Sermon on the Mount: Yeshua and the Torah on adultery and divorce

Adultery and divorce are rampant problems in modern society, even among the body of believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah. Rather than changing the words of Torah, Prophets and Writings on these two topics, Yeshua closes loopholes in interpretations of adultery laws and expands the meaning of adultery, in keeping with other teachings in the Scriptures.


“ ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery” [Ex. 20:14; Lev. 18:20; 20:10; Deut. 5:18; 22:22–24; ]; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.’ ” (Matt. 5:27–30; all Bible quotations are from the New American Standard version unless noted)

Note that though Yeshua quoted this one of the Ten Words, the one regarding coveting someone else’s wife also is in view here. Like adultery, coveting starts in the heart.

Apostle Ya’akov (James) wrote that desire precedes rebellion against God:

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” (Jas. 1:13–15)

Apostle Paul wrote that covetousness is at the root of actions that lead to being cut off from God, i.e., heading toward the second death.

“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law, sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore, did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” (Rom. 7:7-13)

Modern conservative interpreters see the “I” in Romans 7 as being the typical sinner, rather than Paul himself.45 Paul was raised in the knowledge of the Law.

Some interpret Paul as teaching that the Law was nailed to the cross at Yeshua’s death (e.g., “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross,” refers to the Law (Col. 2:13–14)).

If that were Paul’s teaching, sin died along with Yeshua, according to Paul in Romans.

No sin, no need for a Savior and God’s final wrath is unjustified, because no one is guilty.

If this death of the Law were just for believers in Yeshua as Savior, they would no longer be capable of sin, because the Law wouldn’t exist for them. However, believers are encouraged to turn back to God for forgiveness when they sin (1st John 1:8–9).

Yob (Job) recognized adultery begins with thoughts, even before God gave the Ten Words at Sinai.

“ ‘I have made a covenant with my eyes; How then could I gaze at a virgin? And what is the portion of God from above Or the heritage of the Almighty from on high? 3 Is it not calamity to the unjust And disaster to those who work iniquity? 4 Does He not see my ways And number all my steps? 5 If I have walked with falsehood, And my foot has hastened after deceit, 6 Let Him weigh me with accurate scales, And let God know my integrity. 7 If my step has turned from the way, Or my heart followed my eyes, Or if any spot has stuck to my hands, 8 Let me sow and another eat, And let my crops be uprooted. 9 If my heart has been enticed by a woman, Or I have lurked at my neighbor’s doorway, 10 May my wife grind for another, And let others kneel down over her. 11 For that would be a lustful crime; Moreover, it would be an iniquity punishable by judges.” (Job 31:1–11)

Lustful crime is translated from זִמָּה zimah (H2154), which at its root means “plan or device” but often is used to mean “wickedness.”46

Yob realized that lust violated his own marriage, not just someone else’s marriage.

In Midrash Hagadol, the adultery commandment was interpreted from the Hebrew verb תנאף tin’af to be a warning against committing adultery “with the hand, or with the foot, or with the eye, or with the heart.”47

In tractate Niddah of the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon taught that committing adultery also includes masturbation and that preventing masturbation and thus adultery was serious business.48

“It is preferable that his [hand be cut off] than that he should go down into the pit of destruction” (b.Niddah 13b).

Because maiming oneself is a more serious sin, the sages concluded that Tarfon was underscoring the seriousness of the warning with that statement.


“ ‘It was said, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce” [Deut. 24:1, 3]; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:31–32)

Just after clarifying the Torah’s expansive meaning of adultery, which many seem to have narrowed to suit their lusts, Yeshua narrows the parameters of divorce, which some had tried to expand to suit their lusts or inability to control their emotions.

Yeshua reiterated the heart condition behind divorce when questioned on the Torah passage He quoted in Matthew 5.

“Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?’ 4 And He answered and said, ‘Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female [Gen. 1:27; 5:2], 5 and said, “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” [Gen. 2:24]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.’ 7 They *said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away [Deut. 24:1–4]?’ 8 He *said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. 10 The disciples *said to Him, ‘If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.’ 11 But He said to them, ‘Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’ ” (Matt. 19:3–12)

The part of the question “for any reason at all” could relate to the disagreement between the two main schools of Torah interpretation in the Sanhedrin in the early first century.

House of Shammai50

Shammai lived from about B.C. 50 to A.D. 30 and was elected Av Bet Din, or vice president, of the Sanhedrin.

This approach to the Torah was known for being very strict to the letter of the Law. 

On marriage, the House of Shimmai tightened the first-century interpretation of divorce being acceptable for any reason.

Centuries later this led to the development of the ketubah, or marriage contract, stipulating what the husband must provide. Later, provisions for a woman to divorce, based roughly on the three Torah requirements due the first wife when a man took in other women (Ex. 21:10–11).

Hatred of Roman occupation and the acquiescence of the nations around Israel to that rule led to affinity with the Zealot movement, opposition to paying taxes or participating in the censuses, rules for separation from gentiles and high standards for proselytes.

House of Hillel haZaken, or Hillel the Elder51

Hillel I was born in Babylon about 60 B.C. and lived until about A.D. 10. He moved to Yerushalayim late in life to study. He was elected the Nasi just before Shammai became Av Bet Din.

Hillel developed seven rules for scriptural logic for applying the Torah to new cultures and situations.52

Hillel’s approach to interpretation is summed up in this oft-quoted saying53:

“What is hateful to you, do not unto your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” (b.Shabbat 31a)

It is the negative version of the “Golden Rule” Yeshua quoted from Lev. 19:18 (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; and Luke 10:27. Referenced by apostles in Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).

Hillel is said to have accepted a gentile convert when Shimmai rejected him for not going through the proscribed process.

Hillel favored divorce for any reason.

Yeshua’s clarifications of interpretations of Torah often paralleled Hillel’s “liberal” approach, except for divorce.

Yeshua’s narrow parameters for divorce echo a statement 400 years earlier from the Lord. 

“ ‘This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.’ 16 ‘For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.’ ” (Mal. 2:13–16)

He compared divorce of one’s wife when she gets old, presumably for a younger woman, to Israel’s “adulteration” with other gods through marriage to women of other nations.

Notice that this “treachery” against one’s lifelong wife is connected to a lack of having God’s Spirit directing one’s life.


45. McKee, J.K. “The Message of Romans.” April 29, 2009. <>

46. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. “זמה (H2154)” The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

47. Lancaster, Daniel. “Beshalach.” Torah Club: Chronicles of the Messiah. Vol. 4. First Fruits of Zion: Marshfield, Mo.:2010. p. 397.

48. Lancaster, p. 398.

49. Bacher, Wilhelm and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach. “Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai.” Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed Oct. 8, 2011. <>

50. Bacher, “Shammai.” <>

51. Bacher, “Hillel.” <>

52. Bacher, “The Seven Rules of Hillel.” <> Ḳal (ḳol) wa-ḥomer: “Argumentum a minori ad majus” or “a majori ad minus”; corresponding to the scholastic proof a fortiori. The conclusion has to resemble the first premise. Gezerah shawah: Argument from analogy. Biblical passages containing synonyms or homonyms are subject, however much they differ in other respects, to identical definitions and applications. Binyan ab mi-katub eḥad: Application of a provision found in one passage only to passages which are related to the first in content but do not contain the provision in question. Binyan ab mi-shene ketubim: The same as the preceding, except that the provision is generalized from two Biblical passages. Kelal u-Peraṭ and Peraṭ u-kelal: Definition of the general by the particular, and of the particular by the general. Ka-yoẓe bo mi-maḳom aḥer: Similarity in content to another Scriptural passage. Dabar ha-lamed me-‘inyano: Interpretation deduced from the context.

53. Bacher, “Hillel.”

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