Transmitting words of wisdom to leaders of future generations, the Men of the Great Assembly advised: “Make a fence for the Torah” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:1), which alludes to the additional “protective” communal rules enacted by the sages that make it difficult for people to transgress actual Torah law. The great sage Rabbi Akiva noted, in a later citation of Pirkei Avot, that the Torah also contains fences meant to protect the Jewish people.

They are listed thus (Avot 3:17):

“Tradition is a fence for the Torah.” Tradition, in this case, is masorah, the Oral Torah that was transmitted from sage to sage through the generations until it was first redacted in the Mishna. Without the masorah, one would be unable to understand the laws of the written Torah.

“Tithes are a fence for wealth.” Tithes refer to the Torah obligation to give portions of one’s earnings to support the kohanim (priests) and the poor. Tithes not only raise one’s awareness of the needs of others, but they establish a person’s sense of gratitude for the success with which they have been blessed. This sense of gratitude is key to Torah’s definition of a wealthy person, “one who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

“Vows are a fence to abstinence.” The Torah does not generally demand abstinence from the pleasures of life, and the details of halacha are intended to help a person live a well-balanced life. However, when a person chooses to withdraw from certain physical activities in order to draw closer to spirituality, falling back into bad habits can be severely dispiriting. Making a vow, a very serious act in halacha, fortifies one’s resolve.

“A fence to wisdom is silence.” This final statement of Avot 3:17 is, perhaps, best understood in connection with the Mishna’s first statement: “Joking and foolishness acclimate one to immorality.” Being wise, often means making the choice to restrain from interacting with people who will encourage unbecoming behavior.

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