Tradition Today: Adam’s fence
Throughout the ages, “fences” have been added to Torah commandments in order to protect them, and many of these safeguards are good and necessary. But sometimes they can go too far.
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According to a midrash found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan (The Fathers according to
Rabbi Nathan), an ancient commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, the tragedy of
the exile from Eden was caused by “a siyag [safeguard] that Primal Adam created”
by adding to God’s command concerning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
God had told him, “Do not eat from the fruit of the tree” (Genesis 2:17), but
Adam, according to the midrash, added “do not touch it” when he informed Eve of
She repeated that to the serpent (Genesis 3:3), who knew
better and used this information to trick her.
“I will touch it and
nothing will happen,” he said, and he did. She then touched it and found that
there were no bad consequences. From this she deduced that what Adam had said
was not true, and proceeded to eat and to offer the fruit to Adam as well. So it
was really all Adam’s fault.
The Sages draw two conclusions from this:
One should not add anything to what one has heard (when transmitting it
2. Better 10 hands-breadths that are sturdy than 100 arms-lengths that
Throughout the ages, “fences” have been added to Torah
commandments in order to protect them, and many of these safeguards are good and
necessary. But sometimes they can go too far and bring about the collapse of the
structure of Jewish practice and belief. We seem to be living in a time and a
place in which fences are added without need and without any regard to their
consequences. Some are ridiculous and some are truly scandalous.
of “mehadrin” kashrut certificates, for example, is truly strange. It all
started with the practice of “glatt kosher” meat, where meat from an animal
whose kashrut had been questioned was not used. But what is the meaning of
“mehadrin” regarding fish, milk, vegetables, fruit or water? It enriches those
who grant certification on the label, but does little or nothing for the
practice of kashrut.
Much more serious is the addition of fences to such
matters as conversion, marriage or divorce. Those who know Jewish law know that
the requirements for conversion are much less stringent than those demanded by
official rabbinical courts in Israel and elsewhere. When a court refuses to
convert someone because she could not recite the Ashrei prayer by heart or would
not agree to refrain from swimming in a pool alongside men, we are dealing with
“fences of Primal Adam” and not with Jewish law. The same could be said
concerning demands for proof of Jewishness when getting married, when Jewish law
holds that anyone who claims to be Jewish and has been identified as such is to
be considered Jewish unless there is a good reason to question it.
prominent rabbi states that “it is forbidden for a woman to wear a tallit
[prayer shawl]” although Jewish law specifically says that women are permitted
(not required) to wear it, is this not a fence that causes only harm? And
speaking of women, the idea that one may not look at a woman’s picture or walk
on the same side of the street as a woman, or that women must sit in the back of
the bus – all of these are fences that harm and that therefore cannot
Judaism has enough regulations so that there is no need to add any
more. These strictures that are not true to Jewish law or to the spirit of the
Torah can only cause the entire edifice to collapse and bring Judaism into
disrepute, turning it from a religion of light into a religion of darkness. As
the Sages say, we should learn from the fence that Adam made and not follow in
his footsteps, for that way leads only to catastrophe.
The writer, former
president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the
National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).