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D'varim/Deuteronomy 22:8 When you build a new house, and you shall make a fence to your roof
The word , probably derived from an unused root that has the meaning 'to retain' in Arabic, is ahapax legomenon, so there are variety of different translations; Targum Onkelos renders it as , 'bag', while most English translations choose 'fence' or 'parapet'. Davidson even goes as far as 'battlement'. Whatever the precise etymology, the meaning of the command is clear: you must protect the edge of a flat roof on a new building with a fence or parapet, so that people cannot accidentally fall off. Tigay points out that flat roofs were used for drying and storing produce, strolling and socialisation, and sleeping in warm weather, so that people were in constant danger of falling of unless a protective barrier was built. The halacha requires one to build a parapet also if one buys an already existing house that does not have one; that the parapet must be ten hand-breadths high and sufficiently strong that one may lean on it safely; and one must recite a blessing when building it (Hilkhot Berachot 11:8, Maimonides).
Ramban suggests that this commandment may be a worked example of the general command "Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour" (Vayikra 19:16), which is itself one instance of the famous command just two verses later: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (v.18). The Torah contains many other examples of "social legislation" that command respect for others' family and property, caring for one's neighbour's animals and livestock, not placing obstacles in the way of the blind and protecting minors and the disabled.
G-d required a socially just society and many of the prophets speak at length when that fabric breaks down or is abused. "Woe to those who enact evil statues, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans" (Isaiah 10:2, NASB); "They have treated father and mother lightly within you. The alien they have oppressed in your midst; the fatherless and the widow they have wronged in you" (Ezekiel 22:7, NASB). Even in Yeshua's time, His parable of the unjust judge (see Luke 1:8ff) - although told for a different reason - shows that this was not an unknown phenomenon.
James makes sure that the believers understood their part in G-d's support system: "The religious observance that G-d the Father considers pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being contaminated by the world" (James 1:27, CJB), while Rav Sha'ul makes it plain that "anyone who does not provide for his own people, especially for his family, has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8, CJB). When challenged by a Torah expert who asked "And who is my neighbour", Yeshua told the story of the Good Samaritan to show that our neighbour is anyone who needs our help and concluded, "You go and do as he did" (Luke 10:37, CJB).
Further Study: Luke 10:25-37; D'varim 16:20; Amos 5:14-15
Application: G-d doesn't call us all to be social campaigners, but He does require us all to display not only justice but also love and compassion in all our relationships, to stretch out a hand of care and concern to those who need to see G-d's love and have been let down by society. What part will you play today?
© Jonathan Allen, 2006
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