Why was handwashing an issue for Jesus’ enemies?
This was just one of the many things Jesus’ enemies criticized him and his disciples for. The Mosaic Law explained what would make someone unclean, for example, bodily discharges, leprosy, or touching human or animal corpses. The Law also gave instructions on how someone could be made clean again. This could be done by sacrifice, washing, or sprinkling.
The Jewish teachers, also known as rabbis, added their own rules to these laws. One source says that the rabbis made extra or more detailed rules about what would make a person unclean and how he could cause others to become unclean. The rabbis also made rules about what kinds of utensils and objects could and could not become unclean and the rituals that people needed to follow to become clean again.
Jesus’ enemies asked him: “Why do your disciples not observe the tradition of the men of former times, but they eat their meal with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5) Those Pharisees were not referring to good hygiene, that is, handwashing before a meal. The Pharisees had made the rule that before a person ate, water had to be poured over his hands as part of a ritual. The source mentioned above adds that the rabbis “also debated which vessels are to be used for the pouring, which kind of water is suitable, who should pour, and how much of the hands should be covered with water.”
How did Jesus react to all these extra laws made by men? He told the Jewish religious leaders: “Isaiah aptly prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far removed from me [Jehovah]. It is in vain that they keep worshipping me, for they teach commands of men as doctrines.’ You let go of the commandment of God and cling to the tradition of men.”