for Hanukkah is one light for every man and his household. Those who are zealous say one light for every single person. Those who are extremely zealous say as the School of Shammai does: ‘On the first day eight lights are kindled and thereafter they are gradually reduced [by one light each day].’ But the School of Hillel said: ‘One the first day one light is kindled and thereafter they are progressively increased [by one light each day].’ There were two elders in Sidon; one followed the School of Shammai and the other the School of Hillel. The one gave a reason for the way he did it, the other for the way he did it. The one [the Shammaite] said, ‘It corresponds to the bulls of the Feast of Tabernacles [whose number decreased every day; see Numbers 29:13ff].’ The other said, ‘One goes higher in holiness rather than lower.’ The rule is to kindle the lights from when the sun goes down until the foot [of man] has disappeared from the street. The rule is also to place the light outside by the door of the house. If someone lives in an upper chamber, he places it in the opening of the window nearest the public area [such as a street or square]. If one is afraid of those who will ridicule him [?], he places it inside by the door of the house. In times of danger [of persecution], it is sufficient to place it on the table.” — This tradition is imparted in several Baraithas and furnished with observations by later men in Shabbath 21b.See also Soferim 20 and Pesikta Rabbati 2 at the beginning. • JT Sukkah 3:4 Gemara: “How do they say a blessing over the Hanukkah light? Rab [† 247] said, ‘Blessed [are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe!] [He] has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Hanukkah.’”3 The same is found in Shabbath 23a.4Rosh Hashanah 18a Mishnah: “There are six new moons to report which messengers go forth [from Jerusalem to the diaspora] [to broadcast when the month will begin, for the purpose of establishing the festival days to be celebrated in a given month:] [the new moon] of Nisan on account of Passover, of Ab on account of the fast [on 9 Ab], of Elul on account of New Year, of Tishri for the adjustment of the festivals, of Kislev on account of Hanukkah, and of Adar on account of Purim. When the temple stood, they used also to go forth to report Iyar on account of the lesser Passover [s. Numbers 9:1-14].5Ta‘anith 15b Mishnah: “We do not ordain upon the community a fast on New Moon, on Hanukkah, or on Purim, but if they had already begun [a series of fasts and one of these festive days intervened] they do not interrupt [their fasts]; this is the opinion of Rabban Gamaliel [c. 90]. R. Meir [c. 150] said: Even though R. Gamaliel is of the opinion that the [fasts] should not be interrupted he yet agrees that they should not complete their fasts [i.e. that they should cease with it before end of the day]. And the same applies to the ninth of Ab should it fall on a Friday.6Mo‘ed Katan 28b Mishnah: “On the days of New Moon, of Hanukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief]. Neither on the former [during the festival week] nor on the latter occasions [those just mentioned] do they chant a dirge [antiphonally]. After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief].” Cf. also Megillat Ta‘anit 9 above, at the beginning. • Megillah 30b Mishnah: “On Hanukkah [during the service] we read the section of [the dedication of the altar by] the princes [Numbers 7:1ff].”7*Soferim 18 §2: “On Hanukkah [the Levites sang], ‘I will exalt you, O Lord’ [Psalm 30], [during the temple service].” • Shabbath 23a: “R. Joshua b. Levi [c. 250] said: The [precept of the] Hanukkah lamp is obligatory upon women, for they too were concerned in that miracle.”8Baba Kamma 62b Mishnah: “If while a camel laden with flax was passing through a public thoroughfare [such as a street or square] the flax got into a shop and caught fire by coming in contact with the shopkeeper’s candle, and set alight the whole building [בִּירָה, lit. ‘castle’], the owner of the camel would be liable. If, however, the shopkeeper left his candle outside [his shop], he would be liable. R. Judah [c. 150] says: If it was a Hanukkah candle the shopkeeper would not be liable [since the regular place for that was outside in front of the house; s. Megillat Ta‘anit 9 above].9Baba Kamma 62b: “Rabina [I, † c. 420] said in the name of Raba [† 352]: From the statement of R. Judah we can learn that it is ordained to place the Hanukkah candle within ten handbreadths [from the ground]. For if you assume [that it can be placed even] above ten handbreadths, why did R. Judah say that in the case of a Hanukkah candle there would be exemption? One could answer back to him: ‘He [the shopkeeper] should have placed it above the reach of the camel and its rider?’ Does this therefore not prove that it is ordained to place it within the [first] ten handbreadths?”10 The same is said in Shabbath 21b.11 • Midrash on Esther 1:16 (56b): “The wife of Trajan – may his bones be dashed to pieces! – gave birth on a 9 Ab, and all the Israelites were mourning [over the destruction of the temple]. The child died on Hanukkah. Then the Israelites said, ‘Should we kindle the lights or not?’ They said, ‘We will kindle them, and whatever may happen to us, let it happen.’ They kindled the lights. Then someone went and maligned them to Trajan’s wife, ‘Those Jews mourned when you gave birth, and when your child died they kindled their lights!’ She sent and wrote to her husband: ‘Instead of subjugating the barbarians, come and subjugate these Jews, who have rebelled against you.’ [Then follows the report about Trajan’s revenge.]” — Parallel passages: JT Sukkah 5:1 Gemara;12 Midrash on Lamentations 4:19 (77a); Midrash on Esther 1:1 (80b).

10:22b. It was winter.

“[The second] half of Kislev, Tebeth, and [the first] half [of] Shebat [thus from roughly December 15 to February 15] are the winter months [חורף].” See Baba Mezi‘a 106b.13

10:23. In Solomon’s Colonnade.

See at Acts 3:11.

10:30. I and the Father are one.

Cf. the passages at John 10:33b. See also at Matthew 26:65, p. 1017.


1 Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, Books XII-XIV, trans. Ralph Marcus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 168,169.

2 Soncino ed., 91-93

3 Neusner ed., 65, alt.

4 Soncino ed., 99

5 Ibid., 73

6 Ibid., 72

7 Ibid., 186-187

* According to Megillah 31a, Zechariah 2:13ff served as the haftarah [i.e. the portion of the Prophets read immediately after the reading of the Torah in the morning services on Sabbaths, feast-days, and on 9 Ab, and in the afternoon services on fast-days] on account of Zechariah 4:2ff, and 1 Kings 7:40ff on the second Sabbath, should it occur, on account of 1 Kings 7:49.

8 Soncino ed., 98

9 Ibid., 361

10 Ibid., 361-362

11 Ibid., 93

12 Neusner ed., 103

13 Soncino ed., 608

The Passover Meal

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

You may find a complete publication of this work by clicking on the links below. Please pay special attention to the reproduction restrictions on p. i.

Title Page
Table of Contents
Translator’s Preface and Abbreviations
Chapter 1 – Advance Preparations
Chapter 2 – The Celebration of the Passover Meal
Chapter 3 – The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
Appendix 1 – The Date of the Passover
Appendix 2 – Excerpts from “An Ancient Jewish Banquet”
Index of Scripture Passages
Index of Rabbinical Sources

Luke 18 and Fasting

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Translator’s Preface

“I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week…”

So begins the infamous prayer of the Pharisee (Luke 18:11b-12a) in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The entire parable (Luke 18:9-14) is the regularly appointed Gospel for Ash Wednesday. In preparation for preaching on that text I translated the following excerpt from Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck’s Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament on the Basis of the Talmud and Midrash), vol. 2, Das Evangelium nach Markus, Lukas und Johannes und die Apostelgeschichte (The Gospel According to Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles) (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1961), p. 240-244.

For more about the authors, see the “Translator’s Preface” in The Passover Meal.

The Talmudic citations refer to the corresponding tractate in one of the following works:

  • Jacob Neusner, ed., The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, CD, trans. J. Neusner, Tzvee Zahavy, Edward Goldman, and B. Barry Levy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2009).
  • Rabbi Isidore Epstein, ed., Soncino Talmud, 30 volumes (Brooklyn, NY: Soncino Press, Ltd, 1990).

Soncino and Neusner sometimes translate corresponding tractate titles differently (e.g. Berakoth in Soncino vs. Berakhot in Neusner). The translator followed each edition’s spelling when using that edition’s translation.

It is my prayer that this excerpt helps the reader to see how deeply the Jewish world in Jesus’ day was infected with the poison of work-righteousness, and that God would guard the Christian church from such work-righteousness today. May he lead us to find all our righteousness in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Commentary on the Gospel for Ash Wednesday

Luke 18:11b. “I thank you that I am not like other people.”

R. Nehuniah b. Haqqanneh (c. 70 AD) also used the prayer of thanksgiving to God to compare himself to other people in order to make himself look better. JT Berakhot 4:2: “And when [R. Nehuniah b. Haqqanneh] exits [the study hall] what does he say? ‘I give thanks to thee, Lord my God, God of my fathers, that you cast my lot with those who sit in the study hall and the synagogues, and you did not cast my lot with those who sit in the theaters and circuses. For I toil and they toil. I arise early and they arise early. I toil so that I shall inherit [a share of] paradise [in the world to come] and they toil [and shall end up] in a pit of destruction. As it says, “For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the pit” [Ps. 16:10].’”1 — The parallel in Berakoth 28b reads: “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [i.e. the study hall] and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.”2 ● In a similar way, the (ideal, i.e. rabbinically oriented) congregation of Israel gives an account of herself before God by comparing herself with the inhabitants of large towns and the prevailing world power. ‘Erubin 21b: “Raba [† 352] made the following exposition: What [are the allusions] in the Scriptural text: Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages, let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine hath budded, whether the vine-blossom be opened and the pomegranates be in flower; there will I give thee my love? [SS 7:12f.] ‘Come, my beloved, let us go forth in to the field’; the congregation of Israel spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the universe, do not judge me as [thou wouldst] those who reside in large towns who indulge in robbery, in adultery, and in vain and false oaths; ‘let us go forth into the field,’ come, and I will show Thee scholars who study the Torah in poverty; ‘let us lodge in the villages [בכפרים]’ read not, ‘in the villages’ [בַּכְּפָרִם] but ‘among the disbelievers’ [בַּכּוֹפְרִים], come and I will show Thee those upon whom Thou hast bestowed much bounty [i.e. the Roman Empire, which had become Christian by Raba’s time] and they disbelieve in Thee [כפרו בך]; ‘let us get up early in the vineyards’ is an allusion to the synagogues and schoolhouses; ‘let us see whether the vine hath budded’ is an allusion to the students of Scripture; ‘whether the vine-blossom be opened’ alludes to the students of the Mishnah; ‘and the pomegranates be in flower’ alludes to the students of the Gemara; ‘there will I give thee my love,’ I will show Thee my glory and my greatness, the praise of my sons and my daughters.”3 — One can see, then, that the prayer of thanksgiving that Jesus put into the Pharisee’s mouth in Luke 18:11f. was not some original or completely biased invention, but was formed entirely by listening to actual prayers.

Luke 18:12a. “I fast twice a week.”

1. δίς τοῦ σαββάτου = פַּעֲמַיִם בְּשַׁבָּת. — Baba Bathra 88a Mishnah: “A shopkeeper must clean his measures twice a week [פעמים בשבת, so that the measures would not be diminished by the drying up of the residual goods inside], wipe his weights once a week [פעם אחת בשבת] and cleanse the scales after every weighing. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel [c. 140] said: These laws apply only to moist [commodities], but in [the case of] dry [ones] there is no need [for the cleaning].4

2. νηστεύειν = צוּם,iהִתְעַנֶּה, often also יָשַׁב בְּתַעֲנִית, Aramaic יְתֵיב בְּתַעֲנִיתָא “to sit in a fast,” “to observe a fast.” — There were two kinds of fasts: a general fast, which was mandatory for everyone, and a private fast of the individual, which was voluntary.

A public fast for everyone took place on the Day of Atonement, on the 9th of Ab (the day the temple was destroyed), and at times of national crises (drought, crop failure, epidemics, war). In the case of the first two, the fast lasted for one day and was held on the day of the week on which the Day of Atonement or the 9th of Ab fell. Yet when the calendar was arranged every year, care was taken, if necessary, to make sure that both days did not fall on a Sabbath. For fasting observances on the occasion of national crises, we are provided detailed instructions about these in the case of persistent lack of rainfall. In this case a full fasting observance spanned 13 days. Monday and Thursday were always the fasting days, so the entire fast extended over a period of seven weeks. See the excursus “Fasting Observances” (Fastenfeier).

On the choice of the second and fifth days of the week as fasting days, see Tanchuma B וירא §i16 (47b): “With which passages of Scripture have the [earlier] generations supported the regulation that a person should fast on the second and fifth days of the week [Monday and Thursday]? When the Israelites committed that act [i.e. worshipped the golden calf], Moses went up [Mt. Sinai] on the fifth day of the week, and on the second day of the week [after 40 days had passed] he came back down. Therefore the sages have commanded that a person should fast on the second and fifth day of the week, on the days when Moses went up and came down. And at the end of the 40 days they fasted and wept before Moses, and God was filled with compassion for them and made that day a day of atonement for their sins.” — This tradition is limited entirely to this passage alone. For the actual reason the second and fifth days of the week were chosen as fasting days, see endnote 10.

The voluntary private fast of the individual is attested in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 12:16; Psalm 35:13; 69:11; 109:24; Daniel 9:3; 10:5, et al. In the final two centuries BC it had gradually been adopted as a common custom, at least within certain circles of the Jewish people; see Sirach 31:26 (Fritzsche ed.); Tobit 12:8; Judith 8:6; Psalms of Solomon 3:8; Testament of Joseph 3, 4, 9, 10; Testament of Benjamin 1; cf. also passages in the New Testament outside of Luke 18:12, such as Matthew 6:16ff; 9:14; and Luke 2:37. In the years AD the private fast of the individual was regarded in the synagogue as an obvious expression of piety. People fasted for shorter or longer periods of time (e.g. R. Zadok, c. 50 AD, fasted for 40 years – Gittin 56a)5 to make up for a wrong or atone for a transgression; to guarantee that a wish would be fulfilled or a prayer answered; to avert some physical or spiritual harm; or even just for fasting’s sake, because the merit of fasting was considered to be of inestimably high value in God’s eyes. Rf. the excursus on fasting for proofs for all these. The individual could of course undertake his fast on whatever day he wanted; only the Sabbaths and festival days were to be excepted. However, it became the custom to observe the private fast, if at all possible, on the days of the week used for the public fast, namely Monday and Thursday. This became so very commonplace that the Didache (8:1,2) commanded: “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites [i.e. the Jews], for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day [Wednesday] and the Preparation (Friday).”6 For more particulars, rf. the excursus on fasting.

The private fast of the individual described up to this point is altogether characterized as incidental and occasional. It has its basis exclusively in the person of the one fasting himself, in his problems, concerns, and needs. But the fasting done two times a week by the Pharisee in Luke 18 is clearly not thus characterized. With him, we are dealing with a regular fasting that cannot be explained on the basis of the personal circumstances of the one fasting. The motive for his fasting lies elsewhere. But where?

We possess a writing in the Aramaic language from the first century AD, called Megillat Ta‘anit, “Scroll of Fasting.” It enumerates in 12 chapters the national days of joy of the Jewish people, on which there was not to be any fasting or public mourning. Sometime later a commentary written in Hebrew was joined with this writing to make up the whole book. At the end of the twelfth chapter, this commentary mentions people who regularly fast twice a week, and in fact on the second and fifth day of the week. For them the requirement of pausing the fast if one of the national days of joy fell on a Monday or Thursday is rescinded. But they were only to be entitled to continue their fast on these days if their fasting vow was taken before the publication of the days of joy named in the Scroll of Fasting (cf. also Ta‘anith 12a Baraithra)7. We may confidently place these people in the camp of the Pharisee in Luke 18; they and he without a doubt fall into the same category. Unfortunately we do not also learn in this passage in the Scroll of Fasting the motives that caused these people to undertake fasting twice a week.

Later on a thirteenth chapter was added to the Scroll of Fasting as a closing chapter. Here we finally get the information we wanted: “Our teachers have also stipulated that one should fast on the second and fifth days of the week on account of three things: the destruction of the temple, the Torah that has been burned, and the profaning of the divine name.”8 Thus it was national tragedy which occasioned regular fasting twice a week in certain circles after the destruction of the second temple. By their fasting they want to atone for the sins which brought about the disaster, in order thus to avert any further disaster that could still break out against the people as a result of those sins.

It would have been exactly the same case with the regular fasting twice a week in certain circles before the destruction of the temple. The men who decided to undertake it felt an inner calling to step into the breach between God and Israel, which the sin of the masses at large was ever tearing apart anew. By the atoning power of their fasting they hoped to turn away God’s wrath and guard the people from blows of national tragedy. Thus it is said about R. Zadok (c. 50) in Gittin 56a: “R. Zadok observed fasts for forty years in order that Jerusalem might not be destroyed.”9 Here we might furthermore call again to mind the arrangement of the so-called “men of standing,” who had to represent the entire Jewish people when the daily morning burnt offering (the morning tamid) was made in the temple, or who had to assemble at their local synagogue for joint Scripture reading and prayer. During their week of service they fasted from the second to the fifth days of the week, thus for four days, “but they did not fast on Friday out of respect for the Sabbath, nor on the first day of the week [Sunday], so that they would not go straight from resting and living in ease [on the Sabbath] to pain and fasting, and die as a consequence.”10 It is then communicated more precisely that they fasted on the second day of the week (Monday) for those traveling by sea (for their safe travels), on the third day for those traveling by desert, on the fourth day for angina, that it would not befall their children, and on the fifth for the pregnant and nursing (see at Luke 1:5, p. 63ff, esp. notes fh). From this we recognize not only how the synagogues systematically trained a wide circle of the people for fasting, but also, above all, how they intentionally attempted to make the general well-being the precise motive and object of fasting. Then it cannot surprise us when the most zealous of those faithful to the law did not want to let themselves be outdone in fasting by the men of standing, and so took upon themselves to regularly fast twice a week on their own, whether for one year or for more, in the name of the common good. The Pharisee in Luke 18 also belongs to this group of people zealous for the law. So he stands before God as one who carries the well and woe of the people of God on his heart as he fasts and prays. He thereby thinks he can make himself be regarded by God.

Note: It is incorrect when every so often it is inferred from the Pharisee’s fasting twice a week that most Jews were only accustomed to fasting once a week. The ancient Jewish literature knows nothing of such a general practice. The other opinion, that all the Pharisees were obligated to fast twice a week, is just as incorrect. Such an obligation never appears. Regular fasting like this was always observed only by individuals who vowed to do so completely on their own.


1 Neusner, 155.

2 Soncino, 172.

3 Ibid., 150, 151. Wettstein is incorrect at Luke 18:13, when he takes the words of Aboth 2:13: “[W]hen thou prayest, make not thy prayer a set task” (Soncino, 22, 23), to mean: “When you pray, do not enumerate your good works in your prayers.” – Strack-Billerbeck

4 Soncino, 361.

5 Ibid., 257.


7 Soncino, 53.

8 Cp. Ta‘anith 26a,b Mishnah: “On the seventeenth of Tammuz [perhaps July]…Apostomos burned the scroll of the Law and placed an idol in the temple [perhaps “the profaning of the divine name” in the Scroll of Fasting?]. On the ninth of Ab [perhaps August]…the temple was destroyed the first and second time…” (Soncino, 138, 139). Schlatter in Die Tage Trajans und Hadrians (The Days of Trajan and Hadrian), p. 24 and 29, wants to read “Apostatis” instead of “Apostomos,” and he understands “Apostatis” to be R. Elisha b. Abuyah, c. 120. Schlatter seems to refer the setting up of the idol to the founding of the temple of Zeus in Jerusalem by Hadrian. – Strack-Billerbeck

9 Soncino, 257.

10 These words incidentally reveal to us the actual reason why the second and fifth days of the week were appointed for days of fasting. For fasting, people wanted two days in the week which, for one, had no contact with the Sabbath, and which furthermore were as far separated from each other as possible, so that fasting recurring for a longer period of time would not make demands on the person’s physical abilities that would prove too strenuous. There were only two such days in the week – Monday and Thursday. Thus the choice of the second and fifth days of the week for fasting days has nothing to do with Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai, as the earlier citation from Tanchuma B suggests. – Strack-Billerbeck