• Rabbi Edward Friedman

A Thought on Parashat Tzitizit

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

You may recall that on Passover night there is a discussion in the Haggadah about the timing of the Seder. The question arises as to why we choose to hold this commemorative meal at night. In answer to that question, the author of the Haggadah “borrows” an argument from the Mishnah supporting the recitation of the third paragraph of the Sh'ma, Parashat Tzitzit, at nighttime even though we are not required to wear the tzitzit, the fringes on the tallit, at night, since they are required to be seen. There Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah says, “Behold I am almost a seventy year old man and I have not succeeded in understanding why the Exodus from Egypt (mentioned in the concluding verses of Parashat Tzitzit) should be mentioned at night, until Ben Zoma explained from a verse: 'In order that you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.' 'The days of your life' refers to the daytime. 'All the days of your life' refers to the nights.'”

From this discussion, we learn that even though a portion of this passage is not relevant to nighttime, it does contain other elements that apply equally to daytime and nighttime and thus should be included in the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma that are recited morning and evening. I wrote a piece in this series last December outlining the structure of the section of our morning and evening service known as K'riat Sh'ma and its blessings. Since then I have written about several of the components of this section including the first two biblical passages that make up K'riat Sh'ma, the Reading or Proclaiming of the Sh'ma, V'ahavta and V'hayah im shamoa, so today I turn to the third and final passage, Parashat Tzitzit, sometimes identified by its opening word “Vayomer.” If Ben Zoma gives a rationale for including this passage in the evening Sh'ma as well as in the morning, he does not tell us why this passage from Numbers was linked to the other two paragraphs from Deuteronomy. Some have asked why we go from the lofty concepts in those two opening passages, the unity of God and the acceptance of Divine authority in our lives and the concept of reward and punishment and human responsibility for the environment, to this passage about adding tassels to one's clothing. Some Reform rabbis found it so jarring that they omitted this passage from their prayerbooks. Perhaps the appearance of Ben Zoma's argument in the Haggadah helps us better understand why a ritual observance like this is deemed so important that we recite its laws twice daily. The Passover seder is replete with symbolic acts and foods intended to convey a sense of the importance of the story of liberation from Egyptian bondage to our spiritual life as Jews. In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we personally came forth from Egypt. In every generation we are to understand the values learned from those years of oppression and apply them in our relations with others. The symbolic foods and acts at the seder serve to reinforce those lessons. The wearing of tzitzit, whether limited to the large tallit worn at morning services or including the fringed poncho worn by some Jews as an undergarment throughout the day, is intended to continually direct our attention to God's commandments in our lives. “When you see the fringe (tzitzit) you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and fulfill them.”

Rashi, our great 11th century commentator, explains how this works. The letters of the word “tzitzit” are numerically equivalent to the number 600. If we add to it the eight strands of the fringe on each corner plus the five knots, the total is 613, equal to the number of commandments. Every time one looks at one's tzitizit, one should think of the 613 commandments of the Torah. On other occasions, I've spoken of some of the other messages encoded in the tzitzit, most notably the teaching from the opening of the Sh'ma, “Adonay echad” “God is One” that one can derive from the number of coils around each fringe.

The tzitzit mentioned in the passage are supposed to have a thread of techelet, blue or purple, in each of the tzitzit. Most tzitzit today are purely white, since the requisite techelet dye was not known, or unavailable, for centuries. Today, archaeologists believe they have identified the particular snail from which the dye was extracted and it is possible to get tzitzit with techelet, though most of us have not availed ourselves of this somewhat expensive addition to our fringes. The blue or purple dye however served several purposes. First it recalled the blue of the sky and directed our attention upward toward our Father in Heaven. Secondly, since the royal purple was derived from the same techelet dye, putting this color on the fringes of every Jew elevated even the most humble to a position of royalty as it were. We are all part of that Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation spoken of in Exodus.

Tzitzit are not only intended to direct us to the fulfillment of the positive commandments of the Torah, but also to limit our inclination to “go astray after your eyes and your hearts which you lust after.” There is a rather dramatic story told In the Talmudic tractate of Menachot of a student in Roman days who hired the most expensive Roman courtesan and was about to join her in bed when his tzitzit arose and slapped him in the face, preventing him from performing this sin. The courtesan was so impressed by this restraint that she demanded to know the name of his teacher and went to that sage and asked to be converted to Judaism, after which she married the student. I don't know if they lived happily ever after in this fairy tale, but the point is made that when one physically carries the signs of one's religious values on one's body and clothing, they may indeed restrict one's behavior and help to keep one on the right path.

The parashah thus makes the jump from the specific ritual act of binding fringes on one's garments to the fulfillment of the commandments, and the limitation of one's sensual desires, to “becoming kedoshim, holy, unto your God.” Holiness is a central value in Judaism, particularly emphasized in the earlier books of the Torah where we are urged to become “holy because the Lord your God is holy.” Whenever we perform a mitzvah, we recite a blessing praising God who has made us holy through His commandments (asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav). The intention behind these ritual and ethical acts is to direct us toward holiness, to becoming that holy people that God intended when He brought us to Sinai and gave us the Torah. By holiness, we mean not perfection, but intention, reflecting on life and linking the physical world to something beyond, something spiritual.

Indeed, our passage concludes with the words, “Ani Adonay Eloheichem... I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be Your God, I am the Lord your God.” That mention of the Exodus at the end of the passage is the key to this parashah entering into the K'riyat Sh'ma. Not only do we recall events more than three millennia ago which impacted upon our people for all time, but we affirm that that same God who liberated us from Egypt, who taught us to “know the heart of the stranger,” who brought us to Sinai to give us the Torah, who gave us commandments to elevate our consciousness and make us holy, that same God remains our God for all time, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” The opening proclamation of the Sh'ma is echoed in these closing words and, by tradition is linked to the opening words of the blessing of redemption which follows with the word “Emet,” truth. “Adonay Eloheichem Emet,” “The Lord your God is truth,” proclaims the prayer leader. Thus the three passages of the Sh'ma reflect the three themes of the surrounding blessings. V'ahavta focuses on God's Revelation of the Torah, spoken of in Ahavah Rabbah, the second blessing. V'hayah im shamoa is concerned with Creation, the theme of Yotzer Or, the first blessing. Vayomer, this passage on Tzitzit, ends with the redemption yet to come, the central concept of the final blessing of Emet v'Yatziv.

Twice daily, our tradition calls on us to reflect on these basic concepts and through them to accept our role as God's partner in revealing His teachings to the world, in furthering and preserving the works of creation, and in bringing forward the redemption of the world. K'riat Sh'ma is not merely an affirmation of our belief in the One God, but rather a reminder to us, morning and evening, of our responsibility in the world, to find a path of holiness that will bring us all one step closer to redemption.

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