Yeshua Made a Fence Around the Torah
James Scott Trimm
One of the basic precepts of the Oral Law is the directive to עשו סייג לתורה “make a fence about the Torah” as we read at the opening of tractate Avot in the Mishnah:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a fence about the Torah.
Later in Avot we read that Rabbi Akiva said “Tradition is a fence to Torah” (Akiva Avot 3:13)
What does is mean to “make a fence about the Torah”? Rambam explains it like this:
“Make a hedge about the Torah”, refers to the decrees and enactments of the Sages-these keep a man far from transgression, as the Blessed One said, 'Therefore shall ye keep what I have given you to keep (Lev. 18:30),' which the Talmud (Yebamot 21a) interprets to mean; add protection to what I have already given you as protection."
(Maimonides on Avot 1:1)
A good example of such a fence can be found in the very first Mishnah of the Talmud:
1:1 From what time may they recite the Shema in the evening?
From the hour that the priests enter [their homes] to eat their heave offering.
“until the end of the first watch” the words of Rabbi Eliezer.
But the sages say, “Until midnight.”
Rabban Gamliel says, “Until the rise of dawn.”
M’SH’SH: His [Gamliel’s] sons returned from a banquet hall [after midnight].
They said to him, “We did not [yet] recite the Shema.”
He said to them, “If the dawn has not yet risen, you are obligated to recite [the Shema].
And [this applies] not only [in] this [case]. Rather, [as regards] all [commandments] which sages said [may be performed] ‘Until midnight,” the obligation [to perform them persists] until the rise of dawn.”
[For example,] the offering of the fats and entrails—their obligation [persists] until the rise of dawn [see Lev. 1:9, 3:3-5].
And all [sacrifices] which must be eaten within one day, the obligation [to eat them persists] until the rise of dawn.
If so why did sages say [that these actions may be performed only] until midnight?
In order to protect man from sin.
While the Torah requires the evening Shema to be said before the rise of dawn, the sages erected a “fence around the Torah” teaching that it should be said by midnight (Rabbi Eliezer held that it should be said even before the end of the first watch). The sages set up the fence “in order to protect man from sin”. If one is attempting to fulfill the commandment to say the evening Shema before midnight, then even if one is late, one is less likely to violate the actual Torah. Thus the “fence” helps prevent transgression of the actual Torah.
Now in Matthew chapter 5, Yeshua delivers a teaching in which he presents a commandment from the Torah, and then proceeds to make a fence around each commandment.
Making a Fence Around Murder
Yeshua begins by citing the commandment against murder:
You have heard what was said to them of old time,
You shall not murder: (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17)
and whoever commits murder,
the same will be condemned to the judgment.
(Matthew 5:21 HRV)
Yeshua builds a fence around this Torah command, saying not to even be angry with your brother.
22 But I tell you, that whoever shall be enraged against his brother, he will be
condemned to the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, You are nothing: he
will be condemned to the council of the synagogue. And whoever says to him, You
impious one: he will be condemned to the fire of Gey Hinnom.
23 And if you present your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother
has something against you:
24 Leave your offering there before the altar, and go you first, to atone to your brother,
and then come and give your offering.
25 Come to terms with your adversary quickly, while you are with him on the way: lest
HaSatan deliver you up to the judge, and the judge deliver you up to the officer, and you
be cast into the jail.
26 Amen, I tell you, you will not go out from there, until you have paid the last penny.
Making a Fence Around Adultery
Next Yeshua cites the Torah commandment against adultery:
You have heard that it was said to them of old time,
You shall not commit adultery: (Ex 20:13(20:14); Deut. 5:18)
(Matt. 5:27 HRV)
Yeshua then builds a fence around this commandment as well, saying:
28 But I tell you, that whoever sees a woman and covets her, has already committed
adultery with her in his heart.
29 And if your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you: for it is better
for you that one of your members should perish, than that the whole body should be
cast into Gey Hinnom.
30 And if your right hand offend you, cut it off and cast it from you: for it is better for
you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body should be cast
into Gey Hinnom.
(Matthew 5:28-30 HRV)
Yeshua makes a fence around this commandment, telling us not to even lust after another man’s wife to commit adultery even in our hearts. The Talmud places a similar hedge saying “Unchaste imagination is more injurious than sin itself…” (b.Yoma 29a).
Making a Fence Around Divorce
Next Yeshua quotes the Torah concerning divorce:
It was also said concerning him that would put away his wife
that he should write her a bill of divorcement,
and give it to her, and send her away from his house: (Deut. 24:1)
(Matt. 5:31 HRV)
Yeshua makes a fence once again saying:
But I tell you, that whoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of
fornication, commits adultery with her, and whoever takes her that is cast off, commits adultery.
(Matt. 5:32 HRV)
Here Yeshua tells us not only that we must not put away a wife without issuing her a bill of divorcement, but that we should also only do so for the cause of fornication. (Here Yeshua agrees with the House of Shammai m.Gittin 9:10)
Making a Fence Around Vows
Next Yeshua cites the Torah in regards to keeping ones vows:
Again, you have heard that it was said to them of old time,
You shall not forswear yourself,
but shall pay to YHWH your vow:
(Lev 19:12; Num. 30:3(30:2); Deut. 23:22(23:21))
(Matt, 5:33 HRV)
Yeshua then goes on to make a fence around this commandment as well:
34 But I tell you, you shall not swear by a confirming word--not by heaven, for it is
35 And not by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, and not by Yerushalayim,
for it is the city of the great king.
36 And you shall not swear by your head, in that you have no power to whiten one hair
or turn it black again.
37 But let your words be, Yes, yes; No, no: for whatever is more than these words, is of
(Matt. 5:24-37 HRV)
So to make sure we do not break our vows, Yeshua says not to even make them in the first place. This was in fact the practice of the Essenes in those days. Josephus writes:
…swearing is avoided by them [Essenes],
and they esteem it worse than perjury;
for they say, that he who cannot be believed
without [swearing by] God, is already condemned.
(Josephus; Wars; 2:8:6)
And we read in the Dead Sea Scrolls:
A man must not swear
either by Aleph and Lamedh (Elohim)
or by Aleph and Daleth (Adonai)…
(Damascus Document Col. 15, 1)
Making a Fence Around Liability
Next Yeshua cites the Torah in regards to the laws of liability:
You have heard what was said,
An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21)
(Matt. 5:38 HRV)
Yeshua also builds a fence around this commandment. I recently wrote a whole blog about this issue (
So I direct the reader there for more information on this section.
Making a Fence Around Loving our Neighbor
Next Yeshua cites the commandment to love our neighbor, but adding a false conclusion to it:
You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor, (Lev. 19:18)
and hate your enemy,
(Matt. 5:43 HRV)
The additional phrase “and hate your enemies” was drawn from a false Essene interpretation. The Damascus Document interprets Lev. 19:18 as follows:
As for the passage that says,
"Take no vengeance and bear no grudge
against your kinfolk" (Lev. 19:18)
any covenant member who brings against his fellow
an accusation not sworn to before witnesses
or who makes an accusation in the heat of anger
or who tells it to his elders to bring his fellow into repute,
the same is a vengence-taker and a grudge-bearer….
(Damascus Document 9, 2)
Note that this Qumran interpretation of Lev. 19:18 would limit "neighbor" in Lev. 19:18 to "any covenant member" i.e. a member of the Yachad (Essene community). In fact the Essenes taught:
…bear unremitting hatred towards all men of ill repute…
to leave it to them to pursue wealth and mercenary gain…
truckling to a depot.
(Manual of Discipline 9, 21-26)
But Yeshua makes a fence around “love your neighbor” saying:
44 But I tell you, Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them
which persecute you and despitefully use you: b
45 In order that you may become the sons of your Father which is in heaven, who makes
His sun to rise on the good and on the evil, and sends rain on the righteous and on the
46 For if you love only them which love you, what reward have you: do not even the
transgressors do this?
47 And if you ask after the shalom of your brothers only, what do you exceed: do not
even the Goyim do this?
48 You therefore be wholehearted, like your Father which is in heaven, who is
(Matt. 5:44-48 HRV)
Yeshua make a fence, telling us not just to love our neighbor, but to love everyone, even those not already in the Torah observant community. This is like the words of Hillel:
Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace,
loving people and drawing them near to the Torah.
Yeshua followed the precept of building a fence around the Torah, to protect the Torah. In Matthew Chapter 5 Yeshua cites one Torah command after another, and builds a fence around each, designed to keep us far away from actually violating these commandments.
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