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.