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Mishnah Yadayim 4:6-8: The Pharisee-Sadducee Debate

HomerThe Mishnah records some of the points of law on which the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees. More than the philosophic issues which Josephus identifies, these halakhic standards defined and set one sect apart from the other.

4-6 The Sadducees say- “We complain against you, Pharisees, for you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands, 85 but the writings of Homer do not defile the hands.” Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai said- “And do we hold only this against the Pharisees? Behold they say- ‘The bones of an ass are pure and the bones of Yohanan the high priest are impure.’” 86

[The Sadducees] said to him- “Their impurity is according to (our) love for them; so that no one should make the bones of his mother and father into spoons.” He said to them- “So too, regarding the Holy Scriptures, their impurity is according to (our) love for them. But the books of Homer, which are not beloved, do not defile the hands.”

7 The Sadducees say- “We complain against you, Pharisees, for you declare the liquid stream (being poured from a pure vessel to an impure vessel) to be pure.” 87 The Pharisees say- “We accuse you, Sadducees, for you declare the aqueduct which flows from a cemetery is pure.”

The Sadducees say- “We complain against you, Pharisees, for you say that [for] my ox and my ass which have caused damage [I am] culpable, but [for] my slave and my maid- servant who have caused damage [I am] exempt. If for my ox and my ass, for whom I am not responsible for their fulfillment of commandments, I am responsible for the damage caused by them, then for my slave and maid-servant regarding whom I am responsible for their fulfillment of the commandments—is it not a logical conclusion that I should be responsible for damage caused by them?”

The [Pharisees] said to [the Sadducees]- “No! Shall we say that [it is the same for] my ox and my ass which have no understanding as for my slave and my maid-servant who have understanding? [If so, then] if I will anger [the slave or maid-servant], they will go and set fire to the grain of another and I will be obligated to pay.”

8 A Galilean Sadducee said- “I complain against you, Pharisees, for you write the name of the [gentile] ruler 88 with that of Moses on a writ of divorce.”

The Pharisees say- “We complain against you, Galilean Sadducee, for you write the name of the ruler with the name of God on the [same] page. And furthermore, you write the name of the ruler above and the name of God below, as it is written, ‘And Pharoah said, “Who is God that I should listen to his voice and let Israel go?’” (Ex. 5-2). 89

84. Trans. S. Berrin.

85. It was required for priests to wash their hands after contact with those Holy Scriptures considered part of the biblical canon.

86. How can animal bones not carry defilement when those of the purest of people are considered to defile?

87. The Pharisees maintained that a liquid stream being poured from a pure vessel into an impure one did not connect the two vessels so as to render the upper one impure. The Sadducees, however, saw the stream as conducting the impurity upwards from the lower vessel to the upper and rendering it impure.

88. A reference to dating by consular year as found in the Jewish documents from the first and second centuries.

89. This is a sort of tongue-in-cheek response, for the Pharisees are not actually accusing the Sadducee of a deviant or objectionable action, but rather pointing out that the own action is unobjectionable, as the Bible itself has recorded the name of a gentile rule above that, not only of Moses, but of God.

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