Among proto-rabbis of the first century CE, “building fences around the Torah” was a common practice. The Pharisees (unlike their primary opponents the Sadducees) observed many oral traditions and believed numerous handed down interpretations of Torah. This “oral Torah” was passed down from teacher to student for the generations. These unwritten teachings laid a foundation for the dominant expression of Judaism which emerged after the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction. After 70 CE, without the Temple, Jewish worship was focused on the Holy Scriptures more than ever, and teachings about interpretations of ancient texts became crucial. An essential component of this  “oral Torah” was the practice of “building fences around commandments” – formulating additional observances and practices in order to prevent possible disregard of the commandments.

The idea is simple. By observing the “fence rules” one will not be able to come close to accidentally violating the actual commandment. One of the most famous, and most misunderstood, “fences” that Jesus constructed around the Torah is his teaching on anger and murder, found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5:21-22: “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

The readers of these verses scratch their heads, thinking “How can anyone never feel anger?” But this is not what Jesus meant. He is telling his disciples that if they entertain anger towards someone, that anger can grow until it becomes verbal abuse. Further unchecked, and allowed to fester one’s thoughts and words can lead to violence and even to murder. So if one observes “Yeshua’s fence” and is careful to control one’s anger, he or she will not end up violating the commandment against murder. Murder usually does not just happen without some conflict and provocation.

Other “fences around the Torah” that Jesus constructs can be seen in the famous Sermon on the Mount:

Vows: Matt. 5:33-37
Justice: Matt. 5:38-42, 38-42
Sexual Morality: Matt. 5:27-30
Mercy: Matt. 5:43-48

All of these passages typically begin with the words “You have heard it said…” followed by a commandment. Then Yeshua says “but I say to you…” and articulates his “fence rules” to safeguard the commencement. Jesus is not changing the original commandment, but instead, he reinforces it by building a “fence” around it and his fence is stricter than the original commandment. The teacher is giving his disciples practical advice will help them to keep the commandment, not to replace it with something new. No wonder that immediately before these teachings begin, Yeshua forcefully asserts that he “did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). He tells his listeners that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). The “fences around Torah” that he constructs tell his disciples exactly how they can live according to this “greater righteousness”.

If Jesus argued with the Pharisees about “building fences around the Torah,” how can it be that Messiah himself also built fences around commandments? Jesus did not object to the building of fences. He objected to the kinds of fences the Pharisees were building, and around what commandments they were building them. They merely argued over priorities. Jesus taught his disciples in a manner similar to the proto-rabbis; a manner entirely common in diverse first-century CE Judaism.

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86 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry but I disagree. Jesus did not mean to let ANY action or thought pass by if it violated the perfect will of the Father. He expanded the understanding of the commandments so that anything that even moved in the direction of disobedience was the same as violating the commandment itself. Only perfect obedience was acceptable; only perfect obedience was found in our Saviour, who is our righteousness before God.
  2. Thank you Dr Pinchas. An interesting post. Jesus was also teaching that the law or commandments have a deeper meaning than is on the surface and how easily and often we break them Matthew 5v27-28. We are all sinners in need of the Saviours forgiveness. A good post which encourages deeper thought. Thank you.
  3. I seriously doubt that Jesus has said anything about a (fiery) hell. (Matt 5:22), .
    Jesus knew Tanakh and the country, and must have known Gehenna and the verses in Josh 15:8 and Jer 7:30-34.
    The problem: hell grows bigger in Matt 11:23 (+9 verse) from ᾅδου (86) Hades = a pagan Greek god of the underworld
    By the way:
    Hell was taught in Greek philosophy by ia Plato (c 427-347 BC).
    • Some think that many who refused to listen to Jesus literally did end up in Gehenna when the Roman legion dumped he bodies of he dead in the valley and set them on fire after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
  4. I would prefer to say that Yeshua was correctly interpreting Torah correctly since he was the word who became flesh.

    For example in the case of Cain and Abel, YHVH tells Cain to be careful because sin is creeping at the door, because of his heart attitude. It was his attitude that led to the killing of his brother. It started in his heart.

    Yeshua is explaining this and thus correctly interpreting Torah. He was explaining that sin starts in the heart/mind and results in actions.
    • Maybe I would prefer that too, but if someone is using a well-known technique, someone is using a well-known technique. Facts are facts and it is not hard to know when one is informed. If Yeshua was swimming in the Kinneret and used a backstroke and I pointed it out, would you say something similar? "no - this is not backstroke, he is is just swimming on his back." :)

      + More answers (5)
    • I agree, He is the Word made flesh. He says to not add or take away anything from it. So I dont think He was adding to by giving more (fence laws).
  5. Jesus is the Word become flesh. He was in the beginning and created the Word and world through his words. He is simply saying that even if it isn't sin in the action it is sin in the heart. Out of the abundance of our heart our mouths speaks. Knip it before it becomes action. We have to consciously deal with our own stuff before we let it or allow it to be negative fruit. We have the power and His Word and Holy Spirit empowers us to have victory. Jesus is the Messiah: Jews first then Gentiles.
  6. I respectfully disagree. The Lord, as He is known in the new Testament, or Adonai, did not build a fence around Torah. He didn't intend to prevent the violation of any commandment but added clear cut examples of sinful behavior that was a cause for divine retribution, in and of themselves. He clearly had the authority to do so, unlike the rabbis that claim that authority on the pretext of a "fence". As he so elegantly explained, it's not what goes into man's mouth that defiles him but what comes out (Mark 7:15).
  7. I had always understood that such "fences" were improper and forbidden, and when I read these passages from Jesus, I never took them as "fences"...instead I took Jesus' additions as more accurate and thorough descriptions of the law. For example, murder isn't just a physical act of stabbing someone, it's also the hatred in your heart...etc. This more thorough description gives the reader a more dire description of the lostness of man...and therefore magnifies the need of a savior. What would you say to this interpretation?
  8. IMO: Yeshua was defining sin as a problem with the heart. Therefore "You must be born again", as prophecy states: with a new heart to replace the heart of stone, which can only be accomplished by receiving His rightousness by faith.
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