One of the earliest rabbinic texts describes the objectives of a Torah teacher in the following way: “The sages said three things… ‘Be very careful in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.’” (Mishna, Avot 1:1) The first two instructions are easily understood. But what are these “fences around Torah” that ought to be built? 

Like a physical fence, a fence built around the Torah is a protective enclosure around God’s commandment; an extra layer of rules. In theory, one would first have to break the “fence” and only then fall into a transgression of the actual commandment of God.

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We read in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Yeshua quotes the original commandment (“Do not commit adultery!”), follows it by the introductory phrase – “but I say to you” and stating the appropriate fence (“Don’t lust in your heart!”). Logic is simple: if one would not lust in his thoughts, he surely would not sin in his body.

Of course, Jesus was sometimes highly critical of Pharisaic fences, concerned that they sabotaged the deeper meaning of the Torah that Jesus rose to defend (Mark 7:14-23). Yet when asking whether Jesus also built “fences” around the Torah, we must respond in the affirmative – He absolutely did.

If we read the Bible without understanding it’s essential “Jewishness”, then we’re really only getting part of the story.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I would have to disagree with this one, at least with the example sited. Yeshua was not building a fence on adultery. The omwn must be married if it is adultery. Therefore, He was merely reminding the people that coveting your neighbor’s wife is a sin also.

    • Patrick, greetings. It is very hard to imagine Jesus successfully doing here what Pharisees tried to do unsuccessfully, but I think it is both/and here and not either/or.

      • Thank you for the response! I do enjoy your emails. Good stuff! I have to stay with my original thought that Yeshua was reminding them of the only “thought” that is a “sin,” which is coveting. Lusting after, or desiring a woman is a natural thing for men. But to desire to own to the point of taking (which is what the Hebrew word for “coveting ” refers to) is specifically defined as a “sin.” Maybe we can build fences around the Torah to stay away from sin, but we cannot state that the fences we build define sin.

    • I believe it is one thing for Yeshua to add clarifying statements regarding Torah or rather instruction because He is God, He and the Father are one. The Pharisees adding other restrictions around Torah were man made and legalistic, not Spirit and Truth as when Messiah would clarify His instruction for Kingdom living.

      • Dear Rabbi Eric, shalom. Thank you for your perspective. I disagree not because I don’t think that Jesus has this special authority of course he does, but that his critic of the pharisees was not against the idea of building fence, but against their solutions that led to belittling of the Torah’s own commandments instead. I encourage you to watch a video Jesus Kept Kosher (do it few times). This is by Prof. Daniel Boayrin and see if you can look at it differently then. The traditional Christian protestant lingo of the terrible man-made traditions is not as helpful here

  2. Of course I have no proof, but I think “fences around the Torah” can be seen in Jesus statement in Rev 2:11 (will not be hurt by the second death). Where is the commandment? Rev 21:8 “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

  3. I disagree. I believe Jesus was expanding upon our understanding of what constitutes a sin. In this case He is saying it is as much a sin to commit adultery in your mind as with your body.

    • This is indeed traditional view. But do remember that Jesus was not expanding upon “OUR” but upon “THEIR”. We are eavesdropping on what he was teaching them.

  4. The ” Fence”, referrenced here is simply an extra precaution to stop and turn around. You are on the wrong side of the highway and if you we don’t take immediate action we are heading for self destruction. Shalom

  5. I feel that Building a Fence around the Torah means that the fence will “protect” the Torah. The Fence will guard the Torah so that it will not be altered or watered down in any way. In the same way the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be protected at all costs. The phrase “A FENCE” is a metaphor for PROTECT.

  6. “Lust in your heart”, today would include pornography and the hyper-sexualised culture promoted around the world that culminates in sexual harassment, rape and the sex trade etc. which we now try to deal with using the law courts rather than tackling the root causes.

  7. See, I don’t fully agree with this final conclusion about Messiah Himself building fences around the Law. Before I give my interpretation of what Yeshua did with so-called fences, I would like to offer my own perspective: I always feel a rather irritated resistance to man-made rules that have not emanated directly from the mandates of G d Himself. First, if a rule is not clearly identifiable as definitive of the Word, the Law, and the opinion of YHWH Himself, it cannot be passed off— without much arrogance or even outlet right lying— to be the law of G d.

  8. Interesting. The idea of fences,an extra layer of caution, makes interesting insight. I never thought about fences around the Torah. I guess we need to be open minded as we search the scriptures and see if ‘there is a fence’ in the scripture we are reading. Can the rebuke on ‘making the scriptures void by our traditions’ a Pharisaic fence that Jesus was contending against

    • Exactly! The pharisaic fences he criticized were helping with one thing and hurting another (usually a weightier commandment).

  9. I like many others disagree with your interpretation of the meaning of :fences, a fence protects what is inside. Judgement comes from the Torah, disciples equates to purpose of Torah and fences to protecting the Torah. Yeshua said , I have not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.

  10. Paul said he had the right to do anything, but not everything was beneficial, constructive or served others (1 Cor 10:23). Sometimes the freedom that doctrine allows us is in opposition to the life God wants us to have. We call it a watered down message. The fence is a symbol of protection. Love protects. How can love protect if it is law-free?

  11. Fences can have dual purposes, whereas sometimes it protects what’s inside while at other times it protects what’s outside. I believe Jesus’ statement about what constituted adultery was to protect those on the outside of the fence more than the Torah on the inside.

  12. These Rabbis would have been without temple worship. “Be very careful in judgement.” Does judgement mean to separate? Were the Torah teachers gathering followers (בְּלִמֻּדָי)? If so, this sounds like the word assembly. I see something different in Matt 25:31. I see all the nations gathered before Him. He separates the sheep from the goats. This is very important to me because replace theology implies that I needed to be part of an assembly to be saved. I was part of a nation (unchurched).

  13. The example of the “fence” the Messiah built, namely, “do not lust after a woman”, is not really a good example. The Torah says in Deut 6:5 that Yahweh’s people should love him “with all the heart …”. Lust transgresses that commandment by defiling the holy heart. And so, its prohibition is not a mere fence but a reminder that lust is a transgression of the Law.

  14. Furthermore, the Messiah came, among other things, to highlight the Torah that pertains to the heart, something he also noted the Rabbis had left unaddressed. Remember his harsh words to the scribes and Pharisees: they cleaned the outside of the platter but left the inside full of filth. He came to remove that filth! That is not fence-building but redirection to “the first and great commandment” – to love Yahweh with all the heart, all the soul and all the zeal.

  15. The Messiah’s pungent criticism of the Pharisees shows the fences of the Rabbis had to do primarily with observables, rather than the heart. They therefore taught the people excellent hypocrisy! They thus threw away the key to the kingdom, neither entering nor letting others enter.

  16. But there is one place I find what might be called a fence erected by the Messiah. Matthew 5:39 asks us to turn the other cheek. The closest place the Torah handles such an issue is Leviticus 19:18 saying, “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am Yahweh.” The only way not to avenge bear grudge against one that slaps me, that is, to keep this difficult law, is by such preemptive meekness as the Messiah commanded.

  17. Shalom. I agree with you Dr. Eli. I do not believe Yeshua was saying it is just as bad to think about it as to do it. I think He was saying, if you don’t take the first step, you will not take the second one. After the first step it is more difficult to turn back. This is indeed a way of building fences and can be a way to avoid breaking any of the Commandments. As my mother used to say, “Don’t even think about it.”

  18. WOW! That is very interesting and so refreshing, ‘cos I always consider this (“You have heard… but I say…”) as a heavier burden, even condemning. But Lord is giving here stronger alert rather than heavier yoke. After all, he taught that burden of his teaching is light and the yoke is easy. Law is good and spiritual. Law is for us and not against us. So this Christ’s “fence” in Sermon on the Mount is the heart of the Tora. It’s true meaning.
    I agree with Dan Juster here “Yeshua in all His divine authority restores Torah to its heart intent and sweeps away illegitimate and excessive accumulations of man-made laws. We now live in a New Covenant Order where the spirit of the Torah is paramount. This is not a means of circumventing the Torah, but is the way to fulfill its true meaning”

  19. I disagree.
    “You have heard” = greatest of the commandments
    “I say” = so-called least of the commandments. Ex 20:17//Deut 5:21

    • It’s fine to disagree of course, but there is a rabbinic discussion that dates to the time of Yeshua about which is the “least commandment”. It was focused on which Biblical commandment was the least, not a rabbi’s teachings.

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Anna Gromova
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