The Mitzvah of Tzitzit

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shelach

Last week, we saw a Biblical mitzvah somewhat “lost” because of a rabbinic one; this week, we turn to a mitzvah with more cache, more hold on the Jewish religious sensibility, than the Torah itself necessarily assigns it.

Adding Strings to Our Clothes

The basic mitzvah, Rambam tells us in Obligation 14 (perhaps a signal he, too, gives it great theological importance, because he starts the list of obligations with those directing our attention to God) is to attach strings, one of them tekhelet (bluish; wool strings dyed with a very particular dye)to the corners of our garments.

Menachot 38a tells us neither of the two types of strings, white or tekhelet, get in the way of fulfilling the mitzvah of the other (wearing white counts even if without the blue, as was true for centuries, and vice-verse). Usually, independence of fulfillment goes hand in hand with being a separate mitzvah. Here, Rambam points to Sifrei, they are still one mitzvah, because the Torah says ve-haya lakhem le-tzitzitit shall be for you for tzitzit.

Going Bigger

Arukh HaShulchan Orakh Chayim 8;2 adds that although a Jew violates nothing by failing to wear a four-cornered garment, every Jewish man should be careful to wear the smaller garments we call tzitzit (tallit katan, as opposed to a tallit). He already alerts us to tzitzit’s disproportionate importance, because the Torah says it will lead us to remember all the mitzvot [for Kli Yakar’s view of how, see my other weekly column on TorahMusings]. Menachot 41a says that in a time of God’s wrath, the failure to wear tzitzit will weigh against us, and whoever is careful about it merits greeting the Divine Presence.

Jews therefore wear a tallit during prayer and tzitzit all day, says Arukh HaShulchan. He agrees with others who said we should have the same tzitzit in front and back all the time (solved today by those with a V-neck in their tzitzit; he did not have that situation, recommended a thread on the “front,” to know which is which). In 8;17, he argues the Jew should ideally wear the tallit katan over his clothing, to really see it, and objects to those who stick the strings into their pants, unless they circulate among non-Jews who would mock them for it. (I don’t think he was primarily worried about the mockery, but the barrier it would present to the Jew’s effective action among those non-Jews.)

The idea raises more questions, to me: if it is so important, why did the Torah circumscribe it in all the ways we are about to see—time of day, gender of Jew, shape and material of garment? If it is so important, shouldn’t this have been a universal mitzvah? Let’s review and consider.

Corners and Clothes

Sefer HaChinukh 386 pushes both in the direction of seeing it as limited while expanding its significance. He reminds us we are obligated to wear tzitzit only on garments we wear, only if they have four corners or more (the reason most of our clothing today is exempt, their lack of corners) For five or more corners, Menachot 43b says to place the tzitzit on the four most distant from each other. The garment must be large enough to cover the majority of a child able to walk the neighborhood alone (a six or seven year old, he assumes), and be made of wool or linen.

Silk or camels’ wool, for examples he gives, would not be Biblically obligated, because begged stam, the Torah’s reference to a “garment,’” means sheep or goats’ wool or linen, just like with tzara’at of clothing. [He does not discuss why; it seems to me there are two possibilities: the Torah referred to these because they were the most usual at the time, an idea I think weak in it assumption the Torah could not envision a future with a wider range of materials, odd because leather was certainly known already. I suspect the Torah chose to limit clothing to these for some reason this mitzvah gives no basis to understand. We’ll leave it for another time.]

The Making of Tzitzit

Uncharacteristically, Sefer HaChinukh goes into some detail about how to make tzitzit. The tekhelet must be dyed for the purpose of the mitzvah, and the several strings woven together to make one white tzitzit string must also be specifically for the purpose of being part of tzitzit. Arukh HaShulchan Orakh Chayim 11;2-3 reviews the debate about whether both the spinning of the thread and plying a few into one need to be lishma, to be done for the sake of tzitzit, and seems to conclude only the original spinning does.

This is accomplished, par. five tells us, by saying “for the sake of tzitzit” at the start of the spinning process, either by the man spinning the thread, a man as he gives it to a woman to spin, or the woman herself. Having said it one day carries over to the next, if the process was not finished that day. A non-Jew cannot spin the thread (in other areas of halakha, Rosh thinks a non-Jew can act with a Jew present to articulate the purpose of the process; not here).

The strings are placed through a hole near the corner of the garment, although not directly on it, and are tied on with a varying number of knots and ties, depending on traditions (by Torah law, Sefer HaChinukh says, one tie and knot would be enough). Although tekhelet strings must be made of wool, it is permissible to tie that wool onto a linen garment, despite it usually being shatnez. When there is no tekhelet, as was true for centuries, a linen piece of clothing could only have linen tzitzit, because where the necessity of violating a Torah law to fulfill the mitzvah, we are also not allowed to do so.

A Reminder of the Mitzvot

Bamidbar 15;39 says we will see these strings and remember all of God’s mitzvot, easing Sefer HaChinukh’s search for a reason for the mitzvah. We are to bear a physical reminder, all day, of the King whom we serve, the most effective way to guide us toward Hashem’s service.

Sefer HaChinukh adds some remazim, hints. The white refers to the body, made from the earth, which was made of snow (he notes Midrashim to that effect). Strings also put us in mind of the body, because sources speak of the embryo as being stringlike at its start.

Tekhelet, sky-like in its color, points towards our souls, the heavenly part of ourselves, the reason Menachot 43b speaks of the tekhelet being like the sea, the sea like the sky, and the sky like the Throne of Glory (for another take on this, see again my discussion of Kli Yakar from this parsha).

We wind the tekhelet string around the white one to keep us in mind of the soul’s need to rule over the body, he says. In his framework, the number of windings, and the space between them, can symbolize more details of the heavens and our relationships to them.

Other have offered other metaphors [either enriching our world with a panoply of options or muddying our search for “the” reason. Or both]. Here is not the place to survey them. Worse, I am still bothered by how the Torah restricts it to only certain types of garments, at certain times, and only to men. I am trying to wean myself of the intellectual arrogance to always think I have an answer, but let me point out the components of a satisfying one:

Without denying Chazal’s recommendation to wear tzitzit as often as we can, the full explanation would seem to me to explain why the demand is made of men and not women (it could be for the same overall reason as other mitzvot with a time component, which itself still awaits its ironclad justification; on that one, I have offered an idea, in We’re Missing the Point; it also does not have to be, we might think that tzitzit applies more to men than women for some other reason).

Beyond gender, is there something about wearing certain types of garments that means we need more of a reminder? Day vs. night? Questions to ponder as we wear out tzitzit, as often as feasible, in obedience to Chazal’s adjuration that these strings will foster proper attitude and awareness.

About Gidon Rothstein

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