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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84 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.” 🙂

      • US
        Nonsense. Jesus using a well-known technique? But he starts by "it's been said to you , but I say to you". AnySimilitudePalesInComparison

        Nonsense. He prefaced with “it’s been said to you…but I say to you…” which is a total departure from the ordinary ways. Any similitude pales in such context. Backstrokes yes, but after diving from a 500 ft pole; which is the interesting thing to consider. Don’t DistractWithQuestionsOfStyle.KeepThingsInPerspective.

        • No there is no “total departure”, but the intensification of the existing rule in each instance. The substance of each fence – “I say unto you” is a commandment stricter and harder to follow than the “it has been said” statement.

      • Breaking the fence didn’t mean breaking the commandment yet, technically. But Jesus is not concerned with casuistry or technicalities. He is not building fences. He is blowing them up to reveal the pure core of God’s ways.

        • It’s a fine opinion, but unsubstantiated. I show you a consistently functioning methodology, utilized by others in Jesus’s day.

        • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Stories of Jewish Christ: Among the Rabbis or . You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

        • Kòddrapo re “Breaking the fence didn’t mean breaking the commandment yet,”I suggest you read what Jesus said about Adultery To Prove 2 things 1 Adultery is a sin. Jesus fulfilled it by adding Even thinking about ( a fence ) it is a sin 2 The commandments are still Alive

    • 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.

  9. I like your view and interpretation. It’s a refreshing thought process. Yeshua Words are so deep. We probably have 7 billion people on this planet. I am sure everyone will probably have a different opinion. We are all allowed to. Thank you Prof.

    • Yes, some of us are blessed to have such freedom. But I do not want my opinion to be a mere exercise of my free will. I wish to study, dig deep and once I discover God’s truth, to submit my opinions to God’s truth and let it reshape my opinions into his!

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  10. Fences Around Torah – it is quotation probably originally from Talmud, Pirkey Awot, but I am not sure if the English translation, received after Judaistic tradition is perfect. I think it would be good to look for a new meaning of that famous and important text. Also Orthodox, religious Jews had problems with understanding Hebrew scriptures. It is a good time to dig out some lost in history, ancient Hebrew words. Maybe that is one of the reasons God is trying to reestablish Israel again.

    • Fence building practice is pre-Talmudic because the gospels are pre-Talmudic. We can see the technique. And yes, in Pirke Avot the rabbis discuss building fences as a priority of a good teacher. Don’t like translations, read the original. It’s all there.

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  11. Professor Shir:

    Excellent analysis! I agree that this is the Lord’s methodology as well as his intent.

    I would only add one thing: Jesus presses his disciples to go beyond mere outward law-keeping and more tenaciously attend to heart-keeping.

    This is where “the rubber meets the road in sincere religion.

    Thank you for a helpful and insightful article!

    • True devotion always goes beyond the letter of the commandment to the very intent and the goal of what God was pursuing by giving such a law. We call it “Ruach Torah” the Spirit of the Law.

  12. I also agree with Ben L. The reason the Pharisees “built fences” around the Torah was because they thought they could earn God’s favor through their actions, through keeping the Torah. So, how do you make sure you don’t break the Torah? You build a fence, and then make sure to not even “break the fence.” But that only addressed outward actions. In Matthew, if anything, Jesus is taking down the fences, showing people their utter inability to save themselves, and to show them how they needed to be saved by God. Then, He did it! He saved them!

    • Prof. Kock, how do you know that Pharisees thought “they could earn God’s favor by building fences”? Do you have any evidence from which you gleaned this information about their inner thoughts? Ancient rabbis (who lived generations after Pharisees) saw fence-building as an ultimate expression of devotion to God, seeking to err on the side of caution rather than to trample God’s laws through careless and unmindful living. Fences are to preserve righteousness not to create it.

  13. I would love to see your Analysis of the fences Jesus Built around Fornication & Adultry…we all teach using “fences” to encourage obedience; yet, understanding what Jesus was doing & why is Very Enlightening…Bless You & Your Efforts

  14. Allusions:
    1. Lev 19:17a;Deut 19:6b
    2. Ex 20:17//Deut 5:21
    3. Deut 24:1ערות דבר
    4. Ex 20:7לשוא;Deut 23:23
    5. Lev 26:37b;Lam 3:30
    6. Lev 19:34;Ex 10:18

    • Instead of fences, I think the “I say to you” allusions represent the so-called “least of the commandments” spoken of in the preceding verses.

      • I would say, the phrase “the least of these commandments” refers to the commandments which are considered to be “lesser” in the hierarchy of importance. And I mean “comparatively lesser”, not necessarily unimportant.

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        • Right, but I think Yeshua is alluding to commandments that are treated as if they are lesser in hierarchy though they are equally great.

          • Are you implying that someone in his day considered murder, adultery, false witness in court and etc “lesser commandments” Sorry, I am not sure I follow the logic… What would be presumed “greater ones” than?

  15. No. I think the “You have heard” mitzvot are examples of the greatest commandments and the “I say to you” are examples of the “least”.

    • Ahh, I see now. Interesting. Have never thought of it that way… The “least commandments” are then “implications” – that which is derived from mitzvot and not “commandments” in a legal and technical sense. Have never considered that… Is there a precedent for such terminology use anywhere else outside of this passage? In Judaism, there is a talk of “heavier” and “lighter” commandments, but these are all actual commandments from Moshe, not rabbinic rulings.

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  16. I think the “I say to you” statements (e.g., hatred, lust, etc.) are actual commandments, but paraphrased interpretively and halachically. See my reference list above.

    • Yes, that makes good sense, Ryan. I do appreciate the list. But why do they need/must/have to be “paraphrased interpretively”? That certainly does not elevate them in a culture where Torah is already respected by default. Conversely, traditional rabbinic fence-building practice takes the core commandment, finds related teachings and commandments that can be tied to it and constructs a protective layer by creating stricter injunctions around the commandment based on other (related) instructions. Take Peter, for example, who did not want to enter the house of Cornelius (it is unlawful he said). There are no direct commandments “not to enter a house of a non-Jew” or to “have no social interactions with non-Jews” in general. These are classic fences around idolatry commandment.

  17. R. Yeshua corrects this delimitation with “one of the least of the commandments” by alluding to “love the stranger as yourself” in Lev 19:34.

    • @Ryan Blackwelder, I was starting to understand you until this comment. You seem to be saying that Yeshua is giving his correction by equating “the foreigner living among you” with “your enemy”. I have studied the foreigner-among-you concept in Torah but not the concept of your-enemy in the gospels.

  18. There are similar kind of hear/say dialectical exchanges regarding delimitation of meaning in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael.

    • E.g., Regarding Ex 20:12 it says “I hear (שומע אני) ‘by words’. Instruction says (תלמוד לומר) ‘honor the LORD from your wealth (Prov. 3:9)”.

      • That is, one might think the delimitation of honoring one’s parents is by words only, but Prov 3:9 informs us that it includes sharing wealth.

        • Similarly, “You have heard” = simple understanding of the delimitation of greatest mitzvot’ and “I say to you” = informed understanding from the “least mitzvot”.

          • That is at least how I am processing the hear/say discourse. Sorry for many replies, limited to 25 words. Guess I need membership lol :).

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  19. BTW I’m planning to write a paper on this in the next month or so for a university course. I would appreciate feedback when finished.

  20. Matthew 23:13  But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.>>>STILL! Yeshua built no fences..He is the Door. Fences keep in and keep out!

    • Dear Linda, breaking commandments is a sin. Building a fence around a commandment is a protective measure which makes it harder to fall into that sin. Yes, fences keep out! Keep oot from sin. Jesus is not a door to sin. Did you even read the article?

  21. “Building fences” goes back to the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 2:27, God told Adam not to eat of the forbidden fruit, but he (or Eve) added the “fence” of “neither shall ye touch it” (Genesis 3:3).

  22. I understand the idea of Jesus building “fences” around Torah, but I disagree with you as well. The reason is that you make the people believe that Jesus only wanted his people to observe the commandment and according to this verbal abuse would not be a sin.

  23. According to you verbal abuse would only be a violation of the fence Jesus built. Jesus came to fulfill the the Law and the Prophets through his own life and by teaching the real meaning of the commandments which is beyond literal interpretation.

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  24. If I understand you, “he who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court” should be read as “he who is angry with his brother shall [eventually, inevitably, act out his anger and] be guilty before the court.”

    Is this a correct understanding of your view?

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  25. Yeshua was not building fences around the Torah. He was getting to the “heart” of Torah, namely the heart of man that leads to sin. He was exposing our sin nature and rather than building fences that keep us out of sin, He was exposing our need for a Savior.

    • I do not disagree with what you say, Rhata. Can what you say be true and what I wrote to be true simultaneously? Can it be that sin can be dealt with in multiple ways?

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  26. If Yeshua, who is God manifest, needed to build a fence around the commandments that He gave at Sinai to “protect” them, then His first attempt at Sinai was imperfect, thus He was imperfect. Our righteousness is not found in our ability to obey Torah perfectly. It is in Yeshua.

    • Once again, nothing you say is arguable. You miss the point of the article I wrote, unwilling to entertain the idea that Yeshua as an ancient rabbi taught as rabbis did, by providing guidance to his followers how to guard themselves against sinful life.

  27. Only by understanding the sinful heart of man can we look to God for salvation. If we think that by staying “outside the fence” we are righteous before God then we are doomed, for no one is. This is why Yeshua’s teachings are profound. There is only one way: Yeshua

    • God calls us to be holy as he is holy, that is a direct command and that implies trying, striving, exerting effort to imitate our Maker. Of course, we realize that he is the source of righteousness and we cannot do it without him. But why does he command us to live this way than? Why do such explicit commandments even exist? Things are not as simple as you paint them, Rhata.

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  28. Only by the imparted righteousness of Yeshua to us are we righteous before God, and only by Yeshua taking on our sin are we reconciled. Does this mean we forsake Torah? Absolutely not! We uphold Torah that is the heart of the Sinai covenant: Sacrificial love and forgiveness.

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