Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
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
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International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Shelah 5761/ June 16, 2001
Tzitzit: Form and Content
Prof. (emeritus) Moshe Ahrend
Although we are all familiar with the passage on tzitzit
15:37-41) insofar as it is one of the passages read daily in the
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
) to Moses, saying,"
with the less common and exceptional formulation, "The Lord said
) to Moses as
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
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
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
, 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
, 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
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'
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
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
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
According to this interpretation,
the word tzitzit
has two meanings:
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
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
Perhaps the blue fringe in the
, 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
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
] 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,
point out that le-ma
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
"in order that," but "thus."
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
2.2, and the remarks of
Rabbi Judah bar Haviva in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot
Combinations of two different verbs, as
in "spoke...saying" (Heb. dibber
), 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
(seen right; Jer. 1:12); higdil
(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).
This verse occurs five times in
Scripture. Regarding its meaning, see Meshekh Hokhmah
week's reading, where he discusses four of these verses.
A similar interpretation was made by the
, 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
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
two verses. It seems to us that he too had in mind the interpretations of
Rashbam and Ribash.
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.
Cf. Encyclopedia Mikrait
, 8, p.
, 6, p. 732.
"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.
See our discussion in "Parashat
Tzitzit – Parashah she-Kulah Hinukh
100, pp. 45-53.
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
]" (Hos. 8:4); this is certainly not the purpose
of making the images, but it is likely to be the dreadful result of
Cf. "though I follow my own willful
heart" (Deut. 29:18).
The root t-u-r
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
See Babylonian Talmud, Menahot
43b, based on Ps. 34:8.
See N. Rothenstreich, Sugiyot
, 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
(translated from German to Hebrew), pp. 7-19.
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
, Jerusalem 1950, pp. 66-67; Martin Buber, Darko shel
, Jerusalem 1978, pp. 284-307; M. Weiss, "Be-Sod Siah
," (intro. to Buber's book), loc. sit.
, pp. 9-33; M. Weiss,
, Jerusalem 1962, pp. 23-27; Nehamah Leibowitz,
Studies in Genesis
, Jerusalem 1967, pp. 138-139.
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