THE UNIVERSAL JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA
[ ] [page 474] the date indicated above, and have continued to be held down to the present day. The name Pharisee, which has come into the English language through the Latin translation of the New Testament and represents the Greek word Pharisaios, goes back directly to the Aramaic word Parisha, the equivalent, in popular speech, of the Hebrew Parush, from the verb parash. The root meaning of the verb is “to separate.” The name Pharisee would seem to indicate persons who were separated. But opinions differ as to the exact nature and occasion of such separation. On the whole, the most probable explanation is that the name was given to, or taken by, those Jews who in the 2nd cent. B.C.E. adopted a way of life more strict in regard to dietary laws, ritual purity, and the like, than that of the ordinary Jew, and who thereby separated themselves from the less observant portion of the population. A less probable explanation is that the name refers to the separation which marked off the Pharisees from the Sadducees. The name, however, was probably known and used before that separation took place. A third theory connects the name with the facts that the Pharisees built their whole system upon interpretation of the Scripture, and that one meaning of parash is to interpret. But the form of the name Pharisee is not what this theory would require. The name, whatever it really means, is probably nothing more than a party epithet having no close connection with the principles of those to whom it was applied.
The Pharisees, as a party, were those who most steadfastly followed the lead of Ezra (444 B.C.E.), and the Early Scribes (known collectively as the Men of the Great Synagogue) in developing the idea of the Torah as the full revelation which God had made to Israel, and the consequent duty of learning what was taught therein and of obeying what was commanded. In the Pharisaic tradition Ezra was regarded as—after Moses—the real founder of Judaism; and his work is summed up in saying that he raised the Torah to the supreme place in Jewish life and thought which it has held ever since. To Ezra, the Torah was first and foremost the written text of the Five Books of Moses; and the scribes of his own and succeeding times (he was a scribe himself) made it their business to teach and interpret the sacred text so as to make available the revelation contained therein.
At some period after Ezra, which can not be precisely determined, a divergence of opinion began upon the question as to what exactly was implied in the obligation to obey the precepts contained in the Torah. What was to be done when a case arose for which no provision could be found in the written text? The older theory, resting on the immemorial practice of the priests, held that only the written test [text] of the Torah was binding, and that where further directions were needed these were to be given by the priests on their own authority, according to the express warrant of the Torah itself (Deut. 17:9-11). But the effect of this theory was that the written Torah tended more and more to become obsolete, as the occasions multiplied on which additional directions were needed. Therefore a second theory began to be held, to the effect that along with the written text there was, and always had been from the time of Moses, an unwritten tradition which supplied what was wanting in the written text. Acceptance of the Torah and the obligation to obey it meant therefore acceptance of the Torah written and unwritten, and more particularly the recognition of the Torah as the full revelation made by God, not final as limited to the written text, but always unfolded into greater clearness as the meaning therein contained was gradually drawn out. The tendency of the older theory was to make Judaism a mere memory of what had once been a living religion. The actual effect of the other theory was to keep Judaism as a living religion. Those who maintained the older theory were the Sadducees; the exponents of the newer theory were the Pharisees.
This explains the true historical importance of the Pharisees. They were the strongest guardians of the religious vitality of the Jewish people. They had the deepest and clearest insight into the meaning of the religion which was based on the Torah, and they had the greatest influence in making that religion effective in the common life. The actual number of avowed Pharisees was probably at no time more than a few thousands; but they were looked up to with reverence by the mass of the people, who did not accept their discipline. The two closely allied institutions of the synagogue and the school became in their hands, whether or not founded by them, powerful instruments for the development of the religious and moral life of the people, especially as the Pharisees appear to have been the only party working toward that end.
The primary concern of the Pharisees was to make the Torah the supreme guide of life, in thought, word and deed, by study of its contents, obedience to its precepts, and, as the root of all, conscious service of God Who had given the Torah. This was their ideal for themselves, and for all whom they could influence. It follows that the Pharisees were never a political party, although, being in various ways affected by the political events of their time, they were compelled to take such action as was in keeping with their principles. Thus, in the two great struggles with Rome, under Vespasian (68-70 C.E.) and Hadrian (132-35 C.E.), the Pharisees were the party of non-resistance, although their efforts were made vain by the fury of the Zealots.
It was again through their devotion to the religion based on the Torah, and their thorough understanding of what was implied in it, that they were able to carry it safe through the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.) and the disruption of the Jewish state (135 C.E.). In the synagogue they had developed a type of religion which was independent of the Temple and unharmed by its destruction. And in the schools, more particularly those where the leading teachers (rabbis) studied and taught the Torah, they insured the continuity of the Jewish religion, both as theory and practice, in spite of all outward disasters. The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees.
Their leading ideas and methods found expression in a literature of enormous extent, of which a very great deal is still in existence. The Talmud is the largest and most important single member of that literature, and round it are gathered a number of Midrashim, partly legal (Halachic) and partly works of edification (Haggadic). This literature, in its oldest elements, goes back to a time before the beginning of the Common Era, and comes down into the Middle Ages. Through it all run the lines of thought which were first drawn by the Pharisees, and the study of it is essential for any real understanding of Pharisaism.
Rabbinic literature, in all its length and breadth, goes to show that the Jewish religion as interpreted by the Pharisees was continuous with the forms of the religion represented in the older parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. more particularly with the teaching of the prophets. There was no cleavage between the prophets and the scribes; there was a difference of method, and the main result of that difference was to [ ]