Parshas Shlach

This week’s Torah portion’s concluding paragraph (Numbers 15:37-41) commands us to affix tzizit (“fringes”)to most four-cornered garments that men wear. The commandment is fulfilled by wearing theטלית קטן , a “small tallit,” or what we call tzizit or “arba kanfot,” under one’s shirt throughout the day, and a large טלית – talit when praying shacharit, the morning prayer.

The mitzvah to wear tzizit applies only during daylight hours. This is derived from the words וראתם אותו “and you should see them, which indicates that the strings should be visible without the use of artificial light. Hence, at night, when we cannot see them, we are exempt from wearing tzitzit

For this reason, women are exempt from putting tzitzit on their four cornered garments such as shawls and the like. Because women are exempt from mitzvot whose performance is mandated during a specific time, tzitzit, a mitzvah that is obligatory only during the daytime, does not apply to women.

Our portion’s paragraph containing the laws of tzitzit also comprises the third paragraph of the Shema that we say in the morning and evening prayers. What prompted the Sages to incorporate this paragraph into the daily recitation of the Shema?  

The paragraph’s last verse reads as follows.

(מא) אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹקִים אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיכֶם

I am Hashem your G-d who has taken you out of the land of Egypt to be G-d unto you, I am Hashem your G-d.

The Torah commands us to remember the Exodus from Egypt every morning and evening, which we fulfill by reading this verse. Because we must also read the Shema every morning and evening (for its own reasons), the Sages tacked this paragraph onto the Shema so that we may fulfill both obligations simultaneously. 

This raises a question: The Torah mentions the Exodus from Egypt 50 (!) times. Why was this the particular one chosen to fulfill our obligation of remembering the Exodus?

There is a strong connection between the mitzvah of tzitzit and the Exodus, such that the mitzvah of tzitzit enhances our mention of the Exodus.

R. Ovadia Sforno (d. 1550) provides the link.

תזכרו שאתם עבדים לאל יתברך, ושקבלתם מצותיו באלה ובשבועה, וזה בראותם הציצית שהוא כחותם המלך בעבדיו

Through the tzitzit you will remember that you are servants to Hashem and that you accepted upon yourselves an oath to fulfill His commandments. Because the tzitzit are like the seal of the king upon his servants, seeing them will be your reminder.

A tallit (or a garment with tzitzit) is the Jew’s uniform and symbolizes his commitment to Hashem’s commandments. Like a soldier or policeman in uniform, his garments place upon him a certain responsibility and broadcast the notion of duty. The tzitzit also demand a certain type of behavior of its wearers, the servants of none-other than Hashem, the Creator and Master of the world, Who has given His servants a very strict code of conduct, one that reflects His high morals and  standards.

This is the meaning of the verse (Numbers 15:39):

וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְדֹוָד וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם

And you should see them, and you will remember all of Hashem’s commandments and do them.

            Wearing Hashem’s uniform reminds us of our obligation to uphold the values and morals that the uniform represents, all of which are contained in the Torah’s 613 commandments.

But how do the tzitzit remind us of the 613 commandments?

The word ציצית refers to the actual fringe that is attached to the garment’s four corners. We must recall that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numeric value, and that the numerical value of the word ציצית equals 600. (צ=90  + י=10 +  +צ=90 + י=10 (ת=400 To that sum we add to that the 8 strings (each corner has four strings passed through it, which “doubles” them to eight), and those  eight strings are each tied with 5 knots. 8 + 5 =13, and there you have it: 600 + 13 = 613, the number of the Torah’s commandments. Thus, looking at the fringes reminds you of “all the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.”

More particularly, each corner’s eight strings are first tied with a double knot. One string is then wrapped around the other 7 a specific number of times, and then a second knot is made. This is done five times creating five knots. The number times the string is wrapped around the other seven between the knots is 7-8-11-13, which total 39, the sum of Hashem’s special name (26) and the word אחד (13) “one”. (Here is the math ה אחד י-ה-ו- Hashem is One (10+5+6+5) + (1+8+4) = 39.)

 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 about the 10 knots plus the 16 strings which add up to 26, the numeric value of Hashem’s name.

We thus see that the goal of the tzitzit is to connect our minds to Hashem while we are wearing the Talit. When we would focus on the various hints hidden in the knots and strings of the tzitzit we are holding in our hand as we recite the Shema, we would automatically focus on Hashem, Master of the universe, and our responsibility to Him. This is the goal of the Shema; to accept Hashem as our King.

There is another source in the tzitzit for this idea.

The Torah commands us to dye one of the eight strings on each corner with תכלת, a sky-blue dye, extracted from a special rarely appearing snail. We don’t incorporate the blue string in our tzitzit today because we lack the blue dye. (Although, you may occasionally see a tallit with royal blue strings, that is because there are those who believe that the blue dye has been rediscovered.) The Talmud wonders why the Torah selected תכלת – sky blue– of all the colors of the spectrum for use on the tzitzit. The Talmud tells us that the color of תכלת reminds us of the sea, which reminds us of the sky, which ultimately reminds us of Hashem’s Throne of Honor. Viewing the blue strand in the  ציצית should remind us 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 spreads over all four corners of the earth. When we wrap ourselves in the talit, we are placing ourselves under the Almighty’s protective cover, which 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.

We see this also from a story told in the Talmud (Menachot 44a)

מעשה באדם אחד שהיה זהיר במצות ציצית שמע שיש זונה בכרכי הים שנוטלת ד’ מאות זהובים בשכרה שיגר לה ארבע מאות זהובים וקבע לה זמן כשהגיע זמנו בא וישב על הפתח נכנסה שפחתה…באו ד’ ציציותיו וטפחו לו על פניו…

There was a man who was careful to perform of the mitzvah of tzitzit who arranged to commit a sin with a certain woman. When he was about to commit the sin, his four tzitzit hit him in the face, and he refrained from committing the sin.

When she demanded an explanation for his behavior he responded.

אלא מצוה אחת ציונו ה’ אלהינו וציצית שמה וכתיב בה אני ה’ אלהיכם שתי פעמים אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ואני הוא שעתיד לשלם שכר עכשיו נדמו עלי כד’ עדים

Hashem commanded us to put the tzitzit on the corners of our garments and in commanding us so, twice it says “I am Hashem your G-d”. Why twice? One to tell us that He is the G-d who will punish us for the sins we do, and the other is to tell us that He is the G-d who will reward us for fulfilling His commandments. These four fringes just appeared to me as the  four witnesses who will testify against me for the sin I am about to commit.  

We learn a remarkable lesson from this story. The man’s care in performing the mitzvah of tzitzit properly, saved him in his time of weakness. This is one of the benefits of wearing tzitzit, viz, it serves as a constant reminder that we are in Hashem’s army, and, as such, we must be extremely careful about what we do.

Indeed, looking into it more deeply discloses 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.”

The Torah is here 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?

The beginning of this week’s portion informs us about the twelve spies sent into Israel to report to the Jewish people about the land. Of the twelve, only two, Joshua and Kalev, presented a positive report, telling the people that we can easily conquer the land. The other ten slandered the land and said that it is a land that “devours its inhabitants” and would be impossible to conquer.

As the spies traversed the land, they observed funerals being held everywhere; people all over the land were dying. The spies attributed this to the huge fruits that grew there. Apparently, the produce was deadly, and Israel is not a place where regular people could live!

They also reported that giants lived there. “We felt like grasshoppers, and that’s exactly how we looked in their eyes.” How could we possibly win a war against them?

The spies’ problem was that they were taken in by what they saw: funerals, giants, and huge fruits. Yet a little thought could have turned their perspective around. Our Sages explain that the reason for the 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 the spies that He could kill the “giants” whenever He wanted to, no matter how big they were. The huge fruits, too, were but a preview to the land’s great bounty that they would inherit when they entered it. Right in front of their eyes was the evidence that Israel was a great place, and that they could conquer it in a cinch. Hashem was actually protecting them and doing everything for their good, but their jaundiced eyes would not let them see it that way. They too quickly and superficially analyzed the facts, which seemed to show a hopeless situation.  

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

You see those strings? How many knots? What is the numerical value of the word ציצית? Think deeper! Don’t see only the superficial, which is misleading. Look beneath the surface; think deeply! It is filled with meaning.

A question still remains. What lies at the root of the ten spies’ negative perspective on the land of Israel? Why didn’t they see things correctly?

The verse stated above says, “And do not explore after your heart and after your eyes.” Rashi comments:

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

“The heart and the eyes are the spies for the body, and they spy out the sins. The eye sees, the heart covets, and then the body follows through and does the sins.”

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”? Why is the heart the first thing mentioned in the verse?

This question’s answer lies deep in human psychology. A person will not see something that he does not want to see. No matter how obvious the evidence or 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. What he wants to see will govern the perception of what his eyes sees. If he is completely objective, he will see the truth, but if he even subconsciously, wants to see something else, that is what he will exclusively see. It really starts with what is in the observer’s heart; that determines what his eyes see.

Our Sages teach that a personal bias influenced the ten spies. The spies, princes of their tribes, had prophetically seen that once the Jewish nation enters the Land of Israel, there would no longer be a need for princes, causing them to lose their prestigious positions. So as not to lose their positions of honor, subconsciously, they did not want to go into Israel. This bias colored their vision and prevented them from seeing things in a positive, correct light.

This concept is revealed in the Talmud Sanhedrin 104b.

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 does the פ   precede the ע? Because of the spies who said with their mouths what they didn’t see with their eyes.

Rav Yochanan’s reference is to the book of איכה – Lamentations, where the first letter of every verse in the first four chapters follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph bet (similar to Ashrei). That, though, is not completely correct, because only the first chapter follows the Aleph bet consistently. In chapters 2, 3 and 4, instead of the ע preceding the פ as it should, the “פ”  precedes the “ע”. Rava wants to know why Jeremiah, who wrote the book of Lamentations, inverted them? What’s the lesson?

The answer is because the ten spies preceded their mouths – theirפה  (mouth in Hebrew) to their עין (eye in Hebrew). The ten spies wanted to say that the Land of Israel was no good, so when they looked at it, all that they saw was the negative.

There is a question on this statement in the Talmud. It says that they said “what they didn’t see with their eyes.” If they didn’t see it, shouldn’t the letter “ע”  be omitted? The prophet is revealing this deep truth, that one sees what he wants to see. The reason the “ע”  is there is to teach us that in their minds, this is what they saw! Even though the reality was something entirely different, because of their bias, they could not see the correct reality.

In a quite striking example of this phenomenon, the Royal Society of Great Britain published this piece after the DNA of a very basic bacterium was decoded for the first time:

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.

The Royal Society realized that such a brilliant and complex compaction system could not have come about by itself. There is obviously intelligence behind this intricate and ingenious system of coding. The coding system is so compact that scientists tell us that if you were to code every letter in every volume of printed material in every library in the entire world the way DNA is coded, it would all fit in the space the size of the head of a pin. Another way to look at this is that if a single DNA molecule, which lies at the center of the nucleus of every cell, were uncurled, it would be some six feet in length! Such precision, such compactness could not be by chance. So, could that mean that there is a Creator, God? Impossible, we don’t believe in the supernatural. That is not an option. No problem. We’ll attribute it to extraterrestrial civilizations (Martians) who “seeded” our world billions of years ago. No one has ever seen or heard from a Martian either, but it’s better that it be a Martian than G-d because a Martian brings no responsibility, G-d does. 

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 as the reason that the spies interpreted what they saw in a negative way. Deep in their hearts, they were out to find the excuse not to go into Israel. Their eyes saw what was in their hearts.

Jeremiah hinted to this in the Book of Lamentations because, if it were not for the ten spies, the same people who left Egypt would have entered the Land of Israel. In that case, entering Israel would have been the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt and would have been part of the redemption process. Just as the Exodus is an integral part of our nationhood, the conclusion of that process would have been the same, and exile from Israel would have been impossible. The ten spies created a disconnect between the people who left Egypt and the people who entered the Land of Israel, making exile possible. Lamentations laments the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the land.

The mitzvah of ציצית, which focuses us on Hashem and the 613 mitzvot, serves as a tool to help keep us objective about what we see. When we see ourselves as Hashem’s servants focused on His will instead of on ours, we can be completely objective and not follow our inclinations. Since our personal biases are not involved, our eyesight will always be 20/20.

It is noteworthy that the Torah nowhere obligates us to wear the talit or the tzitzit. The Torah only says that if a person wears a four-cornered garment, he must put tzitzit on it. But, if one does not own such a garment, there is no obligation to acquire one. Yet, we nevertheless deliberately go out and purchase a four cornered garment to obligate ourselves in the mitzvah ofציצית .

Intriguingly, why would such a great mitzvah, one that is considered equal to the other 612 combined, be presented as optional?

The answer is that 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.

When wearing the tzitzit, we fulfill the mitzvah each moment that they are on us.

Shortly before the Vilna Goan’s passing, he gathered the strings of his tzitzit in his hand and whispered, “How difficult it is to part from this world, the world of deeds! For a few coins, one can fulfill such an easy mitzvah of tzitzit and reach the highest level of closeness to Hashem. Can I have such a chance in the world of neshamos (the world to come) even for the highest price?”

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

Print this article

Leave a Reply