Friday, May 14, 2021

Tzitzit Inspiration, Modern and Historic

Yesterday I repaired two tzitzit on my talit. In English, that means that I removed and tied two tassles on my prayer shawl. (Thanks YouTube!) Tzitzit are (to me) a curious Jewish commandment because it's both explicit and cryptic in the Torah. Consider what Numbers 15:38 - 40 have to say:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.

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 God.

So make fringes (or what the rest of the world would call tassels): check. Look at the fringes and recall all the commandments? Uh, OK, if you say so.

And yet, as I admired and then later davened with my finished work, I couldn't help but see a new side of tzitzit. I'd taken a simple woolen section of cloth, tied on simple woolen strings with simple knots and ended up with something holy. Truly, the whole was more than the sum of its parts. That makes me wonder: what else can I elevate from the mundane to the holy?

Whenever I look at my tzitzit, I'll see this lesson in sharp relief.

As I read up about the history of tzitzit, I have a pretty solid apprecation for the fact that my ancestors almost certainly took away a different lesson from this mitzvah.

The clue is in the mention of 'blue' in the verse above. You'll notice that the cordage I used to tie on the tassles was all white. That blue is known as tekhelet, and for nearly 2000 years its source was lost to us. To me, its inclusion significantly reshapes the mitvah of tzitzit.

This timeline of our knowledge of tekhlet is absolutely fascinating. Through some very thorough research, we now believe that the blue mentioned in the torah is a specific dye from Murex trunculus, a type of sea snail.

We know that this blue dye was terrifically valuable. Apparently, various Roman Emperors banned anyone but royalty from wearing blue and purple.

In that context, it must been quite the statement to say that all Isarelites should add this luxurious material to the corners of their garments. From the ditch digger, to the wealthy merchant, they'd all be wearing the same sign of royalty.

It brings to mind the no-doubt apocryphal story of the company that flies all their employees first class. Sure, it costs more, but the idea is that every employee is important, so they deserve first class treatment.

Perhaps that's one of the geniuses of the Torah: as the millenia tick by the details may chage change, but the opportunity for learning and inspiration never ceases.

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