Build Your Fence

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“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.”


Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall” highlights the reality and the challenge of building fences. A fence not only protects by restricting access, but what surrounds the fence can often only be seen through the fence or approached by permission of the owner. When something is fenced in, someone is often fenced out. In that sense a fence is used to protect that which is valuable within. It is therefore no surprise to see Chazal, the Rabbis, discuss the importance of ‘building fences’ (not literally) in Judaism. The Torah writes in Vayikra 18:30, “UShmartem Et Mishmarti” ; “Therefore you shall have charge of My charge.” Based on this the Gemara in Tractate Moed Katan (5a) quotes Rav Ashi that this verse teaches that one must make safeguards of G-d’s charge, or His laws and Mitzvot. In other words, G-d commands the Jewish people to create fences or barriers to protect themselves and G-d’s holy Torah. In fact, the Talmud is filled with many examples and explicit statements that teach exactly this. For example, the Gemara in Tractate Pesachim (2b) writes in the context of the laws of Passover that “The Rabbis erected a safeguard for a Scriptural law.” (The Rabbis added two hours to their decree to stop eating at the fourth hour as a safeguard in case the day was cloudy and one not know exactly when midday was).


Classically, ‘fences’ in Jewish thought, law, and practice have been called a ‘Syag.’ This is referenced in the very first Mishna of Pirkei Avot in which the Anshei Knesset HaGedola, the Men of the Great Assembly teach, “Asu Syag LaTorah” ; “Make a fence for the Torah.” It is based on this as well as the verse above from Vayikra which led the Rabbis to ‘fence off’ and protect the 613 Mitzvot commanded by G-d to the Jewish people. To do this, the Rabbis enacted a number of Gezirot, or laws, to prevent people from accidently violating a Torah Mitzvah. For example, the Torah commands the Jewish people not to work on Shabbat. However, a Geziera established by the Rabbis commands us not to move an object only used to perform prohibited work (for example a pencil, money, or a hammer), because someone handling these objects might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work. In practice there is no real difference between a Torah law and a Gezeira created by the Rabbis. They are both binding and are to be kept with equal stringency. That being said, the difference between the two is related to he severity of the punishment. Using the above example, a Torah violation of Shabbat is punishable by death, whereas a Rabbinical violation of a Gezeira is punishable by Makot, whipping.


The Gemara in Sanhedrin (46a) quotes Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov who teaches that the goal of creating a Syag LaTorah, a fence around the Torah, is not to disregard the Torah, but rather to safeguard it. In other words, Rabbinic law while not explicitly in the Torah, is supported because of the good in which it does for the Jewish people—protecting them from violating the commandments. Because Rabbinic law plays such an important role in daily Jewish observant life, one has to ask the question of, “Who decides what becomes law?” In other words, can only the Rabbis in the Talmud create laws and fences for the Torah? Can they be modified? Who can modify them?


On Wednesday as part of our weekly Torah and Tea class at CBAJ, I was struck by a comment made by Rashi that pertains to exactly this discussion. We have been studying the story of creation and have now reached the world-changing story of the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge in Genesis Chapter 3. In order to ‘trick’ Woman to eat from the tree, the Nachash, the serpent ‘catches’ a mistake made by woman in retelling G-d’s command regarding the tree. Woman tells the Nachash that G-d has told them not only may they not eat from the tree, but they may also not touch it. A close reading of the text reveals that G-d never said anything about not touching the tree—the command was in regards to only not eating from the tree. If so, why does Woman mention anything about touching the tree?! In fact, Rashi, the famous French commentator, explains that because Woman added to the command of G-d, she came to diminish G-d’s words, which ultimately led to her downfall. Yet, in what way does Woman diminish G-d’s words? Perhaps Woman was simply creating a Syag, a fence, by limited touching of the tree for herself and for Adam lest they be tempted to eat from the tree. Much like the Rabbis that prohibit touching an item on Shabbat that has a forbidden use, why should Woman not be encouraged to make a similar edict? Why would G-d let this specific comment of ‘touching the tree’ ultimately lead to Woman’s downfall? Why can the Rabbis make a Syag, a fence, but Woman cannot?


To address this question, one must look back at Pirkei Avot. It is fascinating that Pirkei Avot begins with the words of the Men of the Great Assembly instructing to create fences for the Torah, yet, makes no other explicit mention of creating fences until Chapter 3 Mishna 17. It is here that Rabbi Akiva teaches that Mesora Syag LaTorah, that the Mesorah, the Tradition is a fence protecting the Torah, Maasrot Syag LaOsher, Giving tithes is a fence protecting wealth, Nidarim Syag LaPrishut, Vows are a fence protecting abstinence, and Syag LaChachma Shtika, that the fence protecting wisdom is silence. While on its surface the Mishna seesm to be straight forward, there are a number of critical questions that must be answered to truly understand Rabbi Akiva’s teaching. First, why is it Rabbi Akiva that now mentions and discusses the notion of creating ‘fences’? Why has no other Rabbi until this point in history focused on the words of the Men of the Great Assembly? In addition, why does Rabbi Akiva list many different types of ‘fences’? What is the relationship between them? Finally, why is the order of the last statement reversed—the first three statements describe the ‘fence’ followed by what the fence protects, whereas, the last statement is the reverse identifying what is protected and then the fence that protects it?!


As has been discussed in previous articles, the nature of Jewish tradition, of the Mesorah, radically shifts in the time of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. It is Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that reestablishes life and Rabbinic Judaism in a post-Temple world in Yavneh. However, what makes Rabbi Akiva stand out relative to the other Rabbis of the time is that he is the student of the student of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. In other words it is Rabbi Akiva that ultimately picks up the mantle of Chidush, or creativity, from Rabbi Elazar ben Arach and is forced to be the first non-direct student of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai to put this new way of life into action. There was as such a tremendous amount of responsibility for Rabbi Akiva as the next great Rabbinic leader following Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. History has proven how successful Rabbi Akiva was in using his mantle of leadership to further grow Torah and the Jewish community. In fact, the Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (86a) relates that an anonymous Mishna presents the view of Rabbi Meir, an anonymous Tosefta presents the view of Rabbi Nechemia; an anonymous Sifra presents the view of Rabbi Yehuda; and an anonymous Sifrei presents the view of Rabbi Shimon. Remarkably, the strand that ties all of these great Rabbis together is that they were each students of Rabbi Akiva.


Based on this, it is easier to understand why Rabbi Akiva would now attempt to ‘answer’ or actively fulfill the words of the Anshei Knesset HaGedola, the Men of the Great Assembly. It was they who taught to make a fence around the Torah. How can that be achieved? Rabbi Akiva offers the explanation—through the Mesorah. Through the chain of transmission, the Oral Torah, that can be traced all the way back to Sinai. Rabbi Akiva, was standing at the precipice of Jewish history. Not only was the weight of the future of our people on his shoulders, but all that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had sacrificed and worked so hard to create could be lost forever. Rabbi Akiva, therefore, needed to teach and to emphasize Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s greatest contribution—the emphasis on building a Jewish community rooted in an active Mesorah. It was and is that Mesorah that has protected and enhanced the Torah.


This unquestioned and direct link that the Rabbis have to the Mesorah, and the tradition of our people, is precisely what gives them the ‘jurisdiction’ to create fences around the Torah. Rabbi Akiva is teaching that the Torah must be protected, and those that are linked to the Mesorah, and its transmission throughout the generations must protect it.


Perhaps, Rashi in Genesis is highlighting this point in that Woman alone comes up with her own ‘fence.’ There is nothing divine persay about her ‘fence’ to not touch the tree. It is simply a decision that she makes on her own. The Torah is teaching us from the very beginning of time that the only way for us to deviate from G-d’s explicit commandments is to link ourselves back to Him through our chain of transmission. Man-made ‘fences’ without a connection to the Mesorah not only do not protect the Torah, but as Rashi writes, they denigrate G-d’s holy words.


This notion of Rabbi Akiva ‘laying out his plan’ to build Jewish community and to enhance the Torah for future generations helps us understand the remaining ‘fences’ listed in the Mishna 17 in Pirkei Avot. First and foremost to build a successful Jewish community and to live a meaningful and productive Jewish life, every person must connect himself or herself back to the Mesorah as a means of protecting the Torah. However, Torah and Tradition is not enough. Rabbi Akiva teaches that tithing is a fence that protects wealth. Rabbi Akiva teaches of the importance of caring about those around you and in specific those in need. All wealth comes from G-d, and G-d alone. There are no material possessions in this world that are truly man’s property. The way in which we protect that which G-d gives us, is by ‘tithing,’ by thinking of and supporting the other. Despite the fact that there was no Temple for Rabbi Akiva, and as such many of the laws of tithing had been suspended, he still emphasized how tithing can help protect the Jewish community. Even without a Temple, Jews must dedicate a portion of their annual income to support the needy and the poor. G-d gives us this responsibility of ‘wealth’ specifically to help those in need. It is not enough to just learn Torah and connect back to our Tradition, rather one must care and support their fellow Jew.


Rabbi Akiva, continues and emphasizes how vows can help protect abstinence. In other words, while we must care for the other, we must also be accountable for ourselves and for our actions. We must be able to look ourselves in the mirror and live and be happy with the decisions we make. When our resolve is shaken in life’s challenging moments, when we find ourselves slipping towards the path of transgression that we so badly do not want to travel upon, a vow or a promise to ourselves can often be the difference between doing what is right and what is wrong. A lasting and strong Jewish community is rooted and connected to the Mesorah, supports each other, and is made up of individuals that hold themselves accountable for their decisions.


Finally, Rabbi Akiva teaches that the fence protecting wisdom is silence. On its most basic level, the best way to acquire and protect wisdom is by talking less and listening more. How much is not learned because of not hearing? How much is not heard because of too much talking? Silence forms a fence around a person’s Torah knowledge in that it allows a person to truly learn from those around them. As an interesting side note, it is not clear based on many different sources that the ‘silence’ referred to in this Mishna, is ‘absence of sound’ as much as it refers to the ability to hear and learn from one’s fellow.


Learning from others was certainly Rabbi Akiva’s modus operandi. In fact, many sources including the Rambam, highlight the simple family in which Rabbi Akiva was raised. Rabbi Akiva was not like the members of the other great Rabbinic families that had been groomed through tutors and other educators to be great scholars. Instead, Rabbi Akiva worked as a shepherd and only later in his life did he start to study Torah. Avot DeRabbi Natan (6:2) tells the story that initially, Rabbi Akiva found the understanding of the words of Torah to be incredibly difficult. It was not until one day when he saw dripping water that had worn a hole through a rock that he remarked, “If water can pierce a rock, then Torah can certainly pierce my heart.” It was precisely, Rabbi Akiva’s ability and interest in epitomizing the notion of ‘silence,’ of learning from all that would teach him, that led him to be the great leader and Rabbi of the Jewish community.


As the most personal of his teachings, Rabbi Akiva reverses the order relative to his previous statements to teach that being ‘silent’ and learning from others, is the foundation on which the other three statements can be achieved. Shtika, silence, as taught by Rabbi Akiva, is the only way to join the chain of transmission and to be a part of the Mesorah, to support others and understand their needs and how you can help, as well as to learn how to be accountable to oneself. Shtika, silence, is the necessary fence that protects not only Jewish knowledge, but also the Jewish community.


It is for that reason that there is great meaning in the Rabbinic metaphor of a ‘fence’ that teaches mankind what needs to be safeguarded—what is truly important in life. A fence in Jewish law actually indicates ownership. The Gemara in Bava Batra (42a) describes that regarding an inheritance or other transferring of property, that erecting a fence around the property can claim ownership. In addition, the Gemara in Bava Batra continues (52b) that “If a man does anything at all in the way of…making a fence…this constitutes s title of ownership.” By creating fences, the Rabbis are not trying to limit or restrict Judaism with additional stringencies. Instead, the Rabbis are giving the Jewish people the opportunity to ‘own’ and to ‘acquire’ these Mitzvot. Making Judaism your own, connecting with it deeply and spiritually, is the best way to live a meaningful Jewish life. Rabbi Akiva understood this. He therefore, outlined different fences that represent the most valuable and important aspects of Jewish life to explicitly give each and every one of us the opportunity to acquire, own, and personalize our religious experience.