Where’s Your Fence?

We may be unaware of it but there are two subjects with which we deal every day—traditions and fences. An area in which we might commonly hear these terms is when we speak of "The Jews". "The Jews" definitely have their traditions and, with a little bit of study into their traditions, the term "fences" will show up. The popular concept regarding their first century traditions, is that the Jews added innumerable traditions and that Yahshua ("Jesus") told us to discard traditions when it comes to worshiping in spirit and in truth. We will examine this development of tradition and fences and see how it all applies to us today.


In many places in the Torah, YHWH [the Lord] directs Moses to command the Israelites to "keep" this and to "keep" that. In Deuteronomy 5:12 the Israelites were told to, "Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as [YHWH] thy God hath commanded thee." In Leviticus 18:5 they were told, "Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am [YHWH]." In fact they were told and strongly encouraged to keep YHWH’s "commandments", "statutes", "ordinances" or "judgments" at least 43 times in the Torah!

The history of ancient Israel adequately reveals the nature of the human race. Even when a nation is specifically being worked with by the Creator, they tend to be very short-sighted. (The church has been no exception to this!) Israel rose and fell. They approached righteousness and then fell far, far away from it.

We see the ups and downs during the time of the Judges. We see it with the kings beginning with King Saul. The ups and downs continued through King David and through the split kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Their downs were more wicked and lasted longer than their ups were righteous. Eventually, YHWH sent them all into captivity because they wouldn’t keep His word.

Also Judah kept not the commandments of [YHWH] their God, but walked in the statutes of Israel which they made (II Ki 17:19).

Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith [YHWH], and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, and have forsaken me, and have not kept my law... (Jer 16:11).

Notwithstanding the children rebelled against me: they walked not in my statutes, neither kept my judgments to do them, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; they polluted my sabbaths: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them, to accomplish my anger against them in the wilderness (Ezek 20:21).

After the Babylonian captivity, Judah returned to the land of Israel. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they knew that they would have to keep YHWH’s law again (see Neh 1:5-9). How were they to properly keep His law? How did they end up with all the traditions 400 years later? And how should we properly keep his law today?

To Guard

The Hebrew word for "keep", in this sense, is shamar (Strong’s #8104). Its basic meaning is "to keep, to guard, to observe, to give heed" (BDB Hebrew Lexicon). It has a strong emphasis on watching, guarding and protecting. Other meanings are to retain, to treasure up and to keep within bounds. Gesenius also mentions "to keep safe, to preserve." Strong’s adds, "...to hedge about (as with thorns)."

Some physical things that are "kept" include the Garden of Eden, flocks, and a house (Gen 2:15; 30:31; Ecc 12:3; 1Sam 17:20). These things were watched, guarded and kept safe. When we have something valuable to protect, we naturally take extra precautions for its care. Depending on its value, we might go to such extremes as putting it in a safe, hiding it in a building, surrounding it with high tech alarms and "hedging about" it with various types of "thorns".

We are told, in no uncertain terms, to shamar, to guard, protect and keep safe our Creator’s commandments, statutes and laws. "Therefore thou shalt love [YHWH] thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, alway" (Deut 11:1. See also Lev 18:4,5,26; 19:19,37; 20:8,22; 22:9,31; 25:18; 26:3; Deut 4:2,6,40; 5:1,29; 6:2,17; 7:11,12; 8:1,2,6,11; 10:13; 11:8,22,32; 12:1,28,32; 13:4,18; 15:5; 17:19; 19:9; 26:16-18; 27:1; 28:1,9,13,15,45,58; 29:9; 30:10,16; 31:12; 32:46).

Israel might have at times kept or shamar’ed His law, but they were commanded to do it "always" (NKJV). This particular "always" of Deuteronomy 11:1 is not the same as everlasting, forevermore or perpetual. This word is rendered from two Hebrew words: kol and yowm ("kaal hayaamiyn" Strong’s #’s: 3605 and 3117). The first means, "all, the whole of, any, each, every, anything." The second means, "day, time, year." They were commanded to shamar His law always, in other words, each and every day, time and year. This sounds like hard work! But that is what was and is necessary to be His people.

Shamar His Law

How does one apply this safeguarding and hedging about with thorns to YHWH’s law? How valuable is it to us? To what extremes should we go to protect it?

From Ezra and Nehemiah down to Yahshua’s time, numerous leaders, rabbis and sages saw the need to implement a national understanding of these questions so that captivity would never happen again. In time, many traditions were instituted and added to the Jewish way of life. Before we get too hasty and condemn those traditions, we need to first understand the purpose and use of a tradition.

One area of YHWH’s commandments that was not kept was the Sabbath. The primary Jewish understanding is that the Sabbath starts at sunset after the sixth day and ends at sunset after the seventh day. But how do they shamar the Sabbath start and end? To guard, protect and keep safe the Sabbath time they simply start the Sabbath 18 to 20 minutes before sunset with a setting-apart ceremony called kiddush (Deut 5:12 commands us to sanctify the Sabbath). They end the Sabbath when it is dark enough to see three stars in the sky (which would be 20-40 minutes after sunset, depending on where you live) with another setting-apart ceremony called havdalah. In this way they have guarded, protected and kept safe the actual Sabbath by extending the boundaries of when it begins and ends. They have erected a fence around the Sabbath law. Not only do they observe the Sabbath as holy but they also shamar it, both of which are commands of the Eternal.

Is this "fence" a bad thing or is it good? The command in scripture is clear, we are to safeguard and keep—shamar—the Sabbath (Ex 31:13-17; Lev 19:3,30; 26:2; Deut 5:12). But how should we do it? Are we to begin the Sabbath right at sunset immediately after rushing around, busily chasing our worldly affairs up until that moment? I would suggest that that approach would not be safeguarding and protecting it. Are we to begin "sabbathing" 5 minutes, 18-20 minutes, or even an hour or more before sunset? Scripture doesn’t tell us—nor should it. It is left up to us to set up our own fence or tradition that will allow us to guard, protect and keep the Sabbath safe.

Must I also keep it differently than my neighbor or am I allowed to borrow his traditions as long as it helps me perform that commandment? Today, many families are borrowing some of the Sabbath traditions of the Jews and adapting them to their family situation. These same families have received much grief from associates for taking on some "Jewish traditions".

Another example that might help us understand some of the traditions of the ultra-orthodox Jews is that of not driving a car or taking an elevator. How does hiking up ten floors of stairs, rather than taking an elevator, help one keep the Sabbath?

"And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made" (Gen 2:2). One view, which has good merit, has it that the root meaning of the word "rested" is to cease from one’s labors. It is often translated "cease" and can easily be translated that way in most other cases. Webster’s Dictionary defines "rest" as "repose [to lay at rest], sleep, a state of motionlessness or inactivity, to get rest from lying down." Other definitions include "freedom from work, to cease from action or motion." This is usually thought of in the sense of sitting down and having a coffee break. It may be unfortunate that this Hebrew word is often rendered "rest" as that really does not convey an accurate picture of the word.

So what was it that God did on the seventh day? Did He rest by reposing, sleeping, or kicking back, sighing a big sigh of, "Whew! I’m done!", grab a beer and watch a football game? The scripture doesn’t say that He "rested"—it says that He stopped creating. The same word is used to command us to "rest" or more properly "cease" from our creating or from our labors (Ex 23:12; 34:21). Since we are creative creatures, we are to not create on the Sabbath. We are told to cease from our daily work because, by and large, our work is a process of creation. As an example of what not to create, Exodus 35:3 the Israelites were told to not kindle a fire on the Sabbath. Isn’t doing such creating a fire? Then, if one is creating, one isn’t "sabbathing".

Fires come in many sizes—from big ones to little ones to teeny weeny ones. To run an engine or press an elevator button means that you must create a spark or a fire. It may be short lived, but nonetheless, it was a fire that you created. Climbing up ten flights of stairs in no way violates any Sabbath command. By going to this degree of what we might call "nit-picking", these ultra-orthodox Jews are guarding, protecting and keeping the Sabbath safe. They shamar the Sabbath.

One more example of a command that takes on much variety is that of Exodus 23:19, "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk" (see also Ex 34:26; Deut 14:21). Now, what does that really mean? You and I may have our ideas, but how do we shamar this command?

How do Jews shamar this command? "Seethe" means "boil or cook". Don’t boil or cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. Sounds pretty straightforward. But if I eat some goat meat and drink some goat milk, when that digests in my stomach, might that not be a type of boiling or cooking? Is this command, while specific, actually general in nature? Might this also apply to beef and cow milk? Or just to be safe should I avoid any beef, goat or lamb with any milk? If I avoid all meat, including poultry and fish with any kind of milk, that will definitely work!

We are told to never boil a young goat in its mother’s milk, but how do we guard, protect and keep this command safe? People who observe this command in their lives set up their hedge of thorns or fence in these various places. There is no law stating that one’s fence needs to be at a certain place. There are various teachings and some may come across fairly strong but there is no law telling us how far we should carry this. We are, however, commanded to shamar this.

But, Yahshua Said...

In criticizing certain Scribes and Pharisees about their traditions, Yahshua said that they were "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt 15:9). How did it come about that certain shamar-type traditions were being presented as commandments of God?

As Judaism developed from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, with their renewed zeal to never again go into captivity, on down to the time of Yahshua, where we see "commandments of men" in place, the nation of Judah had traveled a rough road. After the normal ups and downs of the nation, including the Maccabean era, two predominant schools of thought developed, each named after their leader/founder around 30 BCE. The School of Shammai (Beit Shammai) taught that in order for a Jew or non-Jew to be saved, one had to perform certain numerous commands based on their seemingly endless traditions. They taught that one actually earned one’s salvation. If someone didn’t do things the Shammai way of doing it, they would never be saved.

The School of Hillel (Beit Hillel) taught the opposite. While one should perform the commands of scripture, it was through faith by the grace of God that one was saved. Non-Jews were not held to the same standard of Torah that Jews were.

By the time of Yahshua’s ministry, Beit Shammai was in power as the ruling political party by a large majority. Most all of Yahshua’s attacks were against their mindset. The safeguards and fences that were originally erected to protect God’s commandments had become the law of their teachings rather than just a fence. Mark explains some of these traditions in his gospel.

For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? (Mark 7:3-5)

In response to these Pharisees and Scribes, did Yahshua criticize them for the traditions, for the fences that were in place or for their way of shamar’ing or guarding, protecting or keeping safe the law?

He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition (vs. 6-9).

Yahshua criticized them for laying aside and rejecting God’s commandments and putting their traditions over and above His commandments. These traditions or commandments of men had become their law and they were violating Deuteronomy 12:32, "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it." A tradition protecting a command is not adding to law unless one turns that tradition into a law. Remember, we are commanded to guard, protect and keep safe all of YHWH’s laws.

But, Paul Said...

Paul also addressed this issue in his letter to the Colossians.

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh (2:20-23).

Yet, Paul told the Thessalonians, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (II Th 2:15; cf. 3:6). He, just like Yahshua, was against placing traditions of men over and above the commandments of God. It is wrong for us, 2,000 years removed, to categorically say that the New Testament is against traditions. When one understands the issues then at hand, one can see that Yahshua’s life and that of Paul’s and the other Apostles’ were loaded with tradition.

A Fence of Today

Today we have our own fences whereby we safeguard certain commands. One example that comes to mind occurs every year during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Scripture tells us that we are to put out the leavened bread from our houses. The Hebrew is rather clear that we are to put out fermented bread. Yet, what do we do in our modern-day tradition? We also put out any bread that contains only baking soda or baking powder. And we don’t stop there. We also put out the leavening agents themselves. We put out yeast, baking soda and baking powder. Yet, it is the Feast of Unleavened Bread not the Feast of Non-leavening Agents!

"Oh, but wait a minute!" someone might say. "Exodus 12:15 says that we are to put out ‘leaven’ which is a ‘yeastcake’ (Strong’s #7603). This says to put out the leavening agent."

A study into various Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias will show that this "leaven" was a piece of fermented dough left over from a previous baking. While it acted as an agent, it was nevertheless fermented bread.

The potential controversy of all this goes to prove the point that we all view things differently and set our fences as we see fit.

There is nothing wrong with this. So long as we don’t say that putting out baking powder is law, else we would be adding to the law. It is a good fence. We learn from it.

In other words, we have some of our own fences and traditions that we regard rather highly. We may even be doing some as a result of having been told to by some other organization!

Shamar Shamar

One thing is clear—we are to highly value YHWH’s law. We are to guard it, protect it and keep it safe—very safe. Of the fifty-some scriptures in Torah that tell us to shamar His commandments, two of them say it rather uniquely. Deuteronomy 6:17 says, "Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of [YHWH] your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded thee" (cf. 11:22). The Hebrew says, "Shamar shamar the commandments of YHWH your God...." (Actual tenses and forms of the words are different but the words are indeed there twice.) We are to keep safe and be sure we keep safe His commandments. Protect and be sure we protect them. Safeguard and be sure we safeguard them.

How valuable are they to us? How well do we know them? How diligent are we to do them, observe them and keep them? Do we set up our own fences and safeguards around His law or are we too busy judging others for doing it? Yes, we need to keep His law and set up whatever protections we deem necessary to safeguard them, but, as a word of caution, let’s not be critical of how our neighbor keeps the law. Let’s also not be in a position where we are uncompromising about our fences. Fellowship is ruined so often because many hold out their fences as if they are the law. This happens in Judaism as well. Understanding the differences in our fences, or traditions, and what the law is, should help all of YHWH’s people draw closer to Him and one another in the fellowship of true godly love and unity. &

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