Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Parshat Shelach closes with a discussion of the mitzva of tzitzit, the commandment to place fringes on the corners of all four-cornered garments worn by men. While the majority of the tzitzit threads are to be white in color, each bundle of tzitzit is to contain at least one thread of techeilet, a shade of blue.
As mandated by the Torah, the mitzva of tzitzit is obligatory only if one happens to wear a four-cornered garment. The rabbis decree, however, that such a garment (a tallit katan, a small tallit) should be worn throughout the day in order to fulfill this mitzva continuously. The eventual institution of the tallit gadol, the large tallit, into Jewish practice, worn as a prayer shawl during the morning prayers and on other occasions, further reflects the significance of this mitzva.
The Talmud maintains that the mitzva of tzitzit is equivalent in importance to the sum of all other mitzvot combined.
What is the meaning of the mitzva of tzitzit and why do the rabbis attach such significance to its performance? What possible purpose could there be in placing fringes on our garments?
Is there any underlying philosophical significance to the white and blue threads of the tzitzit?
Why is this mitzva recorded in the text at this point, specifically in the aftermath of the tragic sin of the spies?
Rabbinic discussion concerning this mitzva begins at the most basic level, as the rabbis debate the very meaning of the Hebrew term tzitzit.
Rashi offers two alternative interpretations, each of which he supports with textual evidence. The term tzitzit, he says, refers either to the fringes themselves or to their role as a visible symbol meant to “be seen” (based on the root l’hatzitz, to see).
A number of commentators, including the Rashbam, view Rashi’s two approaches not as alternatives but as complementary interpretations. The term tzitzit, they maintain, defines, at once, both the physical structure of the mitzva and its ultimate purpose.
This dual meaning of the term tzitzit, these scholars claim, is reflected in the strange textual flow surrounding the mitzva. The Torah first states: “and they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments,” and then continues, “and it shall be for you as tzitzit and you shall see it.” Why would the Torah find it necessary to state that the tzitzit will serve for the Israelites as tzitzit?
Applying Rashi’s two interpretations simultaneously, the Rashbam explains the flow of text as follows: “and they shall make for themselves tzitzit [fringes on the corners of their four-cornered garments]…and it shall be for you as tzitzit [visible symbols] and you shall see it and you will remember et kol mitzvot Hashem, all of the mitzvot of the Lord.”
The mitzva of tzitzit thus consists of more than making and wearing fringes on four-cornered garments. To properly fulfill this mitzva, the fringes must “be seen”; they must serve as a visible symbol, inspiring the wearer to remember the entirety of Jewish law.
A fundamental question, however, remains: the text does not clearly explain how the tzitzit are meant to work. In what way will “seeing” these fringes remind the observer of “all the mitzvot of the Lord”?
In one of the earliest references to the symbolism of the tzitzit, the Talmud begins to answer this question by comparing the fringes to a “seal of clay” placed upon a slave as permanent confirmation of his status.
Numerous later commentaries pick up on this theme, explaining that God commands Jewish males to wear tzitzit on their four-cornered garments as a lasting reminder of their subservience to divine will.
The Sforno thus maintains: “When you see [the tzitzit], which are as a seal placed by a master upon his servants, you will remember that you are servants to an exalted God Whose commandments you accepted through an oath and a promise. Through this you will refrain from ‘straying after your hearts.’ ”
The Ba’al Hachinuch similarly notes: “No tool in the world is more effective for the purpose of remembrance than the seal of the master fixed upon [his servants’] everyday garments…which are before [the servant’s] heart and eyes throughout the day.”
To these and other scholars, the mechanism by which the tzitzit remind their wearer of “all the mitzvot of the Lord” is straightforward and concrete. These fringes comprise the uniform of an eved Hashem, a servant of the Lord. The individual who wears this uniform throughout the day will be constantly reminded of his role in God’s service and of its incumbent responsibilities. He will thus be encouraged not to stray in the direction of sin.
Why, however, are tzitzit specifically chosen as a reminder of servitude to God? Is the selection of these fringes arbitrary, similar to a ribbon tied around an individual’s finger as a prod to memory? Or, does some physical aspect of the tzitzit recommend them for their divinely ordained purpose?
Once these questions are raised, a variety of approaches to the specific symbolism of the tzitzit are suggested by the sages, running the gamut from pshat to Midrash and from the simple to the complex.
An early Midrashic source quoted by Rashi, for example, views the symbolism of the tzitzit in mathematical terms. The numerical value of the word tzitzit is six hundred. By adding the eight strands and five knots found in each set of fringes to that base number, we arrive at a total of six hundred thirteen, the sum of the mitzvot contained in the Torah. In this way, the Midrash maintains, the tzitzit serve as a reminder of “all the mitzvot of the Lord.”
After attacking Rashi’s approach on a number of grounds, the Ramban argues that the symbolic message of the tzitzit is specifically contained in the thread(s) of techeilet, the blue strand(s) found in each set of fringes. The color techeilet, the Ramban states, alludes to the tachlit (purpose) of all creation. The goal of the mitzva of tzitzit is not simply to remind the observer of “all the mitzvot,” but to remind the observer of the divine attribute of kol (all), the totally inclusive nature of God.
The Ramban finds support for his approach in a well-known Talmudic observation concerning techeilet: “Why is techeilet different from all other colors? Because techeilet resembles the [color of the] sea, and the sea resembles the [color of the] heavens, and the heavens resemble the [color of God’s] throne of glory.”
Symbolism of a vastly different nature is attributed to the techeilet by Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon in another early Midrashic source. Noting that the root word kalla, to complete or finish, is contained in the term techeilet, this scholar argues that the blue thread of the tzitzit is designed to remind the observer of the “complete” destruction of the Egyptians through the plague of the firstborn and the closing waters of the Reed Sea. Rashi adds that the blue shade of techeilet specifically resembles the color of the heavens as they darken towards night, the appointed time of the plague of the firstborn.
Other commentaries discern practical, moral lessons reflected in the blue thread of the tzitzit. The Ba’al Akeida, for example, maintains that techeilet lies midpoint on the color spectrum between the extremes of black and white. Techeilet is, therefore, included in each set of tzitzit to reflect the desirability of a balanced life path that eschews extremes.
Entering the kabbalistic, mystical realm, the Zohar perceives in the blended colors of the tzitzit a reflection of the attributes of God. The white threads represent midat harachamim, the divine attribute of compassion. The strand(s) of techeilet, on the other hand, signify midat hadin, the divine attribute of strict justice (see Shmot: Va’eira 1, Approaches E for a discussion concerning the divine attributes).
Finally, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that the white threads of the tzitzit symbolically denote “clarity, rationality and that which is self-evident.” Techeilet, on the other hand, “focuses our thoughts on the grand mysteries of human experience which elude our precise understanding.”With inimitable eloquence, the Rav applies the symbolic balance created by the colors of the tzitzit to three distinct areas of human experience:
1. In the scientific realm.
In scientific inquiry, the physical sciences, i.e., physics, chemistry, biology, etc., lend themselves to mathematical precision….
It is when the focus of inquiry changes to man’s psyche and abstract verities that inexactitude and uncertainty intrude….
The universe will yield its secrets to the organized scientific pursuit. But the one thread of techeilet pertains to the spiritual realm,where man is humbled by the mystery of existence. Here he needs the guidance of revelation and the religious perceptions of the soul.
2. In our personal lives.
We have all had periods, even of an extended nature, which are rational, planned, and predictable, when we feel that we have a hold on events. At other times, however, mystery and puzzlement intervened, dislocating the pattern of our lives and frustrating all our planning….
Inexplicable events render us humbled. This is the tekhelet [techeilet] of human experience.
3. The enigma of Jewish history.
If Jewish history operated solely with white, we would not be fighting for Israel today. From the standpoint of reason and logistics, our efforts against imponderable odds are insane….
Only people sustained by tekhelet could be motivated to constitute a state after two thousand years of exile. Nations governed only by white mock us incredulously and derisively….
The garment of Jewish life will yet possess both blue and white, and our historical yearnings and sacrifices will be vindicated.
To the mind of the Rav, the tzitzit serve as a constant reminder of those elements of our existence that lie within man’s comprehension, as well as those that lie beyond.
Countless other approaches are suggested by the scholars as they struggle to unravel the mysteries behind the ever-present symbol of the tzitzit.
One final insight into the mitzva of tzitzit can be derived from an enigmatic linguistic connection between this mitzva and the tragic event with which the parsha opened.
As the curtain rose on Parshat Shelach, Moshe sent twelve spies latur et Eretz Canaan, “to explore the land of Canaan.” Now, at the end of the parsha, the Torah summarizes the purpose of the tzitzit by declaring: V’lo taturu acharei levavchem v’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem, “And you shall not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray.” The Torah’s repeated use of the uncommon verb latur, to explore, seems to link the disparate themes found at the endpoints of the parsha. What, however, is the thrust of this association? What possible link can be suggested between the sin of the spies and the mitzva of tzitzit?
Perhaps the answer lies in Judaism’s overall attitude towards exploration of the physical world. For while the Torah here warns, “you shall not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray,” investigation of our physical surroundings is not only generally permitted by most halachic authorities, but encouraged. No less a luminary than the Rambam maintains:
And what is the path that will lead to the fear and love [of God]? At the moment when an individual considers His wondrous and great creations and works and perceives within them His matchless and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves, praises, glorifies Him and is seized with an overwhelming desire to know His great name.
Such exploration becomes hazardous, however, when we forget the basic assumptions that are meant to guide our journey. Like the spies sent by Moshe on a legitimate mission to explore Canaan, we stumble off course in our own “explorations” when we lose sight of God’s presence in our lives and when we despair of our own self-worth.
The mitzva of tzitzit is necessary specifically because we do not close ourselves off from the outside world. As we traverse our own physical surroundings, the tzitzit serve as an ever-present reminder of our regal role as avdei Hashem, servants of the Lord.