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A visionary community

30 June 2003

[Based on a d’var Torah given by Jennifer Gordon at Kadimah-Toras Moshe Synagogue, at seudah slishit, on June 28, 2003.]

In Parshat Shelach, which we read on Saturday, there’s the story of the arrest and execution of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32–36). Immediately after that story, there’s the commandment of tzitzit (15:37–41).

According to the text, the reason we (Jewish men with four-cornered garments) should wear tzitzit is so that “you may see them, and remember all the Eternal’s commandments, and perform them, and not stray after your minds and after your eyes….” The underlying theory seems really cool: people don’t sin because they’re wicked, but because they forget. I don’t gossip about someone because I want to drag his name through the mud (usually), but because I start gabbing, and one thing leads to another, and all of a sudden I’ve violated the commandments against lashon hara, negative gossip.

Two traditional sources discuss why this story and this commandment appear next to each other. The Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabba (cited by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz) has a midrash in which God asks Moses why this man was gathering sticks on Shabbat. Moses replied that Jews wear tefillin six days a week, which serves as a reminder to observe the commandments, but have no such reminder on Shabbat, and so God gave tzitzit as another reminder. According to Nachmanides, if that man had been wearing tzitzit, he wouldn’t have gathered the sticks, because he would have seen the blue thread, which would have reminded him of the sky, which would have reminded him of the Throne of Glory, and he would have refrained from sinning.

The problem with both of these explanations is, they’re absurd:

  1. In order for our stick-gatherer to be liable for the death penalty, two witnesses would have had to see him and explicitly warn him that he was committing a capital crime, and according to the oral tradition (Rashi, quoting Sanhedrin 41a), that’s exactly what happened. If that warning couldn’t deter the man, what difference would a little blue thread make?
  2. The reason we don’t wear tefillin on Shabbat is because Shabbat itself is supposed to serve as a sign, so on Shabbat the tefillin are superfluous. If Shabbat isn’t doing a good enough job at reminding us to observe the commandments, that’s an argument for wearing tefillin on Shabbat, not an argument for adding another sign.
  3. Nachmanides is suggesting a ridiculously long chain of associations for a person to make in the face of temptation.
  4. If you’re wearing one of the standard tzitzit-enhanced garments—a prayer shawl, a talit katan under your shirt, or one of those square tunics that everybody wore a thousand years ago—then you usually won’t even see your tzitzit, unless you stare at the ground all the time as you walk around.

All these explanations suggest that tzitzit have some kind of magical power to keep people from sinning. Is there a more rational explanation for how tzitzit can help you lead a more Torah-oriented life?

Let me suggest one: you see tzitzit on other people who are wearing them. Tzitzit are only useful in a community of people who wear tzitzit and follow the other commandments. With continual reminders that all of your peers are observant, you feel pressure to do the same, you won’t follow up on an impulse to look for opportunities to do wrong, and you’ll be less likely to take advantage of such opportunities when they appear.