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Parashat Shelah

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.
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Parashat Shelah 5761/ June 16, 2001

Tzitzit: Form and Content

Prof. (emeritus) Moshe Ahrend


Although we are all familiar with the passage on tzitzit (Num. 15:37-41) insofar as it is one of the passages read daily in the Shema,[1] perhaps we are over-familiar with it and therefore not sensitive enough to the questions that arise from close study of these verses. Let us note several problems:

1) The passage does not begin with the usual formulation, "The Lord spoke (vayyidabber) to Moses, saying,"[2] rather with the less common and exceptional formulation, "The Lord said (vayyomer) to Moses as follows."[3]
2) The last verse, which serves as the concluding formulation, is also exceptional: it begins and ends with the formulation, "I, the Lord [am] your G-d." Now this phrase occurs in Scripture countless times at the beginning, middle, or end of a verse, but nowhere else does a verse begin and end with this formulation. Why the repetition?
3) Most of the verses in this passage (39-41) are addressed to the Israelites and spoken in the second person: That shall be your fringe, ... you shall look at it, ... etc. But at the beginning of the passage (v. 38) Moses is commanded to speak to the Israelites, the contents of the message being in the third person: instruct them to make for themselves ... on their garments... Why this change in grammatical person?
4) The key word in the passage is tzitzit, fringes, which appears three times here, and only once elsewhere in all of Scripture: "And took me by the hair (Heb. tzitzit) of my head" (Ezek. 8:3), where it means a bunch of hair, perhaps the forelock. But this meaning for the word tzitzit, a bunch of woven threads or one braided thread, can only make sense in verse 38: "instruct them to make for themselves a bunch of fringes ... let them attach a cord of blue to the bunch of fringes at each corner." In other words, the fringes were to be mostly white, but one of them was to be blue (Mishnah Menahot 4.1). When we come to verse 39, "That shall be your fringe," this meaning for tzitzit no longer suits. Nor does it matter whether the antecedent of "that" is the "corner fringe" (tzitzit hakkanaf) or the "blue thread" (petil tekhelet); Either way, the phrase is unclear, for what is the sense of saying that "the fringes (or the blue fringe) shall be fringes"?

Let us make do with these questions and turn to the structure of the passage. We have already noted that verse 37 is the opening verse and verse 41, the concluding one. Thus the main message is expressed in the three intervening verses. Now it is perfectly clear that verse 38 expresses the commandment of what is to be done, whereas verses 39-40 detail the purpose of the commandment, explaining what it is supposed to accomplish.

Perhaps this is what lies behind the grammatical change of person mentioned above: at first the Lord delegated Moses to instruct the Israelites in the details of the commandment, explaining to them in his own words the laws concerning tzitzit, what they are to make and how it is to be done – in other words, to teach them "the Oral Torah", as best formulated by Moses. Since Moses was to do the teaching, G-d speaks of Israel in the third person. Afterwards, from verse 39 onwards, Moses was to relay to the people G-d's own words regarding this mitzvah, which G-d addressed to Israel in the second person, beginning with the words, "That shall be your fringe," through "I, the Lord your G-d." These three verses are no longer instruction in the Halakhah, rather they are a narrative of the reason for the commandment and the idea behind it, as well as the basis for the people's obligation to uphold it as a commandment: for the Lord chose them so that He would be their G-d, when He delivered them from bondage in Egypt, making them His servants, as it were. This is the deeper significance of the concluding verse, especially of the repetition of the phrase constituting the principle message: I the Lord am your G-d, who is king over you, for I took you out of the land of Egypt, and since then and forever more I the Lord am your G-d.[4]

It is quite possible that the double use of the verb "to say" (Heb. a-m-r) in the opening sentence points to this structure. It is only the contents of verse 38 which Moses relates in his own language (Heb. d-b-r) to the Israelites, but the remainder of the passage, as we explained above, Moses is to quote (Heb. a-m-r) in its precise formulation, as said by G-d. Thus most of the passage and its principal message is transmitted in a double fashion, by way of quoting G-d and by way of Moses' accompanying explanation.

Now for the core of the passage, verses 39-40, which begin with the obscure expression, ve-haya lakhem le-tzitzit, "That shall be your fringe":

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.

Rashbam and R. Joseph Bekhor Shor distinguished explicitly between the word tzitzit in verse 38, which is a concrete noun referring to a group of threads forming a fringe, and the use of tzitzit in verse 39, which is a gerund meaning "looking" or "seeing" ("It shall be for your seeing").[5] According to this interpretation, the word tzitzit has two meanings:[6] 1) a fringe; 2) something one looks at so that one remembers important things, i.e., a symbol. Hence we may say that the Torah elevates the blue thread in the fringes on the corners to the status of a symbol whose function is to remind all those who look at it of the Lord's commandments, so that they shall observe them. Of course the question arises: what gives a blue fringe such an effect?

The Sages asked this question and came up with an answer (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 43b): "It is taught: Rabbi Meir said, 'Why is blue different from all other colors? Because it is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky, like the Throne of Glory.'"

In other words, blue reminds us of the Glory of the Lord, and thus makes us conscious of His commandments. Another interpretation, based on facts known to us today, is that blue in antiquity symbolized wealth, magnificence and nobility.[7] Perhaps the blue fringe in the tzitzit, as well as the blue fringes tied to the breastplate and frontlet of the High Priest (Ex. 28:28, 37; 39:21, 31), were signs of greatness and importance, marking the priest who was elevated over his brothers, and marking the people who were chosen by G-d to be "His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments" (Deut. 26:18).

Scripture describes how this symbol functioned: seeing it would cause remembering,[8] and remembering would lead to observing, i.e., fulfilling the commandments, as it is said: "look at it and recall ... and observe ... Thus [Heb. le'ma'an] you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments." Again the wording in Scripture is puzzling. What is the sense of saying: recall and observe so that you shall be reminded to observe? Why such a striking repetition? This is not the place to enter a lengthy explanation,[9] nevertheless we point out that le-ma'an is not necessarily a conjunction denoting purpose (although it may indicate a deliberate purpose, as in Ex. 4:5); rather, often it denotes a result and outcome, even one that is not intended and that may even be undesirable. The principle meaning of le-ma'an is not "in order that," but "thus."[10]

As we see it, the commandment of tzitzit has two stages: shunning evil ("so that you do not follow your heart"), followed by doing good ("to be holy to your G-d"). A person who does not believe in divine revelation and whose world does not include commandments, will necessarily traverse various paths in life, seeking and erring, as he is drawn after the arbitrary call of his heart,[11] his thoughts and ponderings, and after that which his eyes see, after his lusts, desires, and feelings. Only awareness of the obligation to obey divine commands can cause people not to follow[12] their heart and their eyes, for as Rashi said (citing Midrash Tanhuma 338.15): "The heart and the eyes are the 'spies' ( or "pimps") of the body – they act as its agent for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the sin."

The first result of seeing the symbol of the tzitzit is "initial remembering," i.e., becoming conscious of the Lord's commandments, prior to performing them. As a result, we cease "following our heart" and being misled by vanities and giving in to addiction to forbidden pleasures, so that we no longer go a-whoring, neither after our thoughts that are intermingled with covetousness and lust, nor after sensations that rouse our desires and entice the body to sin. The stage of shunning evil lays the way for the "second remembering" of the Lord's commandments, the positive stage. This willingness to perform the commandments brings in its wake an effort to dedicate one's life to worship of the Lord: "to be holy to your G-d." Note that in verse 39, "all the commandments of the Lord" is the object of "recall" (uzkhartem); in verse 40, "all My commandments" is the object of "observe" (va-asitem). The goal of the initial stage is to remember – in other words, spiritual intention that prevents degeneration to "whoring." When this goal is achieved, the second stage of remembering is likely to lead to the result (Heb. le-ma'an) of performing the commandments and becoming holy.

Profligate behavior and becoming holy are the two inevitable end stations or terminals of human life. People must choose between running after all that comes their way and all that they experience – after their heart and eyes – and between remembering the commandments, accepting them, and observing them in order to become holy through them. Choosing between these two options is the underlying idea of the passage on tzitzit. No wonder the commandment of tzitzit is considered of equal weight to all the other commandments, and is included in the seven commandments with which the Lawgiver is considered to have surrounded each Israelite, as the "angel of the Lord" that "camps around those who fear Him and rescues them" from sin.[13]
We conclude by suggesting that the dualism which marks this passage is not incidental. The dualism is found in the repetition of expressions: 1) said – saying; 2) fringes on the corners – the fringe at each corner; 3) recall and observe – you shall be reminded to observe; 4) I the Lord am your G-d – I the Lord your G-d. It is also in pairs of expressions: 1) to make – attach; 2) recall – observe; 3) heart – eyes; 4) be reminded – observe. Perhaps to the latter list one could also add: whoring – being holy.

Form and content are not independent entities. There is no content without form, and "form ... is not indifferent to content; it is saturated with content and expresses this content in lasting statements."[14] As the Sages have noted both in halakhic and aggadic texts, there are many rules for interpreting Scripture: not only Rabbi Ishmael's 13 rules and the 32 rules in the Mishnah of Rabbi Eliezer,[15] but also other rules in various midrashic and aggadic works. Thus it is quite possible that the dualistic structure of the passage on tzitzit should be tailored to its fundamental idea: two paths lay before us; each and every day of our lives we are called upon to choose, and the blue fringe on the tzitzit symbolizes to us the correct choice.

[1] Berakhot 2.2, and the remarks of Rabbi Judah bar Haviva in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 12b.
[2] Combinations of two different verbs, as in "spoke...saying" (Heb. dibber ... l'emor), in Hebrew the first verb being inflected and the second an infinitive, is in line with biblical style and occurs quite often: nahbeta livroah (flee in secrecy; Gen. 31:27); hetavta lir'ot (seen right; Jer. 1:12); higdil la'asot (work great deeds; Joel 2:20-21; Ps. 126:2-3), etc. For a further discussion of the significance of this structure, see Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman's interpretation of Lev. 1:2; in his opinion, "spoke ... saying" means said in speech (and not, for example, in writing).
[3] This verse occurs five times in Scripture. Regarding its meaning, see Meshekh Hokhmah on this week's reading, where he discusses four of these verses.
[4] A similar interpretation was made by the Sages (Sifre, loc. sit.), and following them, Rashi, based on Ezek. 20:32-33: "And what you have in mind shall never come to pass – when you say, 'We will be like the nations ... worshiping wood and stone.' As I live – declares the Lord G-d – I will reign over you with a strong hand..."
[5] Rashi also cites these two explanations, but if the version we have is not mistaken, he cites the second one as "another interpretation," i.e., as an alternative interpretation of tzitzit in the two verses. It seems to us that he too had in mind the interpretations of Rashbam and Ribash.
[6] This is the term coined by David Yellin in his book, Ketavim Nivharim, II, Jerusalem 1939, pp. 86-106. Ibn Ezra notes "the tendency in the holy tongue to use the same word in two different senses," and cites examples. See his long commentary on Ex. 22:5.
[7] Cf. Encyclopedia Mikrait, 8, p. 543; ibid., 6, p. 732.
[8] "Recalling" here and elsewhere in the Bible is not necessarily the opposite of forgetting, rather it is the act of bringing to mind and contemplating.
[9] See our discussion in "Parashat Tzitzit – Parashah she-Kulah Hinukh," Shema'tin 100, pp. 45-53.
[10] See Nahmanides on Deut. 29:18. Let us give two examples: "In order that your ox and your ass may rest" (Ex. 23:12) is not the purpose of resting on the Sabbath; rather it denotes the all-encompassing nature of Sabbath rest – cease all work on your farm on the Sabbath, to the extent that even your animals rest. "To their own undoing [Le-ma'an yikaret]" (Hos. 8:4); this is certainly not the purpose of making the images, but it is likely to be the dreadful result of idolatry.
[11] Cf. "though I follow my own willful heart" (Deut. 29:18).
[12] The root t-u-r occurs fifteen times in the Torah, thirteen of them in Parashat Shelah, twelve of those in the context of the spies sent to scout the land of Canaan. Is it not significant that the thirteenth occurrence pertains to our subject, in the passage on tzizit?
[13] See Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 43b, based on Ps. 34:8.
[14] See N. Rothenstreich, Sugiyot be-Hinukh, Jerusalem 1964, p. 149. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who translated the Bible into German together with Martin Buber, wrote an article entitled "Be-sod ha-Tzurah shel Sipurei ha-Mikra," Naharayim (translated from German to Hebrew), pp. 7-19.
[15]For example, rule 28 ("allusions"). Various scholars have reviewed the progress made in Bible studies in this area. Here is a selected bibliography: I. Heinemann, Darkhei ha-Aggadah, Jerusalem 1950, pp. 66-67; Martin Buber, Darko shel Miqra, Jerusalem 1978, pp. 284-307; M. Weiss, "Be-Sod Siah ha-Miqra," (intro. to Buber's book), loc. sit., pp. 9-33; M. Weiss, Ha-Miqra Ke-Demuto, Jerusalem 1962, pp. 23-27; Nehamah Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis, Jerusalem 1967, pp. 138-139.
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