Picture from the parasha 521.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Our Talmudic Sages
teach that “the Merciful One requires the human heart”; God looks to one’s
innermost soul rather than to one’s external garb. Nevertheless, our clothing
affects our mood and expresses a message about ourselves to society. Virtually
everyone dresses up for special occasions. Halacha (Jewish law) mandates unique
garb for Shabbat and the festivals. Men and women are expected to dress modestly
and the mourner may not change his outer garments for all seven days of mourning
(except for Shabbat).
From this perspective, we can understand why the
kohen (priest) must wear special garments when officiating in the sanctuary. Our
portion mandates: “You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother
for glory and splendor” (Exodus 28:2). And all Jewish males are expected to
cover their heads (especially when praying or eating, but preferably at all
times) as well as wearing a special undergarment called tzitzit, which has
ritual fringes on each of its four corners.
Let us examine the
significance of these special vestments. The head covering worn by observant
Jews probably harks back to the turban of the high priest. The Talmud describes
how great scholars such as Rav Huna would not walk a distance of four cubits
without covering their heads, as a constant reminder of the Divine
Apparently the Catholic Church adopted the custom at that time,
and so the cardinals and the pope always appear publicly with their heads
covered. Much of Ashkenazi Jewry for at least the last 300 years have
universalized this custom to include all adult males, with the Yiddish word for
the head covering being yarmulke, said by some to be a contraction of two
Aramaic words, yarei malka, one who is in constant awe of the Divine
The tzitzit, as well as the more visible prayer shawl, are
biblically mandated for every male Jew: “The Children of Israel shall make for
themselves tzitzit [ritual fringes] on the corners of their garments… and they
shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a thread of t’chelet… in order that
you may see it and remember all the commandments and perform them; you may not
seek out after [the stirrings] of your heart and after [the lustings] of your
eyes to harlot after them. This is all so that you may remember and perform all
of my commandments and be holy to your God” (Numbers 15: 37-40).
symbolism is nothing short of amazing.
The kohen gadol (high priest)
wears a tzitz placed on a cord of t’chelet upon his forehead; upon this tzitz
are engraved the words, “Holy unto the Lord.” In a parallel fashion, a Jewish
man wears tzitzit (diminutive of “tzitz”) – fringes with a thread of t’chelet.
This, too, is to remind him that he must be holy to God.
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The t’chelet was
dyed with a very expensive dye extracted from the rare hilazon
mollusk, a color
reserved for royalty in ancient times. The high priest was Jewish royalty; in a
slightly lesser fashion, so is every Jew.
The high priest, who risked
becoming a heretical Sadducee rather then remaining a God-fearing,
Halacha-practicing Pharisee, had to dedicate his thoughts to God; therefore his
tzitz is on his forehead. The average Jew, however, whose major risk lies in
straying after inappropriate sexual urges, has to remember to dedicate his body
to God. Therefore, the tzitzit are in the area of his lower body
Most important of all, every Jew is seen as royalty, as a “mini”
high priest. When Jewish men look at the fringes, they are reminded of all of
The Hebrew word “tzitzit” has the numerical value of
600, and when we add the five knots and the eight strings on each corner, the
sum total comes to 613 – the number of commandments in the Torah.
Talmud goes one step further, “the t’chelet is similar to the color of the sea,
the color of the sea is similar to the color of the heavens and the heavens are
similar to the divine throne of glory.”
The Jewish people were charged by
God to be a sacred nation, a status that can only be achieved when we dedicate
our lives to the 613 commandments. Additionally, God commanded us to be a
kingdom of priests – teachers to the world. At the very least, we must spread
the seven Noahide Laws of morality to all peoples.
This second charge is
symbolized by the turquoise of the sea and the turquoise of the heaven –
reminiscent of the God, who created the heavens and the earth.
must remember – and strengthen – the uniqueness of our nation, but at the same
time we must express the noblesse oblige of our royal status by reaching out to
every human being and lovingly attempting to bring them the priestly benediction
of peace and redemption.The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr
Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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