Pirke Avot 3:17

Rabbi Akiva says:

The transmitted Oral Torah is a protective fence around the Torah;

tithes are a protective fence for wealth;

vows are a protective fence for abstinence;

a protective fence for wisdom is silence.

Rabbi Akiva is one of the most important and famous rabbis of all.  He lived about a generation after Jesus, approximately 70 C.E. – during the time when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

I am posting the second portion of this particular wisdom saying of his (that’s what the “…” are there to indicate).

So, the Oral Torah is a protective fence around the written Torah.  This is one of the most important concepts of rabbinic Judaism.   This project of building a fence around the written Torah / law was under way perhaps 100 or more years before Rabbi Akiva and was at the heart of Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees as detailed in the Christian gospels.

Fences can have many functions.  They mark boundaries.  They keep you / your children in and they keep others out.   They can be purely decorative.  And they can provide safety – keeping us out of trouble and away from danger.

It is this focus on safety that motivated the rabbis.   God’s law given through Moses on Mt. Sinai had 613 commandments in total.  One might think that 613 would cover everything – and one would be wrong!  Some of the commandments were very, very specific – but others were more general.

The New American Bible translation of Exodus, 20: 8-10:

“Remember the sabbath day—keep it holy.Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God.  You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates.”

Well – what is work and what is not?  We may think that it’s self-evident and easy enough to determine.  But the penalty for violating the sabbath was death (this came in a later verse)!!!!  How can I be sure I’m on the right side of this question?

The leaders of the people began to provide guidance on what was work and what was not – using the written Torah (and more) to figure it out.  What they said was passed down from generation to generation (go review Pirke Avot 1:1).  Their guidance was a “fence” around the written law.  It was deliberately more restrictive than what was written so that if people kept what the oral tradition set before them they would never come close to violating the written law.  So, with regard just to the sabbath issues above – the rabbis determined early on that there are 39 forbidden types of work on the sabbath.  Each of these have needed subsequent judgments and clarifications – so that now one of the 42 books of the Talmud is entirely devoted to this subject!

At the time of Jesus this oral tradition / fence was still under construction (it remains under construction today!).  The Pharisees (who were the early rabbis) and Jesus (also a rabbi) probably agreed on about 99% of issues, and they disagreed vehemently on the remaining 1%.  There were times when Jesus was MORE restrictive than the Pharisees (Jesus prohibited divorce, the rabbis allowed it).  There were times when the Pharisees were MORE restrictive than Jesus (fasting, Sabbath rules).  We Christians must read the gospel battles and controversies with all of this history in mind.   Jesus was not the enemy of the Pharisees as many readers think!

So the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva is that knowing and following the oral tradition will keep us safe from unintentional violations of God’s law.

Briefly now for the rest of the verse.

Tithes are a protective fence for wealth.  We can read this in many ways.  The Jewish and Christian traditions treat wealth somewhat differently.  We we agree is that those who have money are obliged to share some of it with those who are in need.  Doing so may help them keep what remains since they are demonstrating to God and the world that they know it is ultimately a gift from God!

Vows are a protective fence for abstinence.  My thought here is that our marriage vows help keep us faithful to our long term partners, even when we are tempted to stray.

A protective fence for wisdom is silence.  This is food for much thought!  When we are quiet and listen carefully to others we learn.  When we start talking we show our ignorance in this matter or that one.