Our Lord’s disciples, having nothing to eat on a Sabbath, picked some wheat, rubbed off the husks, then ate the grains. Some Pharisees watching them complained that the disciples had done manual work violating the Sabbath. They complained too that Jesus had let them get away with it. They asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?”
The “traditions of the elders” is our English translation of body of Jewish Law that went into many, many volumes. The Jewish name for that body of laws is the Mishna.
It got started in 450 B.C when Jerusalem was part of the Persian Empire. On hearing that Jerusalem was in a bad way physically and morally, the emperor commissioned two Jewish officials, Ezra and Nehemia, to go through Jerusalem, and to then come up with a plan both for getting the roads and walls repaired, as well as for cutting out crime among the citizens.
Ezra and Nehemiah made the suggestion that the Law of Moses from the Bible should be made into Jerusalem’s civil law. Persia’s lawyers approved of the plan, but they attached two conditions. First, the full law had to be read to the people, and second, people should have an opportunity to offer amendments to bring the law up to date.
In accord with the directives from Persia’s top lawyers, Ezra read the complete law to the people. Next, he and Nehemiah asked he people to vote on amendments.
They decided on three. First, their children could not marry pagans; second, they could not buy produce brought in on the Sabbath; third, each family would need to give the temple a third of a shekel each year.
In the nearly five hundred years coming down to Our Lord’s time these laws were added to, so that the scrolls of Mishna took up a hundred times the space needed for all the books of the Bible.
What is more, while the Pharisees and Scribes had tricks of the law for getting around the Mishna, for the average person the tens of thousands of rules were a mine field they could never get safely through. Jesus advocated avoiding law upon law. He told us to stick with loving God and our neighbor.