Signs

  • Rav Ezra Bick

"... And you shall tie them (the commandments) as a sign on your hands, and a frontlet between your eyes, and you shall write them on the posts of your houses and your gates" (Deut. 6,8).

 

"And you shall see it (the tzitzit, fringes attached to a garment), and you shall remember all the commandments of God, and you shall fulfill them" (Num. 15,30).

 

The first verse describes the mitzva of tefillin (the two tefillin boxes, one on the arm and one on the head) and the mitzva of mezuza (attached to the doorpost), while the second describes the mitzva of tzitzit.  While the second does not explicitly define tzitzit as a "sign," it does say that tzitzit function by being seen and engendering memory - which I think is the proper function of a sign - to be seen and signify something for the viewer.

 

            There are other mitzvot which might be described as signs, but I think we should concentrate on these, at least at first, and try to understand both the purpose of "signs," and the particular nature of these.

 

            Let us begin with tefillin.  In our minds, these small black boxes are identified solely with prayer, but this is a misconception.  Nowhere in the Torah or in the Talmud is a connection made between tefillin and prayer.  The Torah simply says that one should wear them, and the simple understanding would be that they are obligatory all day long.  In this case, popular usage, restricting them to times of prayer (and, in fact, to the morning prayer only), has contributed to a subtle change in the way that we view them and their role in our lives that I believe is misleading.  But first, let us understand how this restriction took place.

 

            Tefillin contain four sections from the Torah, written on scrolls according to the laws governing the writing of Torah scrolls themselves.  In fact, examination of the verse quoted at the start of today's shiur shows that no explicit mention is made in the Torah of boxes at all - the verse says one should tie the "words" to one's arm.  Because tefillin are essentially "words," Torah, the word of God, they are sacred objects.  Ultimately, all sacred objects acquire their holy status from their relationship with the word, the divine communication.  Now, a visit to any synagogue demonstrates how one is meant to relate to a sacred object. The proper description in English is VENERATION.  A Torah scroll is kept in a special container, protected and adorned, in the front of the synagogue.  When it is taken out, everyone stands.  The sanctity of tefillin is basically of the same sort.  This means that tefillin too must be treated with reverence.  What is more, because they are worn, there are special requirements concerning cleanliness of the body.  There is even an opinion that one must "pay attention" - keep the tefillin in mind, as long as they are worn.  For this reason, given the nature of daily life and mundane activities, it is customary not to wear tefillin except at a time when one's mind is naturally on sanctity, devoted to the service of God, so as to avoid the possibility of inadvertently transgressing the obligation to treat the tefillin with reverence.

 

            So, in conclusion, we see that, in principle, tefillin has nothing to do with prayer or any specifically "religious" activity.  One is supposed to be all day dressed in tefillin, enveloped, as it were, in sanctity, wearing a sign of devotion to the word of God.  The result is - and this is true even for us who wear tefillin only an hour a day - that tefillin is not so much a mitzva to DO something, as to be in a state of wearing tefillin while doing other things.

 

            This is even clearer concerning the mitzva of mezuza.  A Jewish house should have mezuzot - like tefillin, basically a section from the Torah written on parchment, according to the special rules of writing holy texts - on the right doorpost of every passageway, both in and out of the house.  The mitzva is to have a house in such a state, not to nail up mezuzot.  That is why if one moves into a house that already has mezuzot, no further action is necessary.  One does not DO anything actively - mezuza is the way a Jewish household looks.  In the same way, tefillin is not a mitzva to DO anything actively; tefillin is part of the way a Jewish individual (male, in this case) looks.

 

            To this we may add the mitzva of tzitzit.  "Speak unto the Jews and say to them, that they should make fringes (tzitzit) for themselves on the edge of their garments, for (all) their generations."  Here too the mitzva is not actually to MAKE tzitzit, but to have them on the edges of our clothes.  Halakhically, only four-cornered garments are obligated in tzitzit.  The "talit" ("talis") is not in original Hebrew the name of a "prayer-shawl."  The word means simply "garment," and was the normal outer clothing (sort of like a toga).  Since in modern times, we do not have a regular article of clothing which is four-cornered, a special "talit" has become a ritual object, in order that we still fulfill this mitzva.  The medieval Spanish commentator, R. David Abudraham, claims that the command of the Torah to make tzitzit "FOR ALL YOUR GENERATIONS" refers to a time when in fact there will not be a normal four-cornered garment.  The Torah, looking ahead, is telling us to make a special effort to wear such a garment, in order that there always be tzitzit on our clothes.

 

            Once again, Jewish custom has created a special connection between prayer and this mitzva where none existed originally.  The "large talit" is especially worn during morning prayer.  But in this case, despite the modern "artificiality" of wearing a four-cornered garment, Jewish life refused to restrict this mitzva only to an hour a day, and therefore invented the "small talit," which is usually worn under one's shirt all day long.

 

            And so, divorcing ourselves from the association with ritual prayers, and adding mezuza to the list, we have three mitzvot that describe how Jews look - how they dress - talit and tefillin - and how their settlement (houses) look - mezuza.  These are the signs - not things we do, but things that are part of the background, the "scene" so to speak, of Jewish existence.

 

            (To this list we may add one more passive mitzva which is more or less a sign, though a private one - circumcision.  Here it is how a Jew looks, and not merely in his attire.  I assume that most of you have noticed that for three out of these four signs women are exempt - only mezuza is all-gender.  Specifically, signs that pertain to the person of the Jew are incumbent only on males, whereas the sign that pertains to the social collective of the Jews - their homes and settlements, including the gates of their cities, apply to women as well.  I believe that this distinction is more important for understanding the gender distinction in mitzvot than the usual search for a time-related factor - but I shall leave this topic for a different day.  For now, I wish to address the general topic of signs without getting embroiled in gender differentiation, and it is sufficient to note that in general there are signs for Jews.)

 

            Passive mitzvot, relating to what we are rather than what we do, are at once more subtle and more powerful than specific acts.  Precisely because they do not require one to directly concentrate on performing them, they carry the potential to define "who we are" in a sense that "what we do" does not.  In an assimilated society, even a pluralistic one, this poses a special difficulty.  It is not that hard for a Jew to declare, even publicly, that he has to go now and perform a mitzva.  It is no longer that surprising to find law offices or even State Department meetings with a break for the mincha prayer.  But wearing one's tzitzit out would be a definite statement of not-belonging, a declaration of outsiderness, of alienation, because it says not that I do strange things, but that I myself am strange and different.  And indeed, although the Torah clearly indicates that tzitzit should be SEEN, Jews normally discreetly tuck them in, and not only because they fear an anti-semitic reaction.  It just seems to be flaunting one's Jewishness too much to be dressed like a stranger.  Imagine what it would be like to walk around in America with tefillin on one's head.  And yet, the Sages declare that the verse, "And all the peoples of the land shall see that the name of God is called on you, and they shall fear you" (Deut. 28,10), is referring to the head-tefillin.

 

            (Tefillin can cause trepidation in more ways than one.  Many years ago, after a spate of airjackings, I was flying from Bangor, Maine back to New York.  Bangor happens to be an international airport, and naturally there were strict precautions to prevent bringing explosives onto the plane.  When the security guard got to my tefillin, I could see right away that there was going to be a problem.  Turning them over and over, he demanded to know what they were.  My learned explanation, citing chapter and verse, failed to assuage his suspicions and he insisted on cutting them open, something which I was not about to allow.  Suffice it to say that I was the last to board, with my tefillin intact.)

 

            There are in fact a number of times other than prayer when it is customary to wear the large talit over one's clothes.  One is at a circumcision.  I would like to think that it is actually the child who should be wearing "Jewish clothes," and the father, mohel, the one who holds the child, and he who recites the blessing are merely filling in.  A Jew enters the fold (the blessing at circumcision is "... to bring him into the covenant of Abraham"); we dress especially like a Jew.  Another time comes a bit later - Jewish men are taken to be buried in a talit.  It seems that there are three times when we are not willing to be disguised - at the beginning, when standing before God, and at the end (when standing before God).  That is why there were many instances during the holocaust of men putting on their talit before marching to their deaths.  There is also a famous story, which I am not sure if it is legend or history, about the siege of Nemirov in 1648.  The Cossack revolt in Poland swept from city to city.  The city of Nemirov was an ancient walled fortress which was put to the siege, the Poles and the Jews sharing in its defense.  In desperation, the Jews one day decided to sally forth and attack.  Fully expecting to die, they dressed themselves in the talit and rode out of the gates against the Cossacks, who were so amazed at the sight of the white-robed figures riding at them on horseback that, at least on that day, they fled.  (The story did not end as well - the Cossacks eventually made a deal with the Polish contingent to open the gates and betray the Jews, nearly all of whom were killed, mostly in the cemetery.  The Cossacks then killed the Poles as well.)

 

            There is an important difference between the two mitzvot of tefillin and tzitzit.  Tefillin have an explicit content - the boxes contain four passages from the Torah.  As we saw above, the Torah does not explicitly say which passages should be included, so that the first level of meaning of tefillin is that the word of God, the contents of Torah, should be a sign on our arms and in the center of out heads.  The actual four passages are the four places in the Torah where the mitzva of tefillin is mentioned, and even a superficial examination reveals that all four express the commitment, the sense of belonging, to God:

 

1.  Shema - Hear O Israel, Hashem your God, Hashem is one.  This constitutes the basic affirmation of faith, not merely that metaphysically there is only one God, but that He is our God, to whom, as the passage continues, we direct our love "with all our hearts, our souls, and our might."  This is called by the Sages the passage of "accepting the yoke of heaven."

2.  Ve-haya im shamo'a.  The covenant - we accept the mitzvot, and God will be our God, to protect us and care for us.

3.  Kadesh li kol bekhor.  We actually belong to God, as the firstborn is sanctified to Him from the time that the firstborn of Israel were saved when the firstborn of Egypt were slain and we were all taken out of slavery.

4.  Ve-haya ki yevi'akha.  God has taken us out of Egypt the house of bondage; therefore we dedicate ourselves to Him.

 

            These passages are not being recited by us now, but are being bound on our arms and heads, as a SIGN, that this is what a Jew is - his might (arm) and intelligence (head) dedicated to God.  The verse quoted above spoke of the name of God that is called "on you," and indeed the head-tefillin has the letter "shin," representing God's name, engraved on the outside (unlike the Torah passages that are sealed inside).

 

            Tzitzit, on the other hand, do not have literal content.  The Torah says that we should see the fringes and remember all the commandments of God.  This can be no more than a hint, and it is usually explained as a numeric one - the numeric value of the letters of the word "tzitzit" in Hebrew is 600, to which if we add the eight strings and the five knots on each fringe, we reach 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah.  To this I would add the following.  The fringes of our garments are the very ends, dragging along behind us.  Tzitzit is not actually a garment, but an appendage, literally the fringe, away from the center, straggling along almost as an afterthought.  If the tzitzit represent "all the mitzvot," then by wearing them we are dragging along, as it were, all the mitzvot, all the accumulated baggage of being a committed Jew, with us wherever we go, no matter what is actually at the center of our attention at the moment.

 

            This is corroborated by another feature of tzitzit, one so central that in the Talmud tzitzit is often called by the name of this feature, although today it is rare.  The Torah says that one of the tzitzit strings should be dyed with "tekhelet," - a blue dye derived from a sea mollusk.  (The exact process of preparing the dye was lost over the centuries, which is why tzitzit generally today are only white).  The Sages comment on this color - "Tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the heavens, and the heavens are like the throne of glory."  The tzitzit reflect the reflection of the reflection of the heavenly throne.  As we go about our every day mundane lives, we bear a hint of the sea and the heavens.  The blue is a reflection of the clarity and depth of the boundless seas and the vastness of the universe, themselves a reflection of the purity of the kingdom of heaven.  A touch of that deep blue, a string like a loose thread attached to my jacket, follows us wherever we go.

 

            Mezuza, the small scroll attached to the doorpost, basically has the same status as tefillin, this time not on our bodies but on our homes.  (There are only two passages in a mezuza, the two passages where the mitzva of mezuza is mentioned in the Torah - 1 & 2 in the list above). I always found the American custom of wearing a mezuza trinket around one's neck to be very curious.  (I had a teacher who used to say that if you are a doorpost you should wear a mezuza.)  It seemed almost a deliberate confusion with tefillin (as well as an obvious imitation of a different religious symbol worn by many Catholics).  The mezuza is not a star of David - it does not say, "I am a Jew."  It says, like the tefillin, this house belongs to God, it is dedicated not only to shelter but to creating a community of faith.

 

            Interestingly, it is placed not in the center of the room but on the door.  This is perhaps a parallel to the fringe-status of tzitzit, but I think there is a more basic reason.  The content of your room needs to have more than a sign, just as the content of your head needs to have more than tefillin.  But when one passes from one room to another, when we are moving about, then we need to remember that we should enter the new room by first, before anything else, seeing that mezuza.  The mezuza DEDICATES by being BEFORE the room, by meeting us first before we enter a new room.  It is the passages of time that are being claimed by the mezuza - thereby leaving the stations of time for us to fill with content.

 

            Now, one might claim that the laws of the sanctity of tefillin I mentioned at the beginning, which lead to its being restricted practically to "holy hours" only, argue against my understanding.  It seems as though the Torah expects the wearing of tefillin to indicate that one is engrossed in holiness - which is why Jewish tradition has eventually excluded them from the mundane.  I think though that the opposite is true.  This is a fascinating case of how the ideal and the real coexist in Halakha.  The Torah suggests one wear tefillin all day not because it believes we should spend our days in the synagogue, but because it believes that we should drag the name of God into our daily mundane lives.  In truth, this requires a greater degree of awareness of the significance of the name of God than most of us are capable of, and hence, we have restricted our efforts, but the ideal of tefillin is indeed to live a regular life with "the name of God called on you."  It was not the world that was too mundane for tefillin, but our minds, that were too muddled, too unfocused, too absent-minded, to carry tefillin into the mundane world; and so we had to settle only for a white strand which replaces the blue one which reflected the reflection of the reflection of the heavenly throne.  The Torah believes in sanctity within the mundane world - but also demands that we, by purity of thought and cleanliness of body, support and maintain that dynamic tension.  In the meantime, it seems, we have settled for a compromise - part tzitzit, mezuzot on our doors, tefillin on our heads and arms for a half hour a day.  The world, it seems, is still out there, waiting to be conquered.