What is the fence that the Torah made around its words? It says (Leviticus 18:19), “Do not come near woman during her period of impurity.” Perhaps [you would still think] one could hug her and kiss her and speak flirtatiously with her. So the verse tells you, “Do not come near.” Perhaps [you would still think] one could sleep next to her on the bed, as long as she was clothed. So the verse tells you, “Do not come near.” Perhaps [you would still think] she could wash her face and put makeup on her eyes. So the verse (Leviticus 15:33) tells you, “She is in her period of exile” – that is, all the days that she is in her period [of impurity], she will be in exile. Because of this they said: The spirit of the sages is pleased with anyone who makes herself unattractive during the days of her period [of impurity]. The spirit of the sages is displeased with anyone who makes herself attractive during the days of her period [of impurity].
There is a story of a man who studied much Scripture and much Mishnah, and devotedly served the great Torah scholars – and yet he died in middle age. So his wife took his tefillin and went to the synagogues and study houses, and would scream and cry and say to them: My masters! It is written in your Torah (Deuteronomy 30:20), “For it is your life, and the length of your days.” But my husband studied so much Scripture, and so much Mishnah, and served the Torah scholars so devotedly – so why did he die in middle age? No one there had anything to say in response. Then one day, Elijah the prophet visited her and said: My daughter, why are you screaming and crying? She said to him: Master, my husband studied so much Scripture, and so much Mishnah, and devotedly served the Torah scholars – and yet he died in middle age. He said to her: When you were in your period [of impurity], did he come near you during the first (three) days? She said to him, “God forbid! He never touched me with even his little finger. And he would say to me, Do not even touch the dishes, lest they bring (me) to doubt [whether or not I am impure]. [Elijah continued:] And during the latter days, did he come near you? She said to him: Master, I ate with and drank with him, and slept with him in the same bed fully clothed, and yes, his flesh would touch my flesh – but we never had any intention of doing anything else. He said to her: Blessed is the Omnipresent God who killed him! For so it is written in the Torah (Leviticus 18:19), “Do not come near a woman during her period of impurity.”
It says (Leviticus 18:6), “None of you shall come near any of his own flesh.” Because of this, they said: A man should not be alone with (any) women in an inn, even with his sister or his daughter, because of what people will think. He should not chat with a woman in the marketplace, even with his own wife, let alone with another woman, because of what people will claim. A man should not follow a woman in the marketplace, not even his own wife, let alone another woman, because of what people will claim. It says here, “None of you shall come near,” and then it says further on [in the verse], “Do not come near.” Do not come near something that causes you to sin. Stay away from ugliness, and even something similar to ugliness. (Therefore) the sages said: Stay away from a minor sin, for it may bring you to a major sin. And run to [perform] a minor mitzvah (commandment), for it will bring you to [perform] a major mitzvah.
It says (Song of Songs 7:3), “Your belly is like a heap of wheat, surrounded by a hedge of lilies.” “Your belly is [like] a heap of wheat” – that refers to the congregation of Israel. “Surrounded by a hedge of lilies” – that refers to the seventy elders.
Another interpretation: “Your belly is a heap of wheat” – these are the minor, easy commandments. “Surrounded by a hedge of lilies” – when Israel performs mitzvot [commandments], they are taken into the life of the World to Come. How does this happen? When one’s wife is in her period [of impurity], and she is with him in his house, he wants to sleep with her – he wants to, but he does not. Will anyone see him, or will anyone know, or say anything to him? He is only afraid of the one who checks the immersion [at the mikveh]. You could say the same about [taking] challa [for the priests], and you could say that same about [giving] the first shearing [of wool to the priests]. These are minor, easy commandments – like lilies – but when Israel performs them, they are taken into the life of the World to Come.
What is the fence that Moses made around his words? It says (Exodus 19:10), “The Eternal said to Moses: Go to the people, and keep them holy, today and tomorrow.” But Moses the Righteous did not want to say this to them the way that the Holy Blessed One said it to him. So instead he said this to them (Exodus 19:15): “Prepare yourselves: for three days do not go near a woman.” Moses added an extra day for them on his own. (For this is what) Moses reasoned [to himself]: A man will go be with his wife [on the first day] and then his semen will come out of her on the third day, and then they will be [ritually] impure. And so Israel will receive words of Torah from Mount Sinai while in a state of impurity! Instead, I will add a third day for them (so that no man goes to be with his wife, and no semen will come out of her on the third day), and they will be [ritually] pure (and so they will receive Torah from Mount Sinai in a state of purity).
This is one of the things that Moses decided on his own (as a more strict ruling), and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. He broke the tablets, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. He stayed outside the Tent of Meeting, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. He stayed apart from his wife, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. How so? He said to himself: If Israel need only remain in a state of holiness for a short period of time, and need only be ready to receive the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, and yet the Holy Blessed One said to me (Exodus 19:10), “Go to the people, and keep them holy, today and tomorrow”; then I, who am appointed [to receive the Divine Countenance] every day, at every moment, and do not know when He will speak with me, nor whether it will be during the day or at night – all the more so must I stay apart from my wife! And his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira said: He did not stay apart from his wife until he was told to straight from mouth of the Almighty, as it says (Numbers 12:8), “Mouth to mouth I speak to him”; that is, mouth to mouth I told him to stay apart from his wife, and so he did. Another opinion also held that Moses did not stay apart from his wife until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, [but derived it instead from these verses] (Deuteronomy 5:27–28): “Go and tell them to return to their tents,” and then after that it says, “But you stay here with Me.” So [Moses] returned [to God] and stayed apart [from his wife], and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God.
He stayed outside the Tent of Meeting. How so? He said to himself: If my brother Aaron, who was anointed with the anointing oil, and wrapped in [the priestly] garments, and is able to use all these things in a state of holiness, and yet the Holy Blessed One said to me (Leviticus 16:2), “Tell your brother Aaron he may not come any time he wishes into the Sanctuary”; then I, who am never allowed in – all the more so should I stay outside the Tent of Meeting! So he stayed outside the Tent of Meeting, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God.
He broke the tablets. How so? They say that when Moses went up on High to receive the tablets, he found that they had already been written and set aside during the six days of Creation, as it says (Exodus 32:16), “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved there upon the tablets.” (Do not read “engraved” [harut], but “freedom” [herut], for anyone who labors in Torah makes himself a free man.) At that moment, the angels who serve God pinned an accusation on Moses, saying: Master of the World, [it says] (Psalms 8:5–9), “What is the human that You should be mindful of him, the son of man that You should take note of him? You have made him a little less than God, and crowned him with glory and splendor. You have set him up to rule over Your handiwork. The world is beneath Your feet. Sheep and oxen, and all of them, and wild beasts as well. The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea.” So they spoke behind Moses’ back and asked: Why is this one, born of an earthly woman, worthy of ascending to the heights? as it says (Psalms 68:19), “You went up to the heights, having taken captives, having taken gifts.” He took them and went down, and was overjoyed. But when he saw that they were disgracing themselves with the Golden Calf, he said to himself: How can I give them these tablets? I will be binding them in serious commandments, and causing them to deserve death from Above! For it is written on these tablets, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). So he started to go back up. The seventy elders saw him and ran after him. He was holding on to one end of the tablets, and they grabbed on to the other end. But Moses’ strength was greater than all of theirs, as it says (Deuteronomy 34:12), “And for all the awesome power that Moses displayed before all of Israel.” (He looked and saw that the writing was flying off them, and he said: How can I give these tablets to Israel? For there is nothing on them! So instead, I will take ahold of them and smash them, as it says [Deuteronomy 9:17], “I grabbed the two tablets, and I cast them out of my two hands, and I broke them.”) Rabbi Yosei HaGalili says: I will give you a parable. To what can this be compared? [It can be compared] to a human king who said to his messenger: Go out and betroth to me a beautiful, gracious maiden, whose deeds are lovely. The messenger went and betrothed such a woman. But after he betrothed her, he went and found her cheating with someone else. He made an instant (a fortiori) judgment with himself and said: If I give her the marriage contract now, she will immediately deserve death. [So let her instead] be released from my master forever. So, too, did Moses the Righteous make an (a fortiori) judgment with himself, and said: How can I give these tablets to Israel and bind them in serious commandments and cause them to deserve death? For it is written upon them (Exodus 22:19), “One who sacrifices to any gods other than the Eternal alone will be put to death.” So instead (I will take ahold of them and smash them, and thereby return the people to good standing, lest Israel say: Where are the first tablets that you brought down? These things are counterfeit! Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira says: Moses did not break the tablets until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, as it says [Numbers 12:8], “Mouth to mouth I speak to him” – that is, mouth to mouth I said to him: Break the tablets!) And there are others who say: Moses did not break the tablets until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, as it says (Deuteronomy 9:16), “I saw there that you had sinned against the Eternal your God.” It says only, “I saw there,” because he saw the writing flying off [the tablets]. Others say: Moses did not break the tablets until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, as it says (Deuteronomy 10:5), “[The tablets] were there, as the Eternal had commanded me.” It says only, “commanded me,” because [first] he was commanded to [break them], and then he broke them. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: Moses did not break the tablets until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, as it says (Deuteronomy 34:12), “…that Moses performed before all of Israel.” Just as later on he was commanded and then did, so too here, he was commanded and then did. (Rabbi Akiva says: Moses did not break the tablets until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, as it says [Deuteronomy 9:17], “I took ahold of the two tablets.” A person can take ahold only of that which he has been permitted by his Creator. Rabbi Meir says: Moses did not break the tablets until he was told to straight from the mouth of the Almighty, as it says [Deuteronomy 10:2], “That [asher] which you broke”: Well done [yishar koach] that you broke them!)1Rashi says the language of asher, “that,” is like the language of ishur, “permission.” I think it more likely that the text is making a play on words between asher and yishar [koah], “well done.” [trans.]
King Hezekiah decided four things, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. He hid the Book of Healing, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God. He broke apart the copper snake, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God [as it says in II Kings 18:4, “Until those days, the children of Israel had been burning incense to it, and it was called Nekhushatan (‘the snake god’)”]. He removed the shrines and altars, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God, as it says (II Chronicles 32:12), “Hezekiah removed His shrines and His altars and spoke to Judah and Jerusalem, and said: Will you bow down before one altar, and burn incense upon it?” He stopped up the waters of Gihon, and his decision was in accordance with the will of the Omnipresent God, as it says (II Chronicles 32:30), “Hezekiah stopped up the spring of the waters of [upper] Gihon, leading it downward, west of the City of David. And Hezekiah was successful in all that he did.”
What was the fence that Job made around his words? It says (Job 1:5), “A pure and righteous man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” This teaches us that Job distanced himself from anything that would bring him to sin, from any ugliness, and from anything even resembling ugliness. If that is so, then why do we have to also learn that he was “a pure and righteous man”? But instead, this is here to teach us that Job emerged [from the womb] already circumcised. Adam also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Genesis 1:24), “And God created the person in His image.” Seth also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Genesis 5:2), “He had a child in his likeness and image.” Noah also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Genesis 6:9), “A just and pure man in his generation.” Shem also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Genesis 14:18), “Malkitzedek, king of Shalem.”2Malkitzedek is understood in rabbinic tradition to be Shem. The Hebrew word shalem means “complete.” Jacob also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Genesis 25:27), “Jacob was a pure man, who sat in tents.” Joseph also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Genesis 37:2), “This is the progeny of Jacob: Joseph.” But shouldn’t it say [instead]: This is the progeny of Jacob: Reuben? What do we learn from [the fact that it says] Joseph? [We learn] that just as Jacob emerged already circumcised, (so, too,) Joseph emerged already circumcised. Moses also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Exodus 2:2), “She saw that he was good.” And what did his mother see in him that was lovelier and more praiseworthy than any other person? That he emerged circumcised. Bil’am the wicked also came out circumcised, as it says (Numbers 24:4), “The word of him who hears God’s speech.” (Samuel also emerged circumcised, as it says [I Samuel 2:26], “Young Samuel continued to grow and was good.”) David also emerged circumcised – as it says (Psalms 16:1), “A mikhtam3A ketem (which has the same Hebrew letters as mikhtam) can mean a type of spot or marking. of David. (Protect me, for I seek refuge in You).” Jeremiah also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Jeremiah 1:5), “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you; and before you came out of the womb I consecrated you.” Zerubbabel also emerged already circumcised, as it says (Haggai 2:23), “On that day (I will take,) [declares the Eternal of Hosts, I will take] Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, declares the Eternal.” And it says (Job 31:1), “I have made a covenant with my eyes, so how can I gaze at a maiden [i.e., an unmarried woman]?” This teaches that Job was strict with himself and would not even look at a maiden. And if with a maiden – whom he could marry if he wished (to his son, to his daughter, or to [another] family member) – he was strict with himself and would not look at her, then all the more so [would he never look at] a married woman! And why was he so strict with himself not to look even at a maiden? Because Job said to himself: Perhaps I will look today, and tomorrow another man will come along and marry her, and then I will have looked at a married woman.
What is the fence that the Prophets made around their words? It says (Isaiah 42:13), “The Eternal goes forth like a warrior, like a man of war He rouses His rage. He yells, He roars aloud.” Not like one warrior, but like all the warriors in the world. Similarly (Amos 3:8), “A lion has roared; who will not fear? My Lord God has spoken; who will not prophesy?” Not like one lion, but like all the lions in the world. Similarly (Ezekiel 43:2), “And there, the Presence of the God of Israel, coming from the east with a roar like the roar of the mighty waters; and the earth was lit up by His Presence.” “Like the roar of the mighty waters” – this is the angel Gabriel. “And the earth was lit up by His Presence” – this is the face of the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence of God). And is it not all the more so that if Gabriel, who was but one of many thousands and thousands, and tens and tens of thousands, who stand before God, had a roar that went from one end of the world to the other, then the King of all kings, the Holy Blessed One, who created the whole world, created the upper realms and created the lower realms, even more so! But they show the eye only what it can see and let the ear hear only what it can hear.
What is the fence that the Writings made around their words? It says (Proverbs 5:8), “Keep your path far away from her, and do not go near the doorway of her house.” “Keep your path far away from her” – that is heresy. For they tell people: Do not go among heretics. Do not enter there, lest you they cause you to stumble. And what if someone says: I trust myself, and even though I go there, they will not cause me to stumble. For maybe you will say: I will listen to what they have to say, but I will come back. But the verse (Proverbs 2:19) teaches, “All who go to her cannot return and find again the paths of life.”
It is written (Proverbs 9:2), “She has prepared the feast, mixed the wine, and also set the table.” These are the wicked who, when a person comes in and sits among them, feed him and give him drink, and dress him and cover him, and give him lots of money. But when he has become one of them, each one picks out what belongs them, and takes it back from him. About them it says (Proverbs 7:23), “[He follows her] until the arrow pierces his liver. He is like a bird rushing into a trap, unknowingly.”
Another interpretation of “Keep your path far away from her”: This is a prostitute. For they tell people: Do not go to that marketplace, and do not enter into that alleyway, for there is a beautiful and celebrated prostitute there. But he says: I trust myself, and even though I go there, she will not cause me to stumble. They say to him: Even though you trust yourself, do not go there, for maybe she will cause you to stumble. (For the sages said that a person should not accustom himself to passing by the door of a prostitute.) As it says (Proverbs 2:26), “For many are those she has struck dead, and numerous are her victims.”
What is the fence that the sages made around their words? The sages said: the Shema of the evening prayer may be recited until midnight (Rabban Gamliel said: Until the rooster crows). When a person comes home from work, he should not say: I’ll eat a little, and drink a little, and sleep a little, and then afterward, I’ll recite the Shema. He may end up sleeping the whole night and not reciting. Rather, a person coming home from work in the evening should go straight to the house of prayer or to the house of study. If he is accustomed to read Scripture, he should study that first; if he is accustomed to recite Mishnah, he should study that first. If not, he should recite the Shema, and then finish praying. Anyone who violates the words [of the sages] deserves death. Rabban Gamliel said: Sometimes a person recites it [twice] – once at night, before the dawn has broken, and once after the dawn has broken. Then he will have fulfilled his obligation both for the day and for the night. (Thus the sages arose and added extra strictures, and made a fence for their words.)
[And raise up many students.] For the House of Shammai, say: One should teach only a person who is wise, humble, of good pedigree, and rich. But the House of Hillel say: Teach everyone, for there were many sinners in Israel, and they were brought close to Torah study, and they came out righteous, kind, and proper.