Shiur #54: The Mitzva of Tzitzit (Part II)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi
As we previously mentioned, alongside the act of seeing that is required by the mitzva of tzitzit – "that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them" – Scripture wishes to distance us from a different kind of seeing – "and that you go not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray." This seeing is formulated differently – ve-lo taturu, "and that you not go after" – language that recalls the story of the spies who were sent to explore (la-tur) the land.
Two powerful forces operate in man – the inclination and yearnings of the heart and the eye that sees and takes in the surrounding space. The two passages, the story of the spies and the section dealing with tzitzit, test these two forces. The eye stands in the center, prompting the heart's reaction. In his commentary, Rashi cites the words of Midrash Tanchuma, which connects the two juxtaposed passages:
"That you go not after your own heart” – The heart and the eyes are the spies of the body. They act as its agents for sinning; the eye sees, the heart covets, and the body commits the sin.
The eyes explore the world and absorb whatever they see, without further examination. This is the way of an explorer (tayar), who looks at the world from the outside, like a guest, and not as a homeowner, who feels responsible for what his eyes see and take in.
This is the difference between the two terms used in our passage: the seeing that is required – "that you make look (u-re'item)" – as opposed to the seeing that we are admonished to avoid – "that you not go after (taturu) your eyes." Both involve a process. On the one hand, seeing leads to remembering, and remembering to doing, while on the other hand, the seeing of the eyes leads to the desire of the heart, and from there to actions of the body. Furthermore, the seeing of the eyes activates the memory, which is concentrated in the brain, the dwelling place of the mind and reason, and from there to action and application, unlike the "straying of the eyes," which is rooted in exploration, which activates the heart and the desires.
It should be noted that the heart is mentioned here before the eyes, for at times the desires of the heart precede the seeing of the eyes – when the heart desires certain sights, and the person is drawn after it. This is not deliberate looking, but rather being drawn after the heart and the eyes. This is what Rashi means when he says: "The heart and the eyes are the spies of the body."
The connection between the spies and the mitzva of tzitzit is closely related to following after one's heart and eyes. The Torah presents the gap between them by using the verb la-tur, which is negated in the passage dealing with tzitzit, as the verb that describes the central role of the spies in their mission.
Much has been said and written about the sin of the spies. In this framework, we will emphasize only one question: Do the spies wish to see the land and understand its nature, or to they wish to explore it?
Already in Egypt, at the beginning of Parashat Va’era, in God's first significant revelation to Moshe, when He describes the vision and destiny that He sees for the children of Israel, God tells Moshe to say to the Israelites:
And I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov as God Almighty, but by My name the Lord I made Me not known to them. And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, where they sojourned. And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the children of Israel: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted my hand to give it to Abraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord. (Shemot 6:2-8)
The land of Canaan is the land of God, which He designated for the people of Israel, His chosen and special people, after He will provide them with great good and blessing before they reach their destination. Someone who is sent to the land that has been designated for him by God is supposed to look at it from the perspective of an affinity to the place, like a person who looks at his home and examines how he will build his life in it in the best possible manner. Instead, the spies chose to explore the land, like someone who comes to a place to which he has no connection. They come "to the land where you sent us" (Bamidbar 13:27), and not to "the land which I give to the children of Israel" (verse 2). From this perspective, they stray after their eyes and after their hearts, instead of seeing God's promise concerning the land and remembering all the good provide by Him and how He takes care of all their needs. As Kalev and Yehoshua say:
And they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying, “The land, which we pass through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it to us, a land which flows with milk and honey. Only rebel not against the Lord, neither fear you the people of the land; for they are bread to us; their defense is removed from over them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.” (Bamidbar 14:7-9)
The mitzva of tzitzit guides a person towards proper vision and prevents him from following his heart and eyes. A person's natural garment turns into a mitzva garment when he adds to it fringes and a thread of blue, thereby casting a mission upon the person in all the walks of his life. From now on, all his actions will aspire to be dictated and influenced by this seeing, which will lead to blessed action.
The Meshekh Chochma explains the reason of this mitzva:
In my opinion, the intention of the mitzva of tzitzit is as follows: It is known that the Creator, may He be blessed, in His wisdom that is at one with Him, created a reality that is fitting for him. It testifies to His perfection and wisdom and to His necessary and primary existence. But our mundane world He created and rested it in the hands of the creature who is endowed with choice, as the verse states: "And the earth he gave to the children of man" (Tehillim 115:16), so that he would complete its creation and bring it to a lofty and noble state… Now, regarding creation as a whole, we find that the verse refers to the first emanation as a garment, as it is written: "Who covers Yourself with light as with a garment" (Tehillim 104:2). That is to say, just as a garment separates and covers a person, so that he and his flesh cannot be seen, but only his clothing, so, as it were… Creation is like a garment for the Emanator… Therefore, Creation as a whole is called a "garment." As was stated earlier, the creation is not yet finished, and the Creator allowed the creature who is endowed with choice to complete it and bring it to perfection, and therefore the Creator gave us the mitzva of tzitzit, to teach us that the world is like a garment, on both sides of which there are threads that have not been woven, and therefore threads and corners are required. This comes to teach that even in the actions that a person performs while choosing life and good and to walk in the ways of God, even with this, help from heaven will assist him… Now, you, son of man, prepare your heart so that it not follow after the eye and the heart, and restrain your material desires and cleave to God. And with every part of creation, a mitzva can be performed that will connect you to God, as it is stated in Torat Kohanim (Parashat Tzav, Mekhilta De-Melu'im 1:23): There is nothing that does not involve a mitzva to God. In this way, creation will reach its true perfection as was intended by God. And you, son of man, if you weave creation, you will become God's partner in the process of creation.
The earthly world in which we live requires penetrating vision in order to expose its secrets and reveal the Creator who hides in creation, which is like a garment for Him. A person's mundane garment, which turns into a mitzva garment, illuminates this principle that there is nothing that does not involve a mitzva; there is nothing that is void of the presence of God. Opening the eyes to see brings a person to this lofty understanding, which in turn will bring to actions that complete the creation. The tzitzit also symbolize the unfinished garment, like our imperfect world, that a person completes with his actions, through the tying of threads with knots.
However, since we are dealing with earthly reality that is symbolized by a garment, the process of vision that is required is long and tortuous, not only because of the need to complete the garment, which is an expression of the perfection of the real world, as stated. As R. Akiva responded to Turnus Rufus, God expects man to complete and perfect the creation through his actions. A garment, even one that is perfect, conceals and covers. Sometimes it even deceives us into thinking that the reality seen through the clothing that it wears is the true reality. Man's task is to take the garments of skins (or with an ayin) and turn them into garments of light (or with an alef), as was written in R. Meir's Torah scroll.[1] In this way, the tzitzit, which peeks through the garments, helps us and shines God's light upon us. As Chazal taught (Menachot 43b):
R. Shimon bar Yochai says: Whoever is scrupulous in the observance of this mitzva is worthy to receive the Shekhina, for it is written here: “That you may look upon it (oto),” and it is written there: “You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him (oto) shall you serve” (Devarim 6:13).
This midrash draws a verbal analogy between two instances of the word oto in two different verses, and thus teaches us the foundation of this mitzva. At first glance, a person sees the garment that he is wearing, and at the same time he spots the thread of blue peering through the lattice, and it seems to him as if the owner of the palace is looking at him, revealing Himself to him through the threads and fringes, and the entire garment shines with the light of God. R. Meir, whose Torah scroll read, "garments of light," illuminates for us in a different midrash the light of the blue thread in the tzitzit:
It was taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue specified from all the other colors [for this mitzva]? Because blue resembles the color of the sea, and the sea resembles the color of the sky, and the sky resembles the color of [a sapphire, and a sapphire resembles the color of] the Throne of Glory, as it is stated: "And there was under his feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone" (Shemot 24:10), and it is also written: "The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone" (Yechezkel 1:28). (Menachot 43b)
R. Meir paved the road that ascends to the house of God. Indeed, the road is winding. The blue thread may lead a person to the sea, and not to what is beyond the sea – to the sky that touches the sea on the far horizon, and from there to contemplate, "Know what is above you," and the eternal question, "Where are you?" and the like, until he sees the Throne of Glory.
A remarkable example of the complexity of the mitzva of tzitzit can be learned from the story that is related in Menachot (44a):
It was taught: R. Natan said: There is not a single precept in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world; and as to its reward in the future world, I know not how great it is. Go and learn this from the precept of tzitzit. Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of tzitzit, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold [dinars] for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold [dinars] and appointed a day with her. When the day arrived, he came and waited at her door, and her maid came and told her, “That man who sent you four hundred gold [dinars] is here and waiting at the door,” to which she replied, “Let him come in.” When he came in, she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes [of his garment] struck him across the face; whereupon, he slipped off and sat upon the ground. She also slipped off and sat upon the ground and said, “By the Roman Capitol, I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” He said to her, “By the Temple, never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are. But there is one precept which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called tzitzit, and with regard to it the expression, ‘I am the Lord your God,’ is written twice, signifying: I am He who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He who will give reward in the future. Now [the tzitzit] appeared to me as four witnesses [testifying against me]. She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon, she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the study hall of R. Chiyya, and said to him, “Master, give instructions about me that they make me a proselyte.” He said to her, “My daughter, perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the disciples?” She thereupon took out the script and handed it to him. He said to her, “Go and enjoy your acquisition.” Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully. This is the reward [of the precept] in this world; and as for its reward in the future world I know not how great it is.[2]
This man, who was scrupulous about the mitzva of tzitzit, did not stop until he stood on the edge of the abyss, a step away from it and falling into sin. Only at that moment did his tzitzit rescue him, those tzitzit that had accompanied him all that time from the moment that he was overcome by the desire to sin, through all the preparations, and until he reached the door of that harlot, and afterwards. Paradoxically, the tzitzit accomplished their purpose only after he detached himself from them and removed them. Only then did they go up to where he was sitting, lighting up before him and saving him from sin.
There is a connection between the mitzva of tzitzit and the golden plate (tzitz) that was placed on Aharon's forehead and on the foreheads of the High Priests across the generations. This is how the Rambam describes the tzitz:
How is the forehead plate made? We make a plate of gold two fingerbreadths wide that extends [over the forehead of the High Priest] from one ear to the other. Upon it is written: "Holy to the Lord" in two lines, "Holy" on the lower line and "to the Lord" on the upper line. If [the words] were written on one line, it was valid. There were times when they were written on one line.
The letters would project outward. How was this done? [A craftsman] would engrave the letters on the back of the plate while it was pressed to beeswax until they project. It had holes on each of its ends. There was a strand of sky-blue wool below it that ran from hole to hole so that it could be tied with this strand at the nape [of the neck]. (Hilkhot Kelei Ha-Mikdash 9:1-2)
The High Priest wears the tzitz on his head, ties it with a thread of blue, and his mind may not be distracted from it.[3] He accepts upon himself the yoke of God’s kingdom, and sanctifies himself with it. Similarly, the tzitzit looks at a person and shines the light of God upon him. Even though it is not an object of sanctity, but rather a mitzva object, and even though it does not contain God's name, it can bring a person to "that you may look upon it" – when he sees the thread of blue a person might also see God, and through that experience sanctify and purify himself.
This is the idea that the Torah repeats and emphasizes: "That you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God." Tzitzit is comprised of a process that begins immediately after the threads are put on the corners of the garment that a person wears, and it consists of three stages:
  • "That you may look upon it and remember all of the commandments of the Lord, and do them" – the positive and proper seeing that leads to remembering and doing.
  • "And that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray" – preventing the negative seeing, distancing oneself from sin, and the movement from "garments of skin" to "garments of light," from exploring to seeing.
  • "That you may remember and do all My commandments" – through memory, the thread of blue in the tzitzit leads a person on his unique path to the Throne of Glory, and thus becomes like the tzitz, which is holy to God, "and you be holy to your God."
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Bereishit Rabba 20:12: "'And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them’ (Bereishit 3:21). In R. Meir's Torah scroll they found it written: 'garments of light' – these were the clothing of Adam."
[2] Much can be said about the details and meanings of this story, but we will address here only one fundamental point.
[3] Yoma 7b: "'Continually' – the word implies that he should never dismiss it from his mind. This is in agreement with Rabba bar R. Huna, for Rabba bar R. Huna said: A man is obligated to touch his tefillin every hour. This may be learned by way of a kal va-chomer argument from the tzitz. If touching the tzitz, on which the mention of God is inscribed but once, the Torah prescribes: 'And it shall be continually upon his forehead,' i.e., he shall not dismiss it from his mind, how much more does this apply to tefillin which contain the mention of God many a time."