Safeguarding Torah

Safeguarding Torah

Mishna Avot 1:1

Interactive Learning Module

1. Introduction

  • This module will focus on the third piece of advice given by the Men of the Great Assembly in Avot 1:1, "עשו סייג לתורה," make a fence for the Torah.
  • How does this instruction relate to the prohibition in Devarim 4 against "adding or subtracting" from the Torah? Given Devarim's command of "בל תוסיף", should not making decrees above and beyond Torah law be prohibited?
  • An in depth analysis of the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" can be found at Adding and Subtracting from Torah. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. "עשו סייג לתורה"

  • Let's begin our study by looking at the Mishna, focusing on the last three words.
  • See Rambam, R. Ovadiah of Bartenura, and R. Yonah ד"ה "עשו סייג לתורה".
  • According to all three, what does it mean to "make a fence around the Torah"? What prooftext do they bring to demonstrate that such safeguards are encouraged?
  • What examples of such "fences" are brought by R. Ovadiah of Bartenura?
  • According to R. Yonah, why are such "fences" so important? What does a person who does not abide by Rabbinic safeguards betray about his fear of heaven and his attitude towards observance?

3. Search

  • The above commentators point to Vayikra 18:30, "ושמרתם משמרתי", and its interpretation in Bavli Yevamot 21a "עשו משמרת למשמרתי" as evidence for the need to add prohibitions so as to distance one's self from sin.
  • These are not the only sources which emphasize the importance of making safeguards.
  • To see where else the concept is discussed in Rabbinic literature, highlight the phrase "וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה" in the Mishna, and from the drop down menu, press Search.
  • For more results, in the input bar at the top of the page, change the word "ועשו" to "עשו" and press Search. In the tree menu to the right of the results, click on "Talmudim" to scroll to those results.

4. Similar Sources

  • How does the statement in Bavli Yevamot 90b that: "ב"ד מכין ועונשין שלא מן התורה ולא לעבור על דברי תורה אלא לעשות סייג לתורה" compare to the advice in our Mishna?
  • Is it fundamentally different from the intent of Avot 1:1? What type of safeguard is it advocating?
  • See also Ramban on Vayikra 19:2, "ד"ה "קדושים תהיו, from the second paragraph that begins, "ולפי דעתי". How does he understand the command to be holy? What type of "fences" does he recommend?
  • How does his advice on Devarim 6:18, ד"ה "ועשית הישר הטוב בעיני י"י compare?

5. A Contradiction

  • The common denominator between the above sources is the idea that, to distance one's self from sin, one sometimes needs to go beyond the prohibitions of Torah, adding decrees or safeguards. These might take the form of additional prohibitions, punishments, or positive commands.
  • Let's now look at another set of sources, Devarim 4:2 and Devarim 13:1. What do both appear to prohibit? How do these verses evaluate "additions" made to Torah law? ?
  • Note the small differences in the formulations of the two verses. Are these significant?
  • Given this Torah prohibition, how should we understand all the above sources which encourage "adding" to the law? Why are rabbinic decrees and safeguards not a violation of "בל תוסיף"?.

6. Chizkuni

  • Turn to Chizkuni on Devarim 4:2, looking at the second paragraph which begins "דבר אחר". How does he limit the scope of the prohibition of "בל תוסיף"?
  • Note the context of the prohibition in both Devarim 4 and Devarim 12-13. How might it support this reading?
  • How does this explanation resolve our difficulty and reconcile the various sources about adding to Torah law?
  • Chizkuni explicitly addresses "the heretics" ("תשובה למיני ישראל שפקרו על התלמוד") and is possibly referring to the Karaites who reject the Oral law. How are his words a response to their claims?

7. Kuzari

  • According to Chizkuni, the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" is very limited in scope, and pertains only to idolatry. One may neither worship additional gods nor detract from the worship of Hashem.
  • R. Yehuda HaLevi similarly limits the law, but in a very different manner.
  • Scan Kuzari 3:39-41, accessible from the library. [To access the next section, use the arrows at the top of the source.]
  • According to him, at whom is the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" aimed? Who is not included?

8. Kuzari Continued

  • The Kuzari asserts that the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" is directed only at the masses. Judges, priests, and prophets, in contrast, have the authority to innovate and change.
  • What textual proofs and conceptual reasoning does he provide to explain why such leaders are not included in the prohibition?
  • What evidence does he cite from Biblical stories to prove that leaders can and have made adaptations to the law? Are these innovations limited to safeguards and fences?
  • Are there any limits to the types of changes and laws leaders can introduce? What might be the dangers of this whole approach?

9. Sifre

  • Let's now move to a third reading of the prohibition, looking at the Sifre on Devarim 13:1.
  • What examples does the Midrash bring to elucidate what is included in the prohibition? How does it appear to understand the law?
  • Are the "fences" recommended in Mishna Avot similar to these examples or different? Why? Should they fall under the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" according to this understanding of the command?
  • See Raavad (on Hilkhot Mamrim 2:9) who formulates the Sifre into a rule. What does he say is forbidden by the verse? What is not included? Why are Rabbinic safeguards allowed?
  • Based on this logic, what might this position maintain regarding the status of Rabbinic enactments which are not safeguards (such as the institution of the holiday of Purim)?

10. Ramban and Rambam

  • A fourth approach provides the most expansive understanding of "בל תוסיף".
  • See Ramban on Devarim 4:2. What two distinct types of "additions" does he assert are included in the prohibition? .
  • [The GR"A suggests that one aspect is derived from Devarim 4:2 and the other from 13:1. How does this work?]
  • How does Ramban explain why Rabbinic safeguards are allowed? What is the status of innovations which are not meant to protect the observance of existing laws?
  • Now, turn to Rambam in Hilkhot Mamrim 2:9. According to him, how does the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" affect Rabbinic decrees? What appears to be the goal of the prohibition?

11. Back to Mishna Avot

  • The various sources we have seen each define the prohibition of "בל תוסיף" in unique ways, but all agree that "making fences to the Torah" is not included in the prohibition, and is, in fact, a praiseworthy endeavor.
  • Why might it be specifically the "Men of the Great Assembly" who make a point of emphasizing the importance of Rabbinic safeguards?
  • Let's return to Pirkei Avot to see how Abarbanel answers this question. Scroll towards the end of his comments, to the third to last paragraph, beginning "האמנם מי אמר שלושת דברים האלה".

12. Abarbanel and R. Wessely

  • According to Abarbanel, who actually suggests to whom that fences be made? Why? How does this suggestion relate to the Kuzari's understanding of who has the authority to make changes?
  • See also the commentary of R. Naftali Herz Wessely, Yein Levanon, midway through "ד"ה "עשו סייג לתורה, from the words "אלא אנשי כנסת הגדולה ראו בחכמתם".
  • According to him, to what types of fences is the Mishna specifically referring? Why were harsher punishments so necessary in the time of the Great Assembly and Greek rule?

13. A Different Take

  • Let's conclude our study of the Mishna by looking at the Meiri and Midrash Shemuel, who offer a somewhat nonconventional reading of the phrase "עשו סייג לתורה".
  • Turn to the Meiri, and begin several lines into the last paragraph of his comments, from the words "ובאבות דר"נ פ"ק פירשו עשה סייג לדברך" until "וכ״ש בדברי תורה".
  • According to him, what is the Mishna advising? What does it council regarding how to best teach and relay words of Torah?
  • How might this advice fit with the other two messages offered in the Mishna?

14. Knowing Your Students

  • Meiri suggests that the Mishna is advising that one make a fence to "words of Torah". When teaching, one must be aware of the audience, recognizing that sometimes more is less.
  • Compare also Midrash Shemuel. Scroll down to ד"ה "והעמידו תלמידים הרבה" and scan the paragraph that begins "ואפשר עוד שכוונת התנא לשלול".
  • R. Shemuel b. Yitzchak de Uceda's starting point is the second recommendation given by the Mishna, that one should have many students, even if not all are "proper". According to him, how does the instruction "עשו סייג לתורה" serve to complement (or, perhaps, mitigate) that rule?

14. Summary

  • This module has looked at four attempts to reconcile the Mishna's recommendation that one add safeguards to Torah with the prohibition of "בל תוסיף", which forbids adding to Torah.
  • Chizkuni limits the prohibition of Devarim 4 and 13, suggesting that it refers solely to the prohibition of idolatry. This narrow reading easily explains why Rabbinic safeguards are not considered a violation.
  • The Kuzari limits the law in another way, claiming that it is aimed only at laymen. Leaders such as sages, prophets, or priests, are not included and are, thus, free to enact laws as they deem necessary.
  • The Sifre narrows the scope of the prohibition in yet a third manner, asserting that it applies only to changing the form of an existing law. As such, Rabbinic enacting of new laws is not problematic.
  • Ramban, in contrast, does not limit the law and suggests that it relates to adjusting both existing commands and creating new ones. Rabbinic safeguards are exceptional only because the Torah itself commands that one put such fences in place.

15. Additional Reading