Tzitzit

At the end of our parsha we encounter the commandment to place tzitzit or fringes on the kenafot, the “wings” or corners of our garments. (Bamidbar 15:38.) The other mention of this commandment, in parshat “Ki Tetzei”, also mentions that the fringes need to be on the kenaf. (Devarim 22:12.)

The outward-flowing fringes, placed on the very edge of the garment, suggest openness to the world and reaching out to it. We can contrast this with armor, which is doubled inward in order to insulate us from the world and protect us from it (Shemot 28:32 and Rashi). In modern terms, we can contrast the flowing fringes of the Sixties flower children who wanted to connnect with the world with the doubled-in pants cuffs that were customary among regimented business men of the same era. (Long hair – or peyot – and beards versus short hair and a clean shave present a parallel contrast.)

More specifically, the commandment of tzitzit expresses the idea that the commandments give extension to our spirituality. Our soul does not remain in the world of spirit, but rather descends into this world to be clothed in a body, which enables it to be a vital force in the material world. The body in turn is covered with garments. Garments extend our ability to act in this world by protecting us, and give expression to our divine soul by providing modesty and adornment.

The tzitzit, placed on the corners of the garments to maximize their extension (SA OC 11:9), are made part of the garment by virtue of the mitzvah. (SA OC 13:1.) This demonstrates that the mizvot extend even further our ability to influence this world, by reaching out and filling it with sanctity.

Even so, the tzitzitTzitzit:Placement may not be too close to the edge of the garment. (SA OC 11:9.) They can not serve as an adequate conduit of our spirituality unless they are firmly anchored in their source. This same idea can help us understand why the garment itself requires certain minimum dimensions. (SA OC 16.) If the tallit doesn’t provide some minimal covering then it itself can not adequately embrace the human spirit it clothes; therefore the symbolism of further extending the reach of the spirit through the tzitzit is lost.

This approach can give us new insight into certain limitations and customs regarding the tzitzit.

Night is a period of inactivity and drawing inward, and so it is natural that the primary commandment of tzitzit is only during the day. (SA OC 18.) The Torah also generally depicts the role of women as inward and protected compared to the role of men, and so it is natural that the outer-directed mitzvah of tzitzit applies primarily to men. (SA OC 17:2. Perhaps this is also why women do not have beards, which we suggested above have a similar symbolism.)

Prayer, unlike the active commandments which demand involvement with the world, involves withdrawal from the outer world as we journey inward and upward. As we begin the first stage of this withdrawal, reciting barukh sheamar at the beginning of pesukei dezimra, we symbolically take hold of the fringes, preventing their extension and drawing them inward and upward. (MB 51:1.)