The Sense of Boundaries that Keeps us Safe

It is often easy
to see that the fences which the rabbis legislated around the mitzvos of the
Torah provide a vital margin that keeps us from violating the Torah. For
example, they forbade us to eat chicken and milk because person might think that
if it’s OK to eat chicken with milk it’s OK to eat the flesh of a cow with
milk. They forbade us to drink milk with meat because the milk might spill on
the hot meat and, according to some opinions, that would violate the Torah
prohibition of cooking meat and milk.

But
there are times when it is hard to see why the rabbinical prohibition was
necessary because the rabbinical prohibition doesn’t seem to protect us in a
direct way from violating the Torah. For example, the rabbis prohibited drinking
the wine produced by a gentile in order to prevent intermarriage. Now there
doesn’t seem to be a direct causal relationship between drinking wine and
intermarrying. Buying a Gallo wine in the store doesn’t seem to entail going
off and marrying a gentile. It seems pretty far fetched to say that if a person
sits in his house and drinks the wine of gentiles he will end up intermarrying.
If Chazal were concerned to prevent intermarriage, they might have prohibited us
from something that was more directly related to it, like conversing with
non-Jewish women. But they didn’t do that. They forbade us to drink their
wine—not their beer or their whiskey, just their wine. So on the surface, the
prohibition of drinking gentile wine may seem far-fetched and excessive.

But
it’s not, because the intention is not that if a person doesn’t drink
gentile wine he won’t intermarry. That’s not the point. The point is that
when Jews over generations know that they cannot drink the wine that a gentile
has touched, it engenders a sense of separateness that constitutes an inner
obstruction to marrying outside the Jewish community. Wine was such an important
ingredient of social relations, that a prohibition forbidding gentile wine would
have the desired effect. It should be noted that the rabbis could not create new
prohibitions that had no basis in the Torah. Any prohibition that they would
legislate had to be similar in some way to a prohibition in the Torah. There is
a prohibition of wine in the Torah. It pertains to wine that is used in pagan
religious ceremonies. They extended that prohibition. Since there is no
prohibition of beer or whiskey in the Torah, they could not prohibit it
themselves.

Another
example. Chazal say that people don’t separate themselves from chometz. It’s
easy to be over the prohibition of eating chometz. But look around. It seems
that people are more careful to avoid eating chometz than any other prohibition.
But if we were to keep Pesach in the limited way that is required by the Torah,
it would be a different story. The Torah requires us only to dissociate
ourselves from our chometz. We fulfill the requirements of the Torah when we
recite the formula for bitul chometz.
A person who kept only the prohibition in the Torah could wake up in the morning
before Pesach, recite the formula for bitul chometz, and spend the entire
holiday surrounded by the chometz he ordinarily kept in the house. Chazal
required us to check for chometz and burn the chometz and change our dishes.
Over the generations, it transformed our relationship to chometz on Pesach. It
created a real inner obstruction to eating chometz. Chometz becomes much more
than a prohibition. It becomes an anathema—something you don’t even want to
think about. Cleaning for Pesach was an exercise in relating to chometz as
something that should be avoided on Pesach. The mitzvos of the rabbis instilled
an attitude toward chometz which assures that people will not violate the
prohibitions of the Torah.

Chazal protect us from violating the Torah in at least two ways: by prohibiting us from
doing things that might result in violating the Torah, and through prohibitions
that create an inner sense of boundaries which keep us far away from the Torah
prohibitions.