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Is living a godly life something you desire? I am sure it is or you wouldn’t even be here! If you are not familiar with the practices of Judaism or the Ethics of the Fathers, called Pirkei Avot, you may have never heard anyone say “build a fence around the Torah”. What does that even mean Diane??? Pirkei what? A fence? What does building a fence have to do with living a godly life???
Well, here in this post, I explain not only the meaning of this phrase, but why you as a believer, even a non-Jewish believer, should make it a practice to build a fence around the Torah each day!
Read on to learn more!
Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers
So let’s first discuss Pirkei Avot. As I said, it is also known as the Ethics of the Fathers or more literally Chapters of the Fathers, which is from Jewish Rabbinical tradition and comes from a tractate of Mishna called Avot which deals with matters of ethics and morals. It is about living a godly life and offers different opinions and wisdom from the greatest Rabbis and sages!
It consists of 6 chapters and one chapter is traditionally read each Shabbat afternoon. I have heard some say it is read in spring and summer and others read it all year.
I personally read one chapter each Shabbat since I seem to learn something new each time and I love seeing how different schools of thought often prevailed in their interpretation of Torah, which is why I am fascinated with Mishna (which is a written collection of oral law and reads more like a legal volume than a traditional kind of book). I like to see how the School of Hillel often prevailed over the School of Shammai. It is wisdom and history playing out in front of me each week!
In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot in Mishna 1(a) we read:
Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students and make a protective fence around the Torah. Wise words indeed!
Living a Godly Life – Build a Fence Around the Torah
What does it mean to build a fence around the Torah?
First, I want to say that Torah is often REALLY misunderstood in Christianity. You may hear the word “Torah”and think it is just a bunch of laws and regulations that don’t apply to you. You may think it is only the first five Books of Moses, and it includes that but not ONLY that. The word Torah actually means “teaching”, not law, and it is very often used to describe the whole of the Tanakh, which stands around the Torah (T), Nevi’im or Prophets (N) and Ketuvim or Writings (K).
So while I personally don’t typically like to use the term “Old Testament“, for Christians it may make more sense to think of it as the whole of the Old Testament.What does it mean to build a fence around the Torah? Click To Tweet
But to be clear, Torah is not simply the law. It is history, it is narrative, it is poetry, it is song and it is prophecy. It is what Jesus Himself embodied!
We do not just read or study Torah, our goal as Messianic Jews (if you are a Messianic Jew, but I think this idea should apply to non-Jews as well) is to ACQUIRE Torah. To read or study something is wonderful, but if you do not let it impact your life, if you don’t acquire loving-kindness or “chesed”, if you don’t allow the living, breathing Word of Adonai to shape you, then mere reading just gave you what my mother called “head knowledge” and in the end left you without growth. And living a godly life requires growth. We are to, as Paul says, desire meat and not milk!
So let’s look at a fence. What does a fence do?
Well, some would say a fence keeps people out. Some might say it keeps people in. Others might say it forms a protective barrier or establishes boundaries, which is true. In fact, it is last purpose that the Rabbis determined a fence needed to be built for Torah.
These “fences” were used by the Rabbis to maintain the integrity of the various mitzvot or commands. They were not meant to be seen as additions to them but to help people to keep from breaking the commands.
It is believed to come from Deuteronomy 22:8:
The same way you would protect someone from falling off the roof of your house, you should also protect the mitzvot or commands of Torah to keep someone from falling into sin.
Yeshua Himself gave us examples of this in His teachings.
Yes, Yeshua Himself built a fence around Torah. Yeshua kept Torah. He lived Torah! His disciples did as well, as did the apostles.Yes, Yeshua Himself built a fence around Torah. Yeshua kept Torah. His disciples did as did the apostles. There was no New Testament during Yeshua's lifetime. Click To Tweet
Examples of How Jesus Would Build a Fence Around Torah
Yeshua here is saying that the command given to the fathers was to not commit adultery but He says if you even look at a woman to lust after her you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. Why? Because sin begins there. Living a godly life needs to encompass identifying the things that lead to sin, not just sin itself.
When you look at the seedlings from which sin grows, you build a fence around the Torah and, if you are a Jew (Messianic or otherwise as many Messianic Jews are Torah observant, myself included), preserve the customs and laws. If you are a gentile, you ward off the greater sin that follows.
He is not giving an additional command. He Himself has said nothing would be added to or taken from the Word, which in His time was in fact the Torah. There was no New Testament in Yeshua’s time. He was doing what the Rabbis of His time did; he was building a fence around Torah.
I will give another example.
Matthew 5: 21-23
What Yeshua is doing is trying to show His disciples how violation of mitzvot, how sin, begins as a small fire and quickly grows from what, to many of us, may seem like harmless thoughts or actions. He was trying to teach them to effectively build a fence around Torah and curb behaviors that would seem to not be covered in Torah in those minute details but could lead one to fall into sin against Torah in the greater mitzvot (how looking with lust could lead to outright adultery if allowed to continue).
If I schedule a dinner with a couple of colleagues and I find one cannot make it, and it would mean it would be only myself and a male co-worker alone, I am either cancelling or suggesting my spouse join us. Why? Well, I want to avoid any negative appearances for one. But I have witnessed (far too often) marriages destroyed by what started as one simple, innocent business dinner.
Talking ensues, you start to share personal stories, you lament problems at home, flirting begins and well, you can guess the rest. Does this happen all the time? No! But CAN it happen? Yes and that is what we as God-followers are to avoid.
My husband works in an office that is all windows on one side and his admin sits right there. If he has to meet with a female staff member or student, he keeps the door open at all times. That is how you build a fence around the Torah. Living a godly life is important to him but so is avoiding even the appearance of anything untoward.
But let’s look at murder, which Yeshua addressed. You avoid murder by avoiding harboring hatred in your heart for someone. Murder is with malice. Malice builds as anger deepens. This is why Yeshua told us in Matthew 5:23-24:
He said don’t even offer your gift if you know someone is angered against you! Go make it right first.
He was building a fence around the Torah.
You build a fence around the Torah when you begin to hear someone starting to engage in lashon hara or ‘evil tongue’ also known as baseless gossip, and you either walk away or tell them you don’t wish to engage in it.
Oh come on Diane…it’s a little gossip! Yes maybe.
But have you ever listened to gossip? It gains a life of its own and grows like a wildfire. It can ruin relationships between people.Have you ever listened to gossip? It gains a life of its own and grows like a wildfire. It can ruin relationships between people. Click To Tweet
You may just want to share your feelings about a situation with someone you feel you can trust, to get advice on how to handle the situation. But maybe that person takes the information you told them in confidence and shares it with the person you were sharing about? You were seeking counsel but they chose to stir up more strife between two sisters rather than trying to bridge the relationship.
And while THEY are the one who transgressed, you also didn’t follow Biblical principles in handling the issues in the relationship either. The Bible tells us what to do if we have a problem with another believer. And sometimes what seems like us trying to get counsel is really us venting to someone who is ALL too willing to listen to you “spill the tea”.
The fence would have been built by resolving the matter through Biblical means. I find when people know there is something going on, they will seek more information by pretending to want to be a shoulder for you to lean on when all they want is to hear the gossip.
How You Can Build a Fence Around the Torah for Living a Godly Life
So what can you do to help build a fence around the Torah and protect against sin, live a godly life, and have the shalom or “peace” of the Lord?
1. Always Be Aware of How Your Decisions May Influence Another - Even Just Appearances
1 Thessalonians 5:22 says "keep away from every kind of evil." Other translations have "avoid the appearance of evil" but I don't see that from the original language.
However, it does not seem to me a far reach to say that one way you build a fence for Torah IS by avoiding situations that could lead to a breaking down of relationships.
It can never hurt to put yourself into the sandals of another person (or crocs...I admit I LOVE crocs!) and schlep around a bit to get their perspective. You just might find it wasn't very comfortable a walk!
2. When in Doubt, Do More
One example of this is when we light the Shabbat candles. They are to be lit by sunset to usher in the new day (the day in Judaism begins at sunset) but we all light them no later than 18 minutes prior to sunset as a fence around the mitzvot or command just so we don't make a mistake and miss the start time (while there are other traditions that say the day is so special we add to it by beginning it sooner).
3. Follow Yeshua's Examples
Yeshua's examples of fence building in the Sermon on the Mount should serve as an example to us that the way we avoid sin is to avoid what leads us there. We need to stop thinking we are invincible and that because we follow Yeshua that we are somehow protected against sin or that we are not under Torah. Torah is a blessing, not a burden.
Yeshua said in Matthew 5:17-20:
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets! I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. Amen, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or serif shall ever pass away from the Torah until all things come to pass. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and Torah scholars, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven!"
What Ways Can You Think of to Build a Fence Around the Torah?
Share ways in which you have had to take steps to avoid falling into sin or even the appearance of sin!
Can you think of other ways that we as believers, especially in the current climate in the United States, can protect that fence further?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
And please, enjoy this video by my friend Izzy over at Holy Language Institute!
Faith bloggers…don’t forget to link up below!
And be sure to get your ACTS Prayer Method Workbook below as my gift to you!
CJB – Taken from the Complete Jewish Bible by David H. Stern. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Messianic Jewish Publishers, 6120 Day Long Lane, Clarksville, MD 21029. www.messianicjewish.net.
Tree of Life (TLV) – Scripture taken from the Holy Scriptures, Tree of Life Version*. Copyright © 2014,2016 by the Tree of Life Bible Society. Used by permission of the Tree of Life Bible Society.
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