Mythbuster: We Can't Keep the Law - Part 3

In our previous articles, we have been debunking the myth that the Torah (the “Law”) is impossible to keep. We mentioned the misunderstanding of Peter’s words in Acts 15, where he refers to “a yoke … that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). We discussed the misconceptions within Christianity about the Torah and the perceived difficulty of following its directives. We also discussed the purpose for which God gave his Torah (Law), and listed several commandments found within the book of Leviticus as examples of these “difficult” laws. In this article, we will begin to seek an understanding of Peter’s specific terminology for his phrase, “a yoke … that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” What yoke was he referring to, and was it truly unbearable? Let’s take a look at a few instances of the metaphorical use of the word yoke in rabbinic literature to see if we can uncover a pattern and extract an understanding that can be used within our context.

“Yoke” in Rabbinic Terminology

Fortunately for us, rabbinic literature has a number of parallels to this type of language. Let’s explore a few from both the Mishnah and Talmud:

Rab said, On account of four things is the property of householders confiscated by the state treasury: On account of those who defer payment of the labourer’s hire; on account of those who withhold the hired labourer’s wages; on account of those who remove the yoke from off their necks and place it on [the necks] of their fellows [an allusion to the burden of paying taxes] and on account of arrogance. And the sin of arrogance is equivalent to all [the others] whereas of the humble it is written, But the humble shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace. (b.Sukkah 29b)

R. Samuel b. Nahmani citing R. Jonathan. explained: [And these tire the last words of David], The saying of David the son of Jesse and the saying of the man raised on high, [means, it is] the saying of David the son of Jesse who established firmly the yoke of repentance. (b.Moed Katan 16b)

The above passages show that we can assume the term yoke to mean a great number of things, because the term is used frequently in rabbinic literature in various ways. However, a fairly consistent pattern emerges that links this terminology to a single concept. Let’s see if it fits our circumstances:

R. Joshua b. Korhah said: why was the section of ‘hear’ placed before that of ‘and it shall come to pass’? so that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments. (b.Berachot 13a)

This first passage uses yoke to refer to the dual responsibilities of the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven” and the “yoke of the commandments.” In rabbinic terminology, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven is submission to God’s kingship — his authority. It is also an allusion to the Shema. Rabbi Joshua is saying that one should submit to God before trying to submit to the commandments. Here is a similar use:

Rabbi said, For all transgressions [of commands of] the Torah, whether one had repented or not, does the Day of Atonement procure atonement, except in the case of one who throws off the yoke [of the Torah], interprets the Torah unlawfully, or breaks the covenant of Abraham our father. In these cases, if he repented, the Day of Atonement procures atonement, if not, not! (b.Yoma 85b)

In this instance, Rabbi (Yehudah Hanasi) connects the yoke with the precepts of Torah. Rabbi Nechunya makes a similar association in the Mishnah:

Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah said: Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, from him will be taken away the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care. (m.Avot 3:6)

Rabbi Nechunya contrasts the “yoke of Torah” to the “yoke of the government” and the “yoke of worldly care.” He is saying that whoever submits to the authority of the Torah will not be caught up in the cares of the world, but whoever casts off the authority of the Torah will in the end be caught up in the cares of the world. Likewise, the Talmud records:

What is the meaning of this verse: “When aforetime the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali lightened its burden, but in later times it was made heavy by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 8:23)? It was not like the early generations, who made the yoke of the Torah light for themselves, but the later generations, who made the yoke of the Torah heavy for themselves. And these were worthy that a miracle should be done for them, just as was done for those who passed through the sea and trampled over the Jordan. If Sennacherib should repent, well and good, but if not, I shall make him into dung among the nations. (b.Sanhedrin 94b)

In this passage, the yoke is once again the weight of the commandments of the Torah. However, we see a contrast between the Torah being “light” and being “heavy.” In the natural mind, something heavy is more of a burden, whereas something light is less of a burden. But the roles are reversed in this case. The sages saw the weight of the Torah as a means of blessing, not displeasure. According to this passage, one who “made the yoke of the Torah heavy for themselves,” was worthy of miracles.

In each of these examples, the yoke of Torah is to be embraced and seen as a source of blessing. Only when the yoke of Torah is made “light” or cast away does life become difficult.

To what can the matter be compared? It can be compared to a merchant on a long journey back to his homeland. He was yoked to a cart laden with a small load just like a beast of burden. As he pulled the cart many miles down dusty, sometimes muddy roads, he continued along with a grin, lifting his eyes to heaven. When others passed him, they cleared the road and made way for the seemingly incoherent imbecile pulling his cart like a beast of burden. What the passersby didn’t know is that a large basket of precious jewels sat beneath the tattered blanket. He was left to travel the road in peace, carrying with him the source of blessing that would provide for his family for generations.

As we have stated, the Torah is a source of blessing. However, it is a responsibility as well. Is the Torah the yoke of which Peter speaks? If so, how are we to understand his words? If not, what other options can we explore to help us gain an understanding of this difficult passage? In our next issue, we will discuss Peter’s full response and review an alternate definition for this “unbearable yoke.”