A Fence Around the Torah?

Image: Fence protects a tree trunk from a horse. (MichaelGaida/Pixabay)

There’s an expression rabbis sometimes use, “We build a fence around the Torah” to explain some rules for Jewish living.

There are two kinds of mitzvot (commandments) in Jewish practice: those derived directly from the Torah, which we call d’oraita (day-oh-RITE-ah) and those which come from the sages, which we call d’rabbanan (deh-rahb-bah-NAN.)

An example of a d’oraita commandment:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. .

Deuteronomy 12:1`4

This commandment is explicitly written in Torah. We may still have to discuss exactly what it means, but there it is, in the document.

D’rabbanan mitzvot do not appear in the Torah. One kind of d’rabbanan mitzvah is set to keep us from accidentally breaking a Torah commandment. For example, The Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat. The rabbis extended that idea to include not holding a tool on Shabbat, so that we do not accidentally forget and use the tool, and thereby break the Sabbath.

Even for those who are not halakhic Jews, who don’t observe Shabbat in the traditional way, this idea can be very useful. Determined that you will focus on family and not do business on Shabbat? You may decide to turn off your smartphone, or even put it in a drawer for the day.

Another example: at Passover, Ashkenazi Jews do not eat rice. Nowhere does it say in the Torah that rice is forbidden on Passover. In Ashkenazi tradition, rice, corn, and beans are not chametz but they might be mistaken for chametz (because cornmeal, for instance, looks similar to flour.) In that tradition, foods which might be mistaken for chametz that are therefore also forbidden, and they are classified as kitniyot. Kitniyot means “stuff that might be confused with chametz” and not eating it is a d‘rabbanan rule for Ashkenazi Jews. Recently, some Conservative authorities have questioned the idea: of course we can tell the difference – so is this fence a silly fence that limits our diets but do not make us better Jews?

A fence around the Torah is a rule intended to keep us from accidentally wandering off the path of Jewish practice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase this week, “Fence around the Torah.” There is an assumption in it that we build the fence to protect ourselves, to keep ourselves safely within the bounds of Torah. That’s a good, safe thing, reminiscent of baby-latches on kitchen cabinets and the fence that keeps my little dogs safely in my back yard.

But we live in world in which fences mean other things, as well. The security fence in Israel has put an end to the sort of bombings we suffered in 2000-2004, but at a very high cost: not only does it keep violence out, it is a form of violence itself. President Trump is insistent that the United States needs a fence to keep people from Latin America out. Some of us are old enough to remember the Berlin Wall, which kept East and West Germany separated, and kept people from escaping their East German government.

I want to examine the fences I build in my life. Am I protecting something valuable in a good and useful way? Or am I constructing a barrier that will only make matters worse? Do I build out of protection and strength, or in fear and weakness? What fences do I build to help myself be a better human being, a better Jew? Are any of my fences silly?

Good questions, all. What fences do you keep around the Torah in your life? What fences would you like to tear down?

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