Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Hem of His Garment

"And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment,  for she said to herself, "If I only touch his garment, I will be made well." (Matthew 9:20-21 ESV)

"And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick  and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well." (Matthew 14:35-36 ESV)

The King James Version's translation of these passages - "touching the hem of his garment" - fails to communicate the clear reference to "fringes" or "tassels" attached at the four corners of an outer garment that were required of Jewish males by the law of Moses.

"Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.  And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.  So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God." (Numbers 15:38-40)

"You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself." (Deuteronomy 22:12)

These fringes (Hebrew tzitzit) consisted of woolen threads (strings) women together to form a cord. These cords would be pulled through holes in the corners of an outer garment. From the four corners to the garment, the fringes would hang loosely.

These fringes were worn by Jewish men (in biblical times) throughout the day to remind them to obey the obligations of the Torah (mitzvot) at all times. Later rabbis reasoned that since the command in Numbers specified "seeing" the fringes that the obligation to wear the tasseled garment applied only to the daylight hours (the "time of seeing").

Today, these fringes are most often seen in synagogue worship on the four-cornered prayer shawls (tallit) worn by Jewish men when reciting the Shema - "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" - and during morning payers.

Jesus clearly observed this Torah obligation. The Gospels report that the reputation of Jesus as a healer was so widespread that many felt that merely "touching the fringe of his garment" would bring healing. NOTE: This was not simple magical superstition. Rather touching the fringe of his garment was a public recognition of Jesus as a holy man. The fringes symbolized the depth of his commitment to and practice of the laws of the Torah and his rightful authority as a "teacher in Israel." Touching these fringes was an act of honoring Jesus.

In Matthew 23, Jesus criticized the scribes and Pharisees for their self-serving public displays of religiousity - especially their abuse of the fringes (tzitzit).

"They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others." (Matthew 23-5-8 ESV)

With this condemnation, Jesus is not attacking the practice of wearing fringes. Rather he is denouncing ostentatious public displays of one's religious self-importance.

Jesus was a practicing Jew. Wearing fringes on his garment was the fulfillment of a Torah obligation. Touching these fringes was an act of honoring, of recognition and affirmation of the righteousness and healing power of Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Joe, you raise a salient point that I think many if not most Christians undervalue, that is, that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew. Given the several Sabbath controversies in the gospels, many Christians have assumed that Jesus was rather "flexible" about the Torah, but in fact, this is a misunderstanding. What he was against was the so-called "Oral Torah", the belief that there had been handed down from Moses extra regulations in addition to the written Torah. The Pharisees, in particular, were champions of the Oral Torah, and it is this set of superimposed regulations that Jesus criticized as "heavy burden grievous to be borne" (to borrow the language of the KJV). Indeed, Pharisees were often surprised and sometimes severely critical that Jesus did not follow these practices. A good example is when a certain Pharisee was amazed that Jesus did not baptize his hands before eating (Lk. 11:38). The Greek expression in this verse, which usually is translated as "washed" in the English versions, specifically cites the ritual of baptizing or pouring water over the hands before a meal (and uses the verb "baptize" in the Greek text). An overly literal translation of the Greek text would be: "But the Pharisee, seeing, marveled that he first was not baptized before the dinner." Of course, the various other controversies about healing on the Sabbath and eating grain from the open fields and carrying one's mat, etc., all concern the Oral Torah, not the written Torah.

    Regarding the written Torah, Jesus repeatedly favored the expression, "It is written", which he used dozens of times. Every indication in the gospels is that Jesus was a fully Torah-observant Jew, attending the pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem and careful following the written law in his own life so that not one "jot or title" would be left unfulfilled.