Who keeps the Torah today?



  • Is the Torah a ‘permanent instruction manual for an ethical and holy life’?
  • Who keeps the 613 commandments today?
  • Aspects of the Torah which no one keeps today.
  • The replacement of the sacrificial system by the New Covenant.
  • The significance of Hosea 3.4:  ‘For the children of Israel shall abide many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, without ephod or teraphim.  Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God and David their king.  They shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days’.

Who keeps the Torah today?

In ‘Reason 1’ of his book Asher Norman says that Christianity contradicts Judaism on virtually every major issue.  On the subject of salvation he says ‘The Jewish Bible teaches that God judges all people by their works reflected through the paradigm of God’s commandments in the Torah.  According to the Jewish Bible, God judges Jews by the 10 categories of 613 laws of the Torah and God judges Gentiles by the 7 laws of Noah’.  

Asher Norman writes ‘Christians argue that the laws of the Torah were a temporary tutor until Jesus came and ‘fulfilled’ them.  … The idea that the laws of the Torah were ‘fulfilled’ by Jesus contradicts the Torah which states that God chose the Jewish people and gave them His Torah as a permanent instruction manual for an ethical and holy life.  The Jewish prophets declared that the laws of the Torah would continue to be in effect in the messianic era, after Messiah ben David has appeared.  Ironically Christians still feel obligated to keep the most difficult laws (not coveting, caring for the poor, forgiving transgressors, loving one’s neighbours) and have abolished the easiest laws (performing rituals, wearing tsittsit, keeping kosher, performing rituals mandated by the Torah etc).

In fact Judaism acknowledges that no one keeps the 613 commandments today.  In his book ‘The Handbook of Jewish Thought’ Rabbi Kaplan states: ‘There is a tradition that God included 613 commandments in the Torah. Of these, 248 are positive, while 365 are negative.  Many of these commandments, however, deal with the laws of purity and sacrifice, and were thus only applicable when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. Therefore, of all the commandments, only 369 apply today. Of these, 126 are positive, and 243 are negative.  Even of these, however, many only pertain to special cases or circumstances. The total number of commandments which apply to everyone under all conditions is 270. Of these, 48 are positive, and 222 are negative.’  

Since the fall of the Second Temple a vast area of the written Torah has become impossible for Jewish people to keep. All of the commandments concerning the tabernacle, the priesthood and the sacrifices cannot be kept literally by anyone today.  This involves a large amount of the text of the Torah – most of Exodus 26-40 and Leviticus 1-10.  The instructions concerning the keeping of the feasts (Leviticus 16-17, 23) are only kept in part by Orthodox Jews because of the absence of the sacrifices today.  Modern Judaism says that the sacrificial system is unimportant but much more space is devoted to it than to dietary laws.  There is just one chapter for the kosher food laws (Leviticus 11) and half of one verse with an extremely disputable interpretation for the milk and meat laws (Exodus 23.19).  Other issues of great importance in modern Judaism like head covering for men and shaving of hair and wearing of wigs for married women have zero verses about them in the whole Bible.

There are other aspects of the Torah which are not kept today. Examples of these are various laws requiring the death penalty for disobedience (Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 13), the agricultural laws concerning fields lying fallow in the seventh year (Leviticus 25), laws on cancelling debt every seven years (Deuteronomy 15.1-6), slavery (Deuteronomy 15.12-18), warfare (Deuteronomy 20), rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21.18-21), cleansing of lepers (Leviticus 13-14), testing a wife for her virginity (Numbers 5.11-31), etc.  If one goes through the five books of the Torah, one finds that there is much more that is not kept by anyone today than is kept.   

The laws relating to agriculture and practical matters had to do with life in Israel during the period following the Jewish settlement of the land under Joshua.  They are interesting and instructive for study but there has been no attempt to re-instate them following the present re-settlement of the land in modern Israel.  In fact I spoke to an Orthodox Jew living in London who told me that some ultra Orthodox Jews will not eat food produced in Israel because the Israelis do not keep the sabbatical 7th year of letting the fields lie fallow.  

The Torah is presented to Israel as one unit by which they are to live in the land they are going in to possess.  Nothing is to be added to it or taken away from it (Deuteronomy 4.1-2).  They will be blessed if they observe God’s commandments and cursed if they disobey (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28).   

In modern times it is not possible to keep all of the Torah. The main reason for this is the destruction of the Temple in CE 70 and the dispersion of the Jewish people.  However this raises the question as to why God permitted this to happen. Despite the times of unfaithfulness, God preserved the Jewish people in the land of Israel from the time of Joshua through to the time of Jesus. The 70 years of captivity in Babylon was followed by the decree of Cyrus that the Jewish exiles could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1).  This went against all normal patterns of history and was itself the fulfilment of the prophecy given in Jeremiah 29.  

If God preserved Israel and gave them the possibilities to keep the commands of the Torah and worship in the Temple, offering the prescribed sacrifices, why did He allow all this to come to an end? Asher Norman says ‘If Jews follow the Christian salvation programme and abandon God’s laws in the Torah in the land of Israel, God warned Jews that He would disgorge (vomit) them out of the land and scatter them into exile where they would serve other gods of wood and stone’ (page 12).  He relates this passage to Leviticus 18.26-28 and Deuteronomy 28.  

There are 2 problems with this line of reasoning.

  1. The great scattering and dispersion into the galut / exile happened 40 years after Jesus came and the Jewish religious leadership rejected Him as Messiah.
  2. Now that Jewish people are again living in the land of Israel, the majority do not keep the laws prescribed by rabbinic Judaism and none of the religious keep all the laws of the Torah either.  

Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple and the dispersion 40 years before the Jewish revolt and its suppression by the Romans in CE 70.  He also gave a reason for it – ‘For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you and your children within you to the ground; and they will not leave one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’  (Luke 19.41-44)  This prophecy of Jesus ties in with the prophecy of Daniel 9 that ‘the people of the prince to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary’ (i.e. the Romans will destroy Jerusalem and the Second Temple). Before this happens according to Daniel ‘Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself’ (Daniel 9.26).  In other words the Messiah was to die a sacrificial death before the destruction of the second temple.  

After the fall of the Temple Yochanan ben Zakkai established the academy at Yavneh where he set up a way to keep part of the Torah without sacrifices, priesthood and Temple.  The accusation of Asher Norman is that Christians (Paul in particular) changed the Law.  But so did Yochanan ben Zakkai.  Circumstances (the Fall of the Temple) and the teaching established at Yavneh (which was really the logical outworking of the Pharisees’ teaching) determined that a whole section of the written Torah could no longer be kept by Judaism.

This is the fulfilment of the prophecy in Hosea 3.4:  ‘For the children of Israel shall abide many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, without ephod or teraphim.  Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God and David their king.  They shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days’.  In other words there would be a long period of time in which Israel would not have a leader over the united people and not have the ability to offer sacrifices or have the oracles of God.  But something will happen to change this and bring the Jewish people back to the Lord in the latter days.  

These prophecies describe accurately the condition of the Jewish people today.  Orthodox Jews say that if the conditions were right and they had access to the Temple they would keep the aspects of the Torah which are impossible to keep today.  But it is not just the portions relating to Temple worship that are not kept today.  As I have stated above there are many parts of the Torah which no one keeps relating to agriculture, treatment of slaves, warfare etc.  All of these had relevance when Israel was a settled people living in the land, but lost relevance or became impossible to keep when they were a dispersed people living in other people’s lands.  And Asher Norman makes an interesting point when he speaks about Christians wanting to keep the difficult laws (not coveting, caring for the poor, forgiving transgressors, loving one’s neighbours) but not keeping the outwardly ritualistic laws.  

Today the Orthodox zealously keep aspects of the Torah which are possible to keep – kosher food regulations, Sabbath observance, ritual purity etc with thousands of additional laws covering these and other matters found in the Talmud. But as the Torah is one unit if they don’t keep part of it how can they be justified before God?  Why has God permitted nearly 2000 years to pass since the keeping of so many aspects of the Torah has been possible?

The alternative view is the somewhat radical one that since the coming of Jesus as the suffering servant Messiah the entire Torah has been replaced with the new covenant.  In his book ‘Hebrew Christianity’ Arnold Fruchtenbaum writes ‘The clear-cut teaching of the New Testament is that the Law of Moses has been rendered inoperative with the death of Christ; in other words the Law in its totality no longer has authority over any individual.  This is evident, first of all, from Romans 10:4 :  “For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one who believes”   Very clearly, Christ is the end of the Law and that includes all 613 commandments, hence the Law has ceased to function.  There is no justification through it:  “Yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Gal. 2:16)  Thus it should be very evident that the Law has come to an end in Christ and cannot function in justification or sanctification.  For the believer especially it has been rendered inoperative and shows that the Law has ceased to function for all.   There is no commandment that has continued beyond the cross of Christ.  The law is there and can be used as a teaching tool to show God’s standard of righteousness and man’s sinfulness and need of substitutionary atonement. The Law of Moses has been disannulled and we are now under a new law.  This new law is called the Law of Christ in Galatians 6:2  and the Law of the Spirit of Life in Romans 8:2.  This is a brand new Law totally separate from the Law of Moses.’

In Romans 7 Paul shows how an attempt to find justification and salvation by keeping the 10 commandments always ends in condemnation, because the sin principle within all human beings leads us to break God’s commandments.  It is interesting that he refers to the 10th commandment (‘You shall not covet’) because that is the only one which deals with an inward attitude rather than an outward action.  He knew that he might be able to keep the letter of the law of the other 9 commandments, but this one he failed on because of ‘sin that dwells in me’.  This leads on to another issue which Asher Norman disputes – the sinful nature of human beings – which we will look at in the next chapter.

The New Testament book of Hebrews shows how the ceremonial side of the Torah (priesthood, tabernacle, sacrifices) is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (see Hebrews 9-10).  He is the High Priest who has made the final sacrifice for sin through shedding His blood, which has been accepted by God.  As the writer to the Hebrews states:  ‘According to the law almost all things are purified with blood and without shedding of blood there is no remission.’  Hebrews 9.22. Following this the sacrifices in the Temple became a statement of unbelief not faith and were not acceptable to God. Those who continued to offer them ‘trampled the Son of God under foot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing and insulted the Spirit of grace.’  (Hebrews 10.29).  Following His death and resurrection Jesus’ words in Matthew 23.38 ‘Your house is left to you desolate’ were fulfilled.  For 40 years it was spiritually desolate before being physically destroyed in 70 CE.

In Hebrews 7 we read that following the line of reasoning that Jesus is the High Priest who has brought in the new covenant through which Jews and Gentiles find salvation, there has been a change in the priesthood.  Under the old covenant the Levitical priests offered sacrifices for their own sins and for the sins of the people.   Under the new covenant the Messiah has offered one final sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  As He is without sin He does not need to offer a sacrifice for His own sins.  The writer to the Hebrews uses the typology of the priesthood of Melchizedek to show that this change has happened.  ‘For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law.  For He of whom these things are spoken of belongs to another tribe from which no man has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.’  Hebrews 7.12-14.  This is described as a better covenant, because the Levitical priests ‘were prevented by death from continuing. But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood.’  Hebrews 7.23-4.  

Rabbis today may complain that the Torah cannot be changed, but the fact is that in Judaism today there has been a change in practice as radical as there has been in biblical Christianity.  In both faiths the literal application of the sacrificial system has ceased, in Judaism because the Temple no longer stands, in New Testament Christianity because the sacrifice of the Messiah has replaced them.  

The moral aspects of the Torah are restated in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus deals with not just the outward act (murder, adultery), but also the inward attitudes (hatred, lust etc).  In his epistle to the Galatians Paul contrasts the ‘works of the flesh’ with the fruit of the Spirit:  ‘Now the works of the flesh are evident which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.  And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.’  Galatians 5.19-25.   

At the Jerusalem council of the Apostles in Acts 15 the issue discussed was whether Gentiles should keep the Torah: ‘But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them (Gentile converts to Christianity), and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’ In response Peter said, ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  So God who knows the heart acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.’ Acts 15.5-11.