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Tzitzit

In this week's portion we find the instructions regarding the wearing of the fringe (Tzitzit) which the ancient Israelites were commanded to observe. The passage, Numbers 15:37 - 41, is also familiar as the third section of Jewish liturgy known as the Sh'ma. In that sequence, the passage relating to the fringes follows on the Sh'ma itself, the VeAhavta ("You Shall Love the Lord your God with all your heart...") and the section that begins "VeHiya Im Shamoa", "If you truly hearken to God's word...".

The placement of this passage in the daily morning and evening liturgy suggests that Jewish tradition attached great importance to the mitzva of the fringe/fringed garment. The evolution of the traditions surrounding the wearing of the tzitizit is an illustration of how successive generations of Jews both received and reinterpreted a basic observance.

Numbers 15:37-41 tells us several things about the wearing of the fringe, not all of which survive to present-day Jewish practice. First, we learn that Jews are supposed to place fringes on the corners of their garments. This seems to suggest that all garments required tzitzit; today, the wearing of tzitzit is restricted to the large prayer shawl (tallit) or the undergarment (arba kanafot, or talit katan) which observant Jews wear at all times in order to fulfill this mitzva.

Part of the confusion which inheres in the tradition of the fringe may be resolved by citing the other Torah passage which denotes fringes, Deuteronomy 22:12 which reads: "You shall make tassels/twisted cords (g'dilim) on the four corners of your garment..."

Later rabbinic tradition telescoped the two terms, g'dilim and tzitzit, into one observance, but it is tempting to consider that during the biblical period Jews maintained two separate traditions with regard to the fringe.

One fringe -- the tzitzit seems the likely candidate -- may originally have been a running fringe that went along the entire edge of the garment, much as, in more mundane circumstances, a running fringe often appears along the edge of curtains or bedspreads. This tradition may survive in the gathered knots of fringed material that run along the edge of the tallit today.

The other fringe -- the g'dilim -- seem to have been the original twisted cords/tassels that we today associate with the long knotted fringes on the four corners of the tallit. Curiously, the word which apparently originally referred to the running fringe, "tzitzit", came to represent exactly that fringe that the Torah apparently called "g'dilim".

The extended running fringe along the bottom edge of a garment would not have been unusual in the ancient Near East environment in which our ancestors originated. Archaeological research shows illustrations of ancient Near Eastern people wearing robe-like garments with fringe along the hem.

The corner fringe, however, may have been more unique to ancient Israel. This fringe, upon which both Numbers and Deuteronomy require a thread of blue, may have been emblematic, identifying the Israelites as a unique community and setting them apart from other peoples. (There may be a sartorial similarity in the British tradition of "rep ties", in which various combinations of colored stripes denote one's group.)

The tradition of the blue thread disappeared nearly two thousand years ago, amidst a variety of suggested reasons. The mollusk from which the blue dye was extracted apparently became increasingly rare, perhaps extinct, and this would have made it impossible to produce the necessary color. Or, in a related manner, the relative rarity of the dye may have made its price exorbitant, leading to a rabbinic ruling that white fringes sufficed.

The Torah, of course, had something more in mind than the emulation of cultural clothing. According to this week's portion, we wear the fringes "that you may remember and do all My commandments and be holy unto your God". The tzitzit were to serve not only to identify us as Jews, but to recall the implications of that identity: that Jews were to live in fidelity to the commandments of God in a quest to impart holiness to their lives.

From this perspective, it is unfortunate that the wearing of the fringes has today largely been relegated to the tallit alone, since the tallit is worn only for prayer -- and for most Jews, at best, this is a weekly event, not a daily one. The perpetual presence of the fringes which the Torah commands was a tangible reminder that all of life, not only the moments of prayer, was an opportunity to manifest holiness through an awareness of being in the presence of God.

When Judaism becomes narrowed to the observances of Jewish religion alone, we lose the meaning associated with our understanding that Judaism is really "a way of life" -- a system of value and meaning which affects our politics, economics, human relationships, and indeed all facets of society.

While the daily wearing of tzitzit may no longer be the way in which Jews remind themselves of the presence of God in all of life, the significance of the fringes should not be lost on us, as we continue to strive towards fulfilling our charge to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy people".
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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