Fringe benefits:

Shelach Lecha
Numbers 13:1-15:41
Josiah 2:1-24

In the ancient Near East, the edge of a garment was considered to be an extension of its owner’s character, rank and authority. In addition, exorcists pronounced incantations over the detached hem of an ill individual, a husband who divorced his wife cut off the hem of her robe to symbolize this act, and a hem was also believed to provide a wearer with divine protection. The impress of a hem on a clay tablet was the equivalent of a person’s thumbprint or signature. Although difficult to prove, biblical scholar E.A. Speiser asserts that the Jewish custom of pressing the edge of a tallit to the Torah scroll before it is read is a holdover from this ancient custom.

A curious biblical example of the significance of a hem is provided in I Samuel 24 in which 3,000 men accompanied King Saul in pursuit of David. When Saul removed his cloak in a dark cave in the Judean hills in which David was hiding, David stealthily seized the garment and cut off its hem. Afterward, David reproached himself for this action: “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my lord.” (I Sam 24:6-7) Nevertheless, this act symbolized Saul being cut off from the throne because, upon learning that David had had the opportunity to kill him but instead cut off the hem of his cloak, Saul remarked, “The Lord delivered me into your hands and you did not kill me … I know now that you will become king, and that the kingship over Israel will remain in your hands.” (I Sam 24:19-21)

To the ancient Israelite, the edging of a garment, known in Hebrew as tzitzit (ritual fringes), had additional compelling and powerful but different meanings. Whereas a kippah, chai and Star of David are optional wear for modern Jews, the wearing of tzitzit is a biblical requirement because it is divinely commanded. Shelach Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, instructs the faithful “to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages.” (Num. 15:38; also Deut. 22:12) The text urges that this practice should be observed because the wearer will “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.” (Num. 15:39-40) By extension, this command to see tzitzit prompts a Jew to fulfill other mitzvot in order to attain holiness and shun corruption and self-indulgence, and thereby become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6)

A grammatical inconsistency in the biblical text — “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them” (Num 15:39) — helps the student of the Torah gain a richer understanding of the importance of wearing a fringed garment. The lack of agreement between the plural noun tzitzit and the singular pronoun oto (it) might well have been intentional because oto can also be translated as look at “Him,” a reminder that observing God’s mitzvot enables the faithful to draw close and even see God.

Mystical tradition likens the spreading of the tallit to “an eagle who rouses his nestlings, hovering over his young.” (Deut. 32:11) Furthermore, Psalm 104, a passage read while putting on a tallit, provides the additional visual imagery of God being wrapped in splendor:

Bless the Lord, O my soul;
O Lord, my God, You are very great;
You are clothed in glory and majesty,
Wrapped in a garment of light;
(Thus) You spread the heavens like
a tent cloth. (Ps. 104:1-2)

Jews wrap themselves in a tallit or “prayer shawl” during morning worship as a way of fulfilling this command, but commentator Ibn Ezra suggests that wearing tzitzit at times other than worship is more important in order to “remember not to go astray in sin at any time, for in the time of prayer one surely will not sin.” Thus, it was believed that one who wears a tzitzit will lead an exemplary life because it is a reminder, not only of the requirement to observe mitzvot, but it also provides a sharp distinction between sin and virtue.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.