Placing a Fence on Your Roof: Making a Fence Around the Torah
by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
In this week’s parsha we find a special mitzvah that applies to anyone building a home. It is the mitzvah to make a ma’akeh (fence), as it is written: “When you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house ki yipol hanofel [if the fallen falls] from it” (Devarim 22:8).
The commentators have thoroughly questioned why the verse uses the double expression ki yipol hanofel (literally “if the fallen falls”), rather than “if one falls.” Here Rashi says, “This one deserves to fall. Nevertheless, you should not be the one to bring about his death, for meritorious things are executed through meritorious people, while things of ill-fortune are executed through guilty people.” In other words, although the person who has fallen from this place deserved to fall – for man does not move a finger below unless it has been decreed above – even in that case, we are commanded to place a fence around our roofs so as not to be the ones through whom this decree is executed.
Rabbeinu Bechaye cites the Midrash in commenting at length on this subject. He says the following: “ ‘You shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if the fallen falls from it’ – from the six days of Creation, it was foreseen that he would fall from it, but you should not be the one through whom his fall takes place.” This Midrash is telling us that all created beings were made according to their desire and their will. From the beginning of Creation, the Holy One, blessed be He, declared everything that would happen to everyone, and all the events that would occur to them. He also announced how many days they would live and how they would die, as well as the ease or difficulty of their livelihood, and whether they would obtain it through their own means or through the intermediary of others. The Sages have said that all things have been created in function to their own will and characteristics, as it is written: “and all their hosts” (Bereshith 2:1) – all living beings agreed and accepted. In this context, it is said that from the six days of Creation it was foreseen that this individual would fall, and yet the one through whom it occurs deserves a grave punishment. Hence “you shall make a fence for your roof.”
Although a decree already existed in regards to this person, each individual must be careful not to be the one through whom such a decree takes place.
In reflecting upon this, we see that a great lesson is concealed in this verse. We note the importance that the Torah places on caring for each individual – to the point of issuing a special mitzvah to make a fence on our roofs – all so as not to cause an accident for someone to whom it was nevertheless decreed. In addition, the Torah describes a failure to do so as placing “blood in your house,” as if the homeowner had committed murder.
Thus when someone deliberately, not accidentally, harms another person by vexing him, wronging him, or shaming him in public, how much more is he called a murderer!
As a result, we must be exceedingly careful to demonstrate respect for others.
Furthermore, since the holy Torah warns us even for such unlikely scenarios – simply in order for the person in question not to be the one through whom an evil decree occurs – how much more should we pay attention to more likely scenarios, ones in which an evil decree occurs through us! In such situations, we ourselves will be guilty! In fact the Sages have said, “Evil comes about through sinful men, and good through worthy men” (Sanhedrin 8a). This is not just a simple phrase or a nice saying – it is the truth: If a person merits it, good things will happen through him. Conversely, evil will occur through him.
As a result, if we want evil not to occur through us, it is not enough to place a fence on our roofs. We are also obligated to better ourselves. Then and only then, because we merit it, nothing evil will occur through us.
Upon further reflection, it may be that this concept is alluded to in the verse: “You shall make a ma’akeh [fence] for your roof.” Nowhere else in the Torah do we find the term ma’akeh, a fact which the commentators have noted. The Rashbam says that the term ma’akeh has no equivalent in the Torah, coming from the same root as the term akat (“oppression”) in the expression akat rasha (“the oppression of the wicked” [Tehillim 55:4]). Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezer also cites this viewpoint, adding: “It is not by coincidence that the only root corresponding to the term ma’akeh is akat, telling us that putting up this fence is not only a physical endeavor, but a spiritual one as well. It does not consist of protecting one standing there from falling, but preventing one from becoming wicked and committing sins by rectifying what is not right and preserving what is.”
It may be that “if the fallen falls” is written as a warning to a person destined to fall – and one who has already started to fall – so he can repent and change his ways. In other words, it is written so he can put up a fence, search his soul, and repent. Thus we read, “Repent, O wayward sons, and I will heal your waywardness” (Jeremiah 3:22), which is the call hidden in the construction of such a fence. In other words: Repent, O wayward sons, and correct your ways! Construct fences that will prevent you from returning to your old sins.
Thus the verse states, “if the fallen falls” – meaning that one who has already fallen will continue to fall. Do not say that since he has already fallen, he can no longer fall, for in the Gemara we find that whoever commits a sin and repeats it, to him it seems permitted (Yoma 86b). In other words, one who has fallen once is not like one who has fallen numerous times. He will have regrets upon falling the first time, but little by little, upon falling more, he will get used to having committed evil, and eventually he will see nothing wrong in it. This is what constitutes, “if the fallen falls.” We have a special mitzvah to prevent the fallen from falling once again and continuing to fall, for even children who have sinned on numerous occasions, to the point of being called “wayward sons,” have the ability to repent, such that G-d Himself will heal them of their waywardness.
It may be that this is one of the three things which the Men of the Great Assembly mentioned at the beginning of Pirkei Avoth: “Make a fence around the Torah” (1:1). In fact a person has an obligation to sanctify himself in what is permitted, to set limits and make vows, and to build a fence for himself in order to progress in the service of Hashem.
I have found something similar to this in the book Peh Eliyahu, which states that a person is obligated to constantly add to and improve everything he does, as the Sages have said: “Regarding old Torah scholars…the older they grow, the clearer their minds become” (Kinim 3:6). This is due to the fact that they are constantly working to strengthen their good middot. As for the ignorant, as they grow older they tend to lose their clarity of mind, for they have distanced themselves from good middot. The result is that their minds become clouded.
Hence a person is obligated to protect himself through Torah and mitzvot so as not to fall. Even if a person has fallen often – even if he is in the same state as “the fallen who falls” – he can still strengthen himself and completely repent. However if he remains obstinate and acts in the opposite way, the verse explicitly tells us “not [to] place blood in your house” – meaning that he will be spilling blood, his very own.