Why was handwashing an issue for Jesus’ antagonists?
This was just one of many issues in which Jesus’ enemies found fault with him and his disciples. The Mosaic Law included a number of commands on ceremonial purity regarding such matters as bodily discharges, leprosy, and dealing with human and animal corpses. It also gave instructions on how impurities could be removed. This could be done by sacrifice, washing, or sprinkling.
The Jewish rabbis expounded on every detail of these laws. One source says that each cause for impurity would be subjected “to questioning concerning the circumstances in which it may be contracted, how and to what extent it may be transmitted to others, the utensils and objects capable and incapable of becoming unclean, and finally, the means and rituals required for purification.”
Jesus’ opponents 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 religious enemies were not referring to the taking of sanitary measures. As a ritual, the rabbis required that water be poured over their hands prior to eating. The above-quoted source adds: “It is 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.”
Jesus’ reaction to all these man-made laws was simple. He told the first-century 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.”