The Sealed Garden of Torah: How We Protect the Word and Community of God

June 2013

Jewish sages from the Second Temple period understood that they bore the full responsibility to pass on all ancient written and oral scripture to future generations.  Israelite culture and religion had been crushed by the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian exile lasted more than a generation. The entire socio-religious system had to be better organized, strengthened, and guarded to guarantee its survival in the face of further foreign rule.  If the sacred books of Torah[1] contained the glue which could hold the Jewish community together, it was imperative to preserve every word and letter by any means possible.

Not long after Zerubabel’s return from Babylon to Jerusalem we learn about the establishment of an executive council composed of skilled teachers, scribes, priests and prophets known as the “Men of the Great Assembly” [2] or more accurately from the Hebrew, “The Men of the Great Synagogue.”[3]  Several Jewish traditions credit Ezra with creating this assembly, or that he and Nehemiah, were among the earliest members.  We are told that Ezra himself reintroduced the Torah to the community of returnees from Babylon (Ezra 7:10), therefore it is logical to adduce that he was part of this scholarly club.  Shortly afterward, the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi came to join and eventually the membership reached 120, (a symbolic figure - 10 from each of the 12 tribes).[4]  Although the focus was more on religion than politics, this self-appointed Torah-based legislative body effectively could herald and implement a new government.  According to rabbinic sources they forged many new rituals and religious traditions such as organized readings and study of Torah, structured prayers and creeds (i.e. the Amidah), the introduction of Purim[5] and a protective hedge of laws around the Jewish community.

A few important references and ethical sayings attributed to the Men of the Great Assembly are found in a tractate of the Mishnah[6] called Pirkei Avot or “The Sayings of the Fathers.” As in the rest of the Mishnah, these sayings were originally communicated in Hebrew and passed down orally from generation to generation.  Eventually they were organized and written down towards the end of the 2nd century A.D., by Yehuda ha Nasi (“Judah the Prince”), a Galilean rabbi who lived near Nazareth.

The first saying in Pirkei Avot outlines how Scripture and oral traditions were originally received by Moses and then passed down to Joshua and subsequent leaders thereafter:

“Moshe [Moses] received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Yehoshua [Joshua], and Yehoshua handed it down to the Elders and the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be cautious in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:1).

In the Hebrew version of this saying, the term “handed down” mesorah (מסורה) can also mean “tradition.”

In several narratives about the above passage, the rabbis taught that the Elders were those who outlived Joshua (Judges 2:7).  These included Caleb son of Yefuneh and Othniel the son of Kenaz, who became the first judge of Israel, and all the judges thereafter until Samuel who was considered to be both a judge and prophet.  He was followed by all the prophets of Israel and Judah down to the last days of the First Temple period when the prophet Jeremiah witnessed the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in approximately 586 B.C.  Afterwards it is understood that Jeremiah’s disciples handed down the Torah and Oral traditions to the Men of the Great Assembly and thereby maintaining continuity from the First to the Second Temple period.  Likewise, modern Jews understand that the Torah and oral traditions were handed down in one continuous chain from the moment of revelation on Mt. Sinai to the present day.

Nearly 25 years ago while studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one professor gave me an assignment to research a few passages in the Mishnah and compare them with subjects in the New Testament.  He was aware of my Christian background and he encouraged me to pursue this topic telling me that I would probably be surprised at some of the parallels, and he was right.  When I opened the book of Pirkei Avot and read the first quote, “Be cautious in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah” I was at once reminded of a few important words from Jesus such as cautioning his followers about judging other people (Matt 7:1-3) and the clear instruction to “make disciples” (Matt 28:16).  But the last point seemed odd and even negative, why would anyone wish to construct a fence around the Torah?

Having partly grown up in rural areas of the United States I was particularly opposed to fences especially in wooded wilderness regions such as in the San Juan Mountains of south central Colorado – particularly in high country areas far away from farms and ranches.  Such fences seemed quite out of place and interfering.  What exactly did the Men of the Great Assembly have in mind with this pronouncement to make fences around Scripture?

The following passage was written by a 19th century rabbi, Dr. Marcus (Meir) Lehmann (1831-1890), a publicist and popular novelist who lived and taught in Germany and commented extensively on several tractates of the Mishnah.

“The Torah can be compared to a magnificent garden, full of the most beautiful flowers and precious fruit trees.  Without a protective fence, this magnificent garden would be exposed to destruction by either wicked people or wild animals.  Therefore our Sages built a protective fence around the garden of the Torah; the fence consists of the Sabbath laws, which are very strict indeed, and the laws on marriage, morality, and family purity, and all the laws which teach us how to observe the commandments properly.  These laws became the fence which effectively protected the Jewish nation in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, as they continue to protect all the generations of Israel – past, present and future.”[7]

In his book, Everyman’s Talmud, Abraham Cohen provides further insight to this peculiar rabbinical practice.  He states that the foremost principle behind fence-building is the love and care one should have for Torah.[8]

For the rabbis of the Second Temple period fence-building was at the core of biblical interpretation and it provided a simple way to give fuller definition to Scripture.  Some Jewish sages maintained that the oral traditions were themselves like fences around the Torah[9] and in fact, many of their commentaries were forged into laws (halacha).

There is not ample room here to consider a more thorough diachronic analysis of the Mishnaic Hebrew imperative “make a fence around the Torah” (לעשות סייג לתורה), to demonstrate that this specific expression existed earlier than the end of the 2nd century A.D.  However, it is clear that fence-building as a teaching technique existed well before the rabbinic period.

Perhaps the earliest example of fence-building or expanding occurs in the book of Jeremiah.

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; nor carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, nor do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers”  (Jer 17:20-22).

Michael Fishbane has shown that Jeremiah initially quotes the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue,[10] but expands the original ruling of Sabbath observance to forbid the transporting of goods through Jerusalem’s gates and into its houses.  According to Fishbane, these innovations are equal to the rulings from Sinai when Jeremiah exclaims, “as I [God] commanded your forefathers” (Jer 17:22).[11]

By the rabbinic period this type of hermeneutical expansion of biblical laws is understood as a God-given right to those who are engaged and propagating serious study of Torah.[12]  Those who fail to develop the Torah (especially considering the growing needs of the community) are shamed.[13]


Did Jesus Build Fences?

As a Jewish sage, Jesus would have been familiar with the pertinent arguments and styles of teaching from the period, therefore we might also expect to find him addressing the subject of fence-building by either supporting or reproving the practice.

On more than one occasion Jesus rebukes certain Pharisees for their strict adherence to certain customs.  He likens some of their legislations as “heavy burdens on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4).  Jesus himself is challenged by a group of Pharisees for disregarding the “tradition of the elders” when his disciples fail to ritually wash their hands before a meal.  His response indicates the unrestricted license of interpolation some of these Pharisees have exercised in their fence building: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?  For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift [or sacrifice - Corban] to God.”’ ‘Then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (Matt. 15:3-6).  Here Jesus is culling out an instance of fence-building gone amuck as these important commandments, Ex.20:12/Deut. 5:16 and Ex.21:17/Lev.20:9 have been joined together.  The former could be understood as a “heavy” ruling and the later is a “light” one.  The lighter command, which should be of the same theme forms a hedge around the heavier and more significant command.[14] The point of fence-building is to safeguard Scripture not cancel it.  So it seems clear in this instance that Jesus is tearing down an unnecessary fence, but did he ever build one himself?

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus gives us an in-depth purview of his skills with Torah.  He proves in no uncertain terms, that he is not abolishing or diminishing the Torah with “bad” instruction, as some may have charged, but rather establishing or fulfilling it with good teaching.[15]

Preserved in Matthew 5, we find Jesus quoting several familiar passages to his listeners, “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of judgment,’ But I tell you that whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment (v.22).”  Here, Jesus invites the vocabulary of Leviticus 19:17 into his garden of Torah instruction, “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” as the “lighter” commandment for a protective fence around the heavier command, “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  By avoiding internal hatred or anger towards another, the chances for murder, which has very serious consequences, are dramatically reduced or eliminated.

For the sake of comparison on this point, an almost identical teaching is given by Rabbi Eleazar (2nd century A.D.), who said, “the one who hates his neighbor is considered a murderer.” [16]  His maxim is built upon Deuteronomy 19:11 and joined with the heavier command barring murder in Exodus 20:13.  To this rabbi both hating a neighbor and murder potentially have the same weight.

Jesus continues, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27, 28).  His expansion is possibly derived from Proverbs 6:25: “Do not lust in your heart after her [immoral woman v.24] beauty.”  Because of this sensitivity to internal purity, a few Christian commentators assert that Jesus expands the original Mosaic prohibitions according to his more austere personal views.[17]  I would like to suggest that part of his mission is to provide a better defined and understandable approach to Scripture.  If your gaze turns to lust, it might lead to the more serious crime of adultery.  Jesus impresses God’s Word more deeply on the hearts of his listeners, following the Deuteronomic theme; “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children” (Dt 6: 6, 7).  However, it seems that many mistake his thoroughness for excessive strictness.[18]

Regarding the specific word pattern, “you have heard it said…but I tell you” we can find other rabbis using similar formulas.  Rabbi Simeon son of Lakish, said that “any one who commits adultery physically with his body shall be called an adulterer, but we say to you, that anyone who commits adultery with his eye shall be called an adulterer” (Pesikta Rabbati 24).

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Jesus is not above using good advice as a fence.  As we continue further into his hermeneutical tapestry of Scriptures, he reminds his listeners that they have heard it quoted, “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But he tells them, “Do not resist the evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:38-40).  Understanding that the base verses in Exodus 21:24-27 deal with even compensation, it seems strange that he would propose an unfair recompense.  One might ask, how does “even compensation” apply to someone getting a slap across the face? If perchance we have a case of prior malice on the part of the person being struck, it might be fair to return an equal blow.  And, if there is foul play to oblige a lawsuit, the rule of equal compensation will reward the victim his tunic.  But here Jesus may be suggesting to over-compensate in both cases so as to present the victimized with a more sincere apology from the offender, whom we have always assumed was passively innocent.[19] This would suggest that humble remorse is at the heart of this teaching rather than “doormat” submission.

Jesus continues in Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Several commentaries correctly highlight the absence of a particular Torah injunction to “hate the enemy.”  David Flusser has shown that the Essenes are the only known Jewish group at that time encouraging this doctrine of hating one’s enemy.[20]  It is likely then, that Jesus is tearing down an unnecessary fence that has no partnership with the principles of Torah.  Showing love and respect towards the enemy, on the other hand, has substantial roots in the Pentateuch such as: “do not abhor the Edomite [an old enemy], for he is your brother” (Deut. 23:7).[21]

Remarkably, Jesus never rebukes other teachers and Pharisees for constructing fences when there is no deviation from the principles and spirit of Torah, and as long as they also adhere to their own rulings.[22]  He does warn of their hypocritical tendencies, but asserts that their biblical authority is deserved in “Moses’ seat.”[23]

From the few examples we have reviewed in Matthew, one might agree that Jesus’ fence-building techniques are on par with other period rabbis especially in regard to connecting lighter commands with heavier ones of the same theme.  His teachings are scrupulously designed to impress Scripture more deeply but in a practical and relevant language.  If a person can guard his eye from lusting, he will be much less inclined to commit adultery.  Jesus also encourages his followers to place the value of others first, such as in the case of over-compensating when a “tooth for a tooth” would have been satisfactory under the accepted guidelines of Torah.  His expansion demonstrates a desire to keep the community from turning against itself which is in line with the spirit of the Torah.  As a skilled rabbi and teacher of the sacred word of God, Jesus seals his garden of Torah with fences around the hearts of his followers helping them to more easily understand the relevance of keeping Scripture and to have victory over earthly desires and shortcomings.  Just like the former Men of the Great Assembly, Jesus accepts the tradition to protect the Word of God and the community of God, and his fences are based on genuine love for both.

[1] Torah is the Hebrew Bible, or the “Old Testament”.  Torah means much more than “law”; it can mean “teaching” or “to reveal” and is probably best understood as God’s revelation.

[2] According to Jewish tradition these Sages included: Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, Seragah, Re’elayah, Mordechai, Bilshan, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. See Avot D’Rabi Natan (Nosha)Chapter 1, paragraph 1.  There is debate among scholars as to when this council of sages was actually formed – towards the end of the First Temple period or at the beginning of the Second Temple period, or whether it existed in any organized fashion.

[3] Anshei Knesset ha Gdolah [כנסת הגדולה אנשי] - The Hebrew word knesset means “assembly,” and the Greek word for assembly is “synagogue” but references to this group of priests and scholars in various Greek sources is gerusia.  It is also doubtful that synagogues as we understand them existed earlier than the 2nd century B.C.

[4] Later the membership was reduced to 71 in the greater Sanhedrin, and 23 members in the smaller Sanhedrin.  See Solomon Grazel, A History of the Jews. Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadephia. 1957 p. 113.

[5] See online Jewish Encyclopedia ( and the history of Purim.

[6] The Mishnah means “repetition” or the act of learning oral tradition by repeating out loud.  The Mishnah comprises three branches of Jewish tradition: 1) midrash or interpretation of the text of Scripture, 2) halakhot or statutes that the sages developed outside of Scripture, and 3) haggadot or non-legal material, like stories or parables.  The Mishnah is the core of the later rabbinic work, the Talmud which contains discussions and commentaries in Aramaic about the Mishnah.

[7] Lehmann-Prins,‘Pirkei Avot.’ Feldheim Publshers, Jerusalem. 1992. p.4

[8] A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud. Schocken Books, New York. 1949.  p.150 He quotes Sot. 31a “Greater is he who performs (the commandments) from love than he who performs them from fear.”

[9] Avot 3:17  Rabbi Akiva says that “the tradition  [מסורה] is a fence around the Torah, the tithes are a fence for riches, vows are a fence for abstinence, a fence for wisdom is silence.”

[10] M. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1988 p. 132.  He compares the usage of the verb ‘to heed’ and ‘to remember’ which are distinct between Deuteronomy and Exodus.

[11] Ibid. p.133 He also demonstrates that Nehemiah’s reforms (13:15-21) are drawn from this passage.

[12] Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 63a.

[13] Tanna Devei Eliahu Zuta 2.  A parable of those who love the Torah, which is likened to a lump of dough; they take the lump, shape it and bake food.  The fool did nothing with it.  Compare Matt 25:24-27.

[14] David Biven provides a helpful background to “light” and “heavy” commandments, Jerusalem Perspective, issue 6, March 1988.

[15] In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Menachot 99b, Shimon ben Lakish (Resh Lakish) is one such rabbi to use the terms to “abolish” (בטולה) in terms of bad Torah teaching and “establish” or “fulfill” (ייסודה) in reference to good Torah teaching.

[16] Rabbi Eleazar quoted in Masechot Derech Eretz – for English see translation by Michale Higger, Masechot Derech Eretz, Vol 2, New York: Moinester, 1935. p 312.  Also see I John 4:11-15.

[17] An example: J.R. Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Macmillan Publishing, New York. 1936.

[18] Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary, InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, Illinois. 1993. p. 57

[19] My wife, Dalia Gerrish, has suggested this scenario to me in private conversation.

[20] D.Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. 1988. p.483

[21] See also Ex.23: 4 -5, and Lev. 19:33.

[22] David Bivin terms it “in-house constructive criticism,” when rebukes are exchanged between these respective groups.  See his column on Internal Criticism, Jerusalem Perspective, # 6, March 1988.

[23] Matt. 23: 2-3 and see also Deut. 17:8-13.