What Do Tzitzit Represent?
Rabbinic Judaism attaches great significance to the commandment to add tzitzit (fringes) to the corners of garments. The section about tzitzit in Numbers 15 must be recited twice a day as part of the Shema, the central prayer of the liturgy, and one of the earliest midrashic collections (Sifrei Zuta 15) claims that:
שמצות ציצית שקולה כנגד כל המצות וכל הרגיל בה כאלו קיים כל המצות כולן.
The commandment of tzitzit is as important as all the other commandments [together], and he who regularly wears tzitzit is considered as if he observed all the commandments.
The midrash connects this teaching to the dramatic way that the Torah introduces the mitzvah:
במדבר טו:לט וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹ֣ת ה֔’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם: טו:מ לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
Num 15:39 You shall look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 15:40Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.
The Torah here asserts that just looking at the tzitzit, or perhaps at the tekehelet colored thread (Num 15:38), has a salutary effect on those wearing tzitzit, causing them to remember all the mitzvot and to observe them. As the Talmud describes the process (b. Menachot 43b):
ראיה מביאה לידי זכירה, זכירה מביאה לידי עשיה
Seeing leads to memory, and memory leads to action.
The experience of rituals and the comprehension of their value are meant to lead to loftier ethical and religious behavior. But what exactly are people supposed to see and think about when they look at the fringe on a garment?
Rabbis over the ages attached different meanings to the idea of looking at the tzitzit. These include:
Reminder of the Shema
A Talmudic passage (b. Menachot 43b) suggests that wearing tzitzit reminds one of the Shema:
וראיתם אותו וזכרתם – ראה מצוה זו וזכור מצוה אחרת התלויה בו, ואיזו זו? זו קרית שמע.
“Look at it and remember”: Look at this mitzvah and thus recall another mitzvah connected to it. Which one? Reciting the Shema.
The mechanism here is simple, since tzitzit are mentioned in the third paragraph of the Shema. (This would then come full circle, since reciting the Shema would remind someone to wear tzitzit.)
Reminder that Jews are God’s Servants
Another interpretation, offered by R. Hezekiah ben Manoach (Ḥazzequni, 13th cent.), is that seeing the tzitzit reminds Jews that they are God’s servants, since they are keeping His commandment, and thus increases the likelihood of their compliance with God’s other commandments.
Greeting the Face of God
Another explanation of the function of looking at the tzitzit is offered in Sifrei Numbers 115:
וראיתם אותו מגיד הכתוב שכל המקיים מצות ציצית מעלים עליו כאלו הקביל פני שכינה שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע והרקיע דומה לכסא הכבוד.
וראיתם אותו: The verse teaches us that those who observe the mitzvah of tzitzit, it is as if they have greeted the face of the divine presence (Shekhinah). For tekhelet is the color of the sea and the sea is like the sky and the sky is like the Divine Throne.
The connection of this midrash to the phrase וראיתם אותו can be understood in two different ways. The midrash may be reading the word אותו the same way that the previous explanations did: “[look at] it.” Alternatively, the midrash may be reading the phrase more audaciously, understanding וראיתם אותו as meaning “look at Him [= God].”
This latter understanding of the phrase apparently underlies another Talmudic passage:
ורשב”י אומר: כל הזריז במצוה זו – זוכה ומקבל פני שכינה, כתיב הכא: וראיתם אותו, וכתיב התם: את ה’ אלהיך תירא ואותו תעבוד.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai says: Whoever is careful about observing this mitzvah merits greeting the face of the Shekhinah. For here it says “you shall see אותו [understood here as ‘Him’]” and in another passage it says (Deut 6:13) “Revere only the LORD your God and worship אותו [Him].”
In his Talmudic commentary, Rashi makes this anthropomorphic idea of seeing God explicit:
כתיב הכא וראיתם אותו וכתיב התם ואותו תעבוד – מה להלן שכינה אף כאן שכינה.
Here it says you shall see אותו and in another passage it says “worship אותו”: Just as in the second passage [אותו refers to] the Shekhinah, so also here [אותו refers to] the Shekhinah.
In other words, the verse itself is interpreted as containing an explicit reference to seeing God or God’s presence. Particularly before the days of Moses Maimonides, many Jews saw no difficulty interpreting biblical verses as saying that God, or God’s Presence, was something that could be seen.
Tzitzit Saves a Person from Sin
Rabbinic literature contains a number of stories about people being mysteriously or miraculously saved from sin, particularly sin of a sexual nature, by seeing their tzitzit. This explanation is based on the claim of the Torah that looking at the tzitzit causes you not to be led astray: “ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר אתם זנים אחריהם—so that you do not stray after your heart and your eyes in your lustful urge.”
Noting that people most frequently wear tzitzit on their prayer shawl (for the custom of wearing a separate garment, a tallit qatan, under one’s clothes is relatively late), Abraham ibn Ezra, in his Yesod Mora veSod Torah, drew attention to the problem involved in this:
ואין המתעטף עושה מצוה שלמה כי הוא חיוב כל היום ובהיותו בשוק ורואה צורות אז יתור לבו אחרי עיניו יותר מאשר יתור בשעת התפלה. והזכרתי זה בעבור שראיתי אנשים רבים אינם יראי השם והם מתעטפים בטלית דרך כבוד לנפשם.
A person who wears a tallit [in synagogue] has not fully performed this mitzvah, because it is actually an obligation all day long. When he is in the market and sees forms (that is, pretty women), his heart will be led astray by his eyes, more than while he is praying. I mention this because I have seen many people who do not fear God but they wear a tallitfor their own honor.
Why Tzitzit of All Things?
Aside from the mystical explanation that the tekhelet of tzitzit reminds us of the seas and of the heavens and of God, rabbinic literature has little to say about why tzitzit would remind the Israelites to keep God’s commandments. Rashi (to Numbers 15:39), for example, needs to have recourse to numerology in an attempt to find meaning in tzitzit.
וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ – שמנין גימטריא של ציצית שש מאות, ושמונה חוטים וחמשה קשרים הרי תרי”ג:
[The tzitzit will remind one of all the commandments] because the numerical value of the letters of the word tzitzit is six hundred, and there are eight threads and five knots in the fringes, so that you have six hundred and thirteen [which is also the number of the commandments of the Torah].
Modern critical Bible scholarship moves the discussion into a new direction.
The Importance of the Ancient Near Eastern Hem
In 1981, in an article titled “The Tassel and the Tallith,” Jacob Milgrom showed how ancient Near Eastern literature and art teach us the importance of the hem of a person’s garment. “It is an extension of its owner’s person and authority.” “The more important the individual, the more elaborate the embroidery of his hem.” Milgrom draws our attention to the scene in 1 Samuel 24:3-21, when David cuts off the hem of Saul’s garment and later feels remorse for doing so, while Saul concludes “Now I know that you [David] will indeed reign.”
What was the reason for David’s remorse and for Saul’s response? The answer rests in the meaning of the hem: it was an extension of Saul’s person and authority. David felt remorse for taking it because God had not so ordered. Saul, however, regarded it as a sign from God that his authority had been transferred to David: he was now cut off from the throne.
At times, hems were so unique that the impression of a hem on a document replaced a signature. Thus, when Tamar demands that Judah leave with her his identification, she asks for his seal, his staff, and his cord/tassel (פתיל; Gen 38:18, 25).
Tzitzit are a way of extending the hem. The significance of such an elaborate hem “lies in this: it was worn by those who counted: it was the ID of nobility.”
In his Anchor Bible commentary (ad loc.), Baruch Levine points out the similarity between the Hebrew word tzitzit and the Akkadian word for ornament (ṣiṣṣātu). E. A. Speiser has suggested that the practice in the synagogue to this day of pressing the edge of the tallit to the Torah scroll when it is carried around or read is a relic of ancient customs relating to the hem.
All Israelites Are Aristocrats
If tzitzit turn those who wear them into members of the nobility, Israelites who wear them, following the command of the Torah, should see themselves as aristocrats, and understand that their lofty status comes from God. This is possibly what the Torah means by seeing tzitzit and being reminded of God’s commandments.
The Meaning of the Tekhelet
Milgrom explains that the tekhelet thread on the tzitzit functions similarly. While there are many suggestions as to what precise color tekhelet is, Milgrom sees it as “dark purple-blue,” a color associated cross-culturally with royalty. We know that there was a well-developed industry in Lebanon and Northern Israel for making purple dye from the hillazon, a type of snail. Purple dye was expensive, so wearing purple clothing was often a sign of nobility.
The Torah assumes that every Israelite would be able to afford a thread dyed with purple-blue. However, as Milgrom writes, “The Jewish community following the two Roman wars [i.e. in the second century C.E.] was so impoverished that many could not afford even the one blue-dyed cord” and thus the commandment was fulfilled beginning then without the tekhelet thread. As a result, the precise formula for making tekhelet was lost. For most of the last two thousand years, Jews fulfil this mitzvah without the tekhelet thread that is an intrinsic part of the Torah’s description of the mitzvah.
Shaatnez in Tzitzit: A Priestly Mix of Wool and Linen
In addition to the importance of an elaborate hem and the use of a tekhelet thread, Milgrom explains a third aspect of the nobility/aristocracy explanation of tzitzit. The classical rabbis already noticed that tzitzit either often are or perhaps are supposed to be shaatnez— made from the forbidden mixture of linen and wool. They assumed that the Israelite’s garment itself would be made of linen and the added threads or tassels would be made of wool. They found support for this idea in the juxtaposition of two verses in Deuteronomy 22:
יא לֹ֤א תִלְבַּשׁ֙ שַֽׁעַטְנֵ֔ז צֶ֥מֶר וּפִשְׁתִּ֖ים יַחְדָּֽו:
11 You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.
יב גְּדִלִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֑ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֛ע כַּנְפ֥וֹת כְּסוּתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּכַסֶּה־בָּֽהּ:
12 You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.
They explained that the second verse was an exception to the first: you are not allowed to wear clothing combining wool and linen, except when you put tassels onto your clothes.Milgrom agrees with the rabbis that tzitzit involve an infraction of the rules of shaatnez. Why this exception?
Milgrom argues that shaatnez is forbidden to Israelite commoners as it is reserved for the priestly class in Judaism, some of whose clothes are, according to the instructions in Exodus 28, made of a combination of wool and linen. Only on their tzitzit may Israelite commoners have shaatnez.
It is a conscious attempt by the Torah to encourage all Israelites to aspire to a degree of holiness comparable to that of the priests. . . . The fact that the cord is woolen and blue marks it as a symbol of both priesthood and royalty, thereby epitomizing the divine imperative that Israel become ‘a priestly royalty and a holy nation’ (Exod 19:36).
Milgrom concludes that tzitzit is the epitome of the democratic thrust within Judaism, which equalizes not by leveling but by elevating: all of Israel is enjoined to become a nation of priests.
Women and Tzitzit: Are Some Israelites More Equal than Others?
In the 21st century it is challenging to see the mitzvah of tzitzit as epitomizing democracy and equality since, in almost all Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, tallitot are worn exclusively or predominantly by men. But an examination of early rabbinic texts shows that that has not always been the official rabbinic position.
The Talmud (b. Menachot 40-43 and y. Berakhot 3:3 [6b]; see also Sifrei 115) records that the opinion of the majority of rabbis was that women were obligated to wear tzitzit to the same extent that men were. The Talmud relates that one second-century sage, Rabbi Judah, used to “attach blue-dyed (fringes) to the aprons of the women of his household.” (b. Menachot 43a). Only one second-century rabbi, Rabbi Shimon, was listed as exempting women from the commandment of tzitzit.
Forbidding Women to Wearing Tzitzit
Medieval rabbis generally adopted Rabbi Shimon’s position. Most ruled, though, that women were allowed to wear a garment with tzitzit if they wished. Some medieval authorities ruled that women who wore tzitzit could recite the blessing (praising God אשר קדשנו במצותיו וציונו להתעטף בציצית–who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit). Others disagreed. By late medieval and early modern times many rabbis actively opposed women wearing tzitzit. For example, Rabbi Jacob b. Moses Moellin (Maharil; Germany, c. 1360-1427) provides us with evidence that some women in his days still wore tzitzit but he writes:
אף כי ראיתי נשים שלובשות ד’ כנפות מצויצת ועוד היום אחת בשכונתינו, נראה דאינו אלא [מן?] המתמיהין ויוהרא חשיבנא להו ומקרו הדיוטות
Even though I have seen women wearing four-cornered garments with fringes, and still today there is one woman in our neighborhood, it seems astonishing to me and is arrogant of them. They are fools.
In the last few decades liberal Jewish writers, even some from Orthodox circles, have advocated for Jewish women to again observe the commandment of tzitzit, basing themselves on the early rabbinic texts.
Tzitzit and Democracy in the Eyes of a Gentile
Interesting support for the claim that the mitzvah of tzitzit democratizes and equalizes is found in a book written by a philosemitic French Catholic, Aimé Pallière, a lover of the Hebrew language, around 90 years ago. Pallière traces the beginning of his own positive attitude to Judaism to when he was seventeen years old and happened to visit a synagogue in Lyons in the final hours of Yom Kippur, as the Neilah prayer was being recited. Looking back as an adult, he describes his early impressions:
The spectacle of that large number of men assembled, their shoulders covered by Taliths, suddenly disclosed to my eyes a far-off past. . . . On seeing the prayer-shawls uniformly worn by all the participants in the service, I felt that in a way they were all officiating. . . . In fact, in the synagogue service, all Jews are equal, all are priests, all may participate in the holy functions, even officiate in the name of the entire community, when they have the required training.
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June 13, 2017
January 15, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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