The Significance of Tzitzit

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Significance of Tzitzit

Summarized by Ari Mermelstein


The concluding section of this week's parasha, parashat tzitzit, is familiar to us as the final paragraph in Keriat Shema, and owes its inclusion in the Shema to the brief reference made to the Exodus from Egypt. However, it is not clear why this parasha merited inclusion in Shema over many other parshiot which mention that redemption. Perturbed by this question, the gemara (Berakhot 12b) suggests that this parasha contains several other components (such as the commandment of tzitzit) which motivated the rabbis to prefer it over others.

However, rather than regarding the reference to tzitzit in purely quantitative terms, as one of several staples of faith which gave this parasha an advantage over others, we could explain that the commandment of tzitzit played a fundamental role in the selection of this parasha. This brings us to the incredible statement of the gemara (Menachot 43b) that "this mitzva (i.e., tzitzit) is equivalent to all the mitzvot." The meaning of this statement is unclear. Rashi (Bamidbar 15:39) explains that the sum of the letters in the word "tzitzit" totals six hundred, and if we add the eight strings and five knots, and we arrive at the number 613, which the gemara (Makkot 23b) establishes as the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Despite this explanation by Rashi and other commentators, we can suggest several alternative explanations which merge into one larger understanding.

One possible explanation focuses on the quantitative nature of the mitzva. There are commandments, such as mezuza, whose fulfillment is constant. However, this constancy is characterized by passivity; having put the mezuza on his door, the Jew has fulfilled his obligation. By contrast, tzitzit is unique in the perpetual obligation required of a person. A Jew wearing a four-cornered garment must actively execute this mitzva by insuring that he is surrounded by four strings at all times. In this context, the following aggada (Menachot 44a) is especially appropriate. A man, scrupulous in his observance of the commandment of tzitzit, was overcome by lust and visited a harlot. Upon undressing, he sensed the presence of his tzitzit and recoiled in horror from the act which he had nearly committed. Here we see tzitzit portrayed as the last line of defense, the ever-present reminder of our obligations even when we have removed the yoke of mitzvot from upon us.

However, the story described in the aggada is an exceptional case. We can suggest another reason tzitzit are equivalent to all the mitzvot, but this explanation will be relevant to ordinary cases as well. This answer focuses on a qualitative difference between tzitzit and other mitzvot. First, we must briefly analyze the role of clothing in society. Prior to his first sin, man lived in his natural state, free of clothing. When he lived a natural existence, his worship of God was also natural and intuitive. In such a scenario, the need to cover himself was superfluous.

With the first sin came change. The evil inclination became an essential part of man's being, and with that man's natural worship of God disappeared. Thus, man underwent a transition from leading a natural existence to building a society. In this transition, clothing played not only a necessary role but a symbolic one as well. Man's garb represented his passage from being the handiwork of God to becoming a creator himself.

In light of its symbolic role in society, clothing has been the subject of debate between two schools of thought. Many, most prominently the Romantics, reject the need for clothing. Clothing, they claim, implies restriction, and restriction stifles the spontaneity, which man was meant to express. Blake gave expression to this sentiment when he said that the suppression of even one desire is tantamount to killing an infant in its crib. Thus, the Romantics longed for a return to primitive life, and eschewed clothing in the process.

By contrast, the Humanists embraced the need for clothing. They celebrated man's status as creator, and recognized the need to curb his desires. Man's exit from Eden represented a new existence, one in which clothing was both necessary and ideal.

The Jewish outlook on clothing bridges the gap between the Romantic view and the Humanistic approach. On the one hand, we unequivocally reject the notion that man should lead an unfettered lifestyle, and that clothing are unnecessarily restrictive. The Torah remarks that "the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Bereishit 8:21), and man's dress is intended to counteract that inclination. We also acknowledge the importance of man's role in society represented by his garb. However, contrary to the Humanists, our celebration of society and man's role in it as creator stems only from our recognition of the forum which society affords man to better worship God. Thus, clothing is important as a symbol of our participation in society, which we can use to elevate man and draw him closer to God.

Herein lies the significance of the tzitzit. They hang perpetually from the four corners of our garments, and thereby manifest our true role in society as servants of God. They not only hang from our clothing, but also elevate it from a mere piece of cloth into a medium for avodat Hashem. Thus, our garb, which is so representative of man's role in society, guides us towards the establishment of the society which the Torah desires: a society used as a means for coming closer to God.

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5757.)



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