Fringe Benefits: Parshat Shelach-Lecha | Congregation Beth Am

Fringe Benefits: Parshat Shelach-Lecha

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
June 8, 2002

Like most people who grew up in the 60's and 70's, I'm a veteran of the culture wars. One war I particularly remember was the battle we fought in high school over dress codes. When I was in 12th grade I participated in a massive sit-in on the lawn to protest our school's "rigid and archaic" rules about what students could and could not wear to class. We had a short but forceful list of demands: girls should be allowed to wear pants and should not be required to wear hose; boys should be allowed to wear jeans and t-shirts. To our great amazement, we won the battle: all of our requests were granted.

I remember one elderly teacher - she was probably about 50 - shaking her head and telling a group of us that we would all rue the day that dress codes were abolished. "When students start wearing sloppy clothes, they'll start behaving in sloppy, disrespectful ways," she said. "You watch and see what happens to the way students act around here."

We, of course, ridiculed the idea that the way you dress could influence the way you behaved. But in recent years, as I've seen public schools turning to uniforms, and seen the way kids talk to their teachers and to one another, I've wondered if that teacher was right after all.

Do clothes make the man? Can garments shape the soul? Our Torah portion for this week argues that they can, and they do. "And God spoke to Moses, saying, 'speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the generations; let them attach a thread of blue to the fringe at each corner' " [Num.15:37].

The image of the blue and whitetallit is so central that it was chosen as the design for the flag of the State of Israel. Themitzvah of fringes - in Hebrew,tzitzit - is so central that it is the only one included in our prayers every day - we read it this morning, on page 26.

This passage abouttzitzit, from the book of Numbers, is the third paragraph of theSh'ma; after we recite the words teaching us to love God and to study God's teachings, we're given a way to ensure that those teachings become part of our life. "Look at the fringes and recall all themitzvot of God and observe them, so that you do not follow the urges of your eyes and your heart" [Num.15:38].

So thetzitzit become mnemonics, like a string tied around the finger -- a visual cue to remind us of something too important to forget. Today thetzitzit are attached to a tallit, and are worn only during prayer. But originally fringes were attached to a person's outer garment, and they were worn all day long. (Some Orthodox males still wear a "tallit katan" - a fringed garment -- under their shirts as part of their ordinary clothing.)

In biblical times the hem of a person's garment was regarded as a symbolic extension of the person himself, a form of identification and a sign of authority. An elaborate hem was especially characteristic of the nobility. Thus, legal documents in ancient Mesopotamia were "signed" by members of the aristocracy using the impression of their hem rather than a signature.

This practice survives, according to some scholars, in the synagogue custom of pressing the edge of the tallit to the Torah scroll before it is read, as if to impress one's "signature" on the scroll. Thus, both the words of the blessing recited and the touching of thetzitzit demonstrate the participant's personal commitment to the Torah.

The "thread of blue" - called in Hebrew "techelet" -- was also a sign of high status. Scholars believe thattechelet was a blue-purple or violet color from an expensive dye extracted from the murex snail. Royal blue and royal purple, then as now, were the colors of nobility, andtecheletwas used in the garments of the Israelite High Priest, described in the book of Exodus.

The Bible assumes that even the poorest Israelite could afford at least four threads oftechelet - one for each tassel of thetzitzit. They were a mark of nobility worn by all the people - a sign of aspiration to a higher way of life. Now we know why looking at thetzitzit was supposed to remind the people of themitzvot. By sharing the priestly color, by dressing in garments reminiscent of those of the High Priest, all Jews could be taught to strive for a life of priestly holiness. To be holy, to create a holy, just and compassionate society, is after all, what Jews were put on earth to do.

For the 19th century scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch, the real meaning oftzitzit comes from the commandment to attach fringes to the "arba kanfot, the four corners" of our garments. This means, he says, that "we [Jews] must carry out our mission. . .no matter where on earth we may dwell. . ..No matter where, and into what isolation we may have to migrate, wherever we go - to thearba kanfot, to the four corners of the world. . .we are to wear upon our body a reminder of our purpose, which remains constant. . .l'dorotam, throughout the generations, throughout all time and in every place we go."

We wrap ourselves in the fringed garment, and we wrap ourselves in eternity. Fashions change, but the Jewish uniform abides - a permanent reminder of the reason we are here.

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