By Dr. Kathleen Troost-Kramer
Among the Pharisaic proto-rabbis, “building fences around the Torah” was a common practice. Unlike their primary opponents, the Sadducees, the Pharisees observed a long tradition of oral interpretation of and commentary on Torah, going back to the early sages. This “oral Torah” (traditions of the elders) was passed down from teacher to student through the generations (and became the predominant expression of Judaism after the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, when the religion had to be re-formulated without temple worship). An essential component of “oral Torah” was the practice of “building fences” around the commandments – formulating additional observations and practices in order to preserve the commandment itself.
The idea is that, if the “fence” behaviors are observed, one will not “get through” to the actual commandment in order to violate it. One of the most famous, and 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.”
Many times, people read this passage and scratch their heads, thinking “How can anyone never feel anger?” But this isn’t what Jesus meant. Here, he is telling his disciples that if they entertain anger towards anyone, that anger can grow until it becomes an action. Unchecked emotions are all too often acted upon: anger allowed to fester in the heart can lead to murder.
So if one observes the “fence” and keeps a check on the emotion of anger, he or she will not end by violating the commandment against murder.
Other “fences around the Torah” that Jesus constructs in the 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 begin with the words “You have heard it said…” followed by a commandment, then “But I say to you…” and Jesus’ “fence.” This construction does not indicate that Jesus is changing the commandment, but that he is reinforcing it by providing a “fence.” He is giving his disciples practical advice for their behavior that will help them to keep the commandment, not replace it with something else or something new. No wonder that immediately before these passages begin, Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17), and then tells his audience that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). The “fences around Torah” that he then proceeds to construct tell his disciples exactly how they can achieve this righteousness.
But if Jesus argued with the Pharisees about “building fences around the Torah,” how can it be that Jesus himself also built these kinds of fences? The answer is that Jesus did not object to building fences around the Torah in general – he objected to the kinds of fences the Pharisees were building, and around what commandments they were building them.
It’s clear that Jesus taught his disciples in a manner similar to the proto-rabbis; a manner entirely fitting with the great diversity of first-century CE Judaism.