“Finding Meaning in the Rituals”
(Revised and updated from Shelach 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, concludes with the well-known third paragraph of the שְׁמַעShema prayer concerning the mitzvah of צִיצִיתTzitzit, fringes.

The first paragraph of the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, speaks of the love relationship between G-d and the People of Israel and the People of Israel and G-d. The second paragraph of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 11:13-21, speaks of the relationship of responsibility and accountability of the People of Israel toward G-d. The third paragraph of the Shema is found in our current parasha, Numbers 15:37-41, and focuses on the mitzvah of Tzitzit as a way of reminding the people of the exodus from Egypt. It also represents the actual implementation of the first two relationships, that by the observance of the ritual mitzvot, in this instance the example given is the Tzitzit, we indicate that the first two relationships are indeed valid.

It’s one thing to profess love for another person, and accept responsibility and accountability. But, the bottom line, as they say in Yiddish, is תַּכְלִיתtachlis, how we behave, how we perform, how we act toward the one whom we profess to love. That is why this third paragraph of the Shema is so crucial in our relationship with G-d.

One of the truly memorable Talmudic stories appears in Menachoth 44a. The rabbis there discuss the nature of the reward for the performance of mitzvot. Rabbi Nathan says that there is not a single precept in the Torah, even the most minor mitzvah, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world. Besides the reward in this world, Rabbi Nathan adds, there is no way of knowing how great the reward will be in the future, in the World to Come. As an example, Rabbi Nathan cites the precept of Tzitzit, and tells the following unusual story:

Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of Tzitzit, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who charged 400 gold dinars for her hire. He sent her 400 gold dinars and made an appointment. When the day arrived, he came and waited at her door. The maid announced his arrival and informed the matron: “That man who sent you 400 gold dinars is here and is waiting at the door.”

She replied: “Let him in.”

When he entered, she prepared for him seven beds–six of silver and one of gold, and between one bed and another were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then climbed up to the top bed and laid down upon it, removing her clothes. In his desire, he too went up after her, disrobed, and sat with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes, the Tzitzit of his garment, struck him across his face.

The young man slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. The woman too slipped off the bed, sat on the ground and said: “I swear by the Emperor of Rome, that I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me!”

“I swear by the Temple,” the young man replied, “that never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you. But, there is one precept which the L-rd our G-d has commanded us–it is called Tzitzit. And with regard to it, the expression ‘I am the lord your G-d’ is written twice, signifying that I am He Who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He Who will give reward in the future. Now the Tzitzit appear to me as four witnesses testifying against me.”

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, and the name of the school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her.

Thereupon, she arose and divided her estate into three parts, one third for the government (so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand. The bedclothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Bet Midrash of Reb Chiyah and said to him: “Master, give instructions about me that they may convert me to Judaism.”

“My daughter,” he replied, “Perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the students?” She thereupon took out the script (upon which the young man had written his name and house of study) and handed it to him.

“Go,” said he, “Enjoy your acquisition!”

Those very bedclothes which she had spread for him in an illicit manner, she now spread out for him lawfully. “This,” said Rabbi Nathan, “is the reward for the performance of precepts in this world. As for its rewards in the future world, I know not how great it is.”

This Talmudic story is not only intriguing, it also underscores the preciousness of the performance of mitzvot. We really do not know what value that G-d ascribes to our actions, good or bad, and what implications these actions have for our ultimate destiny in the World to Come. Surely, we face temptations daily, attempting to ensnare us. Yet, those who choose to do battle with the temptations and defeat them are certain to be rewarded handsomely.

Perhaps, there is also something to be said about Jewish garb, and how a Jew dresses, that played such an important role in the story: The yarmulka is supposed to create a sense of humility, reminding a man that G-d is hovering above him at all times. A woman dresses demurely, not only to project physical modesty, but also to reflect modesty of thought and attitude. Furthermore, a Jew is expected to avoid committing a חִלּוּל הַשֵּׁםChillul Hashem, of disgracing G-d’s name through the violation of מַרְאִית עַיִןMar’it Ayin—not to even appear to be doing something improper, let alone really do something improper!

Clothes do indeed reflect the human being. The fireman, the policeman, and the lady-of-the-night all wear garments which reflect their professions and their objectives. The ritual of Tzitzit, like the ritual of מְזוּזָהmezuzah, reminds us of G-d’s presence, which, hopefully, dwells with us at all times. The Tefillin underscore our desire to give our strength, our minds and our hearts to G-d. Eating kosher food recalls the preciousness of animal life and the sacredness of food.

Rituals work! Rituals really do work! And each of the rituals of Judaism have profound lessons to teach us. That’s why it is important to master the meanings of the rituals, rather than to simply perform them by rote. Only, once we master their meanings, can we truly appreciate the profundity of their messages. Tzitzit are not just strings for G-d, they actually bind us to G-d, help us communicate with G-d, help us remember G-d, especially during the challenging moments of temptation and potential compromise.

May you be blessed.