Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5769/ June 13, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



An Alternative Reading of the Passage on Tzitzit


Mordechai Amit


Massuot Yizhak


The passage on tzitzit contains a warning:  “Do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Num. 15:39).   This warning is problematic in several respects.   What is the substance of this warning?   The heart in antiquity was thought to be the seat of the intellect, whereas the eyes represented the senses.   Could it be that the Torah forbids us to examine the world with our intelligence and our senses?   Are we forbidden to engage in science?   Nehamah Leibowitz puts the question aptly:

Is not contemplation of the beauty of the universe and its wonders precisely the action that is likely to bring us closer to love and fear of G-d? [1]   And if it is not the intention of the verse to prevent such speculation, then what did the verse intend?

Second, the root t-u-r makes an association between the warning given here and the passage on the spies (Numbers 13-14). Rabbi Elhanan Samet elucidated this point in his comments on this week's parasha: [2]         

The verb t-u-r appears twelve times, once for each of the chieftains sent to spy out the land.  The significant number of occurrences of this word here, its distribution evenly throughout the entire story, and its rare occurrence (elsewhere in Scripture) all are indications that this root functions as a leitmotif in our story.  The root t-u-r occurs another three times in Scripture, and these occurrences are tied either directly or indirectly to the story of the spies. [3]

Our verse containing the words, ve-lo taturu (rendered as “do not follow”), is one of the three instances mentioned by Rabbi Samet.   So the question arises:   how is the story of the spies connected with the verse at hand?  On the face of it there seems to be no substantive connection.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty, although I have found no discussion of this, lies in the following question:   why is the warning, “do not follow…” surrounded before and after by two identical warnings to remember the commandments and to observe them (Num. 15:39)?

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.  Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d.

The Torah, after all, does not generally repeat itself without a specific reason.

Before turning to the answers, I would like to suggest a different way of approaching the text. Let us not just read the words, one after the other, in their given order.  My reading is based on a graphic layout of the structure of the passage, and I have called it an alternative reading.  It runs as follows:


recall all the commandments of the Lord                                          and observe them

and do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge

Thus you shall be reminded                                      to observe all My commandments


Viewed in this way, the two lines enveloping the warning “do not follow…” are as a fence and hedge. The meaning of this warning is that you may actually follow your heart and your eyes, provided that in so doing you do not violate any of the commandments of the Torah. [4]  

If we take this to be the significance of the structure, we have provided an answer to the question of the relationship between “do not follow” and the story of the spies.  The Lord commanded us to take possession of the land of Canaan – a commandment requiring positive action.  Twelve dignitaries were sent to bring back information about the land, and in relaying their information to Moses and the elders it ostensibly appeared that they had fulfilled their mission. [5]   Even when they expressed doubt about the people’s readiness for war – “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful…” – one could still view this statement as marginal, falling between objective fact and subjective opinion.  But when they said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we” (Num. 13:31), they violated the Lord’s command and transgressed the warning of “do not follow your heart and eyes,” since these words instilled fear in the people, preventing them from fulfilling the Lord’s command to conquer the land of Canaan. [6]



[1] N. Leibowitz, Iyyunim be- Sefer be-Midbar, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 63.

[2] Rabbi Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Farashat ha-Shavua (Series A) Jerusalem 2002, p. 189.

[3] Thus far my quote from Rabbi Samet, although he continues his discussion further.

[4] Of course I have no intention here of giving any religious ruling (which would be beyond my jurisdiction).  I merely seek to elucidate the plain sense of Scripture.

[5] See Nahmanides, Numbers 13:27-31.

[6] For other alternative readings, see Leah Frankel, Perakim be-Mikra, Jerusalem 1981.