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The Hidden Spirituality Of Tzitzit

This week’s sedrah, Shelach Lecha, ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tzitzit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:

G-d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe. Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not stray after your heart and eyes that in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all my commandments and be holy to your G-d (Numbers 15:37-40).

So central is this command, that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinovitch:

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand, the sages said that the command of tzitzit is equal to all the other commands combined, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

Conversely, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules that, “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a [four-cornered] robe and wrap oneself in it in order to [fulfill the command of] tzitzit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command” (Laws of Tzitzit, 3:11). It is important and praiseworthy, but not categorical. It is conditional, for if you have such a garment, you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfill the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) that is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second, in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways. We also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say, “…who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “…who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

His answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, judge, and soldier all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, and/or a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognized as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honored. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary, they dress as they do because of what they are – not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tzitzit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our hearts how unworthy we may be of the high demands G-d has made of us. We feel the need to come before G-d as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit – the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality. In the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to G-d, “I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own.” The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask G-d to judge us – not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tzitzit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord”) – and these become part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tzitzit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tzitzit symbolizes the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith, whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to G-d and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone and not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tzitzit as undergarment: beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment,” because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to G-d’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “…who has commanded us concerning the precept of tzitzit,” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way, tzitzit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand, it is a way of life that is communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, and observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism – the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to G-d that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes and fears better than we know them. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation – the opening of our hearts to Him, who brought us into existence with love – is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith – the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to G-d.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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