July 25, 2024
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It says in Devarim 22:8: “When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood (to be spilled) in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it (the roof).”

Rashi says that “guard rail” means a fence surrounding the roof.

It’s interesting to note that thousands of years later, the same Hebrew word for guard rail (ma’akeh) in the above verse is applicable and relevant. We speak about the same guard rail in Biblical Hebrew and in Modern Hebrew, in the Torah and in life today.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin — otherwise known as the Netziv — says the following:

“A person is allowed to live in his house without a mezuzah, as long as he will put one up as soon as he can get one … which is not so with a guard rail, that depends on the construction of a house, since it is forbidden to live in a home without a guard rail, and, therefore, it is more appropriate to validate his building of a new home with the mitzvah of guard rail.”

How do we relate to safety rules? Just as sensible, logical rules or also as mitzvot?

Before driving a car, we need to check oil, water and tire pressure. We need to pay attention that our windows have baby-proof bars. A vacation cabin must have a fence around the swimming pool. We do not allow our children to swim at a beach without a lifeguard. Is this banal? No — it’s a mitzvah. These examples appear to be a simple, primary level of observance, but they are super important. It is forbidden to live in a house without a guard rail.

Rabbi Berel Wein goes deeper and writes that this is not only a physical guard rail but also a spiritual one — a warning sign and symbol for “don’t” — for what is not allowed in one’s house. In a new house, a new home, we need to establish rules regarding Shabbat, festivals and food etc. If we don’t, there will be “blood” in our house as we “fall” to a “spiritual death.”

Life without a guard rail is something fearful and dangerous, but when there are limits it’s easier to move around. Limitations not only make a safer building, but serve to build up your life as well.

Our commentators give many explanations as to why the verse speaks about “a new house.”

For instance, each time we enter a new house, we rise to a new rank or a higher level in life. Rabbi Nachman writes: “It is known that the evil urge frequently provokes the person who keeps rising — one level after the next — in life. Therefore, he must be very careful, about making a guard rail for his roof and his stairs, that he should make for himself a barrier and a fence in order not to fall, Heaven forbid.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that a “new house” is really a new marriage. The bride and groom need to set up a guard rail, to establish rules and restrictions in their new relationship, around which they should put up a sign: “Caution, under construction!”

And the commentator, Degel Machaneh Efraim, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Efraim — the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov — says that the new house is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. “This day is the beginning of your deeds (for the new year), and on every Rosh Hashanah, the world is renewed and ‘a new house’ or a new world is constructed, for which you must make a guard rail.” You should take upon yourself a new restriction — build a new guard rail — in the new year.

May we all merit to put up a guard rail —a boundary and a fence —around each new stage, each new level reached, in our lives.


Sivan Rahav-Meir is the World Mizrachi Scholar-in-Residence and an Israeli journalist and lecturer.

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