Strings Attached: The Mitzvah of Tzitzit
Our parsha, Nasso, concludes with the mitzvah of Tzitzit, the obligation to attach fringes to four-cornered garments. What is the meaning of this commandment? It is interesting to note that virtually all societies mandate some type of clothing, no matter how minimal or crude. Often, the purpose is obviously not utilitarian, and sometimes it is completely impractical, like a man’s tie. What then is the explanation for this universal human practice? The key can be found in a statement of the Talmud, in which the sage, Rav Yochanan, referred to his clothing as “that which gives me honor.”
Clothing expresses the human desire to be distinguished from the animals. A human being’s innate feeling of dignity is an expression of the soul, the image of G-d within the person, which says, “I am more than an animal!” Dignity and self-respect taken to negative extremes can become selfishness and egocentricity. Used in a positive way, however, they act as barriers against immorality. Sin and immorality are seen as “beneath” us, as simply inappropriate for a being with a soul, created in “the image of God.”
Tying tzitzit onto our clothing emphasizes and reminds us that our dignity has strings attached. “Noblesse oblige” — nobility obligates, and indeed our nobility as humans obligates us to act morally. The fringes attached to our clothing, the symbol of our nobility and honor, are there, “So that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy to your God.”
The Kabbalists suggest another meaning behind the mitzvah of tzitzit. They explain that clothes symbolize the body. Just as clothing surrounds, protects and helps the body to survive, so the body surrounds, protects and helps the spiritual soul to operate in the physical world. Thus, the clothing to which the fringes are attached symbolizes the physical body, and the fringes themselves represent the mitzvot, the fine threads that bind us to a spiritual reality.
Ideally, as the verse in Numbers states, the fringes should consist of white threads tied together with one blue thread, the tcheilet. The purpose of the blue thread, like all the threads in fact, is to remind us of higher spiritual goals and realities. The Talmud asks:
Why is tcheilet the color chosen for the thread? Because tcheilet is similar to the color of the sea, the sea is similar to the color of the sky, and the sky is similar to the color of the Throne of Glory.
Apparently, it was obvious to the Sages that there must be a colored thread in the tzitzit; their only question was why specifically this color. One of the commentaries explains that the white of tzitzit symbolizes purity of action, activity free of any wrongdoing. The Sages understood, however, that simply refraining from doing evil is insufficient if one wants to attain spiritual and moral perfection. One must also actively engage in performing good deeds. These positive actions are symbolized by color, which improves a garment and elevates its status, just as the positive commandments elevate and improve human character.
The question the Talmud asks then, is “Why tcheilet?” As quoted above, the Talmud answers that, “tcheilet is similar to the sea.” In another section of the Talmud, the Sages explain that the sea is a metaphor for total immersion in the Torah. The blue sea color of the tcheilet string in the tzitzit teaches that the first step towards actualizing the Torah’s teachings in one’s life is commitment. Even if one’s intentions are less than pure, “from impure intentions will eventually come fulfillment of the Torah and mitzvot for altruistic reasons.” This will only come about, however, if the starting point is full commitment, swimming like a fish in the sea of Torah. The Talmud continues, “the sea is similar to the sky” — the heavens symbolize the performance of mitzvot for the sake of Heaven, i.e. altruistically. From this ideal level of mitzvah fulfillment a person can eventually reach the highest possible level of connection to God, symbolized metaphorically by His Throne of Glory.
The Torah states explicitly that when we see the tzitzit we will “remember all the commandments of God and perform them.” We have explained how the very presence of fringes on our clothing and the color of the fringes remind us of the commandments.
A number of deep Kabbalistic concepts are expressed in the manner in which the tzitzit are constructed and tied. For example, the tzitzit consist of eight threads tied in five knots38, adding up to thirteen, which calls to mind the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy.
There are no numerals in Hebrew; instead, each letter has a numerical value. The numerical value of the word tzitzit is 600. When this number is added to the 13 of the fringes, the total is 613, the number of commandments in the Torah (thereby reminding us to keep all of the commandments). The five knots on each fringe remind us of The Five Books of Moses. When we look at the two sets of fringes on the front of the tallit katan, the 10 knots (5 on each fringe) should remind us of the Ten Sefirot, or Emanations of God’s Will. One thread is intentionally made longer, and this longer thread is wound around the others a number of times. The number of times it is wound around the others42 alludes to the letters in the Names of God.
The knots themselves teach us that we should always be bound to God and to His Torah with a permanent knot, just as the tzitzit are tied to our garments. The four fringes, one on each corner of the tallit katan, remind us that no matter in which direction we go, or where we turn, we are always in God’s presence. (Excerpted from Gateway to Judaism, by Rabbi Mordechai Becher)