Chapter 3, Mishna 17(a)
Playing With Fire ; Tradition
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Akiva said: Jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to
immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence for the Torah.
Tithes are a protective fence for wealth. Vows are a protective fence for
abstinence. A protective fence for wisdom is silence."
This mishna was authored by Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of the
Mishna. The Talmud tells us that he was an unlearned shepherd until the age
of forty, at which time -- on the prompting of his wife -- he went off to
study Torah. He began his career studying the aleph-bet with the youngest
schoolchildren. Twenty four years later he returned home, leader of the
generation, followed by thousands of students. He attributed all his Torah
study to his wife's devotion (Talmud Kesuvos 62b). He met his death brutally
at the hands of the Romans for teaching Torah publicly (Talmud Brachos 61b).
This mishna recommends a number of protective fences which safeguard or
foster proper Torah observance. The first warns us to refrain from loose,
unbridled behavior when in mixed company. The Talmud states -- in the
context of adultery but in reference to all sins -- "A person does not sin
unless a spirit of 'madness' enters him" (Sotah 3a). Anyone who thinks
rationally -- who considers long term consequences rather than immediate
gratification -- realizes that wickedness does not pay. One of the most
basic tenets of Judaism is that we will be brought to task for all our
actions (Fundamental 11 of Maimonides' 13), if not in this world then in the
next. And Divine retribution will most certainly be more severe than the few
moments of pleasure evil has to offer. Only if we do not allow ourselves to
think consequences -- thanks to the "madness" of lightheadedness -- will we
allow ourselves to operate in blissful ignorance of this truism.
If there is any one area in which Judaism goes to an absolute extreme, it is
the separation of the sexes. Traditionally, boys and girls from very young
ages were sent to separate schools. In the synagogue men and women would
pray on separate sides of a partition ('mechitza'). Mixed social gatherings
and dating were almost non-existent. And (as we know from "Fiddler on the
Roof"), even marriages were prearranged by the parents, possibly through the
meddling of a matchmaker. The prospective couple met briefly if at all
before the "shidduch" was finalized. (Some of us might consider those the
good old days. If it were only so easy -- and inexpensive...) ;-)
Much of this practice has its basis in Jewish law. One illustrative example:
A man and woman are forbidden to be alone together -- in a private setting
where others are unlikely to intrude. This is certainly not an unfounded
concern. But it goes further. This law is extended by the Rabbis to the
earliest age a girl might be considered at risk with the opposite sex --
according to some opinions three years of age. Well, there are certainly
sick-o's out there; there is no doubt about that. But is it really necessary
for the Rabbis to make such a blanket decree? Do the Rabbis really think
that the average man cannot be trusted babysitting a three year old child?!
Who do the Rabbis take us for?
Our Sages, however, understood human nature far better than we. This is one
area in which Judaism tells us to run the other way as fast as we possibly
can. Do not just trust yourself; you are playing with fire. There are no
"safe" and "harmless" ways of engaging the opposite sex, just as there are
no non-volatile ways of playing with dynamite. We cannot open Pandora's Box,
assuming we can contain it afterwards. Be careful what we expose our
children (and ourselves) to. Don't allow home entertainment to be a means of
glorifying and inculcating us with sexual fantasies. And don't place young
men in an environment in which they will waste all their energy and effort
trying to impress members of the opposite sex. At least let our synagogues
be a place of uninterrupted focus on prayer.
And neither should we make young ladies feel that they are objects, that
they are less "important" if they are not as attractive to men. Let young
men and women concentrate on developing the talents of youth (whatever they
are -- can't actually remember any more). They can consider marriage when
they are emotionally and psychologically ready -- not when they are
physically interested. The Torah says it straight. Its outlook has never
been popular; there are many who would like to dismiss it as old-fashioned
and anachronistic. But the Torah speaks truth, without shame or timidity --
and with no regard for public opinion. It is we who are not always willing
We now move to the next statement of our mishna. (This mishna contains much
important advice; we will deal with it over the course of a few classes.) I
would like to discuss one more statement this week -- that of the oral
transmission being a protective fence for the Torah.
Most commentators understand the oral transmission ('mesorah' in Hebrew) as
referring to what we call the Oral Law. This is the part of the Torah which
was originally taught to Moses at Sinai orally and not recorded in writing.
Whereas Moses was handed the Ten Commandments at Sinai and was instructed to
record the Five Books of Moses in writing, much of the explanation of the
Torah was studied by heart and committed to memory. The Talmud states that
it is forbidden to recite the Written Torah by heart (according to some this
applies only to public readings in the synagogue), and it is forbidden to
write down the Oral Torah (Gittin 60b). The Sages of later generations,
however, realizing that such a vast body of knowledge could not be retained
through memory alone -- especially through prolonged exile, began the
process of recording the Oral Law, first in an abridged form know as the
Mishna (c. 200 C.E.), and later in the more extensive form of the Talmud
Both the written and oral parts of our Torah are integral to our tradition.
The written Torah alone provides little detailed direction regarding the
how's and why's of Judaism. It consists of inspiring stories and poetic
exhortations, but leaves most of the details to the reader's imagination.
Even the laws it does state are vaguely defined at best. The Mishna writes
that many of the basic precepts of Judaism, such as the Sabbath, are as
"mountains hanging on hairs" (Chagiga 1:8) -- meaning mountains of technical
detail built upon passing Scriptural reference. In truth, however, G-d never
intended the written Torah to be self-contained. As our mishna states, the
oral law is a protective fence for the written. It gives the written place
and structure, allowing its eternal truths to permeate every level of existence.
This brings us to an important question. If the oral law is really so
central to the Torah, why did G-d decree that it be oral, to be entrusted to
Israel's collective memory? Why not write it down too? Was it less important
or less concrete that there was no great need to write it out in every detail?
Well, I seemed to have opened a bigger can of worms than I intended. I think
it best at this point to divide this discussion G-d willing for the next
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.