Who were the Pharisees?

The name “Pharisee,” often gets a lot of bad press because of Jesus’ criticism, which we will shortly examine. Historically, they proved to be great people; the gentle Hillel, who taught the “Golden Rule,” was certainly one of its best examples of Pharisaic ethics and piety. The same could be said of numerous other great teachers of the 1st-2nd century. Their wisdom can be found in the ancient Jewish tract of “Pirke Avoth,” The “Ethics of the Fathers.”

Some of their wise aphorisms include:

Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly. They said three things: (1) “Be prudent in judgment, (2) “Raise up many disciples,(3) “Make a fence for the Torah.”

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the great assembly. He would say: “On three things does the world stand: (1) “On the Torah, (2) “and on the Temple service, (3) “and on deeds of loving kindness.”

Antigonos of Sokho received [the Torah] from Simeon the Righteous. He would say, (1) “Do not be like servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward, (2) “but [be] like servants who serve the master not on condition of receiving a reward. (3) “And let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

There are hundreds of examples found in this wonderful work and I would encourage you the reader to study these texts if you really wish to understand who the Pharisees were.

But were all those who purported to be Pharisees such noble souls? Not quite. For the record, there were Pharisees who obviously did not excel in the area of religious ethics—much like we see in the Haredi world today! This should not come as a great surprise to any of us because it is a lot easier to be observant of Halacha minutia than it is to be an ethical human being. Various moral lapses within both the Haredi and Hassidic communities painfully illustrate that developing an expertise in Jewish law is absolutely meaningless unless it engenders personal piety in the sphere of human ethics. The human face demands we treat all people with respect and dignity–this was the great lesson of Hillel, who taught: “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your fellow man.”

Now back to our original topic…

“Pharisee” probably comes from the Hebrew word prš meaning “expositors.” They were among the very first individuals who championed biblical interpretation (Jastrow). However, it is also possible the name prš might also mean “separate,” “detach.” Thus the Pharisees were probably the separated ones,” whose commitment to Jewish law and ritual set them apart from everyone else. However, Pharisaic piety pales in comparison with the Essenes  whose scrupulous observance of the purity laws make the Pharisees seem almost “secular.” Continue reading “Who were the Pharisees?”