I experienced my first taste of yeshiva learning when I was a 20-something wannabe rock star. My band had just broken up and I was in between recording clients. After perusing an attractive brochure that appeared in the mail, I applied for the all-expenses paid scholarship to study in Jerusalem. I interviewed with Richard Horowitz, a businessman who I later learned covered the cost of my flight. Aish HaTorah provided an incredible curriculum with a dozen brilliant rabbis teaching us hour by hour in an Ottoman Empire study hall perched atop the Old City walls. I considered the millennia-old alleyways my personal playground and had the Western Wall in my front yard. Religious expectations of us new students were nil; we filled our days with Judaic studies and travel, and nights were spent out on the town or in deep conversations until dawn. The neophytes didn’t have to attend the yeshiva prayer services, but since I had a fair grasp of the basics from Hebrew school, I would occasionally don the tallis (or tallit, prayer shawl) given to me for my Bar Mitzvah and join the minyan.
Once, after Shacharit, a peer announced, “Sam, you don’t need to wear that tallis here.” “Why not?” I responded, “I feel more comfortable praying with it.” He gently explained that according to Ashkenazi tradition, men don’t wear a tallis until they are married. I looked around the minyan and saw he was right. “But what about the last paragraph of the Sh’ma? I need a tallis to kiss the tzitzit, right?” “Look, Sam,” he replied, “Just go with it. This way the single ladies on the other side of the mechitza (room divider) know who the single men are.” That was all I needed to hear…I never wore a tallis again until I was married.
I enjoyed four months of intense learning and growth on that formative trip. I was on fire! Loving Torah study, loving Jerusalem, perceiving God’s presence from one end of the universe to the other. When I reached my last Shabbat there, it was bittersweet. I prayed an abbreviated service at the Wall in a state of torment. How could I leave this magical place, this medieval “Jewish Disneyland?” I felt I had learned more in those four months than in four years at my university. But there was also an undercurrent of homesickness, missing my extended family and my beachside apartment. One by one, the rabbis pulled me aside to discourage me from going back to L.A. so soon. Particularly Rabbi Weinberg, my beloved Rosh Yeshiva. “C’mon Sam, give us a year,” he implored, looking at me with that trademark gleam in his eye.
I felt so vulnerable next to the massive Herodian stones as I stood at the base of the Kotel. I thought to myself, it’s been so good getting to know You, God. I am so grateful for this chance to learn and celebrate my Judaism in this incredible country. I love You. Thank You. Tears streamed down my face. I had been touched for life; this knowledge of the truth and power of Torah was now a part of me. I recited a few passages in the P’sukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and then the Sh’ma. I really wish I had my tallis on right now, I silently prayed. I feel naked without it. Just then I heard footsteps behind me. Before I could turn around, a man with an intimidating beard tapped my shoulder and motioned that I should come over and join a minyan at the back of the Western Wall plaza.
I reluctantly followed, still not sure what he wanted from me. He led me to Rabbi Scheinberger, a kabbalist and famous Kotel personality, who indicated I should be the one to serve as hagbah (one honored with lifting the Torah at the end of the public reading). I had no idea why he picked me but I stepped right up and grasped the worn wooden handles. I unrolled the scroll a bit and thrust it as high as my 6’3 frame would allow. Suddenly, as I spun around to allow those present to see the carefully crafted letters, an oversized tallis was draped over my shoulders. Shaking with emotion, I recalled Rav Noah’s statement: “Here in Jerusalem, reaching God is a “local call!”
My next connection with a tallis would be at my wedding seven years later. I sent my Israel-bound mom on a mission to purchase a perfect tallis. She returned with a black and white striped, super lightweight, extra large garment and “sold” it to my fiancé (the custom is for the wife to give the sacred shawl to her new husband). That sunny August afternoon, we stretched it atop four poles and gathered underneath as a cavalcade of seven illustrious rabbis gave us our blessings. Now, whenever I wear it, I think of that day and feel the hug of my wife as well as the comfort of God’s “wings” holding me close.
Each morning, we recite a short prayer called Ma Yakar when donning the tallis. Since I find it difficult to hold a book while surrounding myself in the flowing fabric, I wrote the text into a song to aid in the memorization of the words. I resonate with the sentiment of standing in the “shadow of God’s wings” and I intentionally linger in this space. Later in the service, before saying the Sh’ma, the custom is to collect the fringes from the four corners of the garment together in one hand. The words we say while gathering them is an impassioned request for God to assemble Jews from the four corners of the earth to Zion. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach told me he collects the tzitzit deliberately and lovingly as if he’s holding all the Children of Israel in a warm embrace. So I do it the same way. During the last paragraph of the Sh’ma, we delicately kiss the fringes every time we mention the word tzitzit. This intimate act has been performed by legions of brutish, sleepy men every morning for millennia.
The “forget me knot” fringes tell a story of their own: the gematria (numerical value) of the word tzitzit is 600. Add that to the eight strings and five knots in each corner and you get the mystical number of 613, the sum total of commandments enumerated in the Torah. Furthermore, one of the strings is dyed blue with the ink of a certain snail (although today most people don’t have this blue thread). The idea is to see the beautiful aqua blue and think of the sea, which reminds us of the sky, which then conjures up a vision of the Kisei Hakavod, God’s Heavenly Throne. By observing our breathtaking natural world, we can extrapolate the presence of the Creator and concretize that relationship with the observance of the 613 commandments. A “tzitz” in Hebrew is a spark. This foundational mitzvah can ignite our spiritual connection much like a spark plug keeps a car engine humming.
Since the tallis is typically worn only during the morning service, there is a way to stay connected to the mitzvah all day: I wear a tallit katan, a small t-shirt-style cotton garment under my shirt. Some tuck in the fringes to maintain a low profile. I say, let them hang out–I celebrate my tzitzit! After all, the mitzvah is based on seeing the fringes and then connecting to God and the commandments.
The tallit katan is a covert badge of honor. A Torah lifestyle offers impeccable integrity training. Those wearing this simple undergarment are typically supersensitized to “choosing life” and distancing from the voice of the yetzer harah (evil inclination). They are on a path of learning, scrupulous with mitzvot and committed to family and community. Most are honest to a fault and pursue heroic acts of loving-kindness. This degree of integrity is based on morals clarified in a relationship with a Living God. Of course, there are those wearing the garb who fall from grace or are agents of destruction in society. They represent an infinitesimally small percentage of the k’lal (group) and their infractions are often surprising enough to make headlines. Some of my friends claim they have no interest in spiritual growth since they have heard about such miscreants. I urge them not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, saying, “Don’t confuse Jews with Judaism!”
I must admit it was a profound challenge for this surf-short-wearing California kid to add another layer of clothing. As I have mentioned before, quoting Pirkei Avot, “According to the effort is the reward.” Sometimes I sweat and yes, it’s worth it. Since I’m always on the move, I’m pretty tough on my fringes. Therefore, I learned to weave my own replacement tzitzit, a skill I practice on long airplane flights. The people sitting next to me think I’m doing some sort of bizarre crochet. I try to weave with mindfulness and carefully follow the tradition of winding the string in between the knots 7, 8, 11 and 13 times, hinting towards the metaphysical values of those numbers. I tell my curious seatmates that wearing fringes is an optional commandment–we only have to place them on four-cornered garments. Unless you are living in Mexico and wear a poncho, it’s pretty rare to find such angular clothing. Therefore, by actively seeking out a garment with distinct corners, we are making the powerful statement we desire to be close with the Almighty all day long.
There is an amusing coda to the aforementioned story at the Western Wall: during a recent concert tour in Israel, I wound up at Rabbi Scheinberger’s Friday night service at the Kotel. After the davening, I asked the rabbi if he remembered when he called a young stranger from across the Kotel plaza to be hagbah. He didn’t recall the day but looked me up and down and remarked, “That makes sense…I like giving hagbah to tall guys.”
My relationship with my prayer shawl and tallit katan is a loving one, as long as the temperature doesn’t get too hot! I have fond memories of playing with the fringes of my dad’s tallis at our synagogue. Now it is my turn to cherish this mitzvah. Whereas once I felt I had to be undercover with my Judaism, displaying this round-the-clock four-cornered garment has become a celebrated part of my life. I have some wonderful fans in the Jewish deaf community who have shared with me the sign language gesture for Sam Glaser: two hands at the waist with fluttering fingers pointing down, imitating my fringes.
Try on a tallis. Savor the moment, the secluded, private space shared only with God. May we all reap the benefits of life on the fringe.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 CDs of his music and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. He produces albums and scores for media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.