Re-evaluating the Wisdom of Using Extra-Biblical
Jewish Traditions for Messianic Worship
By Dr. Daniel Botkin
The Apostle Paul warned Titus about the importance of "not
giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men, that turn from the truth"
(Titus 1:14). There is nothing wrong with using fictional stories ("fables") as
parables to illustrate spiritual truths. Yeshua often did this. And there is
nothing inherently evil about manmade traditions per se. But if Jewish
traditions and fables turn people away from the truth, then there is a
The worst Jewish fable is the one that has been around since
the morning after the Messiah's Resurrection: "His disciples stole the body."
Some Jewish fables, though relatively harmless, are just plain silly. For
example, the rabbis say that Queen Vashti had a tail. Adam had one, too. [Others
are outright immoral, such as one which states that] Adam also mated with other
"wives," Neanderthal-like creatures that were not quite human. [Or] here's
another one [on the silly side]: When Pharaoh's daughter rescued baby Moses, her
arm miraculously telescoped and stretched way out to the middle of the Nile
River to reach the basket. Furthermore, we are told by rabbis that this is the
true meaning of the Bible's statement that [Yahweh] redeemed us "with an
outstretched arm." We should not take such farfetched Jewish fables
What about following Jewish traditions? Some Jewish customs
would be okay except for the fact that they are presented as commandments of
[Yahweh] instead of traditions of men. The kindling of Sabbath candles is one
such example. When lighting the candles, Jewish tradition requires the
recitation of a blessing which states that [Yahweh] "commanded us to kindle the
Sabbath lights." But [Yahweh] commanded no such thing. There is nothing in the
Scriptures that even suggests that candles should be lit to honor the Sabbath.
Orthodox Jewish sources admit that the custom originated as a reaction against
the Karaites, Jews who rejected the Oral Traditions of the rabbis. The Bible
says not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath, so the Karaites did not use fire for
anything on the Sabbath, even if the fire had been kindled before the Sabbath.
The Orthodox understood (correctly, in this case) that it is permissible to
derive benefits from a fire on the Sabbath if the fire is kindled before the
Sabbath. So to prove that they were not Karaites (and perhaps to spite the
Karaites), the Orthodox Jews began the custom of lighting candles just before
the beginning of the Sabbath. Now every Sabbath, Orthodox Jews declare that
[Yahweh] "commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights." They do the same thing
every winter with the blessing for the Hanukkah candles, stating that [Yahweh]
"commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights," even though there is no biblical
commandment--not even in Maccabees, the book that tells the Hanukkah story. By
making these statements, Jews affirm their loyalty to the Oral Torah--the
traditions of the rabbis which were rightly rejected by the Karaites and the
Nazarenes. Even the blessing recited after the Torah reading is meant to affirm
one's loyalty to the Oral Torah, according to The Artscroll Siddur, which says
of this blessing — "'Torah of truth' refers to Written Torah, 'eternal life'
refers to the Oral Torah."1
Most people in the Messianic movement desire to worship and
practice their faith like the Apostles did. Some believers erroneously assume
that this means that we should follow the Torah in the manner prescribed by
Orthodox Judaism. However, the Orthodox Judaism of today is not the form of
Judaism which existed in the days of the Apostles. The questions we need to ask
are not "What do the rabbis teach?" or "How do Jews interpret the Torah?" The
questions we need to ask are "What did the Messiah and the Apostles teach? How
did first-century Messianic believers worship? What was their view of the
Written Torah? What did they think of the Oral Torah with its man-made
These questions are partly answered in the New Testament.
However, there are some details which are not answered in the New Testament, nor
even in extra-biblical historical writings. The period of history between the
death of the Apostles and the appearance of the so-called "Church Fathers" is a
period which is especially sketchy to say the least. Consider what historians
have said about this period of history:
"For fifty years after Paul's life, a curtain hangs over the
Church, through which we vainly strive to look; and when at last it rises, about
129 A.D. with the writings of the earliest Church Fathers, we find a Church in
many ways very different from that in the days of Peter and
"The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history
seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the
"What happened during this time? Obviously, it was a time of
many heresies. The Church Fathers come on the scene in the second century to
tell us vociferously who the heretics were and where the 'orthodox Church' was.
These men claimed to be the followers of the apostles, but their theology was
different and seemed to blend Hellenistic philosophy and Babylonian religious
custom with Christianity.
It was certainly a far different theology from that of the
Jerusalem Church which Paul said he had taught the Gentiles to follow (Acts
15:2, 22-28; 1 Thessalonians 2:14). It is interesting that the descendants of
the Jerusalem Church, the Nazarenes, were labeled as heretics and persecuted for
their regard of the Mosaic law when they were merely carrying on the tradition
of the Church of Peter and James.''4
A lot of the details of first-century apostolic worship have
been lost to history. However, we do know from the Bible and from history what
the Nazarenes generally believed about Yeshua, about Paul, and about the Written
Torah and Oral Torah. They believed in Yeshua's virgin birth, His divinity, and
His resurrection. They recognized Paul as a legitimate apostle and accepted his
writings. They believed that the Written Torah should still be followed, but
they viewed the Oral Torah as a "very burdensome yoke of Jewish
traditions.' 5 Jerome tells us how the Nazarenes understood the
prophecy about [Yahshua] ministering in the land of Naphtali" in Isaiah 9:1:
"The Nazoreans venture to explain this passage as: When [Messiah] came and His
preaching was glittering especially the land of Naphtali was delivered from the
errors of the scribes and Pharisees, and He struck off from its neck the very
burdensome yoke of Jewish traditions.''6
Some man-made Jewish traditions are harmless. Some are actually
helpful, and can be used in a meaningful way to affirm our faith in the Messiah.
If a Jewish tradition is not contrary to the Scriptures, it is permissible.
However, just because a tradition is permissible and Jewish does not necessarily
mean that it has some intrinsic value for believers in the Messiah. If Jewish
traditions become a burdensome yoke, then we need to let the glittering Word of
[Yahshua] strike them off from our necks.
As a congregational leader, I use this three-pronged diagram to
show why our congregation exists.
The two greatest commandments are to love [Yahweh] and to love
our fellow man. We love [Yahweh] by worshipping and obeying Him. We love our
fellow man by edifying him if he's saved and evangelizing him if he's lost. When
we assemble together on the Sabbath, the things we do together as a congregation
should somehow relate to our congregation's three-fold purpose.
With these thoughts in mind, I began to question the value of
extrabiblical Jewish traditions some months ago. First, their value in regards
to worship. Some Jewish liturgical traditions can be used for worship, but is
this the best way to worship the Father? [Yahshua] said that the Father seeks
true worshippers who will worship in Spirit and in Truth. The Spirit can be
quenched by too much prescribed liturgy. Truth is not upheld by uttering Jewish
blessings that affirm the authority of the rabbis' man-made traditions.
What about edifying the saints? Do man-made Jewish traditions
edify the saints? Some of the traditions can, especially if they affirm our
faith in [Yahshua] as the Messiah. But are Jewish traditions the best way to
edify the saints? The Bible speaks of other ways to build up the saints. Jude
wrote about "building up yourselves on your most holy faith [by] praying in the
Holy Ghost" (Jude 20). Paul said, "Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth" (1
Cor. 8:1). The text of 1 Corinthians 14 speaks about edifying the saints by
prophesying, by tongues and interpretations, and by other gifts that
spontaneously flow as the Holy Spirit moves among the congregation. So it
appears that the saints will be edified more by prayer, love, and the gifts of
the Holy Spirit than they will be by Jewish traditions.
How about evangelizing the lost? Do Jewish traditions help draw
unsaved visitors to the Savior? Or do the Jewish traditions alienate them?
Jewish traditions might help Jewish visitors feel more comfortable and at home,
but the traditions can alienate, intimidate, and bore non-Jewish visitors. I
know, because some visitors to our congregation have expressed such responses,
even though the Hebrew liturgy was minimal and an English translation was
provided. Furthermore, there have been times when even I have felt bored by too
much Jewish liturgy. And I understand the Hebrew.
It is for these reasons that I decided to reduce the amount of
Hebrew prayers and liturgy in our weekly Sabbath meetings. We still do the Shema
("Hear O Israel...") and the v'ahavta ("And thou shalt love..."). The Shema
reminds us that our [Elohim] is Yahweh and He is echad (one). The v'ahavta
reminds us that His Torah is encapsulated in His two greatest commandments. Both
of these declarations are straight from Scripture, as is the Aaronic Benediction
that we use to close our Sabbath service.
We will probably continue to use some additional blessings and
traditions for the celebration of the more formal events like Passover and Yom
Kippur. But for our regular weekly Sabbath meetings, our Hebrew liturgy has been
reduced, because I believe it was irrelevant and counterproductive to our
three-fold purpose of worship, edification, and evangelism. Some of our people
were using the liturgy as a substitute for spontaneous, Spirit-led worship,
uttering no words of worship except for the blessings that were recited by rote
(routine). Some of our visitors felt alienated and uncomfortable with the
unfamiliar Hebrew liturgy. Furthermore, several of our own people admitted in a
survey that they were not edified by it. In an anonymous survey, I asked our
people for suggestions for ways to improve our Sabbath services. Several people
suggested that we reduce the amount of the rabbinic, the ritualistic, the
liturgical, and the traditional. The results of this survey confirmed what I had
been sensing for some time. So we reduced the Hebrew liturgy and made more room
for Spirit-led praise and prayer and for the spontaneous moving of the Holy
Spirit. So far, the results have been wonderful.
I am not suggesting that all Messianic believers must discard
all Jewish traditions and liturgy. However, we should be aware of why the rabbis
fixed and standardized the prayers and put them in a Siddur (prayer book). Rabbi
Jeffery Cohen, author of Blessed Are You: A Comprehensive Guide to Jewish
Prayer, tells when and how and why the Jewish prayers were standardized.
Rabban Gamaliel II of Yavneh (A.D. 80-110) was the rabbi primarily responsible
for the standardization of Jewish prayers. According to Jeffery Cohen, there
were three main reasons Gamaliel wanted to standardize the prayers:
"First, he realized that, with the Temple in ruins, a new
spiritual impetus was required, one which the synagogue and daily worship could
best provide. Second, his period witnessed an upsurge of Christian missionary
activity, coinciding with the composition of the Gospels and their dissemination
among Jewish communities ....
"Gamaliel was constantly pestered by minim, members of the new
faith who delighted in engaging him in disputation; and he was especially
alarmed at the infiltration of new Christians (sic), indistinguishable at that
time from their fellow Judean Jews, pressing their prayers and literature onto
an unsuspecting Jewry. The simple, uneducated folk could not be expected to
distinguish whether a religious text left in a synagogue was Orthodox or
Neither, given the flexibility and spontaneity allowed in the
framing of prayers, could they know whether one called upon to act as reader was
a secret adherent of the new faith and was uttering acceptable able or
unacceptable religious sentiment: Hence Gamaliel's decision to establish, once
and for all, a fixed and authorized order of daily prayer ....
"Gamaliel's third reason may have been his wish to stem the
disturbing fashion of charismatic or ecstatic prayer that was becoming
fashionable among those early Christians and was appealing even to some of his
own colleagues and disciples. In the absence of a fixed and regulated liturgy,
they were emboldened to give expression to their own, often wild, outpouring of
exaggerated body language and meaningless phraseology, claiming that it was the
Spirit that was working on them ....
"In the light of this potentially dangerous trend--especially
given the corresponding spread of mystical and ecstatic prayer in Christian
circles--Gamaliel may have felt further impelled to introduce the discipline and
rational spirit of an officially sanctioned and statutory order of
The above information was not written by someone antagonistic
toward Jewish tradition; it was written by a non-Messianic Jewish rabbi. Nor is
the above information taken from some fringe publication. It is taken from a
book published by Jason Aronson, Inc., a Jewish publisher described in the
Forward as a "famed publisher" that "publishes many books by current and former
Y.U. [Yeshiva University] professors,''8 This information shows that
the three reasons for standardizing Jewish prayers were as follows:
1. To provide a cohesive, fixed form of worship to preserve the
unity which had formerly been preserved by Temple worship.
2. To prevent Messianic Jews from uttering any prayers except
those prayers which were pre-approved by the unbelieving rabbis.
3. To quench the moving of the Holy Spirit which was being
manifested through the Spirit-led prayers of Messianic Jews.
So two of the three reasons the Jewish liturgy was sanctioned
and ordered by rabbis who rejected [Yahshua] was 1 ) to prevent Messianic
prayers, and 2) to quench the spontaneity of Messianic worshippers, Why should
today's Messianic believers follow a liturgy that was deliberately composed to
prevent Messianic worship? If today's Messianic believers limit their worship to
what is found in the Jewish liturgy, they will utter no prayers that honor
[Yahshua] as Messiah, and the moving of the Holy Spirit will be quenched. They
will not be worshipping the Father in Spirit nor in Truth.
The most important things to happen when we gather on the
Sabbath are 1 ) that the Father be loved and worshipped in Spirit and in Truth;
2) that the saints be loved and edified; 3) that the lost be loved and drawn to
the Savior. For these things to happen, there needs to be a loving atmosphere
where the Holy Spirit is welcome and free to move among us, in the members of
the body. Too much tradition and ritual and liturgy can quench and limit the
moving of the Spirit.
"But what about Jewish visitors who might show up?" some ask.
"Romans 11:11 says we're supposed to provoke the Jews to jealousy. Shouldn't we
conduct our Sabbath services like the synagogue for their sake?" Hebrew liturgy
and Jewish traditions and rituals might make a Jewish visitor feel more
comfortable but these are not the things that will provoke him to jealousy. A
person can only jealously desire something that he doesn't have. A Jewish person
already has the traditions and rituals in the synagogue. A Jewish person will
not be provoked to jealousy because we have his traditions and rituals; he will
be provoked to jealousy because we have his Messiah. We need the presence of the
Messiah, manifested by the moving of the Holy Spirit. That is the thing that
will draw lost Jews and non-Jews to their Savior, edify the saints, and inspire
Spirit-led worship. This is what the Father is after, and this is what I am
1. Artscroll/ Siddur, 3rd ed., ed. R. Nosson Scherman (New
York: Mesorah Publ., 2002), 441.
2. Hudbut, Storyofthe Christian Church, p. 41. Quoted in
Dan Rogers, "The Historic Phenomena and Theology of the Nazarenes and
Ebionites," Giving & Sharing Newsletter No. 74, Feb. 2004, 1 6f.
3. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
(New York: Random House), ch. 15, p. 382. Quoted in Dan Rogers' article.
4. Rogers, p. 17
5. See Dan Rogers article and Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish
Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988).
6. Rogers, p. 18.
7. Rabbi Jeffery Cohen, Blessed Are You: A Comprehensive
Guide to Jewish Prayer (Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993),
8. "Aronson To Sell Division," Forward, 20 Feb. 2004,
Newsdesk, p. 3.
Reprinted from "Gates of Eden" newsletter. (Hebrew
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