Of Roses and Prohibitions

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #15b: Of Roses and Prohibitions

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

'A hedge of roses' (Shir Ha-shirim 7:4). That even a hedge like roses is not breached. And this is what a heretic said to R. Kahana: "You say that a husband can be secluded with his wife when she is a nida. Is it possible that fire will be with flax and it will not be kindled?"

R. Kahana answered: "The Torah testified about us when it employs the phrase 'a hedge of roses.' Even if the hedge is like roses, it will not be breached." (Sanhedrin 37a)

What is the symbolism of the hedge of roses? A fence of flowers certainly seems insubstantial when compared with an iron gate or a steel wall. A bystander noticing such a hedge around a field might easily assume that it must be a complete failure at preventing outsiders from coming in. In the same fashion, the human conscience would seem to be a paltry defense of halakhic observance against the temptation of antinomian behavior. Nonetheless, despite appearances, our halakhic hedge of roses does motivate people to stay out of the garden. Ideals can prove more effective barriers than metal walls.

The above interpretation explains the choice of a flower symbol but not the specific choice of roses. The simplest explanation, offered by Rashi on Shir Ha-shirim, relates the redness of the rose with the color of menstrual blood. As the heretic employed the example of nida, it makes sense for Rav Kahana to utilize this imagery. Maharsha (on Sanhedrin) suggests that Rav Kahana mentions a beautiful fence to convey a desire to uproot the fence and smell the flowers. Despite the attractions of doing so, committed Jews prove themselves capable of restraint.

I would build upon the idea that the rose represents a thing of beauty but move the symbolism in a different direction. We often think of restrictions and prohibitions as ugly restraints on happiness, accomplishment and creativity. William Blake eloquently expresses such an assumption. "And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds/ And binding with briars my joys and desires." The gemara utilizes the symbol of prohibitions as roses to indicate that, contrary to our initial assumption, the restriction itself can often serve as the source of joy and self-expression. This is true on a number of levels.

1) Restrictions prevent the overindulging that ruins any enjoyment. Parents who prevent a child from gorging on too many candy bars are actually enabling that child to enjoy the noshing experience and avoid becoming sick.

2) Barriers stop moral ugliness from accompanying the pleasure. Gluttony and sexual promiscuity can destroy both people and families and halakhic limits help prevent that from happening.

3) Absolute freedom sometimes leaves a person standing still while a structured life enables that person to express himself or herself within that structure. The orchestra conductor does not want freedom to play any notes he or she wants. Rather, the conductor wants to express a personal style in the context of a particular score. For this reason, the details of halakha need not contradict individuality and self-expression. For example, the words of the amida can provide a context in which different people find varying paths to communicating with Hashem.

G. K. Chesterton offers (Orthodoxy, p. 145) a wonderful image for the idea that restrictions and structure can enhance joy, playfulness, and vitality. Imagine that children are playing a game on the top of a tall island in the sea. If there is a danger of falling off the cliff, all their movements will be hesitant and cautious and the game will be ruined. However, if a fence surrounds the top of that mountain and removes their concern, the children can play with abandon. So too, our halakhic hedge of roses allows for, and sometimes is precisely what enables, a life that includes delight and joy.