Tzitzit: The Unpretentious Mitzvah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the conclusion of this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we learn of the mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes that are worn by Jewish men on the corners of four-cornered garments. (See Shelach 5760-2000 for additional commentary.)

In Numbers 15:38, G-d speaks to Moses and says to him, “Dah’behr ehl B’nay Yisrael v’ah’mar’tah ah’lay’hem, v’ah’soo lah’hem tzee’zeet ahl kahn’fay vig’day’hem l’doh’roh’tahm, v’naht’noo ahl tzee’zeet ha’kah’nahf p’teel t’chay’let,” Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, that they shall make for themselves Tzitzit, on the corners of their garments throughout the generations. The Torah then instructs that a blue thread of T’chaylet, be placed on each fringe.

The Torah states that Tzitzit are intended to aid the Jew to recall all the commandments of G-d, so that those who wear them will perform the commandments of G-d and not stray after their hearts and after their eyes, which they are wont to stray. Parashat Shelach concludes with a reminder that Jews must remember and perform all the commandments of G-d and be holy to G-d, because it was G-d who took the people out of Egypt. He is our G-d.

The Code of Jewish Law records that any four-cornered garment that is large enough to cover most of the body of a child who is old enough to walk alone in the street should have fringes, Tzitziot. The T’chaylet, the blue thread, which the Torah mentions, is made from a dye that comes from a mollusk called the Hillazon. The identity of the Hillazon had been lost for many centuries, but in the past century, attempts have been made to identify it. The Rabbi of Radzin, Poland, claimed that he had found the Hillazon and had fringes produced with the blue thread for his followers. Even more recently, scientists in Israel claim to have identified the Hillazon and the blue dye, resulting in a rapid increase in the popularity of Tzitziot with the blue thread (Click here for more information).

Since the Bible states, “And you shall see them [the tzitziot] and remember all the commandments of G-d,” the mitzvah of Tzitzit is required only during the day, when they can be seen. Because the wearing of tzitzit is a positive mitzvah that depends upon time, women are exempted from performing this mitzvah.

One of my High School teachers tried to instill the fear of G-d in his students by warning them to wear Tzitziot at all times, not just during the daylight hours, lest, G-d forbid, an accident occur, and our bodies were found without Tzitziot. So much for positive reinforcement!

The mitzvah of Tzitzit is regarded as being of great importance in Judaism. In fact, the rabbis equate the mitzvah of tzitzit as being equal in value to all 613 mitzvot of the Torah. The reason for its exalted status may be because the Torah itself states, “That you shall see it and remember all the commandments of G-d.” The rabbis also underscore that the numerical value of the Hebrew word Tzitzit is equal to six hundred. Six hundred together with eight strings and five knots, equals 613.

Many of the classical commentaries emphasize that the blue thread is intended to remind one of the blue of the sea, which, in turn, recalls the blue of the sky and the Heavens. This series of linked reminders serve as a most effective way of raising one’s consciousness to all the commandments.

The Kli Yakar also suggests that by recalling the waters of the ocean, which must stay within certain defined bounds, the Tzitziot emphasize that the Jew must live within a defined structure. Without this religious structure, the consequences would be tragic.

The Ibn Ezra interestingly emphasizes that it is more important for a person to wear the Tzitzit garment during the day than to wear it during prayer. It is during one’s daily activities that a person is more in need of a reminder to perform all the commandments of G-d.

The Or HaChaim states that the four corners of the garment remind one that the Omnipresent G-d is the Ruler over all four corners of the earth and universe.

The Alshich states that wearing the fringes is a signal, like tying a string around one’s finger. However, only if one places meaning into the cue, does it serve as an effective reminder to act faithfully with G-d.

The Abarbanel suggests that, by wearing Tzitzit on one’s garments, it is hoped that one would think of the mitzvot at all times. Tzitziot are thus a vehicle to train the Jew to be constantly conscious of mitzvot and to perform mitzvot naturally without the need to be reminded.

The origin of the Hebrew word Tzitzit is somewhat obscure and challenging. Some relate the word Tzitzit to the verse found in Song of Songs 2:9. There, the beautiful maiden declares that her beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart. Behold, says the maiden, he stands behind our wall, looking in through the windows, and peering through the lattice work. The Hebrew words “May’tzeetz min ha’chah’rah’keem,” are translated as peers or peaks through the lattice work. The implication of this interpretation is that through the mitzvah of Tzitzit, G-d peeks at His people, constantly keeping an eye on them, watching out for their benefit and well-being, reminding them to be faithful and good. Perhaps another subliminal message is that a Jew is expected to look and dress as a Jew. No matter what the contemporary or current fashions are, a Jew should always identify proudly and have the ability to withstand the social pressures that lead to immodest dress and improper behavior.

Perhaps that is why the rabbis considered the mitzvah of Tzitzit to be equal to all 613 mitzvot.

Once again, with the mitzvah of Tzitzit, we encounter what seems to be a rather unpretentious mitzvah, which has major implications for Jewish life and Jewish practice. 

May you be blessed.