Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you for your explanation of the “necktie tallis.” As I mentioned in my first email, once we’re discussing the particulars of the tallis could you please offer some insight about what a tallis is all about? If it’s meant to be a prayer shawl, wouldn’t it be sufficient to just be a particular, set-aside garment for prayer? Why the strings? (I got the strings-attached joke, but really?!)
Although a tallis is used primarily as a prayer garment, the mitzvah of tzitzit, or wearing special strings on the corners of a four-cornered garment, goes far beyond just the time of prayer. This is implicit in the mitzvah to wear tzitzit throughout the entire day — as observant Jewish males perform by wearing the “tallis katan” or “small tallis” all day, (usually under one’s shirt).
We can understand this on multiple levels. Let us begin by studying the portion of the Torah which presents this mitzvah — the third paragraph of the daily recitation of the Shema.
“God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a thread of turquoise wool. It shall constitute tzitzit for you, that you may see and remember all the commandments of God and perform them; and not sway after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray. So that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy unto your God. I am Ha-Shem your God, Who has redeemed you from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you, I am Ha-shem your God.” (Numbers, 15:37-41)
From this portion we see that the tzitzit are intended to serve as a constant reminder of the mizvot, in order not to sway away from them.
The classical commentator Rashi explains the above verse — that by seeing the tzitzit one remembers all of the mitzvot — by way of a calculation of the numerical value of the word tzitzit, plus the number of strings and knots, which add up to the number 613, the number of the mitzvot in the Torah. This doesn’t mean that one is expected to constantly have that calculation in mind. Rather, since one knows there is such a calculation, which qualifies the intent of tzitzit to remember all the mitzvot, one indeed can use the tzitzit as a vehicle to keep the mitzvot in mind all day while wearing them.
The Talmud cites an extreme example of a Jew who was on his way to committing a very low moral crime with a harlot, and his tzitzit hit him in the face, “waking him up” and reminding him of who he is and what he’s about to do. The harlot was so impressed that she converted to Judaism. (Talmud Menachos 44a)
The Talmud further comments on the requirement to add a string of turquoise that the turquoise looks like the sea, which looks like the sky, which reminds us of God’s throne in heaven. This constant thought elevates the Jewish people to a higher plane, propelling us above sin as we remain deeply connected to heavenly thoughts. (Talmud ibid 43b)
(Today, as I am sure you noticed, most do not wear the blue string. That is because the dye needs to come from a rare species of fish called a chilazon, and most authorities hold that during the exile we lost the knowledge of what that species is. There are some who do wear it, following the opinion of some authorities who hold that we have, indeed, found that fish and produce dye from it.)
This is the simple explanation of the mitzvah of tzitzit. Perhaps next time we’ll take a deeper look…