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Jesus on the Jewish value of spiritual service to the righteous

KUL Heschel Center / 02.07.2023
PhotoCredit_KUL Heschel Center
PhotoCredit_KUL Heschel Center

In Judaism, the idea of serving important spiritual people and their disciples has extraordinary value. It expresses an appreciation for the righteous, a desire to attach oneself to them and to learn from them in a deeply spiritual way, Shlomo Libertowski, Torah lecturer at Beth Shemesh, writes in a commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin, commenting on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Sunday, July 2.

The Torah lecturer cites stories from the Old Testament about the importance of service. Joshua served Moses before becoming his successor. Similarly, Elisha was Elijah’s disciple and servant before he became a prophet himself. The service of the sages and their disciples is an ever-present feature in the culture of Judaism. It has a greater significance than the unreflective downloading of learning. “The sages of the Talmud taught that serving the Torah, or its representatives, is more important than learning Torah from them” (Berachot 7:22), Shlomo Libertovsky points out.

Libertovsky reminds us that Jesus’ words – “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42) – are part of the Jewish tradition of serving the righteous and their disciples.


The full text of the commentary to the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 10:37-42) read on the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

In today’s commentary we will try to find a parallel between the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible on the subject of serving spiritual leaders and their close disciples. In Judaism, the concept of serving the leaders and their wise disciples is an important one and has a significant value in the Jewish tradition. For example, in daily traditional life, you can see posters announcing a funeral of a deceased person, announcing that the person served wise students and was close to them. Similar texts were also written about people, who in their lives were considered to be the servants of rabbis and their followers.

In the biblical sources we read for the first time about the idea of ‘serving the disciples’ in the story of Joshua the son of Nun, the successor of Moses, as it is related in the Pentateuch, in the Book of Numbers: “Joshua son of Nun, the servant of Moses since his youth” (Nb 11:28). The Sages comment about this in the following way: “Honor to Joshua who was called the servant of Moses,” and this is why the Sages said: “Greater is his service than his learning” (Midrash Poskit Zotarta on the Book of Midbar – Numbers – Parshath Ha’alatach).

Another case that teaches about the importance of the service and the assistance to the leaders and their students, is the story given in the Bible, in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 3, 11). The story mentions Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, who is looking for a prophet who would pray for the success of the campaign against the enemy. His servant tells him: “Here is Elisha the son of Shaphat, which poured water on the hands of Elijah.” To this the king responds: “’The word of the Lord is with him.’ So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him” – 2 Kings 3, 12.

The servant did not mention the fact that Elisha studied Torah with his master but he mentioned that he gave him water to drink! And from this the sages of the Talmud taught that serving the Torah, that is the representatives of the Torah, is more important than learning Torah from them (Berachot 7:22).

Let us see now the parallel between the words of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and its influence on the words of the apostles. In the New Testament, we find the following words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will
receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple— amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Mt 10, 41-42).

Jesus speaks of “the little ones”, which may remind us of what is said in the Talmud (Bava Batra 551) about the comparison between Moses and his disciple Joshua. It is said there: “The face of Moses is like the face of the sun and the face of Joshua is like the face of the moon”, meaning that Moses symbolizes the sun while Joshua symbolizes the moon, which draws its light from the sun. And so the disciple (Joshua), who served his master, was honored to be his successor and received the privilege of leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land.

The words of Jesus, as they are recounted by the apostle Matthew, reflect an important and deep tradition of serving the sages. This shows the admiration for the righteous and their students and the desire to be attached to them and learn from them, in a deeply spiritual way and not just instrumentally accumulating knowledge for the sake of knowledge.


About the author
Shlomo Libertovski, a Torah lecturer at Beth Shemesh and a member of Nostra Aetate 4 in Jerusalem, an ecumenical organization dedicated to Jewish-Catholic dialogue.


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