Ethics of the Fathers: Making Fences


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



The first Mishna in Avos concludes with the dictum: “And make a fence for the Torah”. Rashi, commenting on the Mishna, explains that it means that protections should be created for God’s laws so that one should not come to violate a Biblical commandment. The Rambam in Hilchos Mamrim, of his halachic work Yad Hachazaka, explains that the injunction to follow Rabbinic laws comes from the Biblical commandment of ‘Lo Tasur’, which means that one is not allowed to sway from the words of the Rabbis. Thus, every time our Sages created a law they were placing an additional Biblical prohibition since one who violates the law passed by the Sages will necessarily be in violation of a Torah law as well. At first glance, this would seem to defeat the purpose of ‘making a fence’ for the Torah. If the purpose is to decrease the possibility of violating a Biblical commandment it would seem that every Rabbinic law increases the possibility of violating a Biblical commandment, since one must follow the Rabbinic law because the Torah itself says so! How are the laws of the Sages then going to act as fences for the Torah law?

To understand what is gained by the addition of Rabbinic law, we must contrast the structure of Rabbinic laws and Biblical laws. In general, Biblical laws have a definite conceptual structure so that they are necessarily abstract. This results in a situation where activities may appear to be prohibited, but are not. For example, there exists a Biblical commandment that prohibits the cooking of meat and milk together. However, if one were to “cook” milk and meat in a hot spring, then he would not be in violation of this commandment because the use of a hot spring does not register in the conceptual definition of “cooking”. Though the physical outcome may look the same, in concept there are different processes involved so that the law will differentiate between them.

In general, people are not naturally conceptual thinkers - they tend to view things in a simpler manner, usually following what appears permissible or prohibited. Take the example stated above - most people would assume that if it is permissible to heat milk and meat together in a hot spring, then actual cooking itself is no different and would be permissible as well. For this reason, our Sages made ‘fences’- laws that would complement the framework and mode of thinking for most people to protect them from violating the Biblical laws themselves. Again in this example, by prohibiting the ‘cooking’ of meat and milk in a hot spring, people would not come to think that real cooking (over fire) is permissible. In this manner, the technical Biblical prohibition would not be violated. By creating such laws, the Rabbis ‘made a protection’ to the Biblical laws. Thus we see a valuable lesson taught in our Mishna. The idea of making a ‘fence’ for the Torah is that people must be afforded the ability to see Torah in their own terms. If people cannot distinguish between the laws of the Torah, it must be spelled out to them in a manner in which they will be able to understand, and uphold.

      Another possible answer to the purpose of Rabbinic law can be found by understanding the system of Biblical law on its own. The 613 Torah commandments are part of one whole system, which is structured for perfection. Each specific Biblical commandment has a role in developing individual and national perfection amongst the Jews. The Torah therefore includes a system for Rabbinic laws that would serve to ‘protect’ this system. Thus, although they were adding prohibitions, even if one were to violate a Rabbinic law the underlying system of perfection that the Torah sets up would remain intact.           

The second Mishna in the first chapter of Avos states: “Shimon the righteous one said: The world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah (which literally means service), and Gemilut Chasadim (literally, acts of kindness).” The immediate problem that confronts us when studying this statement is how to understand the first phrase of “the world stands on three things”; what does this mean? What is the idea behind “the world stands”? Furthermore, we need to address how these three things make ‘the world stand’.

Rambam, in his commentary on this Mishna, defines the meaning of each of the three things (we will come back to this later) and says that together they “constantly maintain society (tikun haolam) and order the world to be on a perfected path.” From the Rambam, we can derive the framework with which our Mishna is dealing: that of a complete society. Now the phrase “the world stands” becomes meaningful: the Mishna teaches the key factors in maintaining the proper social atmosphere that allows ‘the world to stand’. The next step is to understand what precisely these three factors are and how they work together. To be continued.