According to custom, a rabbi could not charge for teaching the Scriptures, so the itinerant rabbi was dependent upon the hospitality and generosity of the community. Many rabbis carried their food with them – a pouch of meal and a few olives. From such they subsisted, not wanting to be a burden to their host. The rabbi’s stay in the community might last from only a few days to weeks, or even months. However, for the long term student (“disciple”), learning from a rabbi meant traveling, since the rabbi was always moving from place to place. When Yeshua said “follow me” he literally meant just that.4
The role of Yeshua as a messianic figure gets much more attention than his role as a rabbi. The Synoptic Gospels, however, provide a wealth of information and highlights his activities as a rabbi.
In Yeshua’s period, the stress was more on haggadah. The common man loved haggadah and was strengthened and encouraged by it. Rabbinic sermons for the common people were mainly haggadah, while the more technical discussions of halachah were reserved for advanced disciples. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the focus switched more to halachah.
There were a number of haggadic methods of interpretation used by the rabbis. The most frequently used method by Yeshua is remez or hinting -- a way rabbis used to make a statement or declaration about something or someone by alluding to verse or passage from the Hebrew Scriptures.
(1) Yeshua would hint at a biblical verse or passage by just mentioning one key word or phrase in the passage.
(2) His listeners, having heard those verses read in the synagogue on a weekly schedule, knew the whole passage.
(3) Often, the point that he wanted to make is found in the biblical passage immediately before or just after the “hint” from that passage.
The moment the audience recognized the “hint,” the whole passage immediately burst into their minds and they would recognize the point he wanted to make.
Keep this in mind when you read the words of Yeshua in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke). Watch for his use of remez and find the passages he was hinting at. Consider what came immediately before or after “the hint.” This will add a new dimension to your understanding of his words.
His audience recognized him as a skilled teacher and viewed his messages in light of the words of the Hebrew Scriptures. His skills as a rabbi and teacher are unknown to modern readers and therefore most people fail to grasp the key points he made and ultimately the purpose of his movement. Interestingly, and as surprising as it may seem, we have a record of more of the sayings and the deeds of Yeshua than any other 1st century rabbi.8
Yeshua didn't tell his disciples to go into the world and make "believers," he said go make disciples (learners)! It is time for “believers in Jesus” to become “students of rabbi Yeshua” and then make students of their own and teach them. What do you think?
The rabbis taught in public places and in private homes. The Mishnah (Oral Law) in Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers) we read: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; sit amidst the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.5 If the people had not been hospitable, opening their homes for teaching and providing food and lodging for the rabbis and their disciples, it would have been impossible for the rabbis to teach and for the students to learn.6
The rabbis used two primary methods to teach their disciples -- halachah and haggadah.
Learning by itself did not make a pupil, and he did not grasp the full significance of his teacher’s learning in all its nuances except through prolonged intimacy with his teacher, through close association with his rich and profound mind. The disciples accompanied their sage as he went to teach, when he sat in the law court, when he engaged in the performance of meritorious deeds such as helping the poor, redeeming slaves, collecting dowries for poor brides, burying the deed, etc. The pupil took his turn in preparing the common meal and catering for the general needs of the group. He performed personal services for his teacher, observed his conduct and was his respectful, loving, humble companion. Some laws could not be studied theoretically or merely discussed, but could only be learned by serving the teacher.3
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The term “rabbi” is derived from the Hebrew word rav, which in biblical Hebrew means “great.” The word rav is not a title in biblical Hebrew. By the time of Jesus rav had come to refer to a master, as opposed to a slave, or as opposed to a disciple. The word “rabbi” (pronounced ra-bee), means literally, “my master.” It was used as a form of address when speaking to a learned teacher, or sage. It was not yet a formal title.
The rabbi in Jesus’ day was quite different from the present day rabbi. In Jesus’ day, the rabbi almost always had an occupation from which he derived his livelihood. He had not yet become the synagogal functionary that he became in a later period. He was, rather, an itinerant or peripatetic preacher functioning in much the same way as the prophet of the Old Testament. In an age in which there were no highly developed and sophisticated methods of mass communication as we have today, the rabbi had to travel from place to place if he wanted to communicate to the masses his teachings and interpretations of Scripture.1
2 The Jewish People in the First Century Volume Two: Historical Geography, Political History, Social Culture and Religious Life and Institutions; Edited by S. Safrai and M. Stern in co-operation with D. Flusser and E. C. van Unnik; © 1976 By Stichting Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum Testamentum; Fprtress Press, Philadelphia, PA; p. 965.
3 The Jewish People in the First Century Volume Two; p. 964.
5 Mishnah, Avot 1:4
7 Sifre, Deuteronomy 49
It is important to remember that Yeshua wasn’t the only messianic figure or rabbi traveling around at that time trying to get the people’s attention. There were others in the land of Israel at that time.
According to Professor S. Safrai, the itinerating rabbi was the norm, rather than the exception.2 Being a disciple of Yeshua, especially for his apostles, was about much more than just listening to him teach.
Halachah comes from the Hebrew root word halach, which means “to walk” or “to go.” In other words, halachahis that path or way in which one is to walk. Halachah is the term that is also used to refer to the whole legal system in Judaism, which today includes the 613 written commandments of the Torah along with all of the legal rulings and decisions of the rabbis found in the Mishnah. Keep in mind, however, that the way Judaism is understood today did not exists during the time of Yeshua. Rabbinic Judaism was hundreds of years in the future.
Haggadah comes from the Hebrew root word nagad, which means “to draw out; to narrate or tell.” According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Horavot 3:8. 48c), the purpose of the haggadah, unlike the purpose of the halachah, is not to state what is “forbidden” or “permitted” nor is it to declare what is “pure” or “impure.” Haggadah includes history, narrative, story, legends, fables, poetry, dirges, prayers, parables, proverbs, allegories, metaphors, hyperboles, analogies, and more. The haggadah is not written as a legal textbook, nor a digest of legal precedents. Haggadah consist of moral and ethical instruction about personal faith and the ways of God. It strives to teach man how to live in harmony with God and in harmony with his fellow man. Its fundamental purpose is to reach out and touch the heart of man so that he might “know the Creator of the world and adhere to His ways.” 7