> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Outlooks & Insights

Fences of Holiness

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

Understanding the role of rabbinic fences.

"Do not imitate the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled; and do not imitate the practice of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions." (Leviticus 18:3)

The common theme running through the parshiyot of Acharei Mot, Kedoshim and Emor is the holiness of the Jewish people and the need for its preservation and protection.

In Acharei Mot, we are enjoined not to behave in the depraved manner of the Egyptians and Canaanites (Leviticus 18:3). The question is asked: Why did the Torah command us only with respect to the extreme depravity of the Egyptians and Canaanites? Part of the answer lies in the verse that concludes this parsha and sums it up:

"And you shall guard My observances." (Leviticus 18:30)

The Sages (Talmud - Yevamot 21a) derive from this verse the need to make fences around the Torah.

Those fences include general rabbinic decrees designed to distance one from transgressing Torah law, and the specific protective measures each individual must implement in his own life to protect himself in areas of personal vulnerability. The Torah is not merely exhorting us against leading immorally depraved lives, but is warning us that if we do not implement safety measures to prevent us from such depravity, we will sink to the lowest level, that of the Canaanites and Egyptians.

Rabbinic Laws

Often we hear those who do not understand the true nature of rabbinic legislation complain that the Sages made observance much more difficult, complicating our lives with extra prohibitions and restrictions. The following analogy demonstrates the fallacy of this argument:

A group of people are situated on a mountaintop which ends in a sheer cliff and a drop of several thousand feet. One civic-minded member of the group erects, on his own initiative, a safety fence to prevent anyone from venturing too close to the edge of the cliff and falling off inadvertently. Would anyone complain that the fence limited his freedom of movement by making it less likely that he plummet off the mountain to his death?

One who appreciates the seriousness of transgressing a Torah law - the devastating effects of such transgressions on one's soul, one's eternal life, and the world in general - surely feels more secure knowing that safety fences have been erected to make it more difficult for him to inadvertently transgress.

Thus, the first function of rabbinic "fences" is to prevent one from transgressing Torah prohibitions inadvertently. For instance, the prohibition on handling certain objects associated with prohibited activities on Shabbat. The danger of inadvertently striking a match on Shabbat is drastically reduced if one never touches matches. Similarly, the rabbinic prohibition on trapping any animal on Shabbat reduces the chance of confusing animals that we are permitted to capture and those which we may not according to Torah law.


Nevertheless, there are rabbinic prohibitions that seem excessively far-fetched as protective enactments. Sometimes this is because we lack the Sages' sensitivity to the potency of forces that may drive one to sin.

A congregant once asked me about allowing a sick old uncle to stay in an apartment usually occupied by his two teenage daughters. When I told him that his daughters could not remain there alone with their great uncle due to the prohibition of yichud (members of the opposite gender being alone together), he complained at the seeming absurdity of worrying in this case.

I was reminded of a story involving Rabbi Elya Lopian. A young student sought his permission to attend a relative's wedding. Rabbi Lopian inquired if the women would be dressed modestly. The student replied that there would be non-religious people there, but, thank God, he had reached a level where immodest dress no longer made an impression.

Rabbi Lopian gave him permission to attend the wedding, but only after he agreed to contact one of Rabbi Lopian's friends. The young man took the phone number and returned a few hours later to tell Rabbi Lopian that he must have made a mistake because the number was a doctor's office.

"No," Rabbi Lopian told him, "there was no mistake. I am a man in my late 80's, blind in one eye, and these things still affect me. But if they don't affect you, then I fear something is physically wrong with you and I would like you to go see a doctor."

God created us with extremely strong and potent physical desires, all of them intended to be used for important and holy purposes. But if not channeled properly, these desires can lead to the greatest impurity and defilement.

Recognizing how potent these drives are, necessitates extreme caution and strong protective measures. Complaining of the stringency of the Sages' protections is like complaining about the protective lead-lined clothing one wears in a nuclear plant. If one understands how dangerous the radioactivity is, such protective measures are not viewed as excessive.

The Sages had a much surer sense than us of the power of these natural desires. I doubt there is any communal rabbi who does not know from his personal experience of people who were confident of their ability to restrain themselves without observing rabbinic-proscriptions, and whose confidence proved badly misplaced.

Social Constructs

Other times, rabbinic rules work indirectly by instilling attitudes that reduce temptations to sin. The Sages, for instance, prohibited drinking wine touched by a non-Jew, or eating food cooked by a non-Jew, as a fence against intermarriage. On the surface, it seems ludicrous that drinking wine in the confines of one's home that has been touched by a non-Jew, or eating food cooked by a gentile and bought in a store, could in any way make it more likely that one would marry a non-Jew.

That response, however, fails to comprehend the purpose of the rabbinic enactment, which is not designed to protect one against intermarriage with any particular non-Jew, but rather to create an all-pervasive attitude that is in itself a protective measure. The prohibition against eating food cooked by non-Jews and from drinking wine touched by non-Jews has effectively created an attitude of an absolute chasm between Jew and non-Jew. The mere knowledge that the food cooked by a non-Jew is forbidden engenders a feeling of separateness that makes the thought of intermarriage even more remote.

Similarly, the rabbinic strictures regarding chametz on Pesach have created a mind-set which makes it extremely unlikely that we will have any contact with chametz, though it is not something from which we naturally separate ourselves.

Holy Nation

There is yet another aspect to rabbinic legislation. The Torah commands us to be a nation of priests, a holy nation. An aura of holiness must surround us, not just an absence of external sin. True, being alone with the old sick uncle may not lead to immorality, but allowing a situation where immorality is even remotely possible is not "holiness." Holiness demands removing oneself totally from any taint of anything that can be associated with immodesty. Rabbinic fences enclose us in an environment that reflects holiness and cordons off all that opens into unhappiness.

Thus, the observance of Rabbinic prohibitions reflects our holiness even more than observance of Torah prohibitions. Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 1:1) writes:

It is very great and praiseworthy to make a fence to the Torah's mitzvot, so that one who fears and respects God's word will not stumble into transgressing the mitzvah. One who observes the rabbinic laws that form the fences around the Torah shows more fear of God than one who fulfills the mitzvah itself. Performance of the mitzvah does not imply fear and respect as much as observance of the fences by one who is careful not even to come close to inadvertent transgression.

Thus rabbinic fences, besides protecting us from inadvertent transgressions, create an attitude of fear of God and an environment of holiness that enhances the performance of each and every mitzvah.

1 2 3 2,915

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram