The Mishnah, which is called the Oral Law, records the sayings and teachings of generations of Jewish teachers. Its earliest teachers preceded or were contemporaries of Yeshua (the real name of “Jesus”). Their teachings provide many valuable clues about the techniques they used to teach their disciples the words of the Torah. The tractate in the Mishnah that is called Avot, Sayings of the Fathers, is a tremendous source of information related to the teachings of Yeshua. It opens with these words:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And build a fence around the Torah. (Avot 1:1)
This history of the Oral Law begins in the Jewish sect called the Pharisees. The quote above played a very important role in the formation of Rabbinic Judaism, which began in the 3rd century CE. It established an unbroken chain of textual transmission and authority from Moses to the rabbis. It specifically instructed the rabbis to do three things:
(1) Be cautious in judgment (interpretations).
(2) Create and teach many pupils (disciples).
(3) Build a fence around the Torah.
Contrary to beliefs that developed in non-Jewish Christian sects long after Yeshua taught, the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” from Yeshua’s perspective. He was very close to them in many ways and they heavily influenced his life and teachings. When it came to their teaching about the Torah, this was how much confidence Yeshua had in Pharisees:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” (Matthew 23:2-3a)
Of course, he also warned his disciples to not to do what they did in practice. He also warned the Pharisees that unless they did acts of righteousness (acts of TOV), they would not be included in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The importance of creating many disciples and accurately teaching them was clearly very important to Yeshua by the words recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. His well-developed skills of “fence building” are evident. In order to understand the principles behind “building fences” we turn to the Mishnah again (Avot 4:2):
One good deed leads to another good deed; one sin leads to another sin.
The reward for a good deed is another good deed; the reward for a sin is another sin.
It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach disciples things that enhance their chances of fulfilling the commandments and decrease the likelihood of their committing sins. They “built fences” to achieve those goals. Fences were built by linking light commandments with heavy commandments of the Torah. The premise was that if their disciples kept (observed) the light commandments they would be much more unlikely to break the heavy commandments.
It is important to be aware that chapter and verse markers were add to the biblical text over a thousand years after Yeshua taught. They often disrupt the flow of the words and sometimes completely destroy the original context in which they were heard. It is a very good idea to ignore chapter and word breaks and let the words determine where Yeshua’s teachings begin and end. Below is one of Yeshua’s most famous teachings (Matthew 5:21-26). It includes three fences, however in this blog I am just going to help you identify the first fence (Matthew 5:21-22a):
“You have heard that it was said to the elders, ‘You shall not murder and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ However, I say to you, ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment.’”
The first step is to identify the light and heavy commandments of the Torah:
(1) “You shall not murder” is the heavy commandment.
(2) “You shall not be angry with your brother” is the light commandment.
(3) The first principle is this: If a disciple does not become angry it is much more likely that he will not commit the sin of murder.
The heavy commandment is found in Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not murder.” The origin of the light commandment is not as well-know. Yeshua took it from one of the most famous stories in the Torah – Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-15).
(1) Cain became angry with his brother Abel.
(2) God saw Cain’s anger and told him that if he would do acts of TOV, acts that protect and preserve his brother’s life, things would turn out well.
(3) God also told Cain that if he didn’t do acts of TOV for his brother, his anger would lead to sin -- which would be like a wild animal and it spring upon him.
We all know the end of the story – Cain ignored what God said and murdered Abel instead of being his brother’s keeper (guardian). Yeshua created his first fence from this story – “You shall not be angry.”
Did Yeshua really expect his disciples to never become angry? Of course not! The teachers of his period often used their light commandments as shock statements to grab the attention of their disciples. He knew that they would all become angry. His goal was to get them to remember what happened to Cain -- anger led to murder. If this fence helped them keep their anger in check, they will be much less likely to murder someone. By the way, Yeshua build two additional fences in this lesson, just in case they crashed through the first fence!
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