Shiur #53: The Mitzva of Tzitzit (Part I)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi


I. Turning a Mundane Garment into a Sacred One

In previous shiurim, we described the transition from the subject matter of the Rambam's Book of Knowledge to the subject matter of his Book of Love through the structure of the passages of Keri'at Shema. As we have seen, a frame is created by the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuza in the first passage and the mitzva of tzitzit in the third passage, with the second passage in the middle relating to the yoke of the mitzvot in general.

We will now turn to the foundations of the mitzva of tzitzit. From this we will be able to understand the meaning and the essence of the frame of love bursting forth from knowledge.

We will begin by examining the third passage of Shema:

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes (tzitzit) in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe (tzitzit) of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be to you for a fringe (tzitzit), that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray; that you may remember and do all My commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am the Lord your God. (Bamidbar 15:37-41)

Verse 38 defines the commandment cast upon the children of Israel, and verses 39-41 emphasize the purpose of this commandment.

It is striking that the part containing the mitzva itself is formulated in the third person, whereas the part containing the reason and objective of the mitzva is worded in the second person. It seems that Moshe was supposed to relay the mitzva to the people of Israel, not verbatim as he had received it, but with the addition of the explanation that he had received from God regarding the details of the mitzva – that is, with the Oral Law. Therefore, the first part of the passage is formulated in the third person, because in essence they are the words of God to Moshe, who was instructed to pass them on to the people of Israel. Moshe is supposed to pass them on with an additional explanation.

However, the reasons and the purpose of the mitzva Moshe is supposed to pass on precisely as he had received them. For this, Moshe serves as a direct pipeline for delivering God's word to the people, as if God had spoken directly to them.

It is clear that there is a connection between the details of the actual commandment and its purpose, and we will discuss certain aspects of this connection at a later point. For the time being, we will emphasize what emerges from the passage: This commandment requires a person to make fringes on the corners of his garment. This means that the person must take his mundane garment, the garment he wears in the most natural manner, and attach fringes to it. In this way, he transforms his mundane garment into an object of mitzva.

A similar idea emerges from the verse in Devarim:

You shall make yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your covering, with which you cover yourself. (Devarim 22:12)

A person must attach fringes to the garment with which he regularly covers himself, and thereby transform it into a garment of mitzva.

II. Tzitzit and Tefillin vs. Mezuza

Already at this stage, we can point to two significant differences between the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuza and the mitzva of tzitzit. Tefillin and mezuza are commandments that come into being on the mitzva plane; they are in no way connected to the earthly order of man's life. Accordingly, tefillin and mezuza are sacred objects. In contrast, the commandment of tzitzit is based on the natural and earthly order of life. A person wears the garment or covering with which he covers himself, and the mitzva is integrated into this order. Accordingly, there is no sacred object here, but only an object of a mitzva.

The gap between tefillin and mezuza, on the one hand, and tzitzit, on the other, represents a fundamental gap between different groups of people and between different levels of the worship of God. The human complexity of body and soul that moves between heaven and earth creates constant tension between aspirations for spiritual growth and physical human needs.

There are people whose spiritual forces within them are very powerful. In these people, the spirit and soul overpower the body. They see the essence of human life in the aspiration for continuous ascent to meet and devote oneself to God. They experience the Divine presence with a great sense of reality, adorning their bodies with tefillin and the entrances to their houses with mezuzot. These people live the encounter with God in their day-to-day conduct and in the routine of their lives; on a regular basis, they breathe holy air. The people of tefillin and mezuza are, in their essence, holy men.

On the other hand, there are people whose feet are planted deep in the ground, and their bodies are drawn after them. They live an earthly life, though from time to time they fulfill God's commandments, in accordance with the time and place. This does not turn them into people aspiring for holiness. On the contrary, they combine the observance of mitzvot with a good and comfortable human life. These people are the people of tzitzit, who are asked to take a simple, earthly garment, the covering with which they cover themselves, and view it as a garment of mitzva.

III. What is Tzitzit?

The term "tzitzit" appears almost nowhere else in the Bible. Apart from the three instances of the word in our passage, it appears once again in the book of Yechezkel:

And I was taken by a lock (be-tzitzit) of my head. (Yechezkel 8:3)[1]

Rashi on our passage offers two explanations of the word "tzitzit":

"That they make them tzitzit" – [It is called tzitzit] because of the threads that hang down from it, like: "And I was taken by a lock of my head" (Yechezkel 8:3).[2] Another explanation: [It is called] tzitzit because of "and you shall look at it," as in, "He peers (metzitz) through the lattice" (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:9). (Rashi, Bamidbar 15:38)

According to the first interpretation proposed by Rashi, the word "tzitzit" refers to a set of hairs or a set of threads jutting out from the corner of a garment. This seems to the understanding of Chazal as well:

Our Rabbis taught: The word "tzitzit" means only something that hangs loose. And so it is stated: "And I was taken by a lock of my head." (Menachot 42a)

In another baraita, we find:

It was taught: The word "tzitzit" means only something that hangs over; moreover, "tzitzit" signifies any length whatsoever. (ibid. 41b)

As Rashi writes there:

It hangs out from the corner any length whatsoever. (Rashi, ad loc.)

According to the second interpretation proposed by Rashi, tzitzit refers to something that is meant to be seen. The object of the act of seeing is named after the action performed with it. Tzitzit is the object looked at and being seen (as the verse says, "That you may look upon it").

In fact, these two interpretations are closely connected. Tzitzit are named after seeing because they are seen by virtue of the fact that they jut out from the garment, and thus they stand out. They peek out, and people look at them, so that they are seen.

The Rashbam explains the word "tzitzit" in a different manner in each verse. At first he writes:

"That they make them tzitzit" – a set of threads. (Bamidbar 15:38)

On the next verse he writes:

This thread of tzitzit will be something for you to see; you will see it. As in, "He peers (metzitz) through the lattice" (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:9). (Bamidbar 15:39)

It seems that the Rashbam focuses the seeing on the thread of blue that encircles the threads of white. According to him, the concept of "tzitzit" as a set of threads refers only to the white threads. This is the meaning of the verse: "That they make them throughout their generations tzitzit in the corners of their garments." Afterwards, we are further commanded to put on this tzitzit a thread of blue: "And that they put with the tzitzit of each corner a thread of blue." From this point that there is a thread of blue, it says: "And it shall be to you for tzitzit." That is to say, it will serve as "tzitzit" – a focus of seeing.

In the verse, "And that they put al tzitzit of each corner," the word "al" can be interpreted in two different ways:

1. Al = me'al = on. This is the simple meaning of the word, according to which the verse means to say that the thread of blue is put on the white threads, which are the tzitzit. According to this, the essence of the blue thread is that it is wrapped around the tzitzit.

2. Al = im = with. According to this interpretation, alongside the white threads there should also be blue threads.

These two interpretations correspond to the disagreement among the Rishonim as to the number of blue and white threads and as to the primary function of the blue thread.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Tzitzit 1:6) maintains that one blue thread suffices along with seven white threads, and he holds that the blue thread is wound around the white ones. According to him, the blue thread is not part of the tzitzit; it serves only to wrap around the white threads.

In contrast, Rashi and Tosafot (Menachot 38a, s.v. ha-techelet, and elsewhere) maintain that there are an equal number of white and blue threads – four of each. In their opinion, the blue threads are fully integrated into the white ones and are part of the tzitzit.

In my opinion, the Rashbam, who changes his interpretation of the word "tzitzit" between the two verses, maintains that the tzitzit used for seeing is specifically the blue thread. This understanding is supported by the words of the Rashbam himself, who in explaining the word “tzitzit” in verse 39 as focused on the seeing that it involves, cites a midrash regarding the blue thread:

Our Rabbis also explained the matter of the blue thread – that the blue thread is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to heaven, and heaven is similar to the Throne of Glory. (Rashbam, ad loc.)

According to Rashi and Tosafot, who maintain that tzitzit includes both the white and the blue threads, it stands to reason that the seeing relates to the tzitzit as a whole.

IV. Seeing that Leads to Remembering

On the one hand, the verse emphasizes the required seeing:

That you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them. (Bamidbar 15:39)

On the other hand, the verse wishes to distance a different seeing:

And that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray. (ibid.)

And then once again it emphasizes:

That you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God. (ibid. v. 40)

At this stage, we will focus on the first seeing.[3] How does seeing lead to remembering and doing all the mitzvot? The commentators discuss this question.

Rashi writes:

"And you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord" – For the numerical value of the letters comprising the word tzitzit is six hundred, plus eight threads and five knots, for a total of six hundred and thirteen [the total number of the commandments]. (Rashi, Bamidbar 15:39)

The Ramban, however, rejects this understanding:

I do not understand this, for the word tzitzit in the Torah is spelled defectively [without a yud], and so the numerical value is only five hundred and ninety. And furthermore, according to Beit Hillel, there are only three threads (Menachot 41b), and by Torah law there are only two knots, as it is stated (ibid. 39a), “Infer from here that the upper knot is by Torah law.” (Ramban, ad loc.)

Accordingly, the Ramban suggests the following explanation:

But the remembrance is through the thread of blue (tekhelet), which alludes to the quality that embraces all (kol), for it is everything and it is the purpose (takhlit) of everything. And therefore it says: "And you shall remember all" – that is God's commandment. This is the meaning of what [the Rabbis] said (Menachot 43b): "Because the blue thread is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to heaven, and heaven is similar to the Throne of Glory." (ibid.)

This disagreement between Rashi and the Ramban reflects what was stated above concerning the relationship between the white and the blue threads. Rashi, who views the tzitzit as a single entity, understands that the very wearing of tzitzit creates a reminder of a person's obligations. A person who puts tzitzit on the corners of his garments attests about himself, through this action, that he stands before God to serve Him. This in itself reminds him of all of his obligations: "And you shall remember all of the commandments of the Lord."

By way of allusion, Rashi adds that according to common custom to spell the word tzitzit with two yuds, as well as to have eight threads and five knots, we come to a total of six hundred and thirteen. It would appear, however, that the primary reminder is the tzitzit itself, which accompanies the person at all times.

The Ramban, on the other hand, sees the focus of the remembrance in the thread of blue, which symbolizes man's connection to God. This is alluded to in the word "kol," and it finds expression in all of God's commandments.

V. The Process of Remembering

The gemara in Menachot cites various different midrashim regarding this remembrance:

And for what purpose do the Rabbis use the expression, "That you may look upon it"? They require it for the following teaching: "That you may look upon it and remember" – that is, look upon this precept and remember another precept that is dependent upon it – namely, the reading of the Shema. As we have learned: From what time in the morning may the Shema be read? From the time that one can distinguish between blue and white.

Another [baraita] taught: “That you may look upon it and remember” –that is, look upon this precept and remember another precept that is next to it – namely, the law of kil'ayim [mingled things], as it is written: "You shall not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together. You shall make yourself twisted cords" (Devarim 22:11-12).

And another [baraita] taught: "That you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord" – as soon as a person is bound to observe this precept, he must observe all the precepts. This is in accordance with R. Shimon's view that [the tzitzit] is a precept dependent on time.

And another [baraita] taught: "That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord" – this precept is equal to all the precepts together.

And another [baraita] taught: "That you may look upon it and remember… and do them" – looking [upon it] leads to remembering [the commandments], and remembering leads to doing them. R. Shimon bar Yochai says: Whoever is scrupulous in the observance of this precept is worthy to receive the Shekhina, for it is written here: "That you may look upon it," and there it is written: "You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him shall you serve" (Devarim 6:13). (Menachot 43b)

The first midrash restricts the remembrance to a single mitzva, the mitzva of reciting the Shema. There is an obvious difficulty with this explanation, as the Torah states, "And you shall remember all of the commandments of the Lord," and the midrash argues that you shall remember one mitzva. Furthermore, the remembrance does not come about in the simple manner – i.e., that the passage regarding tzitzit is read as part of the mitzva of Keri'at Shema, such that one who contemplates the mitzva of tzitzit remembers the Shema. The Midrash creates a more complex form of remembrance: One who sees the blue thread next to the white thread is supposed to remember the mishna in tractate Berakhot that discusses the proper time for reciting the morning Shema and establishes that it may be recited from the time that a person can distinguish between the white and blue threads of tzitzit, and he will thus remember Keri'at Shema.

This midrash brings the person to the mishna in Berakhot in order to remind him of the mitzva of Keri'at Shema, instead of taking what would appear to be a much simpler route!

The second midrash, which links tzitzit to kil'ayim, similarly restricts the remembrance of tzitzit to a single mitzva. In one sense, the difficulty here is even greater. The mitzva of kil'ayim, with all of its significance, is not so important that we should say that remembering it is of particular significance! It is not like Keri'at Shema, which can be viewed as a particularly weighty mitzva, which affects the entirety of man's service of God.

The second before last midrash is also difficult: "'That you may look upon it and remember… and do them' – looking [upon it] leads to remembering [the commandments], and remembering leads to doing [them]." It is not clear what this midrash adds to the biblical text, since this is precisely what is stated in the Torah – that seeing leads to remembrance, and from there to action.[4]

By understanding this midrash, we will be able to deal also with the two previous midrashim. It seems that the midrash is trying to emphasize that we are dealing with a process, and not with a simple and direct result. The verse leaves the impression that the moment that a person sees the tzitzit or the blue thread, he immediately remembers God's mitzvot and does them. Reality, however, proves that this is not true. Chazal therefore wished to "slow down" the pace. Chazal are telling us that over the long term, seeing can lead to remembering, and remembering can lead to doing. These are long and sometimes tortuous processes, which involve complex associations that bring a person closer to an encounter with the Shekhina.

According to this, the main novelty of this midrash is in the words "lead to," which emphasize that we are not dealing with an automatic amulet, but rather with a long and winding spiritual process.

We can now understand the first midrashim, which restrict the remembrance to a single mitzva, and in a relatively twisted way. From seeing the mitzva of tzitzit, one can remember the mitzva of Keri'at Shema in a simple procedure, or one can remember it only after remembering the mishna in tractate Berakhot and the times of Keri'at Shema. And sometimes one's heart will lead him to the mitzva of kil'ayim.

This is how the human heart operates. As Yirmeyahu says (17:9): "The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly weak; who can know it?" The mitzva of tzitzit is a mitzva that is meant to awaken the person, who lives his earthly life, without significant spiritual tension.

The commandment of tzitzit, which accompanies a person in all his activities, can awaken him from time to time in one direction or another. Sometimes, there is hope of a breakthrough of a significant and essential memory that can cause a significant change in his world and bring about the desired result: God has become seen by me.

(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The word appears one additional time in Yeshayahu: "And the fading flower (tzitzat novel) of his glorious beauty" (Yeshayahu 28:4). There, however, it is clear that the reference is to tzitz novel, and that the feminine form is a result of poetic license. In contrast, as we will see, the word tzitzit in the Torah and in Yechezkel may be close in meaning to the word tzitz.

[2] Similarly, in the words of Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam: "Tzitzit – like ‘by a lock of my head,’ a set of threads hanging down like the hair on one's head" (Rashbam, ad loc.).

[3] The second and third instances of seeing will be discussed in the next shiur.

[4] One cannot argue that the midrash wishes to establish a super-principle that is fulfilled all the time – that this connection between seeing and remembering and doing is not only in the mitzva of tzitzit, but in all fields of life. The wording of the midrash does not support this, and furthermore it is obvious that this perspective is not limited to the mitzva of tzitzit.