The Master's Minhag: The Manners and Customs of Yeshua

As disciples and imitators of the Master, it is important that we become familiar with the customs that made our Messiah’s practice unique.

A rolled-up Torah scroll (Image: © Bigstock)

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We can best define minhag as a particular and specific custom. [1] Most great rabbis had their own unique set of customs, and in the spirit of true discipleship, students of these sages would carry out these customs exactly the same way their beloved rabbis did.

Eventually these customs defined individual synagogues within each of the various branches of Judaism. A minhag [custom] is considered an essential expression for the followers of a particular sect.

Customs are not explicitly based on biblical commands, and if they contradicted Torah, they were declared “null and void.”[2] Think of it as buying a house in a subdivision. Your house might be identical to your next-door neighbor’s, but while your houses are similar, there are also differences. From the color of paint to the style of kitchen cabinets, your houses are both similar and different. In the same way, we could say that the Torah is the house model, whereas the options are the customs.

The House of Yeshua

Why should we care what the Master’s customs were? Because they were what differentiated His Torah observance from others. Building on the house concept, a school or group of Pharisees in Yeshua’s day were defined as just that: “House of Hillel,” “House of Shammai,” etc.

When we come into Messiah, we join the “House of Yeshua,” so to speak. As His disciples, it is important for us to become familiar with the customs that define this family of which we are now a part. It is imperative that we begin to learn what made our Messiah’s practice unique as we strive to be imitators of Him.

Synagogue Attendance

The phrase “His custom” in relation to Yeshua appears three times in the Gospels. The first chronological appearance of this phrase is in Luke 4:16:

And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.

Here the “custom” spoken about is attendance at the synagogue on Shabbat as well as participating in the Torah service and liturgy. This was actually not unique to the Master but was accepted Shabbat protocol by Judaism. In fact, Luke 4:16-20 is the first historical record of the custom of reading the Prophets on Shabbat. [3]

The Bible does not command synagogue attendance on Shabbat to read the Torah. Although Leviticus 23:3 alludes to an assembly or gathering on Shabbat, it does not explicitly described the details of the manner of the service. Yet by using the words “according to His custom,” Yeshua was identifying with the synagogue’s practices. For example, from the Gospels, we can see that, during the service, the Master reads from the Torah and then the Prophets while standing, and then sits down to teach, which was the common practice of the Judaism of His day.

Gathering together on Shabbat provides fellowship and helps in making this appointed time special. The Torah service is a mode by which we can stay focused on the true intent of the day and at the same time praise the Father in unison. For those of us who are able to assemble on Shabbat, reading Torah together is not just a nice tradition, but rather, is raised to the level of an act of discipleship.

Teaching Outside

The second place that we find information about the Master’s custom is in the book of Mark:

Getting up, He went from there to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan; crowds gathered around Him again, and, according to His custom, He once more began to teach them. (Mark 10:1)

Teaching Torah to disciples and crowds was not a unique custom in the first century. Based upon a traditional exegesis of Deuteronomy 6:7, “You shall teach them diligently to your sons,” sons not only referred to one’s children but also to one’s disciples. [4] So what is unique to Yeshua? It’s not that He teaches but where He teaches. Samuel Lachs points out that in the first century, “teaching took place indoors in the beit-midrash [house of study], the academy, or in the synagogue, but there were frequent exceptions to this general rule.” [5] Yet, while some sages also taught in the Temple or the marketplace, there is little record of rabbis teaching in fields or the wilderness the way the Master did. [6]

Yeshua’s custom appears to be that He would teach crowds wherever they gathered around Him. He was not limited to location; sometimes it seems that He even preferred teaching outdoors. Imagine the tranquility and exhilaration of hearing the Master expound on the Torah while in the wilderness, in a field overlooking the Sea of Galilee, or in a boat while the water gently lapped against its side. These scenes provided the perfect backdrop for many of His teachings such as the parable of the sower and the illustration of the miraculous catch of fish. [7] Experiencing the fresh air and God’s creation can invigorate and expand our study of His Torah.

The Mount of Olives

The third and final place that we are explicitly told about a custom of Yeshua is in Luke 22:39:

And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him.

This event took place after His last seder meal with His disciples. After singing the Hallel, they went to the Mount of Olives and there He prayed.

A close reading of the Gospels indicates that He indeed spent quite a bit of time on the Mount of Olives teaching His disciples. For instance, John indicates in his gospel about the Mount of Olives, “Now Judas also, who was betraying Him, knew the place, for Yeshua had often met there with His disciples.” [8] He also meets with the disciples in this location in Matthew 24 and Acts 1.

The Mount of Olives is often associated with the Messiah, beginning with David choosing to worship there in 2 Samuel 15:32. The Prophet Zechariah tells us that this is where Messiah will appear in the end of days: “and in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives.” [9] Many were expecting this in Yeshua’s day as evidenced by Josephus’ story about a false Messiah appearing there. [10]

If you are ever blessed with the opportunity to visit Jerusalem, be assured that a pilgrimage to this special mountain gives you the opportunity to practice Yeshua’s custom by literally following in His footsteps.

Early Prayer

Two more of the Master’s customs deserve our attention. While neither of these have the saying “as was His custom” attached to them, they do seem to be a unique part of His Torah practice.

One of these apparent customs appears to be that He frequently rose very early in the day:

In the early morning, while it was still dark, Yeshua got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there. (Mark 1:35)

At this particular occasion He is seen beginning His prayers even before the sun is up. A parallel to this practice can be found in the Talmud where a small group of pious Israelites would rise and begin praying before dawn so that the recital of the Shema would end just as the sun was rising. [11] It seems that Yeshua could have fit into this group of insomniacs quite well. While most of the general population waited until a later hour to begin their morning prayers, in this passage we see our Rabbi rising before the sun to pray and petition His heavenly Father.

Another passage that gives another possible clue that Messiah was a frequent early riser is Luke 5:1-10. Here He is teaching just as the boats were coming in from fishing. They would have fished all night and arrived back at the harbor sometime close to dawn. [12]

Amazingly, the Master’s practice is echoed in Chasidic teaching today:

Try to get up before dawn to study, pray, and meditate. This will bring you into perfect faith. The light of truth and wisdom will shine on you and you will be able to enter all the gates of holiness. When it gets light in the morning, lift up your eyes and look at the heavens. [13]

Waking up early to pray sets the tone for the day. It puts our priorities in order and insures that we are not interrupted before the busy day begins. It seems that the Master knew that people would need His attention almost as soon as day began, and therefore He turned His attention to the Father early. Without asserting ourselves too heavily, it does appear that the Master often chose to rise in the wee hours of the morning.

Looking up Toward Heaven

A final custom of Yeshua’s that has no parallel elsewhere in rabbinic literature appears to be one of His most identifiable practices. It happens with the two disciples He meets on the road to Emmaus when He went to their house to eat:

When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. (Luke 24:30-31)

The disciples recognize Him only after He makes the blessing over the bread. David Instone-Brewer makes the following remarks:

The story of Emmaus suggests that Jesus had a characteristic way of blessing bread, and all the Synoptics note that Jesus looked up to heaven as He blessed the bread for the thousands, so perhaps He did this in a particularly singular way. [14]

When we examine the Gospel accounts of the multiplication of the loaves we find the phrase, “looking up toward heaven, He blessed.” [15] The traditional blessing would have been said over the bread in keeping with practice of His day, but His own custom would have been to look up while He was doing this. Although we cannot be absolutely dogmatic here that this practice was unique only to the Master, I know of no records of anyone doing this throughout all of historical literature. The Master implements the practice of looking up at other times while he prays even outside of the context of a blessing before a meal. [16]

Why would He do this, and what significance does it hold? Samuel Lachs suggests that this is a “reverential pose” based on Job 22:26, “For then you will delight in the Almighty and lift up your face to God.” [17] Yet, here it appears that there might be even more meaning than just mere posture. There is a prayer in the Siddur called the kedushah where it is customary for some Jews to look up during its recital. Commenting on this practice, the Baal HaTurim writes that it is as if God says at this time:

Teach them that they should lift their eyes high to the house of their prayers and elevate themselves upwards because I don't have any other enjoyment in the world like it—that moment when their eyes are lifted with my eyes and my eyes with their eyes. [18]

In the Baal HaTurim’s mind, it is as if when the petitioner would look up his eyes would meet those of God’s. Although he wrote these words over a thousand years after our Master walked this earth, perhaps it was a similar idea of intimate connection that Yeshua Himself was expressing by looking up when He blessed His Father for the bread.

Conclusion

Although we have only scratched the surface of the Master’s customs, this is an important step in our process of discipleship. Our calling is one of imitation. If something was important to Him, it ought to be important to us too, being children in His family. By studying and practicing the Master’s customs, His walk and purpose is revealed more and more in us. By imitating Him we make Him known to those around us. May we strive to follow in Yeshua’s words:

A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher. [19]

Footnotes:
  1. The word minhag has several connotations beyond what we explore in this article.
  2. Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna in Or Zarua 1:7.
  3. See Shmuel Safrai, “Synagogue and the Sabbath,” Jerusalem Perspective (November/December 1989): 8-10.
  4. Sifrei to Deuteronomy 6:7.
  5. Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1987), 67.
  6. b.Pesachim 26a and b.Moed Katan 16b.
  7. Matthew 13:3ff and Luke 5:1ff.
  8. John 18:2.
  9. Zechariah 14:4.
  10. Josephus, Antiquites 10.8.6.
  11. b.Brachot 9b, 25b, and 26a.
  12. See David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005), 71-72.
  13. Rabbi Yitzchok Breiter, Seven Pillars of Faith and a Day in the Life of a Breslover Chassid, (Monsey, NY: Breslover Research Institute, 1989), 45-46.
  14. David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament Volume 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 75.
  15. See Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16.
  16. See Mark 7:34; John 11:41-42, 17:1.
  17. Lachs, 241.
  18. Arbaah Turim 125.
  19. Luke 6:40.
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About the Author: Toby Janicki is a teacher, writer, and project manager for First Fruits of Zion and Vine of David. He contributes regularly to Messiah Journal and has written several books including God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel. More articles by Toby Janicki

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