Tzitzis: Advance and Retreat, part II

I discussed the role of tzitzis and the various roles we have for clothing in a number of earlier posts in this topic.

The following is a different take on the idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. He is closest in topic to my “Tzitzis: Advance and Retreat“. I wrote about two aspects to the mitzvah based on the differences between its two appearances in the Torah, Rabbi Sacks does so on the basis of the two manners in which we wear it. Also, I took the distinction in a Soloveitchikian way, advance vs. retreat. Rabbi Sacks uses a related but somewhat different distinction, public vs. private.

Our sedra ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tsitsit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:

“G-d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. 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 stray after your heart and eyes which in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all my commandments and be holy to your G-d.”

So central is this command, that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch.

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand the sages said that the command of tsitsit is equal to all the other commands together, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

On the other hand, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules: “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a robe and wrap oneself in it in order to tsitsit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command” (Laws of Tsitsit, 3: 11). It is important and praiseworthy but not categorical. It is conditional: if you have such a garment, then you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfil the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) which is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways. We also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say: “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

He gave this answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, a judge, a soldier, all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognised as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honoured. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone, that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary: they dress as they do because of what they are, not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tsitsit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our heart how unworthy we may be of the high demands G-d has made of us. We feel the need to come before G-d as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit, the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality – in the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to G-d: I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own. The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask G-d to judge us, not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tsitsit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord”) – and these becomes part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tsitsit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tsitsit symbolises the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to G-d and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone, not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tsitsit as undergarment, beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment” – because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to G-d’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “who has commanded us concerning the precept of tsitsit” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way tsitsit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand it is a way of life that is public, communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism – the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to G-d that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation – the opening of our heart to Him who brought us into existence in love – is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith – the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to G-d.

One nit, though. Rabbi Sacks is weaving the above out of custom, not halakhah. There is no duty to wear two kinds of tzitzis, one public, one private. Rabbi Seth Mandel posted the following to Avodah:

The facts of the matter are that a tales koton is an article of clothing invented in Ashk’naz, that was apparently not known to S’faradim in the time of the early rishonim. All of the references to it (as I said in my post discussing why it is tales — talesim and tales koton, not k’tanno) that the Beis Yosef and the R’Mo bring are from people like the Mordekhai, the T’rumas haDeshen, the Or Zarua’, whereas the Ba’al ha’Ittur, who is the source of much of what the Tur writes, makes no mention of them. By the time of the M’habber, however, S’faradim were also wearing them; he says “tales qoton shelonu.” Everyone understands that in the time of Hazal, there was no such thing; their tales was their outside garment, not a toga, but another garment of the Roman times called the peristyle, which was a rectangular piece of cloth that they wrapped themselves in sort of like Indian women wrap themselves in a sari.

We have some idea of what the Ashk’naz garment looked like, some had straps over the shoulders (not a hole cut for the head, like nowadays), and some buttoned (i.e. fastened with hooks) at the sides. It was worn under the clothing, with no tzitzis out: that we know from pictures depicting Jews throughout the medieval period that show all sorts of distinctive Jewish clothing — but NO tzitzis showing. NEVER. Unless the pictures showed the Jews at prayer with a tales godol; in those cases, the artists showed the tzitzis.

Because this beged did not conform to what Hazal say about a talles, neither in terms of size nor in the way it was worn, many rishonim in fact doubted that it really fulfills the mitzva d’orayso of tzitzis. To quote a few: the Mordekhai says “hanei talesos q’tannim shelanu einam min hamuvhar” [our talis qatan‘s are not of the choicest] because you cannot cover yourself in them. The Orhos Hayyim says that someone who makes a b’rokho of l’his’attef on them “over b’lo tissa [violated ‘do not take Hashem’s name in vain].” The R’Mo in Darkhe Moshe says that the b’rokho is ‘al mitzvas tzitzisv’hata’am nir’eh li ki ‘hash’shu l’divrei hposqim she’ein yotz’in b’tales qoton kozeh v’lakhen lo m’var’khin l’hit’attef d’az havei mashma’ d’akhshav m’aqayy’min hamitzva [the reason seems to me that they were concerned for the words of those who rule you do not fulfill your obligation with a tallis qatan like this. Therefore we do not bless ‘Who commanded to us wrap ourself’ for that would sound like we are now doing the mitzvah.” IOW, you are not yotze the mitzva with a tales qoton. Other rishonim defended the use of a talles kotos as fulfilling the mitzva at least partially, primarily basing themselves of the minhog of all Jews to wear them.

So if you are not yotze the mitzva, why wear it? As the Tur says in siman 24, in his pep talk “even though a person is not obligated to buy a tales with four corners to become obligated in tzitzis… nevertheless, it is good and proper for every man to be zahir and zariz in the mitzva, and have a small garment with tzitzis that he will wear all the day, because the ‘iqar of the mitzva is remembering the mitzvos…”

This custom of wearing the tales koton totally under one’s clothing continued in Ashk’naz throughout the generations, up until modern times when we have photographs, not pictures. I could point to the many street photographs of Poylin and Lita, of Warsaw and Vilna, of Hungary and Galitzia, before the war, of streets crowded with Jews and no tzitzis visible. To be sure, some were wearing long coats, so we wouldn’t see them anyway, but enough children and Jews without coats or short coats are visible to prove that tzitzis of a tales koton were not worn out. Lest someone claim that these might be the amaratzim and the g’dolim wore, let us look at the pictures of R. Chayim Ozer and R. Boruch Ber and R. Shimon Shkop accompanied by their talmidim, all of whom wore short coats….

Interestingly, Rabbi Sacks gives a solid motivation for making a point of not wearing the strings of one’s tallis qatan outside one’s pants.

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  1. Barzilai says:

    Regarding the dual nature of tzitzis, that it is shekulah but voluntary: A careful reading of several of Reb Moshe’s drashos indicates that his approach was that this duality combines the benefits of the eino metzuveh ve’oseh with the benefits of metzuveh ve’oseh, of ahavah and yir’ah. One may avoid begadim that are chayav. But when one chooses to wear such a beged, he is chayav to put in tzitzis.

    Applying Rabbi Sacks’ philosophical analysis as a basis for not wearing the strings where they can be seen (in the absence of any generally accepted halachic stance to that effect) is a particularly apt concept for parshas Korach, wouldn’t you agree?

    I know you usually don’t comment on comments; perhaps you don’t read them at all. But lipoteir belo klum ee efshar, as the saying goes.

  2. very interesting, especially the historical info about wearing tsitsis “out” vs “in”. growing up, one of my friends’ grandmothers, a holocaust survivor, would always yell at us when we wore our tzitzis out; she said that “back in Europe, where everyone was so much more religious than you American kids today, no one ever wore their tzitzis out”

  3. very interesting, especially the historical info about wearing tsitsis “out” vs “in”. growing up, one of my friends’ grandmothers, a holocaust survivor, would always yell at us when we wore our tzitzis out; she said that “back in Europe, where everyone was so much more religious than you American kids today, no one ever wore their tzitzis out”

  4. micha says:

    R’ Aharon Rakeffet calls all such wearing of uniforms — black hat, black suit white shirt, tzitzis out — “chassidus”. He says that even the Litvisher yeshiva world became chassidim, Chassidus won.

    But he doesn’t begrudge it. In today’s world, something that creates a sense of belonging to a culture that still retains allegance to higher moral and spiritual values is very important.

    He tells the story of a Lubavitcher chassid who was formerly a sailor. The man still cursed like a sailor, but now did so in levush! He is much better off. Now he has an anchor to something holy, something pulling him in the right direction.

    So perhaps it’s not far fetched to answer your friend’s grandmother (who can hopefully still get berakhos for a long and healthy life) that yes — BECAUSE back in Europe, everyone was so much more religious than us American kids today, they didn’t need to wear their tzitzis out.

    The uniform may be worn to impress others. But the value is that it also impresses ourselves.


  5. YD says:

    According to this approach, the practice of many schools and camps to check children for tzitzis, penalize them for not wearing, and forcing them to wear tzitzis, would be defeating the entire purpose. If the tallis koton is mean to represent our innermost acceptance of mitzvos, then forcing it wouldn’t do much good. To get a little mystical, maybe this would explain why there is such an innate rejection of tzitzis by Jewish children nowadays (at least in certain circles).

  6. Isn’t the custom to wear tzitzis showing outside of one’s clothing based on וראיתם אתו?

  7. micha says:

    Yes, that’s the reason the Mishnah Berurah gives for wearing one’s tzitzis out. We know from photos and family history that the CC himself didn’t wear his tzitzis out. (Nor did anyone else in his area and period. Chassidim wore their tzitzis out, but the garment as well.)

    So it would seem that this idea was (1) one of the sections of the MB written by his students; (2) intended as theory, not practice (and the intro says the MB is a survey, not a book of rulings), or both.

    I am suggesting that the reason why people in general do not find the MB’s reasoning compelling is that these rishonim assumed that the tallis qatan is supposed to be private.


  8. i tired searching Bar Ilan for any halakhic midrash that understands וראיתם אותו to mean that, but came up with nothing. unless there’s an earlier source, it seems to be the first example i’ve ever heard of halakhic ‘modern midrash’.

  9. i tired searching Bar Ilan for any halakhic midrash that understands וראיתם אותו to mean that, but came up with nothing. unless there’s an earlier source, it seems to be the first example i’ve ever heard of halakhic ‘modern midrash’.

  10. micha says:


    I don’t think anyone says on a halachic level that one must wear the tzitzis out, either to fulfill the mitzvah, or the minhag of tallis qatan (according to the Mordechai et al who say tallis qatan is an undergarment that doesn’t require tzitzis), or to be allowed to wear the garment.

    Rather, it’s a modern minhag or perhaps only hanhagah (I never thought about the formal definition of the line between them) based on wanting to fulfill what would seem to be the point of the verse. All agree that halakhah is about the derashah of ur’isem oso — that we’re talking about daytime, and not peshat — that one must be able to see them.

    That would take it away from the realm of modern medrash halakhah.

    BTW, in my experience it works for a slightly different reason. Sometimes their catching my eye guilt me into towing the line, but that’s rare. More often I catch myself because I realize others see it, and will judge more than just me by my actions.

    Side note as one pendant to another: I spell the word “halachic” since the word only exists in Yinglish, and “ch” is standard Yinglish spelling. Yinglish uses the Latin alphabet, and the words aren’t transliterated. Whereas I prefer to transliterate the letter khaf in words that are transliterated as “kh”. And so, I would write that the word “halachic” means “being about halakhah”.

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