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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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