2016-06-22 / Religion Column

On the fringes of Jewish prayer

Congregation Beth Judah, Ventnor

Parashat Shelach Lecha
Num. 13:1-15:41

They dangle from the corners of the tallit, the shawl we drape across our shoulders when we pray. We gather all four of them and hold them in one hand during some prayers; at various points we kiss them.

They sometimes get caught on a jacket button or on a Torah breastplate. We tickle babies with them; children try to tie them together on Simchat Torah.

“They/them” are tzitzit. What are tzitzit and why do we have them?

At the end of parashat Shelach Lecha, God tells Moses: Tell the Children of Israel to put tzitzit on the corners of their garments in each and every generation. The tzitzit should have a thread of t’cheilet. They shall be tzitzit you look upon to be reminded of God’s commandments—all of them!-so that you fulfill them. (Deut. 15:38ff)

It’s a mitzvah (commandment) that raises many questions. As our sages of old sought to understand how to fulfill God’s commandments, they asked: What does the word tzitzit mean? On which garments should they be placed? What is t’cheilet?

Tzitzit is understood to mean “fringe” or ‘tassel.” The root of the word (tzitz) also means a botanical or ornamental blossom.

Any garment with four corners that are generally visible should have tzitzit. The practice of wearing a specifically-four-cornered garment with tzitzit beneath or on top of one’s clothing developed to enable one to always fulfill this commandment.

T’cheilet is a particular blue-violet dye. It is derived from a small Mediterranean mollusk. (When t’cheilet is used, only one of the four strands that make up each tassel is dyed.)

What we have today in the tallit is a reflection of evolution in interpreting the commandment of tzitzit: Tallit is the means for fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit. The tzitzit are attached to something we wear as a garment that has corners, and the tzitzit are decidedly visible. When we wear the tallit with its tzitzit, we can see—and feel—the reminder that we have a vast structure of law that can structure our Jewishly religious lives.

A 19th c. Chasidic master, Rabbi Yechezkel Taub of Kazimeirz, Poland, notes that the blessing we recite when putting on a tallit is about enveloping ourselves in tzitzit, not of the tallit, even though we are really wrapping ourselves in the shawl, not the fringes. Symbolically, however, we are enveloping ourselves in the mitzvah of tzitzit.

In her Torah commentary “The Five books of Miriam,” Ellen Frankel discusses how women, who only recently have embraced the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit (on a tallit) when praying, have creatively personalized the tallit: “The tallit provides a wonderful opportunity for women’s spiritual expression. Into it we can weave our dreams, our visions, our prayers…”

Try wrapping yourself in a tallit the next time you engage in prayer, whether in a formal setting or in your own backyard. You will be connecting to an ancient commandment that is rich with spiritual meaning and mystery; you will be enveloping yourself in a tradition that embraces your presence. s

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