Posts Tagged 'Tzitzit'

In or Out: Reflections on Tzitzit and Pride

At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the commandment of putting tzitzit (fringes) on four-cornered garments. There we read:

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. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. ( Numbers 15: 38-41 )

When looking at the fringes we remember all the commandments and refrain from following the temptations of the heart. Clearly tzitzit  are meant to be a remind us to choose aspired over desired actions. It is clear that wearing tzitzit is not just for the purpose of inspiring us to keep commandments, but it also keep us connected to our identity as people redeemed by God from Egypt. Even if today we see the Kippah as the iconic Jewish designation, from our parsha and the Torah in general it seems more accurate to claim that wearing tzitzit is the authentic expression of Jewish identity.

In reading an article by Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel on the topic of the diversity of Jewish customs I learned that there are different opinions as to the custom to how to practise this commandment. Are we supposed to wear one’s tzitzit in or out? The Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 8:11)  ruled that the mitzvah of the Tallit Katan entails wearing the tzitzit “on one’s clothes” so that one will always see them and remember God’s commandments. On this the Mishnah Berurah comments on this passage:

Those men who place their tzitzit within their pants, not only are they hiding their eyes from what is written [in the Torah], “and you shall see them and remember etc.,” but moreover they are disgracing [mevazin] a commandment of God; in the future they will have to stand in judgment for this. (Mishnah Berurah 26)

It seems pretty clear from both the Sephardic and Ashkanazic authorities that we aught to wear our tzitzit on the outside.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, indicated that although the Shulhan Arukh called for wearing the tzitzit so that they can be seen, the Ari haKadosh held otherwise, teaching that according to the kabbala, tzitzit must not be worn outside one’s pants. Virtually all Sephardic posekim have followed the opinion of the Ari, not that of the Shulhan Arukh. Rabbi Halevy notes:

In truth, we have never seen even one of the Sephardic hakhamim and rabbis who has removed the tzitzit outside the pants; certainly they took into consideration the opinion of the kabbalists, and the ruling of the Hida whose rulings we have accepted.(Asei Lekha Rav, Tel Aviv, 5738, vol. 2, Orah Hayyim, no. 20)

From this it seems that it is a normative  Sephardic practice to wear the tzitzit of the Tallit Katan inside one’s garments based on a kabalistic notion. But it seems that there were also Ashkenzim who also thought you should wear the tzitzit inside one’s garments. The Mahari Bruna (15th century German Rabbinic Authority) wrote that it is considered haughtiness to wear the tzitzit exposed (siman 96). In the end it seem that the reasons for tucking or not tucking are valid both for Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

I have been thinking about this question of Tzitzit this week not just because of our Parsha, but also because June is LGBT Pride Month. This month we commemorate 50 years since the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events are held during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world. It also deserves note the central role Jews have played in the advancement of LGBT rights, equality, and celebration.

Pride Shabbat

In this context it is too easy to see tzitzit as a totem driving people away from their desires or simply to see it as a question of “keeping it in your pants”. Both readings would miss how wearing tzitzit is fundamentally an expression of gratitude for our liberation from slavery. As a person with many privileges it is hard for me to connect with our ancestors’ experience of  being constrained or limited in Egypt.  Seeing what we have achieved and still have yet to achieve in the last 50 years to ensure that our society is affirming of LGBT identities and the LGBT experience, I can better relate to the need to continuing to work for liberation. In or out, gay or straight, Trans, or Cisgendertzitzit is an expression of identity which we should wear with pride.  We take a moment  on Pride Shabbat when we read Parshat Shelach to celebrate our modern heros who gliitter-bombed the world, liberated all of us from slavery, and taught us to never back down or hide an inner truth.  Shabbat Shalom

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Humble Masterpiece: Original Hoodie

The Torah does not command wearing of a unique prayer shawl or tallit. Instead, it presumes that people wore a garment of some type to cover themselves and instructs us in Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, to attach fringes (ציצית‬ tzitzit) to the corners of these garment. We read there:

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.(Numbers 15:38-40)

These fringes are there to remind you when you look at them to keep the commandments. Still the commandment is to have tzitzit with the tallit. Do you have to wear a four-cornered garment?

The Shulchan Aruch (אורח חיים סי’ ח:ב) and most of the Achronim are of the opinion that one should wear aTallit over their head the whole time while praying. The Mishna Brura explains that the reason for this practice is that it “subdues man’s heart and induces him to fear of God.” Since getting married and wearing a Tallit I have to say I enjoy wearing the Tallit over my head in prayer. I enjoy the seclusion it provides me in this experience. Long before the 1930’s Knickerbocker version the Tallit is the original Hoodie .

You have to check out this amazing short TED talk on this humble masterpiece :

It is interesting to look back at the history of the hoodie in light of the original charge to where a Tallit. It is also interesting to look back at the experience of wearing the Tallit in light of the history of the hoodie. It is truly a humble masterpiece.

Bully Proof

Yesterday I took my boys to an hour and a half class at a local synagogue entitled “Bully Proof”. It was taught by Taekwondo instructor Master Edwards. It was part of whole day Festival of Kindness in commemoration of the Holocaust. Master Edwards started by explaining the basic power dynamics of bullying. He went on to equip the children with some simple techniques to evade getting bullied. He asked them to affirm the comments that people say about them and then leave, laugh it off and leave, and finally to say “ Stop” and leave. To practice their responses Master Edwards brought some 12 year-olds to play the role of the bully. I was listening attentively to what the “bully” said to Yishama. First he commented on his large head of hair, then his large colorful Bukharin Kippah, and then of course his Tzitzit. While Yishama did exactly what he was supposed to do with great aplomb, I was deeply saddened.

What have I done to my children? Bullies feed on difference, singling out people who look or act different from themselves or the larger society. Have I marked my children to be bullied? What have I done to this poor little 6-year-old with a Jew-fro, huge colorful head coverings, and the flowing strings coming out of his pants? And yes, the fact that it is Yom HaShoah was sitting heavy in my consciousness.

Master Edwards ended the session by inviting each child to come up to the front, make a proclamation about themselves, and breaking a board with their fist. Each child came up and affirmed something deep about who they are and who they aspire to be. One said I am important, another said I am extraordinary, another I am significant, and yet another said I am magnificent. When it came time to Yishama to make his affirmation he came up and said, “I am a Robot.” Master Edwards asked him to say something meaningful about himself. Without missing a beat Yishama responded, “I am Jewish” and broke the board.

Blog Yisham Board

On the way home I asked him what it meant to affirm that he is Jewish. Being Jewish did not mean what I had feared it might have meant. Yishama responded, “It means that I have confidence.” Today is not just a day to remember the Holocaust, it is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”. We should never forget the martyrs and the heroes. It is critical to remember how we lived as Jews with honor and pride, not just how we died. I have confidence that Yishama is “bully proof” and a hero for me.

Identity Marker

At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah Portion, we read that God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to make for themselves fringes (in Hebrew, צִיצִת, tzitzit) on each of the corners of their garments. There we read:

 ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of Tekhelet. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray;that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God. (Numbers 15:38-41 )

From this we could learn that even today we are supposed to wear these garments,  look at the fringes, recall the commandments, and observe them.

I have had tzitzit on my mind since the UJA-Federation of New York recently presented the findings from the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011. This was a comprehensive study of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish community outside Israel. I have been thinking of two main issues. One is the diversity of identity markers of the  contemporary Jewish community and the second is the rise of Orthodox population. It is obvious how thinking about the tremendous growth of the Orthodox community would lead me to think about tzitzit ( that is some great branding). To relate to the second issue I will have to deal with another question from this week’s Torah portion. What is this Tekhelet? 

On this in  the Talmud  quotes Rabbi Meir as saying:

Why particularly Tekhelet [for the mitzvah of tzitzit] from among all other colored materials? Because Tekhelet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Holy Throne. As it says, “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity (Exodus 24:10),” and as it is written, “in appearance like sapphire stone was the semblance of a throne” (Ezekiel 1:26).(Sotah 17b)

So Tekhelet seems to be some shade of aqua sky blue. More important then it being a color  it is color code for a set of references that go from the mundane string adornment of cloth all the way to God on high. Over the years we lost the snail from which we harvested the dye to get this specific color. Recently there are those who believe that they rediscovered this snail, but for many more this pigment is still understood to be lost. So we are left with just the white strings to remind us of God and God’s commandments. But still for most Jews, this entire custom  is lost.  And beyond this custom, for many this costume is alienating. Yes, tzitzit  are identified as the garb of Orthodox Jews, but have the rest of us lost the thread of the idea? ( Sorry I just could not resist the pun.)

So we know that the Jewish population is growing. And while within that number the Orthodox population is on the rise, there are still many of us who are and will never be Orthodox Jews.  So while tzitzit will not work for most of ushow do we identify ourselves?  What are the visual cues in our lives that lead us to go from what we wear to a consciousness of big ideas to acting in service of  our highest ideals? First we need to identify these big ideas. When we know that we can work our way down from that throne to other ways those ideas are represented in the world to what we wear on a daily basis.

The lesson of tzitzit is that we need to tether our lived lives to the big ideas or they will get away from us. It might have been easier to talk about an idea called Jewish identity then wrestle with the fact that our larger Jewish family does not share any common practices. If we want to educate the next generation of Jews we need to get over this fear and go back to this lesson of tzitzit. Good education is not just theory and idea or just practice and dress codes. Like tzitzit it needs to connect these factors. We need to train the next generation in specific practices that are linked to big ideas. We need to stop  just talking about the nebulous concept of Jewish identity that is not manifest in behavior. And we cannot be content with practices for their own sake that are not in linked to big ideas. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to move past the old theoretical  identity markers toward new-old  real-life adornment that mark our highest ideals. What are going to be the next generation’s tzitzit?


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