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How Can the Rabbis Add to Torah?

How Can the Rabbis Add to Torah?



Why do the rabbis add so many laws to the Torah? Isn't that what caused Adam and Eve to sin—the fact that Eve made unwarranted additions to G‑d's law?


Good point. Actually, Moses himself warns the people not to add on to the rules of the Torah. He says, "Don't add on to the thing I am commanding you and don't take away from it."1 The Torah provides all the dos and don'ts—and one of them is "don't go trying to pretty it up even more."

Right there and then, Nachmanides (1194 – c. 1270) asks your question: If so, how do the rabbis make fences to the Torah? The Torah makes a list of prohibited incestuous relations; the rabbis add a few. The Torah prohibits work on Shabbat; the rabbis say, "If it has no use on Shabbat, don't even handle it!" The same with the kosher laws and many other prohibitions. And as time goes on, more fences are added.

So Nachmanides points out that these fences are very good and necessary, " long as we all know that this is a fence, and not directly from G‑d in His Torah."

They're not directly from the Torah, but they are Torah nevertheless—because the Torah itself commands us to build fences around its prohibitions when they are necessary.2 It says, "Keep the Children of Israel away from impurity!"3 It says, "Guard My guardings!"4 Which means, that if the spiritual leadership sees that their generation has greater temptation than earlier generations—or simply cannot be as careful as before—it's time to add some warnings to hold them further at bay.

People are doing business on Shabbat? Declare money off-bounds for the entire day. Women are being sexually harassed? Forbid any man to be alone with a woman to whom he is not directly related.

Prohibitions without fences are like books without covers—pretty soon, the best parts of the story have gone missing. Or like fine crystal statues in a public thoroughfare without cordon or guard. Or a garden of flowers in the town square without a fence. Nevertheless, Nachmanides makes an important distinction: We all need to know what is a fence and what is a garden.

Eve didn't make that distinction. She answered the snake that, "G‑d says not to eat from it and not to touch it, lest we die."5 So when the snake pushed her against the tree and she didn't die, her whole argument fell apart. All the snake had to tell her now was that the "real reason" she was not to eat from the tree was because G‑d didn't want her to know things as He did—and Chava was in the clutches of his scaly hands.

As the Midrash puts it, the fence fell and the garden was crushed.

What's Up With Eve?

The question, however, is still on Eve. How did she manage to confuse G‑d's command with her own fence? Some commentaries6 conjecture that perhaps it wasn't Eve who came up with this fence, but Adam, the overprotective husband, who put it this way to her. That would imply that she wasn't around when Adam was commanded. This is a little difficult, since our understanding is that before he was divided in half, Eve was included within Adam and had her own mind.

At any rate, I want to dig deeper and provide another, perhaps more satisfying solution. Not really my own, because it is based on a rhetorical question that comes up in Chassidut Chabad. A very basic question: What exactly is so objectionable about adding on to G‑d's commandments? Why is it so terrible if G‑d says, "I don't like it when you eat such and such a food" and we respond, "Well, if He doesn't like that, He probably would appreciate us not eating this other stuff that's just like it, as well"? What's wrong with a little deductive thinking? If He wanted robots, He would have made us as robots. Obviously, He wants us to apply a little common sense, no?

After all, if your teacher asks you to write a five page essay and you write six pages, does she take off marks for that? Or if your dad asks you to mow the lawn and you trim the hedges as well—is it really so bad?

Well, it could be. Like if your teacher was trying to teach you to be succinct. Or your dad wanted your kid brother to do the hedges instead. Only that in those cases, you would probably be quite aware of those possibilities. But when it comes to an Infinite G‑d with infinite wisdom beyond anything we can fathom, hey, we're totally lost.

Really, it's more than that. The mitzvahs are not just things G‑d wants us to do for deep reasons. The mitzvahs are the reasons themselves. It's not that He created mitzvahs to fulfill some other purpose. Rather, whatever He created, He created it for the purpose of fulfilling those mitzvahs. It's not like G‑d said, "We've got a problem here, Houston. Better come up with a prohibition fast." Rather, He came up with mitzvahs and prohibitions and designed a world with the problems to match. Like the tree of knowledge: He didn't have to make a tree and tell Adam, "Don't eat from it." Rather, it was, "I think I'll have a tree that they cannot eat from."

Mitzvahs are not for the sake of anything else; they are the prime reasons for everything else. All reason starts here and all reason stops here. True, there are some mitzvahs that the Torah provides a reason for, and many others for which we have found a reason—whether a simple, practical one (stealing is no good because society can't work that way) or a mystical one (mixing linen and wool messes up the supernal sefirot). But all of these are post-facto—G‑d built His world around these mitzvahs, and so of course they seem reasonable once you understand how the system works. But the real protocol is: first came the mitzvahs, then came the system and its reasoning.

The beauty of this is that it provides us a much deeper connection. If the mitzvahs would be for a reason, we would only have G‑d's reasoning. And since G‑d is way beyond reason, we wouldn't really have Him. He would be into those mitzvahs only as badly as He needed the reason—which, considering that He is G‑d, wouldn't be very much. But since the mitzvahs are just His raw will, unadulterated and spring-sparkling pure, with each mitzvah we do—or prohibition we keep—in each mitzvah and in each prohibition we have G‑d in His very essence.

So here's Eve hearing G‑d say, "Don't eat from the tree. If you do, on that day you will die." And she figures, "Must be a real bad tree. A killer tree. If eating from it kills, touching it could be pretty bad, too."

Eve applied her human logic to G‑d's will. That's what she says to the snake, "We mustn't eat it or touch it lest we die…"--implying that the whole reason for not eating it was in order not to die. It really had nothing to do with G‑d, other than the fact that He was the one who warned them about it. Even before her conversation, she had already lost G‑d in her cleverness, and so now she bought into a clever snake.

Same could happen to anybody: Even though Jews are a clever, intellectual people and even though studying Torah is a great intellectual pursuit, nevertheless as soon as you imagine you've got this Torah figured out, you've lost it. Because you've lost the G‑dliness of it.

This is what Moses meant when he said, "Don't add to it." He wasn't opposed to building fences—he made a few of those himself. What he was warning us against was attempting to "extend G‑d's logic" to things He never said. Don't second guess G‑d. Take Him as He is, not as you would understand Him to be. Only then will you have a real G‑d and not an idol (G‑d forbid).

Where Fences Do Not Belong

One more question, before I close this: After all is said and done, wasn't it a good idea for Eve (and/or Adam) to add on a fence to G‑d's prohibition? So her motives may not have been the best, but practically speaking, what's so terrible?

On this, the Rebbe has something to say.7 Fences are good, he says, when they are needed. Like when it's dark outside, physically or spiritually, and people can't tell what is good and what is bad because the darkness is so overwhelming, confusing and tempting. Which is why, as the exile became darker and darker, more and more fences were added on.8

But here we are talking about the Garden of Eden, where no evil dwells. And the proof: as soon as Adam and Eve had anything to do with evil, they had to leave the garden. Here, fences are not only unnecessary, they are a hindrance.

A hindrance to what? To the job Adam and Eve were placed in the garden to do: "To work it and to protect it."9 Meaning, to uplift and improve every part of the garden. Including that tree. And so by making this extra fence around the tree, they weren't helping out—they were avoiding responsibility.

As the Jerusalem Talmud10 tell us, after a lifetime on this earth, each person has to provide an explanation before a heavenly court for each kosher food G‑d made that s/he didn't eat. It was there, after all, so that a human being could eat it in a G‑dly way, with a blessing, and using its calories for Torah and mitzvahs. So why, if so, did you leave it behind?

Similarly, with those of us whose lives were led towards learning certain skills and developing certain talents. Many of us learned these things before we came to Torah observance. So we might say, "That was all something of the past. Now I just want to learn Torah/raise a nice Jewish family/do lots of mitzvahs. What do I need to revisit the whole music/art/dance/science/Inuit dialects thing? It will probably just pull me down."

So here's a simple lesson for all of us: If G‑d put it in your garden, it's there for you to elevate. He formed you with these talents, led you to learn these skills, and all with a purpose. Ignoring it may sound very noble, very holy, very religious—but really, it's just another form of talking with snakes. And stepping on the flowers.

see Yevamot 21a.
Leviticus 18.
Siftei Chachamim (Rabbi Shabtai Bass, 1641-1718); Ohr Hachayim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743).
Torat Menachem, 5716, parshat Shlach.
The Shelah (Bayit Tlita'a) says that in the times of Moses, only those things that the Torah forbade explicitly were forbidden. Moses added a few fences. Most of the fences, however, are from the time of the second Temple. A lot of our toughest rulings come from the dark times of the Crusades and the accompanying massacres in France and the Rhinelands.
End of Tractate Kidushin.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Shel Haas August 9, 2017

If one reads the current Torah, one finds gems of reality. For instance, the Torah tells us God created seas. The fact that oceans weren't mentioned is because man at that time only knew of seas not oceans, so he wrote about what he God's name! Reply

Anonymous United Sttates June 28, 2017

I can understand adding to the Torah, and there are some valid reasons towards them. However someone like me does not believe in them, and because I do not believe in them almost every Jew denies that I'm a Jew.

In my opinion the Rabbi's have too much authority, they should be spiritual guides not rulemakers.

It's getting to the point where they wish to be like Christianity and even censored God's name from the Torah out of fear that someone will blaspheme with it.

There is a reason why God didn't put up a fence around the Tree, and there is a reason that he allows you to sin. It's the fight against resisting to sin that defines us. Reply

Paul Kiryat Yam Israel January 17, 2015

Thanks Thank you for your insights in this article and all the others you write. You have helped me greatly in my understanding and my relationship with HaShem. Reply

Shel Haas Fort Lee, USA January 25, 2014

Truth and Torah I may be considered a heretic but today's Orthodox Judaism is really Ashkenazic Judaism. Sephardic Judaism does not exist for their Rabbis and followers. If one bothers to study the Torah of today, several problems exist of fact, geography, repetition, and today's practice. A prime example is the description of the giving of the
"Ten Commandments" by Moses to the Children of Israel. Another is the enlargement of the text by the Rabbis from " a kid " to other animals. If God stated you were a Jew simply by professing same as illustrated by God's first Priest Melchizedek and the story of Naomi and Ruth. Rabbis have drummed up all sorts of stories justifying their views, but alas, they are but stories. The Dead Sea Scrolls prove the Torah has been altered. Ezra read it in the Hebrew, translated it into Aramaic, and discussed it in 6 hours. Today's Torah makes that an impossibility. Reply

Giordano London May 13, 2013

"Rather, it was, "I think I'll have a tree that they cannot eat from."

Quoting this I cannot help feeling that it is very unwise for anyone to second guess
G-d, especially in such rational terms. If Kabbalah teaches us anything, it is that G-d
doesn't think as we do, that imagination is a dangerous thing under these conditions. Surely, this strays way outside the fence. The guarding of the Brit, in its higher sense warns us not to delve into matters we cannot understand. I am very surprised at the number of conjectures surrounding the whole Tree scenario...most of them more implausible than simply allowing the letters to speak for themselves.
If such transparent knowledge was once possible, most of it has certainly been lost.
These concrete concepts require translation back into the very experiences that gave rise to them or the reshimot that remains. Proliferating more concepts could be said to be simply another form of idol worship. Reply

Jeff G. Springfield, MO/USA August 19, 2012

Following G-d or Man? My personal feeling is this: We should abide by whatever's in Torah. Period. As to Talmud, it's useful when a commandment is vague or confusing, but we need to be careful we don't let Talmud become another Torah as it seems to have become. Because then we're following Man-made law and ignoring G-d's. The only justification for regarding Talmud as binding scriptural interpretation is found in Talmud itself. So consider the source. As to vagueries in Torah I've always assumed G-d made certain ones vague so their following didn't become stiffling or overly restrictive. Surely G-d knew the words He put in Moshe's mouth and when they might be "open to interpretation" so surely that was the point and by design. Coming along hundreds or thousands of years later and reinterpreting things changes Judaism from G-d given to Man-interpreted. Reply

Richard (Rifael Leib) Sugar Land, TX April 3, 2012

Devarim 4:2 These Divine words could not have been more specific. It's the fences that drive man against the word of G-d. I have never felt so strongly about any other religious matter. Reply

Anonymous Ocala, FL August 12, 2011

what is and isnt in the Torah Telling the difference between what is and isn't in the Torah seems to be a problem for many people. How should these rules then be understoood? for example, since eating poultry and milk together is not in the Torah yet is now considered to be part of kashrut by many people, could one claim to practice kashrut and yet eat poultry and milk together? Reply

Anonymous Roanoke, VA June 25, 2010

Analogy... I too am troubled by the was that some people treat if it is addition to the Torah.

For me, as an American, it is somewhat easy to understand the distinction. The Torah is like our Constitution. We hold it supreme as the guiding force that binds our country. Only Congress, jumping through strict procedural hoops, may change it. Likewise, only G-d can change the Torah.

The halakha is like a court interpreting the constitution. We have rules in our country that seem to make no sense if you are working directly from the Constitution, like growing wheat for your own personal consumption can be regulated by Congress under the interstate commerce power. Regular citizens (and even lawyers like me) scratch our heads and say "This is crazy. It makes no sense. These rules are not in the Constitution." But we follow the rules because we are part of this country. We defer to experts for the sake of law and order and unity.

Same thing for judaism and halakha. Reply

Joel Katz New Port Richey, FL March 23, 2009

How can the Rabbis add to Torah ? the article that was written here was quite intelligent and well written , but you failed to mention an important premise . The Torah was written by the hand of G-d and who are we to add to something that was written by oyr G-d ! the Rabbis kind of circumvented the addition to the Torah by creating the Talmud / Mishnah and Gemara , which basiically creates the debate or addition fo certain statutes of the Torah . But truthfully speaking this really is not an addition to the Torah . These are rabbinical mitvoth or decrees that do not necessarily have to be flollowed because they are not really the word of G-d . I am not trying to undermine rabbinical thought, but just making a statement that G-d 's word is supreme . My prime example here is that of the Parah Adumah or Red Heifer wehich we just read , not too far back in the Torah . This statute or chok is totally unexplainable and has to be taken on faith alone , because it can not be explained . Sh'vua Tov ! Reply

Anonymous March 20, 2009

Answer to David H. Champ "And G-d saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day." Gen. 1:31 (JPS).

This would include the serpent, no? The acquisition of the "knowledge of good and evil" is something that mankind was suppose to gain through obedience, rather than disobedience to G-ds Torah (Instructions).

The Evil Impulse within man, which is his Sex Drive and Survival Instinct, is not evil in and of itself. We need our Evil Inclination in order to engage in business, build a home, marry and have children. The Evil Imagination only becomes "evil" when our motives are totally self-centered, to the exclusion of the wants, needs and mutual consent of others; when our Freudian "Id" runs amok. Reply

Fred Piscataway, NJ March 20, 2009

Comment If a father told his son to mow the lawn and he also trimmed the hedges, you're right, it's not a big deal. But if a father told his son to mow the lawn and don't do anything more or anything less (like what we're told in Deuteronomy) then it is a big deal, actually it is disobedience!!! Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario March 19, 2009

Re: Sorry, I'm not buying Okay, take out a Pentateuch. Start reading. Read about sacrifices. About ritual impurity. About tithes and tithes of tithes. About corporal punishment and lashes. Go ahead, tell me it was "not too difficult to observe." Reply

Glenn Roback Bayside August 8, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

I don't like it either. How do you distinguish between a fence, and the human error of possibly adding to Torah? Were the rabbis being guided perhaps by Divine forces? The Torah does say that you shouldn't add to it. The Torah also says that the Law is not too hard, neither is it too far off (I think its in Deut.) (Although being raised as a conservative Jew, it was hard at first, but extremely rewarding when I got used to it. Reply

Hal March 19, 2009

Sorry, I'm not buying I am grateful to the Talmud sages for rescuing Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.

Nevertheless, they took a religion whose 613 commandments are not too difficult to observe, and turned it into an enormous mass of dense technicalities, in Mishna, Gemara, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, responsa, etc., adding stringencies that have made it too challenging for the majority of Jews to observe.

Moses never taught that we mustn't brush teeth or hair on Sabbath; that Festivals are two days; that Festivals have virtually the same restrictions as Sabbath (work forbidden on Sabbath is permitted on Festivals, just not laborious work); that we may not eat poultry with dairy; that we may not have contact with members of the opposite sex; that we may not listen to a woman singing; etc.

The typical Jew is regarded as Am Ha-Aretz unless their lifestyle resembles that of 18th century shtetls. Mere Torah observance doesn't suffice for the Orthodox, whom others regard as fanatical. Reply

David H Champ, IL March 19, 2009

Question to Author: How can it be that no evil existed in Gan Eden? The snake was their to entice Chava (Eve), the snake surely representing the root of all evil, no? Is there a source somewhere that tells us that no evil existed in Gan Eden? Reply

Sarah March 18, 2009

Great Essay Rabbi Freeman.

Thank you for the insights!

I will think a lot about what you wrote. Reply

Yonatan London, UK March 17, 2009

Wow A very good article Rabbi, as always. I liked the bit about the talents that we have gained outside as part of our garden. :) Reply

Duby L. Morristown March 16, 2009

wow wow Rabbi - that was intense !!!!!

i never heard that the whole Shatnez concept was that it would mess up the sefirot ? i thought it was a chok and we didnt understand it at all ?
can you maybe expound on that a bit ?

very VERY good article (as always) Reply

Carmen March 16, 2009

Not only Rabbis can add to Torah Every Jew can "add" to Torah. Actually, every Jew is able to unveil Torah--that's more accurate.
Jews know Torah even without reading Torah.
When Torah is taught to Jews,we simply recognize what is already known. Reply

Chuck Short Columbia, SC March 15, 2009

Laver of Copper I've read that the Kohen are required to wash both hands and feet before performing the temple service in the morning, as well as change clothes after removing the night's ashes...

But I have yet to read from the Torah a line about brushing teeth. Reply