Like most non-chassidic Jews born in the early 1980s, I grew up wearing my tzitzis tucked in my pants. I was proud to be Jewish but saw no reason to flaunt it.
During my formative years, however, I was led to believe that displaying one’s tzitzis signaled religious compromise. In its section on tzitzis, the Torah states, “Ur’isem oso – You should see them” (Bamidbar 15:39). These words, I was taught, require that one’s tzitzis be visible.
I was young, impressionable, and wanted to do the right thing. Changing one’s manner of dress isn’t easy, but after much thought I decided, at age 12, to take the plunge: I started displaying my tzitzis. My father was extremely upset – as I suspected he would be. I remembered he once told me the one thing that really upset his father – my grandfather – was seeing someone openly display his tzitzis. But in my religious zeal, I didn’t care. After all, hadn’t Jews throughout the centuries made sacrifices to serve God? My father’s displeasure wasn’t easy to bear, but I honestly thought I was doing God’s will. What could be more important?
Fifteen years passed. During that time I learned that German Jews and Sephardim didn’t display their tzitzis. Back then I believed German Jews were “compromisers,” influenced by modernity. But how could I explain the behavior of the highly traditional Sephardim? Furthermore, it occurred to me that many chassidim and Litvish rabbanim also didn’t technically display their tzitzis, since their long black frocks completely concealed them.
Over time, I also became increasingly uncomfortable displaying my tzitzis. They often flailed about – especially when I was in a rush – and I started wondering: Does Hashem want me to look sloppy? Am I making a kiddush Hashem appearing like this?
And then one day I read a book called Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry. Written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Poliakoff – who studied in Lithuania’s Telshe Yeshiva for eight years in the 1930s – the book contains the following amazing sentence:
“No one in Lithuania wore his tzitzis hanging out as people do today – not even the rabbanim, not even in Radin.”
I was shocked. How could Litvish rabbanim promote displaying one’s tzitzis when the students of the great Lithuanian yeshivas – whose traditions the yeshiva world claims to follow – wore them inside? And if displaying one’s tzitzis wasn’t even the minhag of Lithuania, whose minhag exactly was I following? Shortly after reading Minhagei Lita, I tucked my tzitzis back in my pants.
I believe I acted properly. Community leaders and kiruv workers often encourage Jews to wear their Judaism proudly on their sleeve, to “announce” it to the world. But there is another tradition in Orthodox Judaism: “Hatzneia haleches in Hashem Elokecha – Walk modestly with Hashem your God” (Michah 6:8). Beliefs should not be “slogans emblazoned on t-shirts,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once wrote.
Indeed, in Minhagei Lita, Rabbi Poliakoff writes that the heads of Lithuania’s famed Kelm yeshiva “would have been scandalized by the modern trend of parading piety.”
Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, founder of Torah Vodaath’s high school, likewise disdained public exhibitions of piety. His biographer, Jonathan Rosenblum, writes that when Reb Mendlowitz once heard someone crying loudly during davening, he remarked, “To permit oneself to use so much chitzonius (external display) one would need very deep resources of penimius (inner devotion). Where can one obtain such penimius?’ ”
On another occasion he said, rather harshly, that people “who raise their voices excessively in the Rosh Hashanah davening [are] descandants of the prophets of Baal who confronted Eliyahu HaNavi on Mount Carmel.”
Religious zeal is laudable, but showing off is simply not a Jewish value. Rabbi Yehoshua Katz, the current Ashkenazi rav of Maale Adumim, recalls that when he first started displaying his tzitzis as a teenager, his father – a close student of the Alter of Slabodka and author of Tenu’as HaMussar – said to him, “I see that your yiras shamayim is overflowing its banks.”
Are all public displays of religiousity inappropriate? Not necessarily, but, in general, Judaism values the private and the discrete – the “thin still voice” – over the public and the overt. Private, anonymous acts of chesed and tzedakah, for example, are more cherished by God, Chazal tell us, than their public counterparts.
Many contemporary Jews who display their tzitzis mean well and should perhaps be encouraged to continue. Some, for example, wish to strengthen their sense of religious security. That is understandable. As Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet of the Gruss Kollel once told me, “What is the concept of wearing a uniform?… [Y]ou build a wall around yourself. It’s a way of protecting yourself from outside influence.”
And therefore, although Rabbi Rakeffet sees no reason to wear a black hat, for example, he told me that “if a black hat will keep you frum in America, you should wear two black hats, not just one.”
Other people display their tzitzis because their parents and grandparents did so. That too is understandable. Minhagim are precious and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
But many Orthodox Jews did not grow up with this minhag. They grew up with the very opposite minhag and have abandoned it because they believe it to be religiously inferior. It isn’t. Wearing one’s tzitzis tucked into one’s pants is a sign of modesty, not embarrassment. It reflects a very basic traditional Jewish attitude that when something is precious, you don’t flaunt it. You protect it and cherish it.