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Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

To Look and to Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

What are we to make of the puzzling instruction that the Israelites – men and women- are to place fringes on the corners of their garments? The reason, given in Numbers 15, is that they will look at these fringes and remember all of God’s commandments. They seem to be an aide-memoir, in much the same way as people used to tie knots in their handkerchiefs for similar reasons. Are these  fringes- tzitizit in Hebrew- a sophisticated way of knotting a hanky?

The instruction to make fringes is delivered through a series of verbs. The Israelites are to make the fringes, to put upon them a thread of blue wool, to see them, to remember and do all the divine commandments. This sequence of positive actions is followed by two short negatives; they are not to follow their hearts and eyes, not to go astray after them. Then the injunction to remember and keep the commandments is repeated.

The question is, how does making these tzitzit encourage people to remember and do all that they have been commanded? Equally, how do they stop them from going astray? It’s true that the fringes are a distinguishing feature, part of the Israelite uniform, people may indeed look at them and be reminded of their identity and of their religious duties. But will this happen every time? Isn’t it likely that sooner or later they will start to take these tzitzit for granted and stop thinking about them? After all, they wear them every day of their lives.

The injunction to wear tzitzit contains an inherent contradiction, which may provide a better explanation of why they operate as an aid to memory. They are to include a thread of wool, coloured blue with a dye that the Bible calls t’chelet. But if every garment must have a woollen thread on it, what about the inexplicable commandment in Deuteronomy (22,11) that they are not to mix wool and linen in the same? Does the requirement to have a woollen thread mean they can never wear a linen garment, for if they did they would be mixing the two materials? Or does the injunction to make fringes override the prohibition to mix wool and linen?

The Talmud recognises this contradiction and decides that fringed garments are exempt from the prohibition to mix wool and linen. It notes that the priests in the Jerusalem Temple wore clothes containing a mixture of these two materials. Although we might think that there is something reproachful about wearing a linen and wool mixture it seems that the opposite is the case: such mixtures are reserved only for the most sacred garments.

Which brings us back to the question of why these fringes act as an aid to memory. It is the contradiction they represent which makes them notable. The commandments are not simply modes of behaviour to be carried out by rote; they are activities that contain meaning, they are be understood as well as performed.

Even things as apparently unimportant as strings hanging off the bottom of a garment are devices to make us think. We may not always rise to the challenge of using the aide-memoir properly, but when we do, it should put us mind of more than just a few knots and fringes.

Harry Freedman’s 2014 book The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback on Amazon. His most recent book,  Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available through www.harryfreedmanbooks.com

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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