This question is inspired from an English Stack Exchange question: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/182014/what-is-the-word-for-a-pious-person-who-never-helps-others

In short, is the term pharisaical - or any negative mention/comparison to the ancient Pharisees - offensive to modern Jews? It is my understanding that the Pharisees were a small ancient sect, and that any Christian view of them as immoral or hypocritical would have no bearing on modern connotations (and thus potential offense) to any presently living ethnicity or religion.

As it is my wish to avoid even entirely unintended offense, I would greatly appreciate guidance in whether I might need to avoid this term or whether it is highly unlikely to offend any living Jewish person.

  • 1
    They were a small ancient sect, but their teachings are the foundation of modern Judaism. That said, it's sort of difficult to imagine a circumstance where a learned allusion would cause serious offense.
    – Tatpurusha
    Jul 3, 2014 at 23:39
  • 2
    Thanks for your sensitivity and welcome to Mi Yodeya. You might also ask whether "good Samaritan" is offensive, incidentally. Also, please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features.
    – msh210
    Jul 3, 2014 at 23:50
  • I was just called a Pharisee yesterday, and didn't mind! (no joke!) Jul 4, 2014 at 2:40
  • @YEZ Did the person mean that in the historical sense or the insulting sense?
    – Fred
    Jul 4, 2014 at 2:49
  • @Fred The former. Jul 4, 2014 at 2:51

4 Answers 4


The term "pharisaical" is offensive to many Jews (me included) because it denigrates some of our most respected rabbis.

When Jews think of Pharisees, they think of the sect at the end of the Second Temple period (circa 0 CE) that became the basis for rabbinic Judaism. This group could be contrasted with other parties of the day such as Zealots (who wanted a war with Rome), Sadducees (the wealthier "Establishment" who accommodated Roman and Greek practices and denied certain religious tenets), and the Essenes (separatist/puritan types who withdrew from society). The Pharisees walked a middle course that did not like Rome, but did not want to start a war or withdraw from the world. They primarily wanted to learn, teach, and increase the piety of the Jewish population. Notable Pharisees from this time period would be Hillel, Shammai, and Yohanan ben Zakkai.

In contrast, when Christians think of Pharisees, they think of examples like Gospel of Mark, where Jesus argues with the Pharisees regarding him forgiving sin (which according to the Pharisees and thus Rabbinic Judaism to this day, only G-d can do). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke go further, listing various hypocrisies and portraying them as letter-of-the-law literalists without compassion. This distorted picture is very offensive to Jews who consider it early Christian anti-Semitic propaganda.

By analogy, imagine if someone you admired (I don't know who you like, say George Washington or Gandhi) had their name or title made a synonym for immoral or unethical behavior. Wouldn't you be offended too?

Copied from "English Language and Usage" Stack Exchange:

pharisee  (lowercase) a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.

pharisaic  Hypocritically self-righteous and condemnatory.
  • 5
    Also, (at least some of) Christianity teaches that the Pharisees were utterly corrupt -- sham court, using Rome to do their dirty work, other violations of the law, etc. That's pretty offensive, tainting the name/reputation/history with lies like that. Since the majority (at least in the English-speaking world) have been taught those claims as truth, the term has unfortunately become damaged. Jul 4, 2014 at 2:28
  • 2
    I would add to Monica's comment that the gospels do not paint all Pharisees as corrupt. For example, Paul is twice recorded in his own words as being a Pharisee, even after his following Jesus as messiah. The gospels also speak well of Pharisees like Nakhdamon (Nicodemus). The instances which the Pharisees are spoken of negatively in a general sense are when religious hypocrisy is called out, much as the Talmud does (see Fred's answer). Jul 7, 2014 at 17:48

It is inexact to say that the Pharisees were a "small sect". Most common Jews followed the teachings of the rabbinic Pharisees, as opposed to those of other sects like Sadducees (see Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews 8:10:5,6). Modern talmudic/rabbinic Jews (including most frequent users of this site) consider themselves as following in the tradition of the Pharisees.

The stereotype of Pharisees as 'pretentious', 'hypocritical', or 'self-righteous' probably derives from the behavior of individuals that pretended to be Pharisees so that people would think they were righteous. The Talmud (Sotah 22b) discusses these imposters, and mentions that they fall into seven categories:

  • People who act righteous for ulterior motives, such as to be honored
  • People who shuffle their feet in a display of false humility
  • Men who bump their heads into walls because they go to the extreme of never looking where they walk (lest they see a woman)
  • People who walk with bowed heads in a display of false humility
  • People who falsely brag of having fulfilled all possible religious duties
  • People who act piously solely for the sake of receiving reward
  • People who act piously solely out of fear of punishment

King Yanai, himself a Sadducee and hostile to Pharisees, admitted to his wife that true Pharisees were benign and would not harm them even though Yanai had killed most of the Pharisee sages (ibid.; see Kidushin 66a). However, he warned his wife that the false Pharisees could be a threat, as they were potentially violent and vindictive.

So it depends on the context/usage. I can't speak for others, but it would seem that using 'Pharisaical' as a synonym for 'pretentious', 'hypocritical', or 'self-righteous' would be offensive. It would also be considered a gross mischaracterization of the Pharisees' behavior and personality, as true Pharisees were vehemently opposed to behavior that was pretentious, hypocritical or self-righteous (see, for example, the tractate of Avos).

  • 1
    Interesting. Perhaps this idea of false Pharisees could be applied to the gospels as well, where certain Pharisees were recorded to be hypocrites in much the way the Talmud describes. Jul 7, 2014 at 17:44
  • Cf. my answer to a related question at BH.SE (hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/5134/410): “The Pharisees themselves categorized several species of this hypocrisy, including the sort who make a show of their alleged piety or claim to have fulfilled their duties—these they classified as ‘those who bring destruction to the world’ (Sotah 22b). A cheap propaganda trick thus available to rabble-rousers was to broadly accuse all Pharisees of this hypocrisy, making the audience of common-folk feel superior.” Jul 9, 2014 at 19:07

Names often carry within them the intention of the one who speaks and uses them. The word "Jew" can be said in a way which makes it into an insult, or it can be said in a way which carries no emotional baggage. In a scholarly context, the word pharisaical or anything related to it is an important one and is often the springboard in a discussion of comparative religion and history. When it is used as an insult, it is, um, insulting.


The term pharisaical as used is insulting in the same way The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. It is a term which developed as and implies a superiority of Christianity over Judaism, and that the latter is morally inferior. This is the original intent of the term.

Now, most people use it without really meaning it, they think that these people only existed in the second Temple era, and that, like the Essenes, they are lost to history.

I'm of the type to not really get "offended" over innocent usage of terms with a disparaging history, as really you could spend all day trying to find words that don't have some negative history.

  • eg. meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/1190/759
    – Double AA
    Jul 4, 2014 at 13:46
  • 1
    The Merchant of Venice is not clearly anti-Semitic.
    – rosends
    Jul 4, 2014 at 16:32
  • 1
    @Danno, I disagree, for the reason I stated (the last scene). I think the discussion of if Shylock was a bad character is rather besides the point. The message at the end is that the only good Jew is a Christian. Anyway, it is the ambiguity that I was going for.
    – Yishai
    Jul 4, 2014 at 16:41
  • 1
    I understand the point you were making but when I teach the play I bring out more subtlety in it than simply painting it as anti-Semitic. It is more clearly anti-Christian or possibly anti-religion.
    – rosends
    Jul 4, 2014 at 17:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .