The Bible reminds me of a museum full of masterful oil paintings. Each painting (book) has things in the background, the foreground, different textures and details; some elements might be hard to interpret on first glance. Because we are not the original audience, it can be extremely enlightening to ask someone who sees from a different perspective. If you’re not Jewish, taking the time to discover Jesus’ cultural context and Jewish customs can open your eyes to the rich meaning of the Word of God.

To help our study, we’ll refer to the Complete Jewish Bible and Complete Jewish Study Bible.

The Importance of Jewish Customs

Certain traditions and customs come directly from the Bible. They are usually identified as “Jewish” customs, but in fact they are “biblical” customs. This means that these traditions are not only enriching to Jews, but that any believer can be blessed by an understanding of them. For example, do you know what a mezuzah is—or why mezuzahs are placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes? Why are all Jews buried in a simple white shroud? How is baptism related to the ceremonial ritual baths that predate Moshe’s receipt of God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, providing the context of both Yeshua’s and Yochanan’s (John’s) immersions? Knowing the answers to these questions provides a deeper, richer understanding of the Jewish background of the New Testament.

What better way to understand the Messiah than to study the context of his life on earth as a religious Jew? The biblical customs that Yeshua practiced are often the missing key to unlocking the depths of the Scriptures. The first followers of Yeshua, nearly all Jews, did not abandon their traditions and practices. Non-Jewish followers, who Sha’ul (Paul) called “grafted-in Gentiles,” often participated in these practices (cf. Rom. 11:17). Learning about biblical customs that appear throughout the Bible bring out the richness of the biblical/Jewish customs and traditions so that they can be understood by all.

Now that we know the “why”, let’s take a look at a couple Jewish customs reflected in Luke 2

Redemption of the Firstborn (Pidyon ha’Ben)

There was in Yerushalayim a man named Shim’on. This man was a tzaddik, he was devout, he waited eagerly for God to comfort Isra’el, and the Ruach HaKodesh was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Ruach HaKodesh that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah of ADONAI. Prompted by the Spirit, he went into the Temple courts; and when the parents brought in the child Yeshua to do for him what the Torah required, Shim‘on took him in his arms, made a b’rakhah to God, and said,

“Now, ADONAI, according to your word,
your servant is at peace as you let him go;
for I have seen with my own eyes your yeshu‘ah,
which you prepared in the presence of all peoples —
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Isra’el.”

Luke 2:25-32 Complete Jewish Bible

Notes

In the book of Exodus, the tenth plague brought death to all firstborn in Egypt, but the Israelites were spared because they followed God’s dictates. As a result, God declared that all the Jewish firstborn sons (and animals) belonged to him. Those sons, having been saved by God’s hand, were now obligated to be his full-time servants and priests.

Several years after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, these firstborn sons became the priesthood of the Jewish nation. However, as God revealed more of his plan for his people, he designated an entire tribe of Isra’el for this holy purpose: the sons of Levi (see Num. 8:14–18). This presented a problem regarding what to do with the previously appointed firstborn sons. The answer is found in Torah, in which God specified that the firstborn sons be redeemed (bought back) for service other than full-time priesthood.

Since the days of Moshe (Moses), the custom of pidyon ha’Ben has been important in the biblical/Jewish life cycle. As mentioned in Numbers 18:16, the timing of pidyon ha’Ben is one month after a boy’s birth. In biblical times, this would require the father to take his infant son into the Tabernacle or Temple, where he would offer an official remittance of money for the baby boy’s redemption. The exact amount is stated: five shekels of silver.

Following the Torah, Yosef and Miryam (Joseph and Mary) brought their newborn baby boy to the Temple to fulfill their obligations. This obligation was twofold: first, to ceremonially cleanse the mother and make the proper sacrifices (Lev. 12:1–8). The family of Yeshua was not wealthy and therefore presented the less expensive offering of pigeons. The second part of the obligation was to redeem the firstborn son through the pidyon ha’Ben ritual. The child Yeshua was not exempt from this redemption.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Every year Yeshua’s parents went to Yerushalayim for the festival of Pesach. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the festival, as custom required. But after the festival was over, when his parents returned, Yeshua remained in Yerushalayim. They didn’t realize this; supposing that he was somewhere in the caravan, they spent a whole day on the road before they began searching for him among their relatives and friends. Failing to find him, they returned to Yerushalayim to look for him. On the third day they found him. He was sitting in the Temple court among the rabbis, not only listening to them but questioning what they said; and everyone who heard him was astonished at his insight and his responses.

Luke 2:41-47 Complete Jewish Bible

Notes

One of the best-known Jewish customs is that of bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl). The words themselves mean “Son [Bar] or Daughter [Bat] of the Commandment.” It is the time when a child takes responsibility for his or her own life, having reached the biblical age of accountability. The historical background of the bar/bat mitzvah custom is difficult to determine, as there are no specific references to the ceremony in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, there are dozens of statements supporting the idea that there is an age of accountability in following God’s way.

Ironically, the most detailed account of something like a bar mitzvah in the Bible is in the New Testament, at the bar mitzvah ceremony for Messiah Yeshua. When he was twelve, he went with his parents to Yerushalayim for the festival of Pesach (Passover), as they did every year. But that year, Yeshua remained in Yerushalayim. Yosef and Miryam (Joseph and Mary) didn’t realize this, supposing that he was somewhere in their caravan, and they spent a whole day on the road before they began searching for him among their relatives and friends. Failing to find him, they returned to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). On the third day they found him—sitting in the Temple court among the rabbis, not only listening to them but questioning what they said. Everyone who heard him was astonished at his insights and his responses.

In other words, Yeshua’s parents found him where any good bar mitzvah boy would be—receiving the blessing of the rabbis, as was common in ancient tradition. It caught everyone’s attention that this student was amazing even the rabbis with the wisdom of his teaching (drash). Surely this bar mitzvah boy was someone special, one who would later proclaim himself to be the Messiah.

For More on Jewish Customs…

The complete Jewish study Bible Jewish Customs

Was this information interesting to you? Do you enjoy learning about the history of the Bible? If you’re a stranger to Jewish culture, there is so much for you to learn! Get your copy of the Complete Jewish Study Bible and Complete Jewish Bible today!

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