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Our student rabbi on placement, Iris Ferreira, is reflecting each week on a chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, which is traditionally read between the Jewish festivals of Pesach and Shavuot.

 

The 49 days which separate the first day of Pesach from Shavuot constitute the Omer period. During these seven weeks, each Shabbat many Jewish communities study one of the six chapters of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a book of precepts on the importance of Torah study and how to behave towards one another. Pirkei Avot is part of the Mishna.

This week, I will focus on the end of the first chapter’s first saying: ‘make a fence for the Torah’.

The first question is: does the word ‘Torah’ mean the Torah scroll itself, or the commandments from the Torah?

If we understand the word ‘Torah’ in Pirkei Avot as referring to the Torah scroll, the ‘fence’ may be all the rules related to the way the Torah scroll is used in the congregation, so that its sacred character is maintained and it does not become mundane. In Jewish communities, the ceremony of the Torah service, the blessings read before and after the reading, the calling by name to recite the blessings on the Torah scroll – all those elements constitute a ‘fence’ which makes the Torah reading special, different from any other reading in the eyes of the congregation.

However, the more common understanding is the second one. There are several cases when we make a fence for the commandments, in order to be sure not to transgress them. This is explained, for example, in the very first page of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud:[1]

‘[…] All [the commandments about] which the Sages said that [they must be completed] before the middle of the night, their obligation [can actually be completed] before dawn […]. If this is so, why did the Sages state [that these obligation should be completed] before the middle of the night? In order to draw the person away from transgression.’

Thanks to the fence, even though a person may be late in performing a commandment before the time recommended by the Sages, it will not be too late to perform it according to biblical law.

The Avot deRabbi Nathan is a commentary on Pirkei Avot which offers various insights on this principle.[2] Version B of Avot deRabbi Nathan states:

‘A vineyard surrounded by a fence is not like a vineyard which is not surrounded by a fence; for a person shall not make a fence exceeding the essential, lest the fence would fall and cut the plants. Indeed, we know about the first human being, that he made a fence exceeding the essential;[3] the fence fell down and cut the plants.’

Avot deRabbi Nathan warns us that a fence shall not be too high. It seems to refer to a story told in Version A of Avot deRabbi Nathan, where the Eternal commands Adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, lest he would die. In order to make a fence for this commandment, Adam says to Eve that they shall not eat nor touch that tree, lest they would die. Later on, when the snake touches the tree before Eve and does not die, Eve thinks that Adam has lied to her. Because she no longer trusts Adam’s words, she eats from the fruit of the tree. Thus, we see that the precaution Adam took in ‘making a fence’ to prevent Eve and himself from eating the fruit had the opposite effect of what he intended.

According to this story, the expression: ‘not to make a fence exceeding the essential’ seems to mean ‘not to make a fence in such a way that the core of the commandments may be perceived as a lie’. Then, the person feeling cheated would reject not only the fence, but also the commandments.

One thing we may learn from these stories is that one has to be very careful when establishing a fence. This is probably the reason why the rabbis in the Talmud are careful in distinguishing between the commandments ‘from the Torah’, which are essential, and commandments established by the Sages in order to protect the commandments from the Torah. By doing so, they make clear what the fence is and what the essential is, what to keep absolutely and what may be transgressed in difficult situations. Thus, one shall not be made to believe that the fence is the core of the commandment – such assumptions may lead to the cancellation of both.

[1] Babylonian Talmud tractate Berakhot, 2a.

[2] Stemberger & Strack, Introduction au Talmud et au Midrash, traduction et adaptation françaises de Maurice-Ruben Hayoun, Cerf, Paris 2007, p°263. It seems that the core elements of Avot deRabbi Nathan shall have originated as early as the third century, but the final redaction is thought to have taken place around the 7th/8th century. We have to versions of Avot deRabbi Nathan: version A and version B.

[3] The Hebrew word in the text is ‘iqar, which can be translated as:1) essence;  2) basis; 3) root. Here, it seems to me that this word designates the core of Jewish beliefs and practices. It also seems the meaning of the expression “kafar ba’iqar”, “he negated the essential” applied to the bad son (= the Rasha) in the Haggada of Pesach, that we read the first two nights of Pesach.