Parshas Shelach

The last paragraph of this week’s Torah portion, contains the commandment to put tzizit on any four-cornered garment that we wear. We fulfill this mitzvah by wearing a Talit when we pray shacharit the morning prayer, and by wearing the smaller pair of tzizit under our shirt all day.

The mitzvah to wear tzizit applies only during the day. This is derived from the words וראתם אותו “and you should see them”. This indicates that while wearing them, you should be able to see them without the use of any artificial light. Therefore, at night when we cannot see them without artificial light, we are exempt from having tzitzit on our garments.

This is also why women are exempt from putting tzitzit on their shawls and kerchiefs. The basic rule is, women are not obligated to do mitzvot that have to be done at a specific time.  Since tzitzit is a mitzvah that is obligatory only during the day, women are exempt.

At first glance, this commandment seems to go into the category of a חק an edict without a logical or understandable reason behind it. Tie some strings to a four-cornered piece of cloth. What could possibly be the meaning in this?

The problem is, the Torah itself gives us a reason.

The verse says: (Numbers 15:39)


ספר במדבר פרק טו

וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְדֹוָד וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם

“And you should see them and you will remember all the commandments of Hashem and do them.”

How is it that through seeing the Tzitzit we will remember the 613 commandments?

The word ציצית refers to the actual fringe. The letters of the Alef bet each have a numeric value, and the numerical value of the word ציצית equals 600. (צ=90  + י=10 +  +צ=90 + י=10 (ת=400 Add to that the 8 strings and 5 knots, and you have the number of commandments in the Torah, 613. Thus, when you look at the fringes, if you think into it, you will be reminded of “all the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.”

The Code of Jewish law also teaches us that when a person holds the front two tzitzit of his Talit while reciting the Shema, he should think that the 10 knots plus the 16 strings add up to 26, the numeric value of Hashem’s name (10+5+6+5).

The Torah also commands us to dye one of the 8 strings on each corner with תכלת, a sky-blue dye, extracted from a special fish which surfaces only once in seventy years. We don’t have the blue string in our Talits today because we don’t have the blue dye. The Talmud wonders, why תכלת – sky blue– of all the colors of the spectrum? The answer given is that the color of תכלת reminds us of the sea, the sea reminds us of the sky, and the sky reminds us of Hashem’s Throne of Honor. When we see the blue strand in the  ציצית  we should be reminded of Hashem’s Throne of Honor.

Only a four cornered garment requires tzitzit, not one with three or five. The four corners represent the four corners of the earth, and Hashem whose dominion covers them. When we wrap ourselves in the טלית, we realize that we are always under the protective cover of the Almighty who is always there looking after us and protecting us. Hashem is swaddling us and we can feel very snug and secure in the security of His blanket, the talit.

Boy! That’s a lot to think about! But when you look into it more deeply you will see that this is precisely what the ציצית  is all about.

The continuation of the verse stated above says:

 וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם:

“And do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray”.

Considering the entire verse, the Torah is telling us that the mitzvah of ציצית will save us from following our eyes and our hearts which cause us to stray from the Torah. How is that?

In the beginning of this week’s portion, we read about the twelve spies who were sent into Israel to report back to the Jewish people about the land. Of the twelve, only two, Joshua and Kalev, gave a positive report and told the people that we can conquer the land, no problem. The other ten slandered the land and said it is a land that “devours its inhabitants” and would be impossible to conquer.

What prompted this negative evaluation?

As they travelled through the land, everywhere they went, they observed funerals being held; people were dying all over the place. They attributed this to the huge fruits that grew there. Apparently, they were deadly, and Israel is not a place where regular people like us could live!

They also reported that giants and very large people lived there. “We felt like grasshoppers and that’s exactly how we looked to them.” How could we possibly win a war against them?

The spies were very taken by what they saw. They saw funerals, they saw giants, and they saw huge fruits. But, a little thought could have turned it all around. Our sages explain that the reason there were so many funerals was to distract the inhabitants and keep them preoccupied with their grief so they would not bother with the intruders spying on their land. God was also showing them that He could kill them whenever He wanted to, no matter how big they were. The huge fruits were a preview of all the bounty they would inherit when they entered the land. Right in front of their eyes was the evidence that Israel was a great land, and that they could conquer it in a cinch. Hashem was actually protecting them, and doing everything for their good, but they could or would not see it that way. All they saw were the superficial facts, and they showed an impossible situation.

The ציצית are the antidote to superficial thinking. The ציצית say think more deeply. You see the blue color? What does it remind you of? The sea? Okay, what does that remind you of? The sky! Okay, and what does that remind you of? Hashem of course!

You see those strings? How many knots? What is the numerical value of the word ציצית? Think, man think! Don’t see only the superficial, which makes no sense. Look beneath the surface, think deeply! It is filled with meaning.

We are still stuck with a question. What lay at the root of the negative perspective on the land of Israel that the ten spies had? How was it that Yehoshua and Kalev were able to see the truth. Kalev said, “It’s are a piece of cake!” What was different about them?

In the verse stated above, it says: “and do not explore after your heart and after your eyes.” Rashi comments, “The eye sees, the heart covets, and then the body does the sins.”

רש”י על במדבר פרק טו פסוק לט

הלב והעינים הם מרגלים לגוף ומסרסרים לו את העבירות העין רואה והלב חומד והגוף עושה את העבירות:

There is a peculiarity in the order of things. If the eye sees, and then the heart covets, shouldn’t the verse have said, “and do not explore after your eyes and after your heart”?

The answer to this question lies deep in human psychology. A person will not see something he does not want to see. No matter how obvious the evidence, how clear the matter is, if for some reason, someone is not inclined to recognize the truth, he will dismiss it with the slightest excuse. The accuracy of what we see with our eyes is governed by what we want to see. If we are completely objective, we will see the truth, but if we want to see something else, we will see just that and nothing else. It really starts with what is in our hearts; that will determine what our eyes see.

The spies wanted to see the negative in the land of Israel so they would not have to go there. They would have lost their positions of honor so they didn’t want to go in. Therefore, they saw only what they wanted to.

This concept, that a person sees only what he wants to see, provides the answer to an interesting question.

Tisha B’Av, תשעה באב  – the 9th day of the month of Av, is the day that both holy temples were destroyed. On this day, we fast, and read the book of איכה  – Lamentations. The book of Lamentations has five chapters. In the first four chapters the verses are written in alphabetical order, similar to Ashrei, and the last chapter, although not written in alphabetical order, has 22 verses, the number of letters in the alphabet. There is something very perplexing though. In the first chapter, the order is correct, and each letter is in sequence. In chapters 2,3, and 4, two letters appear out of order. The correct order is  ס, ע, פ – but in these three chapters, the פ  precedes the ע  and the order is ס, פ, ע !

The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedren 104b) asks the question.

אמר רבא אמר רבי יוחנן בשביל מה הקדים פ”א לעי”ן בשביל מרגלים שאמרו בפיהם מה שלא ראו בעיניהם

Rava said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, “why did the פ  precede the ע? Because of the spies who said with their mouths what they didn’t see with their eyes.”

This is a play on words. The name of the letter,פ  also means a mouth –פה – and the name of the letter ,ע  also means an eye-עין . When the spies gave the false report claiming that Israel was impossible to conquer, they put their mouths (the פה), before their eyes (the עין) and said with their mouths, what they didn’t see with their eyes. The land was fantastic, but they didn’t see a fantastic land and they said it was terrible. Hashem had done everything for their benefit, but they did not see it that way. They interpreted all the good in a negative way. Therefore, as a hint to the problem of the spies, the letter פה  comes before the letter עין in each of the three middle chapters.

Something is wrong. If they didn’t see it with their eyes, the letter ע  should have been omitted altogether! Why is it written?

The answer is, that once they decided that they wanted to find fault in the promised land, they actually saw what they wanted to see. To them, it was as clear as day, it is impossible to conquer the land.

Two people had an argument about a critter they saw in the distance. One claimed it was a cat, and the other a bird. They decided to resolve the argument by throwing a stone at it. If it runs away, it’s a cat, and if it flies away, it’s a bird. They threw the stone and the critter flew away. “See it’s a bird! I told you so!” claimed the winner of the argument. “I can’t believe it! Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have thought it possible!” claimed his friend. “A flying cat!”

There is a striking example of this phenomenon. This piece was published by the Royal Society of Great Britain after the DNA of a very basic bacterium was decoded for the first time.

Royal Society of Great Britain


Quite a perplexing revelation from this work was that the genes actually overlap. Like a telegram with no spacing, the coded message read entirely differently, depending upon whether one began with the first, second, or third letter. The fact that three messages were contained within one, seemed to some researchers artificial or contrived, prompting Drs. Hiromitsu Yokoo and Iairo Oshima to revise to the theory, first suggested by Dr. Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel (Icarus, Vol. 19,1973, p341) that life on earth began from organisms that were sent here billions of years ago by extraterrestrial civilizations that decided to “seed” other planets.

They realized that such a brilliant and complex system could not have come about by itself. There is obviously intelligence behind this difficult and ingenious system of coding. The coding system is so compact that scientists tell us that if you coded every single volume of printed material in every library in the whole world the way the DNA is coded, it would all fit in the space the size of the head of a pin. There must be an author, no way of denying that. Could that mean there is a God? Impossible, we don’t believe in the supernatural. This is not an option. No problem. We can attribute it to Martians (extraterrestrial civilizations) who seeded our world billions of years ago. (Panspermia)

A person will not see what he does not want to see no matter how clear and obvious it is.

We can now understand why the Torah puts the heart first. This is the reason the spies interpreted what they saw in the negative way that they did. Deep in their hearts, they were out to find the reasons not to go into Israel. Their eyes saw what was in their hearts.

The mitzvah of ציצית which focuses us on Hashem and the 613 mitzvot, can serve as a tool to help keep us objective about what we see. If we chose to see the world through the eyes of the ציצית which is to say that everything points to Hashem, Hashem is everywhere, and I accept His will and His 613 commandments, we will always see correctly. Since our personal biases are not involved, our eyesight will always be 20/20.

It is interesting to know that there is no obligation from the Torah to wear the Talit or the ציצית. The Torah says if you own a four-cornered garment, in order to wear it, you must put ציצית on it. But, if one does not own such a garment, there is no obligation to buy one. In spite of that, we deliberately go out and purchase a four cornered garment in order to obligate ourselves in the mitzvah of  ציצית .

Why would such a great mitzvah, one which is considered equal to the other 612 combined, be optional?

The answer is, we must choose to be in a position to see things objectively. Without this conscious choice, we are likely to see things the way we want to see them.

The sages have incorporated the paragraph of the Tzitzit into our daily recital of the Shema morning and evening. This paragraph also contains the mention of the exodus from Egypt which we are obligated to remember twice every day, morning and evening (as we state in the Haggadah).

It is not coincidental that these two concepts come together in the same paragraph. Since the exodus from Egypt was the single most compelling historical event that proves the existence of Hashem, after getting the message of the tzitzit we can immediately reinforce the reality of Hashem as He was seen by millions of people at the exodus.

When wearing the Tzitzit, we fulfill the mitzvah every single second they are on us. The story is told of the Vilna Goan who on his death bed was seen crying. Those assembled were puzzled. What would a person who when reviewing his prior year before Rosh Hashanah, couldn’t remember where 10 minutes of time went, have to worry about when leaving this world?

The Vilna Gaon responded. “In this world, I can take a few dollars, buy myself a pair of tzitzit, and when I wear them, receive eternal reward for every second. Once I leave this world, that is no longer possible.”

What an opportunity! Like the person who was in a field strewn with diamonds. “Do I have to pick up the diamonds?” he asked. Of course not! But, you wouldn’t want to?

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