Tzitzit: Sanctification of the Profane

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Tzitzit: Sanctification of the Profane

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The parasha of tzitzit is recited twice daily as part of the recitation of the Shema. Whether we regard it as an organic part of the Shema or as a later addition, it is without question an important part of our prayer service. Assuming that it was included because it mentions the exodus from Egypt (as explained in the mishna at the end of the first chapter of Berakhot), we may still ask why this specific parasha was chosen, rather than any of the many others that mention the exodus. Wherein lies the unique importance of this parasha? The Gemara (Berakhot 12b) explains that this specific parasha was chosen because of the numerous important issues which it includes: the mitzva of tzitzit, the exodus, the yoke of mitzvot, apostasy, sinful thoughts and idolatrous thoughts. According to this explanation, there is no special importance attached to tzitzit themselves; the importance of the parasha lies in the fact that a number of important issues are all discussed there together.

However, from Chazal's teachings on the mitzva of tzitzit we may infer the significance of the parasha wherein it occurs. In the last law of his Hilkhot Tzitzit, the Rambam writes:

"A person should always take care with the mitzva of tzitzit, for the Torah compares all the mitzvot to it, as it is written, 'And you shall see it and you shall remember all the mitzvot of Hashem.'"

The Rambam attaches great importance to this mitzva because it serves as a vehicle for remembering and performing all of the mitzvot. The Gemara (Menachot 43b) learns from this verse that "this mitzva is considered equal to all the mitzvot," which already indicates to us that this mitzva has great independent value and not only as a vehicle leading to the performance of other mitzvot.

What then is the importance of this mitzva? In order to understand this, we need to pay attention to the difference between the performance of the mitzva then and its performance today. Today every religious man has a four-cornered garment to which he attaches tzitzit in order to perform the mitzva – a garment which in fact is meant solely for the purpose of fulfilling this mitzva, and which no one would think of wearing otherwise, as a regular item of clothing. From this perspective, tzitzit are similar to tefillin – they are a sacred object meant solely for the performance of a mitzva. But in earlier times the situation was different: a four-cornered garment was a regular item of clothing, and people therefore attached the tzitzit threads to their regular clothes. The mitzva of tzitzit in this context was similar to mezuza. One clearly does not build a house for the sole purpose of attaching a mezuza; rather, one builds it since it represents a basic requirement for existence, and the obligation of placing a mezuza simply accompanies it. Similarly, clothes are a basic requirement for survival, and not merely a means to perform the mitzva of tzitzit. In order to understand the importance of tzitzit, we should therefore turn our attention to the significance of clothing.

Firstly, a garment is meant to protect man from his physical environment – heat, cold, scratches, etc. But a garment also has great symbolic value. Man is created naked, like all the animals. His clothing represents his break with nature; it indicates that man does not accept the appearance that nature has destined for him. In the beginning man was close to nature and walked about naked, but at a certain stage he broke with this aspect of nature and began to wear clothing. Since that break, the question has arisen with respect to man's relationship with nature.

There are two main approaches to this question. The naturalistic approach maintains that nature is perfect and that man should strive to draw closer to it; every natural phenomenon should be accepted and a person's inclination should be indulged in all matters because of its naturalness. In opposition, the humanistic approach maintains that nature has many flaws and that man cannot embrace it in its entirety: he must leave his mark on nature, endowing it with values and morality. For this reason the natural inclination must sometimes be conquered: "Who is mighty? He who conquers his inclination." Judaism follows this approach, with the belief that all inclinations and desires must be turned in the direction of Divine service: "With all your heart – i.e., with both your inclinations (both good and bad)."

The Jewish ideal is that even the evil inclination should be used in one's service of Hashem. "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it" – this refers not only to physical conquest, but also to the requirement that man imbue nature with values and morals. From man's perspective, the beginning of this process was somewhat of a failure: "And they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves garments" (Bereishit 3:7). Hashem's response to this effort was, "And Hashem the Lord made the man and his wife garments of skins and He attired them" (3:21) – a sort of blessing as they started out on a new path: man's influence on nature and its molding in accordance with his values. (The priestly garments may also hint at the same idea.)

Clothing therefore symbolizes man's whole philosophy in relation to nature, highlighting man's unique status in nature as a molding and influencing factor. But this status also brings with it a degree of danger. Man's control over nature may lead him to a sense of unrestricted power and supremacy. Therefore the Torah commands that tzitzit be placed upon the corners of one's clothing. The four corners of the tzitzit express the need for man to direct his control of nature towards service of Hashem, to imbue the profane with elements of holiness.

This is precisely the difference between tzitzit and tefillin: tefillin are altogether holy, while tzitzit are attached to a garment – which is profane – and are not an object on their own. On the one hand, the tzitzit are attached to a garment, but on the other hand, they are not really a part of it; rather, they are connected to it. It is a sort of restriction on the authority that the garment expresses. Through tzitzit Hashem tells man that he should indeed leave his human mark on nature, but this must be done in the proper way – by imbuing it with elements of holiness.

The Gemara (Pesachim 103) teaches that three types of people are among those who will be rewarded with eternal life: someone who lives in Eretz Yisrael, someone who raises his children to study Torah, and someone who recites havdala over wine every motzaei Shabbat. The importance of the first two categories is clear, but why is havdala more important than so many other mitzvot, especially since it is only of rabbinical origin? The Gemara explains that this refers to someone who leaves some of his kiddush wine for havdala. Such an act symbolizes the sanctification of the profane, the imbuing of the profane with holy values. This person, who is about to begin a new cycle of six days of action and creativity in nature, sees before him a vision of Shabbat, and that is the content that he will attempt to inculcate during the six days that lie before him.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5753 [1993].)


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