We have talked about how the Pharisees had little by little become the modern Nivdalim. When we meet them again, they are but a higher order or branch of the Pharisees. Tradition expressly distinguishes the “early Chasidim” (pious ones) from the Chasidim in later times.
The earliest mention of the Pharisees occurs at the time of the Maccabees. They first started as a “fraternity” under the rule of John Hyrcanus, the fourth of the Maccabees from Mattathias. They were going strongly in that direction two reigns earlier under Jonathan, though. Through historical Jewish writings, we can put our finger on a definite event with which the origin of “the fraternity” of the Pharisees is connected.
At the time of Hyrcanus a commission was appointed to inquire throughout the land, how the Divine law of religious contributions was observed by the people. The result showed that the “therumah”, or priestly heave-offerings were given regularly by the people, neither the first or Levitical tithe was being paid as the Law had commanded. Such transgression involved mortal sin, since it implied the personal use of what really belonged to the Lord. After that, several arrangements were made. All that the “country people” sold was to be tithed upon.
In such cases the buyer had to regard the “therumah” and the “poor’s tithe” as still due on what he had purchased. On the other hand, the Pharisees formed a “Chabura”, or fraternity, of which each member (Chaber) bound himself to pay these tithes before use or sale. When a person became a member of the fraternity, his produce could be freely bought and sold because it meant that he had already paid the tithes on it.
The problem with this was that it added a burden of additional expense to any person who didn’t belong to the fraternity. If a person who belonged to the fraternity bought the produce, he didn’t have to pay an extra tithe on it, because he knew that it had already been tithed upon. The person who was not in the fraternity, therefore, had to pay the extra tithe. One might suspect that this is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 23: 4, because all these extra laws caused the people so much extra burden. “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”
The rigorous discharge of tithes was only one part of the obligations of a Chaber. The other part consisted in an equally rigorous submission to all the laws of Levitical purity. The various questions as to what was clean or unclean divided the “fraternity” into various degrees. Four such degrees are mentioned in historical writings. These were very complicated and had to be carried out to the most minute details.
In general terms, the first degree was called a Chaber, or “son of the union” – an ordinary Pharisee. The other three degrees were ranked together under the generic name of “Teharoth” (purifications). These later three degrees probably grew into the Chasidim of the later period. The first degree, or Chaber, only bound himself to tithing and avoidance of all Levitical uncleanness. The higher degrees, though, took increasingly strict vows.
Any person might enter the order if he took the solemn vow of observing the obligations of the fraternity before three members. This was later shortened, but at first there was an initiation period of one year. The wife or widow of a Chaber, and his children, were regarded as members of the fraternity. Those who entered the family of a Pharisee had also to seek admission into the “order.”
The general obligations of a Chaber towards those who not in the fraternity were as follows:
He was neither to buy from, nor sell to him anything, either in a dry or fluid state
He was not to eat at his table because the food eaten might not have been tithed
He was not to admit any person to his table unless he had put on the garments of a Chaber because the old garments might have been defiled
He was not to go into any burying-place
He was not to give “therumah” or tithes to any priest who was not a member of the fraternity
He was not to do anything in the presence of a person who was not in the fraternity, which brought up points connected with the laws of purification, etc.
There were also other ordinances that were added at a later period to these. Especially remarkable is the fact that there was an initiation period for each of the higher degrees, but when they were attained, the lesser degree was then as a much a defilement to him as any other thing.
To sum up then: the fraternity of the Pharisees were bound by these two vows – that of tithing and that in regard to purifications. As they became further and further away from the true Ten Commandments, they ended up having a system of pure externalism. For the most part, this was done almost as if they were slaves, because everything was carried out to the exact letter of the law they had made. In doing this, the Rabbis spoke of having made “a hedge” around Israel.
The Sadducees were against the Pharisees and wrote that if they could they would “by-and-by subject the globe of the sun itself to their purifications.” They had much contempt for the “order”, and said that they “torment themselves in this world, and yet they will not get anything in the next.”
We might index the history of Pharisaism by passages from the New Testament: The “tithing of mint and anise,” to the neglect of the weightier matters of the law, and “the cleansing” of the outside and being “hedged around” by a traditionalism which made void the Spirit of the Law. It also manifested itself in gross hypocrisy and religious boasting. This is the very same thing that we have just traced as we have studied the history of this “fraternity.”