Mordechai Silverstein

No Fringe Act

The last paragraph of Parshat Shlakh Lekha, Parshat Tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41), took on a prominent liturgical role when it was included as the third paragraph of the Shema, where it was to be recited twice daily by every believing Jew. While the purpose of its inclusion has been debated, it is likely that the ritual fringes – tzitzit, referred to in this parashah, played a significant inspirational religious role which complimented the faith commitments of the Shema – V’ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) – recognition and love of God and V’haya im Shimoa (Deuteronomy 11:13-17) – commitment to the observance of God’s commandments. This role is embodied in the following verses from Parshat Tzitzit:

And the Lord said to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them that they shall make them a fringe (tzitzit) on the skirts of their garments for their generations and place on the fringe of the skirt a tekhelet thread (p’til tekhelet).  And it shall be a fringe (tzitzit) for you, and you shall see it (oto) and be mindful of all the Lord’s commandments and you shall do them…’ (Numbers 15:37-39)

At first glance (especially in English), it might seem clear that the tzitzit are the intended source of inspiration, but the pronoun “oto” is masculine and the word “tzitzit” is feminine. This grammatical quandary proved to be the source for some interesting interpretation. The earliest such rabbinic interpretation on record is from the period of the Mishnah (Sifrei Bemidbar, the Tannaitic midrash on the book of Numbers):

Rabbi Meir says: ‘It does not say “And you shall see”, but rather “and you shall see it (oto)” Scripture comes to tell us that all who fulfill the mitzvah of tztzit it is accounted as if they have greeted the face of God’s presence (the Shekhina), for tekhelet is like [the color] of the sea and the sea like the firmament and the firmament like the divine throne, as it says: ‘Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne…’ (Ezekiel 1:26)” (Sifrei Bemidbar 115, Kahana ed. p. 322)

It is clear that for Rabbi Meir, “oto” refers to God, but the inspiration for this identification derived from the “p’til tekhlet” (masculine) – the blue thread which was wound around the white fringes of the tzitzit.  And so, for Rabbi Meir, a student of Rabbi Akiva, the purpose of the tzitiziyot and, in particular, the p’til tekhelet, is to inspire those who wear a garment with tzitzit to keep God’s presence constnatly in mind. (See Kahana’s commentary on this midrash)

Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor (France 12th century), resolves this textual quandary differently:

This [mitzvah is performed] only for the purpose of recollection, for when one sees this mitzvah, he remembers and pays attention to observe the mitzvot, since tzitzit are like a seal (or emblem) on one’s clothing and are intended to act like a sign (siman – masculine noun) on a slave’s [clothing] binding him to his master; so,too,  when Israel sees, they remember that they are bound to the Holy One Blessed be He and that it is incumbent upon them to fulfill all of the commandments.

This explanation is rounded off with a midrash also quoted by Rashi:

Tzitzit – 600 in gematria, 8 threads and five knots – that is, 613 commandments – so that when one sees them, one is reminded of the commandments…

Bekhor Shor’s reading of this paragraph reinforces the message of the second paragraph of the Shema – a Jews commitment to fulfil God’s will.

Wearing a garment with tzitzit, then, serves as a constant faith reminder of the most significant elements of what makes a Jew a Jew – a faith relationship with God, namely recognition and love togehter with the joy of carrying out God’s mitzvot. That is  no small accomplishment for the fringes on a garment.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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