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Shelach Lecha 2020

This week’s sedra concludes with the third paragraph of the Shema (Bemidbar 15:37-41). HaShem instructs the Israelites to wear tzitzit in order that they “be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God” (Bemidbar 15:40). Yet, how is that tzitzit function as Israel’s reminder to keep the commandments and maintain holiness? To answer these questions, we need to understand Biblical symbolism.

At a basic level, tzitzit are tassels on the corners of an outer garment. In the Ancient Near East (the period/location in which the Torah is set), fringes symbolically represented an individual’s identity. For example, just as I might endorse a document by providing a signature, archaeologists have discovered that Babylonian prophets would legitimate their oracles by imprinting tassels on the clay tablets on which the oracles were inscribed. In other words, the tassel signalled the prophet’s identification with (and commitment to the truth of) their prophecy. Similarly, the tzitzit represent the individual Israelite’s identification with and loyalty to the brit (covenant) with HaShem. Accordingly, the Israelite who glances at their tzitzit cannot help but recollect their personal commitment to “observe [the] commandments” that constitute Israel’s covenantal obligations.

But what about holiness? Here we can make two observations. First, HaShem commands the Israelites to “attach a cord of techelet to the fringe at each corner” (15:38). In the Torah, techelet – a bluish purple – is the colour of royalty (see, for example, the Book of Esther (8:15) where Mordechai wears King Ahasuerus’ “royal robes of techelet”). More specifically, techelet is the colour that adorns HaShem’s royal palace – the Beit HaMikdash/Temple. Could there be a more vivid reminder to “be holy to your God” than a visible garment that literally robes Israel(ite men) in the Temple’s hue? Second, the tzitzit mentioned in our sedra resemble the cord hanging from the High Priest’s headdress: “suspend [the headdress] on a cord of techelet” (Shemot 28:37). In a remarkably democratic (albeit solely-male) religious gesture, the tzitzit-wearing Israelite thus identifies themselves with the holiness of the High Priest. Perhaps this is not so surprising: after all, Israel is to be a “Kingdom of Priests”.

Dominic Olins

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