The Custom of Dropping the Tzitziyot at the Word “La’ad”
Guest post by Prof. S. H. Blondheim and R. Uri C. Cohen
Prof. S. H. Blondheim, M.D., attended City College of New York and Cornell University Medical School. He served as Medical Officer in the European theater of operations in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star. He settled in Jerusalem in 1951 and became Professor of Medicine and head of the Metabolic Unit and Laboratory, Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem. He has published books and articles in Internal Medicine as well as on subjects of Jewish interest.
Rabbi Uri C. Cohen has ordination from Yeshivat Hamivtar and Yeshiva University, as well as a Masters in Medieval Jewish History and in Jewish Education from the latter. He and his wife served as the first members of the Jewish Experience of Central New York and later as educational directors of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University. He now lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh and teaches in one-year programs for Americans in Israel.
I. The Problem
A common practice while reciting the morning keri’at sh’ma is to hold one’s tzitziyot, the fringes of the tallit. In a comprehensive work on the laws of prayer, Ishei Yisrael, Rabbi Avraham Yishayah Pfeiffer pulls together the procedure according to the halakhic sources:
When one reaches “Vahavi’enu leshalom me’arba kanfot (Lead us to peace from the four corners),” he grasps the tzitziyot in his left hand, between the ring finger and pinky. When he says the Vayomer paragraph (which mentions tzitzit), he holds them in his right hand as well and gazes at them. When he says “ur’item oto (look at them),” he places them on his eyes. There is a custom to kiss the tzitziyot every time one says the word “tzitzit.” Some kiss them when saying “ur’item oto” as well. After keri’at sh’ma, one should continue holding the tzitziyot until he reaches the words “nechmadim la’ad (delightful forever)” in the Emet VeYatziv blessing, and then kiss them and let them go.
The idea behind holding the tzitziyot, gazing at them, and kissing them is to show affection for the mitzvah. First mentioned in the ninth century as a pious practice, holding the tzitziyot gradually became so standard that a man who refuses to follow it might be considered poresh min hatzibbur, separating himself from the community.
As we can see from the description above, holding the tzitziyot has developed into an elaborate ritual with detailed instructions, including when to begin and when to end holding them. Interestingly, the time to begin is not immediately before the first words of the sh’ma (“Sh’ma yisra’el”), nor is the time to end immediately after the last words of the sh’ma (“Hashem Elokeikhem – emet”). We can understand the time to begin holding the tzitziyot, since the words “me’arba kanfot ha’aretz (from the four corners of the earth)” can be read as a hint at the tallit, which is sometimes called arba kanfot (the four corners). However, the time to end is puzzling, since the words “nechmadim la’ad (delightful forever)” have nothing to do with tzitzit. Here is a translation of Emet VeYatziv, the post-sh’ma paragraph in which it appears:
True and certain, established and enduring, fair and faithful, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and powerful, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this affirmation to us forever and ever (va’ed). True – the God of the universe is our King; the Rock of Jacob is the Shield of our salvation. From generation to generation He endures and His Name endures and His throne is well-established; His sovereignty and faithfulness endure forever (la’ad). His words are living and enduring, faithful and delightful forever (la’ad) and to all eternity; for our forefathers and for us, for our children and for our generations, and for all the generations of Your servant Israel’s offspring.
There is no mention of tzitzit here, and keriat sh’ma would seem to have ended immediately after the Vayomer paragraph. What then can be the reason for waiting to drop the tzitziyot until the word “la’ad”?
II. The Source For “La’ad”
The authority who originated this opinion is the great kabbalist known as the Arizal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572). In one of the books authored by his main student, Rabbi Chaim Vital, there appears a sequence of instructions for holding the tzitziyot, culminating as follows:
And when you reach “His words are living and enduring, faithful and delightful forever (la’ad),” here at the word “la’ad” you kiss them, pass them over your eyes, and drop them from your hand.
Unfortunately, no explanation accompanies this rule. Later halakhic and kabbalistic works simply repeat the Arizal’s rule of la’ad without elaboration.
A few attempts have been made to justify the selection of the word “la’ad” by using gematria, the system in which each Hebrew letter corresponds to a number. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776) points out that since the gematria of “la’ad” is 104, the two mentions of “la’ad” in the Emet VeYatziv paragraph add up to 208, the same gematria as the word “kadkod” (skull). Accordingly, he suggests, one should have in mind the tikkun (spiritual correction) of the skull, and that is why one kisses and drops the tzitziyot at this point. However, he sheds no light on what the skull has to do with the tzitziyot. Another author, known for his ethical work Shevet Mussar, presents a different calculation:
“La’ad” in gematria is 104, the numerical value of tzitzit. There are four tzitziyot, each of which has eight strings, totaling 32. Each string needs to be twisted from at least two strands, making 64. Furthermore, each of the tzitziyot contains five double knots, making ten knots, which multiplied by four [tzitziyot] yields 40 knots. The total number is 104, the same as “la’ad.”
Needless to say, these explanations are not satisfying.
Alternatively, a contemporary decisor, Rabbi Binyamin Zilber, notes that the Vilna Gaon did not kiss his tzitziyot at all during the sh’ma. Assuming that this was to avoid a hefsek (interruption) in the middle of keriat sh’ma, Rabbi Zilber suggests that we should not kiss the tzitziyot until a point after the sh’ma when we have finished a sentence or clause. Accordingly, he goes on to prescribe waiting until after the phrase “ule’olmei olamim (to all eternity).” Though Rabbi Zilber is consistent, his approach departs from the standard approach of “la’ad” and so does not shed adequate light on it.
There is a better approach, never before published, to explain the choice of “la’ad,” based on a well-known theme of the sh’ma.
III. The Sh’ma As Testimony
Philosophically, keri’at sh’ma can be described as a type of testimony (edut) testifying to our belief in the essential principles which the sh’ma expresses – the acceptance of the yoke of God’s sovereignty and the yoke of the mitzvot. For example, according to Ulla in the Talmud, “Anyone who reads keri’at sh’ma without wearing tefillin is as if he is giving false testimony (me’id edut sheker) against himself.” Furthermore, just as there is a common custom to stand for the VaYekhulu paragraph in Shabbat ma’ariv and in kiddush – because it represents testimony, which in a rabbinic court must be said standing up – so too there was even a custom once to recite all or part of the sh’ma while standing. As formulated in the anonymous 13th century Italian book Minhag Tov:
There is a good custom to read the verses of “Sh’ma yisrael” and “Barukh shem” while standing, since it is testimony that the Lord our God is one. It says [regarding testimony, in Deuteronomy 19:17], “they should stand.” Similarly, I found in the Yerushalmi [a recommendation] to read the sh’ma standing because it is testimony.
While this custom is no longer extant, it fits with the idea of the sh’ma as testimony.
IV. The Sh’ma Begins With Ayin-Dalet
Furthermore, the beginning of the sh’ma calls attention to its testimonial nature. In a Torah scroll, there is something unusual about the first and last words of the initial verse of the sh’ma – the letter ayin in the word “sh’ma” and the letter dalet in the word “echad” are both written significantly larger than the other letters of the Torah. Why is this so? The standard explanation is that together these two letters spell the word “ed,” which means “witness.” Two major rabbis of the 13th century present this approach. In the words of the Ba’al HaTurim:
Alternatively, the large ayin and dalet are [spelling out] “ed.” This is the meaning of “You are My witnesses, says God” (Isaiah 43:10). God is also a witness for Israel, as it says, “I will be a swift witness” (Malakhi 3:5).
The Avudraham agrees and connects it with another expression of the sh’ma as testimony:
There is a custom to say [the first verse of the sh’ma] out loud in order to arouse one’s awareness (kavanah) of the first verse, which is the main place to have awareness. [That custom] is also in the style of testimony – as if each person is saying to each other, “Sh’ma (listen), I believe that the Lord our God is unique in His world.” This is why you’ll find that the ayin of “sh’ma” and the dalet of “echad” are both large, to spell out “ed” as a hint to testimony.
Another source, a kabbalistic work called Sefer Temunah, elaborates on this idea:
In the Middle [Heavenly] World, under the Heavenly Throne, there is an angel called Israel. When [the Jews] say “Sh’ma Yisrael” in all the synagogues with one voice, she takes the last ayin of “sh’ma” and the dalet of “echad” and overcomes [their distance] to make the word “ed.” This angel stands up, testifies, and brings the testimony as a minchah offering to God. She says, “Here is your gift of Israel. I testify that they are declaring that your Name is one today.” She does this every day, and these two letters are an ed. It is a very sweet minchah for God, as it says, “The minchah of Judah and Jerusalem will be sweet for God” (Malakhi 3:4).
We see that the letters ayin and dalet near the beginning of keriat sh’ma fulfill an important function on the level of remez (hinting) – to remind us of the testimonial nature of the sh’ma.
V. The Sh’ma Ends With Ayin-Dalet
It would seem most appropriate, therefore, that a prayer that begins with the special stressing of an ayin and a dalet should also end with the same two letters. This explains why the Emet VeYatziv paragraph that follows the morning sh’ma includes no fewer than three words that contain an ayin and a dalet: “va’ed,” “la’ad,” and “la’ad.” (Though the two letters are separated by four intervening words at the beginning of the sh’ma, at the end they exist in the closest possible conjunction.) It can be described as a vertical symmetry, in which the end of the sh’ma recapitulates the beginning.
In light of this, we can now understand the custom to drop the tzitziyot at the second word “la’ad,” even though it is in the middle of a sentence. All else being equal, we would see no immediate reason to break the overall uniformity of the sh’ma by bringing it to its conclusion in mid-sentence. But it could well be that the rabbis who arranged the sh’ma and its blessings intended that in a sense, keriat sh’ma should not end immediately after the Vayomer paragraph but later, after the third and final ayin-dalet combination which echoes the ayin-dalet combination of its beginning. In other words, the sh’ma ends with a word which signifies that the sh’ma is testimony – “la’ad.” To emphasize this idea, we drop the tzitziyot after saying “la’ad.” It is a physical expression of the testimonial nature of the sh’ma.
 Rabbi Avraham Yishayah Pfeiffer, Ishei Yisrael (Jerusalem, 1998), 20:6 (p. 187). See his footnotes for the source of each instruction.
 Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet (Rivash, 1326-1407), She’elot uTeshuvot HaRivash #486. Actually, the custom he praises is not holding the tzitziyot throughout the sh’ma but looking at them and placing them on one’s eyes when saying “ur’item oto.” The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 24:4) cites this line of the Rivash, upon which the Rema comments that a few people are also accustomed to kiss the tzitziyot while looking at them, and that it is all to show affection for the mitzvah.
 Otzar HaGe’onim, Berakhot, Chelek HaTeshuvot, p. 35. For a long historical overview of the custom, see Yehonatan Kulitz, “Achizat Tzitzit BiKeriat Sh’ma,” Me’aliyot #22 (Tevet 5761), pp. 159-174; online at http://www.birkatmoshe.org.il/images/hbbzj01.doc
 Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (1915-2006), Tzitz Eliezer, 13:3, end of section 3.
 The translation is from Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Artscroll Siddur (Kol Ya’akov), Nusach Ashkenaz (Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1987), p. 95.
 Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), Sha’ar HaKavanot, Vol. 1 (Gate 6), Inyan Tefilat Shacharit, s.v. ukesheyagiya el vayomer. In the Yefeh Sha’ah edition, it appears on p. 332.
 Some examples are: Magen Avraham 24:1; Derekh HaChaim 14:3; Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Orach Chaim 24:4; Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 17:7; Ben Ish Chai, Halakhot, Shanah Rishonah, Shemot 8; Kaf HaChaim, Orach Chaim 46, s.v. sh’ma yisrael; Mishnah Berurah 24:4; Arukh HaShulchan, Orach Chaim 24:3; Ketzot HaShulchan, Vol. 1, 19:25.
 Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, Siddur Beit Ya’akov (Lemberg, 1904), Vol. 1, p. 64, s.v. la’ad. While this numerical comparison of la’ad and kadkod traces back to the teachings of the Arizal, they do not tie it in to the tzitziyot; see Rabbi Chaim Vital, Pri Etz Chaim (Dubrovno, 1803), Olam HaBri’ah, Sha’ar HaKeriat Sh’ma, Chapter 28.
 Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen HaItamari (d. 1729), Midrash Talpiyot, s.v. kavanah, p. 262. Cited in Rabbi Zvi Cohen, Tzitzit Halakhah Pesukah (Bnei Brak, 1993), p. 441, end of #14.
 Ma’aseh Rav #39.
 Rabbi Binyamin Zilber (1915-2008), Beit Barukh commentary on Chayei Adam (Bnei Brak, 1963), Vol. 1, Kelal 11, Note 13.
 Berakhot 14b.
 Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 271:10 and Mishnah Berurah 271:45.
 Minhag Tov (first published in Budapest, 1929), #11. It is online at http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=8903&hilite=&pgnum=9 For this reference, we are indebted to Professor Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael (Jerusalem: Mosad HaRav Kook, 1991), Vol. 2, p. 82, note 8. A few pages later, Sperber notes that Maharam of Rothenburg opposed this custom (p. 87, note 21).
 Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (1270-1340), Ba’al HaTurim on Deuteronomy 6:3. Compare the midrash cited in Tosafot (Chagigah 3b, s.v. umi): “There are three who testify about each other – Israel, Shabbat, and God. Israel and God testify that Shabbat is a day of rest; Israel and Shabbat testify that God is one; God and Shabbat testify that Israel is unique among the nations.”
 Rabbi David Avudraham (13th century), Sefer Avudraham, Dinei Keriat Sh’ma. A later Biblical commentator follows this approach as well; see Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619), Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy 6:4.
 Sefer Temunah, cited in Yalkut Reuveni (Warsaw, 1884), Va’et’chanan, s.v. yesh (p. 36). Sefer Temunah was first published in the 13th or 14th century.
 While “va’ed” is a single word, in and of itself, “la’ad” consists of the preposition “la” (to) followed by the repetition of the accentuated ayin-dalet combination of the beginning of the sh’ma.