What’s Meaningful About Tzitzit? (Part 1) | Meaningful Judaism Podcast

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Meaningful Judaism | Season 1 | Episode 6

What’s Meaningful About Tzitzit? (Part 1)

(Part 1 of 2) Are tzitzit supposed to “mean” something? Most people who wear tzitzit probably don't find it especially objectionable or burdensome, but how many people can honestly say that wearing tzitzit is a deeply meaningful spiritual practice? That it helps them to be a better Jew, a better person, to feel closer to God? Probably not so many. For everyone else, tzitzit is, at best, a testament to one's commitment to following the Torah but without any unique meaning or character, and at worst, a ritual, performed by rote, simply because everyone else seems to be doing it, devoid of any meaning at all.

In This Episode

(Part 1 of 2) Are tzitzit supposed to “mean” something? Most people who wear tzitzit probably don't find it especially objectionable or burdensome, but how many people can honestly say that wearing tzitzit is a deeply meaningful spiritual practice? That it helps them to be a better Jew, a better person, to feel closer to God? Probably not so many. For everyone else, tzitzit is, at best, a testament to one's commitment to following the Torah but without any unique meaning or character, and at worst, a ritual, performed by rote, simply because everyone else seems to be doing it, devoid of any meaning at all.

Is there a reason that God commands us to wear these funny tassels? The Torah tells us that tzitzit are supposed to remind us of God and mitzvot, they’re supposed to make us holy. But how exactly does that work? God could have asked us to tie a string around our finger to remember the mitzvot, or asked us to only wear shirts with the words “Remember God! Be holy!” printed on them. But instead we get this mitzvah about having fringes hanging down from the corners of our clothes. If God wants us to wear something that will remind us not to sin, tzitzit seems like a very random choice.

In this episode, Imu Shalev and Daniel Loewenstein tackle these questions and search for the spiritual meaning of tzitzit, diving deep into the Torah’s verses that describe the mitzvah. Their journey leads them to a host of surprising and thrilling destinations and, ultimately, to a whole new understanding of the message behind this commandment. 

Check out our new YouTube channel: Meaningful Judaism.


Imu Shalev: Welcome to Meaningful Judaism, where we try to answer why we do what we do in Jewish life. So many of our practices can feel like they're just...there. We do them, but we’re not connected to them, we don’t feel their meaning. In this podcast, we search for that meaning by diving deep into the Torah text. Meaningful Judaism is a product of Aleph Beta Labs, and I’m your host, Imu Shalev.

And today’s episode is about…tzitzis! What is there to say about tzitzis? I wake up, I get dressed, I put on my tzitzis. I don’t think too much about it. They’re just kind of…there. They’re part of the uniform. But I want to ask: Are tzitzis supposed to mean something? Is there a reason that God commands us to wear these funny tassels?

So I did a bunch of research, and I invited my friend and fellow scholar Daniel Loewenstein to go through some of my findings. We started off by naming a lot of the questions we had about what tzitzis are for and what they’re supposed to do. Here’s me and Daniel talking over what we knew, or what we thought we knew, about tzitzis, and what our questions were.

If I were to ask you, Daniel, you know, what is the reason we wear tzitzis? If we did Family Feud-style, what do you think people would say?

Daniel Loewenstein: I think probably people would say that they’re supposed to remind you of the mitzvos.

How Exactly Do Tzitzit Work?

Imu: How do tzitzis remind us of the mitzvos?

Daniel: Okay, so I honestly never remember how this works, but I know there's a Rashi about, like, if you have the number of strings, the number of knots and the corners, and there's some sort of multiplication happening, and it ends up being something like 613.

Imu: Okay. So, personally, I'm shocked that you don't remember how this works, because tzitzis are supposed to remind you of mitzvot, and I think of you as a very pious person, so maybe you're not remembering the mitzvot. But basically what you're bringing up is this Rashi that says that “tzitzis” in Gematria...

Daniel: Gee, thanks, Imu.

Imu: ...The numeric equivalent of the letters adds up to 600, right? And everybody knows that tzitzis happen to have five knots on the strings, and there are eight strings in total. So eight plus five plus 600 is...?

Daniel: 613.

Imu: The total number of the mitzvot in the Torah. So, right, so I guess I'm sort of mocking this, but it seems a little ridiculous to assume that... 

Daniel: When you look at tzitzis then immediately you're adding up numerically what the word means plus looking at the knots and looking at the number of strings, and then adding it all up in your head, and then...

Imu: Right, unless you have “a beautiful mind,” it's not normally the way people go through their day, is that they're looking at every item around the house and running the Gematria through their head, and that reminds them of various things. It seems...

Daniel: It feels like a little bit of, like, a Rube Goldberg kind of reminder.

Imu: That's right. It doesn't seem like the pshat (simple) way that tzitzis would remind us of the mitzvos. But let me also ask you, you know, putting that explanation aside, does tzitzis work like that in real life? Do people actually use it as this grand way of helping them remember the mitzvot? You've got a guy, let's call him Joe, and he's tempted to commit a sin. Let's say he's about to bite into a big, juicy cheeseburger. All of a sudden, Joe glances down. He sees these strings hanging out of his shirt, and suddenly, he throws the cheeseburger down, he does three viduy’s (confessionals), runs straight to the mikvah (ritual immersion pool). Does that actually happen to anyone ever? Have you ever seen that?

Daniel: I mean, to be fair, I don't think I’ve ever seen anybody attempt to eat the cheeseburger in the first place. But no, I take your point. I’m a very sheltered person.

Imu: Yes, everyone around you is so pious. For me, people are eating cheeseburgers all the time, and I'm constantly having to run up to them, and I wave my tzitzis around at them.

Daniel: Does it work?

Imu: All the time, yeah. People are running away from me. They're like, “There’s some crazy, rabid guy chasing me with tzitzis.”

Sprouts and Wings

Okay, so at least in our experience of tzitzis, they don’t seem to be the most effective talisman for warding off sin. And we’re being cute here, but the point is, if tzitzis are supposed to remind us of the mitzvos and keep us on the straight and narrow, it would be nice to know exactly how they’re supposed to do that.  I think a great place to investigate is the text of the Torah itself. So let’s look at the text carefully, point out what we notice, what questions and clues might pop out at us, and see where that takes us.

Okay. So here we are, Numbers 15, and I'll just start reading:  וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל־כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם - And they should make tzitzis for themselves on the corner of their clothes for all their generations, וְנָתְנוּ עַל־צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת - And they will put a thread of תְּכֵלֶת, of light blue on the tzitzis, וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת - And it will be tzitzis for you (Numbers 15:38-39). So, what questions do you have so far, Daniel? 

Daniel: I guess, right away, I'm just hearing this word “tzitzis” pop up over and over and over again. I'm kind of curious what the word means, like etymologically, where it comes from, and I feel like it probably is related to the word “tzitz.”

Imu: Good. What does the word “tzitz” mean?

Daniel: So, I think the most common way that it's used is to mean, like, a blossom.

Imu: Yeah, “tzitz” always comes up in the context of plants, like grass or flowers or seedlings. So in the story of Korach, where God has Aaron and the leaders of the tribes place staves in front of the Tent of Meeting, something miraculous happens to the staff of Aaron. It says: וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים - So Aaron's rod blossomed, and these almond buds, they sprouted out (Numbers 17:23). So the word seems to mean “to sprout” or “to blossom.” So, we've basically been calling tzitzis “strings,” but have we been translating the word tzitzis incorrectly this entire time? Should we have been saying, like, “You should put sprouts on the corner of your garments”? 

Daniel: They do kind of look like sprouts.

Imu: Yeah, it could be so, but they look like a lot of things. If the Torah is calling them sprouts, it's probably for a reason.

Not only that, while we're on the topic of plants, you know, “tzitzis” comes up another time in the Torah; not just in Numbers, but also in Deuteronomy. And let me read for you how it comes up in Deuteronomy. It doesn't refer to it as tzitzis. It says: גְּדִלִים תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּךְ עַל־אַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת כְּסוּתְךָ אֲשֶׁר תְּכַסֶּה־בָּהּ - You should make gedilim on the four corners of your covering that covers you (Deuteronomy 22:12). Now, most standard English translations render that word, gedilim, as fringes or tassels. But that's not how you would translate the word, is it?

Daniel: Um, yeah, no. I mean, especially given the context of blossoming, the word “gedil” is clearly related to the word “gadol or “l’gdol”, which means “to grow.” So maybe these are like “growers,” things that are growing. Like maybe little buds or plants, or something like that.

Imu: That's right. So first, we've got “sprouting.” Now we've got “growing.” All this plant language, hidden in the Torah’s description of tzitzis.

Daniel: Mhm. Yeah, that does definitely seem not coincidental.

Imu: Good, so that’s one question, or kind of funny observation, on this verse. But, Daniel, there’s more. Here’s a question that has to do with where we put the tzitzis. We read: עַל־כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם - On the corners of our clothes, is how I translated it. Except, that word, kanfei or kanaf, I wouldn't say that “corner” is the simplest, most obvious translation of that word. What would you say that word means?

Daniel: I mean, in context, I think the easiest way to translate it is probably “corners,” but I think the word also tends to mean “wings,” which is kind of interesting.

Imu: Exactly. Almost every other time the word is used in the Five Books of Moses, kanaf means “wings,” like a bird's wing. So all of a sudden, our clothes have wings? And then the Torah wants us to put sprouts, or growers on them?

Daniel: Yeah, that does not sound very much like what we do. We don't think of ourselves as having wings or as putting plant sprouts on the end of the wings.

Why a Blue Thread?

Imu: So we talked about these strings. Now let me give you another question. We read together that there needs to be a פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, a blue string in the tzitzis. Why? What is the significance of the פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת? Why does its color matter?

Daniel: Right, like, if the Torah is saying there has to be blue, that makes it sound like that matters. That, like, if it were red or pink or something else, then no, that wouldn’t make sense. That would be wrong for this mitzvah. The blue has to be symbolic of something.

Imu: So what is it symbolic of? So the truth is, we're not the first ones to ask these questions. Our Sages in the Gemara in Menachos, they ask this question about תְּכֵלֶת. And I think, if we can take a break from the Torah text for just a minute to see what it says there, that might help us overall. So let’s do that now. The Gemara in Menachos is on page 43B, and maybe you've heard it before. Here’s what it says: מה נשתנה תכלת מכל מיני צבעונין

- why is תְּכֵלֶת this particular shade of light blue? מפני שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע ורקיע לכסא הכבוד - Because תְּכֵלֶת is similar in color to the sea, and the sea is sort of like the sky, and the sky is similar to the Kisei HaKavod, to God's Holy Throne.

Daniel: Yes, I definitely have heard this before. The idea is that תְּכֵלֶת, through this series of associations, is supposed to recall for you the reality of God's existence. Which is, you know, generally a pretty good way to get you to stop sinning.

Imu: I think one of the obvious questions that comes out to me is, you know, why are we going through this whole chain of reminders? Why didn't the Gemara just say, “Oh, blue is the color of God's Holy Throne. When I see blue, I see God's throne.” Why this business of, you know, “Blue is like sea. Sea is like sky. Sky is like God's Holy Throne.” That’s one question I think we can ask.

But a second question I think we can ask is, you know, similar to the question we asked  earlier, which is, is this really the way the world works? Is this people's experience with tzitzis? “Oh, blue. You know, blue really reminds me of the sea. Oh, now that I have sea on my mind, well, I can't help but think about the sky. And now that I'm thinking about the sky, like...oh my gosh! I'm before God's Holy Throne! And then I can't sin. I'm in awe of God, and I'm going to be a saint today.”

Daniel: I cannot say that that happens to me regularly.

Hearts and Eyes

Imu: So those are our questions on תְּכֵלֶת. Now, we talked about tzitzis, kanaf, and now we’ve added our תְּכֵלֶת questions. And I want to read the next couple of verses, which actually seem to get to the heart of why we wear them in the first place. But I have another question. There’s something about these verses that just feels off, so I want to read them with you and talk to you about it. So here’s the text. It says:  וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ - And you'll see them, וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺת יְקוָה - and you'll remember all of God's mitzvot, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם - and you'll perform them. So, there; like we said, that sounds like the reason for tzitzis is to help us keep the mitzvos.

But the text continues and seemingly adds something: וְלֹא־תָתוּרוּ - And you shall not go out,  אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם - after your heart and your eyes, אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם - that cause you to stray, לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָי - so that you'll remember and you'll do all of My commandments, וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים לֵאלֹקיכֶם - and you'll be holy unto God (Numbers 15:39-40).

Daniel: Okay.

Imu: So now I have two questions here. The first is, what would we actually be missing if we just took out this line about straying after our hearts and our eyes? Right? Put on tzitzis, see them, remember God and don’t sin, and done.

Daniel: You’re saying, like, what does it add?

Imu: Yeah, exactly.

Daniel: Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe it’s telling you something about how tzitzis stops you from sinning. Like, maybe sinning happens because you follow your heart and your eyes, and tzitzis stops that from happening. Or something like that.

Imu: Tzitzis, somehow, are this intervention; they somehow prevent you from sinning, and we have to figure out exactly how they do that. What about tzitzis actually gets you to stop sinning? But also, another thing: It seems like the Torah is saying that there’s something nefarious about following your heart or your eyes. This isn’t really a textual question, but I feel like there’s something kind of icky about it, like very “Big Brother.”

It's like, “Don't follow your heart.” I shouldn't follow my heart? I feel like everybody tells you to follow your heart. “Don't follow your eyes.” So I'm supposed to close my eyes to reality? I'm not supposed to see? I'm not supposed to feel? I'm not supposed to have feelings? “Just always be meditating on God, always be meditating on God...” It feels, I don't know, claustrophobic. It's uncomfortable.

Daniel: Yeah, I hear that. I'd be very curious to see what our analysis brings us to and whether or not we still feel that way when it's over. Because that does feel kind of like...I think claustrophobic is a really good word for it.

Imu: Yeah, so I hope you're feeling good and uncomfortable right now. I think that those questions are clues that are going to lead us toward an answer, and I think that the best place for us to begin our investigation in putting some of these pieces together is actually to think about the context of the mitzvah of tzitzis. I actually think where the tzitzis appears and the story that comes right before it is actually really relevant to understanding what tzitzis are coming to do.

Daniel: Okay,  I'll follow you.

Imu: Let's say I told you that I found this tzitzis mitzvah and it comes right after the story of the Midianites, right after Balaam and Balak kind of conspire to send in a bunch of seductresses to Israel, and they stray, and they sleep with these women, and it causes a massive plague, and then we have tzitzis. How would we understand the mitzvah of tzitzis if it came right after that story?

Daniel: You'd probably think it's some sort of way of counteracting...of being sort of a bulwark against giving into the temptation of the seductions of the Midianites, or other future kinds of seduction. Like, “Keep your head on straight and don't let your desires get in the way of doing the right thing and staying faithful to God.”

Imu: Yeah. Stay faithful to God, stay faithful to your sacred relationships, to your wife. That's why we wear tzitzis. It makes a lot of sense because לֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם -  Your heart, your emotions are sort of fickle, your passions are fickle. You're not going to stray after your eyes; your eyes which see all sorts of things that maybe they shouldn't see. The kicker is the end of the, right... אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם - the things that you are lusting after, or cheating on -- hard word to translate -- or you're prostituting after. Whatever. That would make sense.

But that's not where we get this passage. This passage comes after the story of the Spies, which leads me to think one of two things: Either there is some sort of prostitution, some sort of z’nus, some sort of a betrayal in the Spies story, or that's not the sin that the tzitzis are supposed to counter against, that the tzitzis are not designed specifically as a bulwark against sexual lusts. It's against something else. And I actually think maybe both are true.

Daniel: Interesting.

Clues in the Spies Story

Imu: Okay, so you sound intrigued but not exactly convinced that tzitzis are somehow an antidote to the spies story. But what I want to show you is that this passage of tzitzis is actually full of Spies language. There are these textual connections to the Spies story. Let me show you what I mean:

So let’s start with לֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים - Don’t go after your heart and eyes that you stray after. Does that language remind you of anything in the Spies story?

Daniel: Oh, so לֹא־תָתוּרו, that verb “la’tur,” it’s all over the Spies story. You translated it in the tzitzis story as “to go after,” but it’s actually used to mean “to spy.” The way they’re sent off is:  שְׁלַח־לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ - These are the ones who are going to go out and be “la’tur,” they’re going to spy or go out into the land (Numbers 13:2). Yeah, so the word “la’tur” is definitely very much a Spies story word.

Imu: Exactly. So the connection doesn’t seem coincidental. It feels, somehow, like if the spies were wearing tzitzis, maybe they wouldn’t have spied, or at least they wouldn’t have sinned. It sounds bizarre, and maybe you’re not yet convinced, so let’s take it further. I want to show you that there are even more connections between tzitzis and the story of the Spies. Are you up for looking for some more?

Daniel: Okay. I will join you.

Imu: Okay. Go down to the end of the perek (chapter) in 13 and read from 30 to 33.

Daniel: Okay, so Caleb silenced the people. He says, “We will go up and we will inherit the land because we are capable.” The other people who spied with him, they say, “No, we can't go up. The nation there is too strong for us.” They release the evil reports of the land they scouted out, and they say that the land that we went through is a land that eats its inhabitants. “And all the people that we've seen there are men of measure,” meaning that they're big, strong, mighty, something like that. “And we saw the Nephilim there.” וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים - And we were, in our eyes, as grasshoppers, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם - and so, too, that is what we were in their eyes. That's how we must appear to them.

So I'm definitely seeing a lot of eye language here, seeing and eyes, which are important words in לֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם.

Imu: Yeah, “Don't spy out after your eyes.” So what did their eyes see?

Daniel: So their eyes saw themselves as grasshoppers?

Imu: Yeah. Isn't that weird? Like, what would you say...if you were the editor of that verse, what would you do to that verse?

Daniel:  I would probably just take out וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים - and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and just make it וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵיהם כַּחֲגָבִים - and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes.

Imu: Yeah, exactly. Like, “You know, the giants looked at us, and in their eyes we're like grasshoppers.” But that's not what it says. It says, “We, in our eyes, are like grasshoppers, and by the way, also they saw us that way, too.” 

What they're seeing in others seems like it’s an afterthought. Like, “Yeah, yeah, they also saw us as grasshoppers.” But the real issue seems to be that they see themselves as grasshoppers, which has interesting implications for why we wear tzitzis. When the text says לֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי...עֵינֵיכֶם,  maybe the thing that we're worried about is how you might see yourself. Maybe wearing tzitzis changes how you see yourself. Tzitzis tells you not to spy out after your eyes. So what was the issue with what their eyes saw? The problem with what their eyes saw was themselves. It was their self-image that was problematic in the Spies story.

Daniel:  Interesting, interesting, interesting.

Imu: All right, so far we’ve seen a couple of really striking language parallels between tzitzis and Spies; we saw תָתוּרוּ, we saw עֵינֵיכֶם. The command of tzitzis also talks about z’nus: אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם - That which you stray after. Did you know we have z’nus in the Spies story?

Daniel: I did not know that, but I did not do a good enough job of reading through the chapter after God gets angry at them. I'm imagining that's probably where it would be.

Imu: That's exactly where it is. 

Daniel: Right, so God reacts to the Spies’ report. He’s angry, and He decrees, “None of you are going to come into this land. None of you will see it, except for Caleb and Joshua. Your children will wander like sheep in the wilderness for 40 years.” וְנָשְׂאוּ...oh! וְנָשְׂאוּ אֶת־זְנוּתֵיכֶם עַד־תֹּם פִּגְרֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר - And they will bear your z’nus, your unfaithfulness, until the completion of your corpses in the desert (Numbers 14:33)

Imu: And somehow, what they did was a z’nus, was a straying. How exactly? What exactly did they do was a straying or cheating on, we can talk about. But it seems to be that that's here.

Daniel: Yup. Absolutely correct. Are you going to bring up lev (heart) as well?

Imu: Yeah, lev. Did you see lev anywhere?

Daniel: So I did not see lev in this story, but in another version of this story, I thought about the lev.

Imu:  Yeah, the word lev doesn't appear explicitly, but it does in the retelling of this story. In Deuteronomy, chapter 1, when Moses is retelling, sort of, the Greatest Hits of the desert, he retells the story of the Spies: אַחֵינוּ הֵמַסּוּ אֶת־לְבָבֵנוּ - Our brethren have melted our hearts. There's that word, lev, הֵמַסּוּ אֶת־לְבָבֵנוּ. They somehow melted our hearts in saying that there is a nation that is greater and stronger from us, “we even saw the children of giants there.”

So when Moses is characterizing this story, he's saying that what happened was, the Meraglim, the Spies, they melted the hearts of the people. And I read that as fear. לֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, here is sort of that one-two punch. Their hearts were melted because of what their brethren saw. And in terms of what they saw, it wasn't so much that they saw giants. It was that they saw themselves as small, relative to the giants.

Daniel: And that actually might be an important point in terms of אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם. Because why does heart come first? Maybe it's a commentary on how, like, if you have certain latent assumptions or predispositions or perspectives, so then actually, even though you could be seeing the same physical reality as somebody else, how you perceive it can be very different based on the assumptions you're walking in with.

Imu: I think that's a huge, huge point. So imagine you take the leaders of Israel, and you send them out. Where are their hearts? If their hearts are in the right place, then they're bold, they're excited. They go and they see, “Wow, what a land, this is incredible.” Yeah, there's some challenges, there are some giants, but as Yehoshua and Kalev say, we can totally handle this. And you kind of lift the hearts up of everyone else.

But if your heart is afraid, you're going to envision all the potential bad. You're seeing all the ways it could go wrong. 

Daniel: I remember that Rabbi Fohrman has a piece about this, also, about the idea of imagination and how imagination can go one of two ways. Imagination can take you to the darkest places and the worst catastrophes. It can take you to be a visionary and to dream and to imagine a future that doesn't exist that's wonderful.

Imu: Because what changes imagination...imagination, by the way, seems like it's almost a description of seeing. 

Daniel: Right, it has the word “image” in it.

Imu: Right, imagination in our mind's eye is a very “eye” thing to do. So, what kind of imagination you'll have, whether it'll be a positive, hopeful imagination, is a function of what kind of heart you have, seemingly. I love your insight about how lev comes first in the verse about tzitzis. If you have a brave heart, an open and full heart, then you will imagine the positive. But if you have a different kind of heart, then it will lead you to imagine disaster. It will lead you to picture yourself as a grasshopper, not picture yourself as a child of God, as someone with God on your side, which is really, really fascinating.

Why Do People Stray from God?

We said that tzitzis are an antidote, but for what? For your heart leading your eyes astray, from z’nus, somehow straying. What is this temptation to stray? How do we understand it?

So before we try to answer that, let’s just recap where we are: We’re trying to get at the meaning of tzitzis by understanding it in context of where it appears in Torah. The story right before it? It’s the story of the Spies. And not just that, but the command of tzitzis is full of language straight out of the story of the Spies. So it seems like the command to keep tzitzis is almost like a commentary on the Spies story. Tzitzis, as a mitzvah, seems like they’re there to prevent something like the Spies from happening again, and they’re an antidote to a kind of spying after your heart and your eyes; an antidote to z’nus, to straying from your relationship with God. 

So before we can understand tzitzis in 21st-century terms, let’s understand them in terms of the generation in the midbar (desert). Let’s see how they spied after their heart and eyes, and how or why they strayed against God. If we can see what the temptation to stray was for them, maybe we can understand the temptation for us. 

And then we can see just how tzitzis is an antidote.

So we already talked about how their hearts, essentially their fear, messed with their eyes. It messed with their self-perception. So we already know they had that problem. But what of the z’nus? Why do they have this temptation to stray from their relationship with God? How can we understand that? 

Okay, so here’s how I think the pieces fit together. Let’s go to the moment that their hearts melt and see if we can identify the temptation to z’nus, to stray, over there.

They say, in Numbers, they say,Why would He bring us here to die? Our wives and our infants, our children will be destroyed. We should just go back to Egypt.” And Kalev and Yehoshua respond, and they say: אִם־חָפֵץ בָּנוּ יְקוָה וְהֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וּנְתָנָהּ לָנוּ - If God desires in us, He delights in us, and He'll bring us there, and the land is the land of milk and honey. אַךְ בַּיקוָה אַל־תִּמְרֹדוּ - Just don't rebel against God (Numbers 14:8-9). So the fear seems to be whether God is with us. And I'll give you one more piece in Deuteronomy, which I think is the most absurd and we went there to talk about the melting of the hearts, but there it's most explicitly stated almost like what their worst nightmare is. Their worst nightmare is that God took us out of Egypt because He hates us. בְּשִׂנְאַת יְקוָה אֹתָנוּ - In God's hatred of us, He took us out of Egypt to give us over to the Amorites, to wipe us out (Deuteronomy 1:27).

So they have a weird theory, a theory that makes no sense to the rest of us, but it seems to be their theory. Their theory is, “Remember all those miracles and the revelation and all that stuff? It was just a giant lead-up, it was a big mouse trap, because God really hates us. His real plan was for all of us to die in some sort of war here.” Which is really warped. So what do you think it was that caused them to come up with that theory? 

Fear of Unworthiness

Daniel: The only thing that I can think of is, like, maybe that they're insecure, that they're unworthy.

Imu: Yeah, I think that's exactly it. Why do you think that?

Daniel: Like, you must have a really low opinion of your worthiness to assume that a person who is...like, just relating it to a relationship: Someone you're dating does all the right things for you, takes you out to great places, is emotionally available, is super supportive, everything that you could possibly want and professes their love to you all the time. How much of a low opinion of yourself do you have to have to suspect that it's all a ruse? Like, why else would you think it's a ruse?

Imu: Right. That's crazy. You would have to have such a low opinion of yourself if you think that I’m really seducing you so I can publicly shame you and reject you and laugh at you for thinking that anybody would ever find you lovable.

Daniel: That, or you just watched all the wrong movies.

Imu: Exactly. It's really tragic when you read it this way...

Daniel: Carrie, Cruel Intentions...

Imu: I'm not taking movie recommendations from you...

I think we're actually saying some really incredible things; that the temptation, the way that heart mixes with eyes, is actually when you feel self-loathing, when you feel unworthiness, when you feel shame. It causes you to see the same data in a horrible way. 

Now, I just want to unpack this with you for another second. So my question to you is, why would they have such a low opinion of themselves that their betrayal of God is actually, “Hey, I’m going to quit the relationship with God that I’m in because I don’t even think I’m in that relationship.” What would make them feel they're not even in a relationship with God in the first place?

Daniel: There are all these wondrous miracles that are happening for them, but, like, they complain a lot, and they let God down in a major way at the Egel HaZahav (The Golden Calf), and then they start complaining about food, and then God starts punishing them. And I could very easily imagine for myself sort of feeling like, okay, you know, how many times do I have to keep messing up before God kind of says, “You know what, actually, I think this was a big mistake.” I could imagine why, you know, at a certain point after you mess up enough times, then you would start to wonder like, “Why is He being so patient? Why is He promising all these things? Why am I all worthy of that?” And then, you know, from there it's a kind of quick jump to like, “Oh, I'm not, and he isn't.”

Imu: But I guess the question is, are we willing to forgive ourselves? Are we able to accept ourselves as imperfect, and are we willing to rely on the strength of that relationship? Do we really believe that it can weather mistakes? And let’s just make this a little less abstract for a second, and try to step into the shoes of the Israelites to kind of bring this home. And to do that, let me give you an analogy:

Imu: Let me ask you a question, Daniel. If you were Thor, the mighty Avenger, right, and you encountered a giant, would you be terrified?

Daniel: I think I'd probably cackle and have a great time trying to take it down.

Imu: Exactly, because you're Thor! You've got the power of the gods. And I think, like, if Israel knows that God is behind them, they're Avengers, they're superheroes. They wouldn't see themselves as grasshoppers. But what it would have taken from them is confidence in their relationship with God, and they didn't have confidence in their relationship with God.

Daniel: I think there's a really good superhero analogy, I’m just not sure if it's too niche to do it. You know there's a supervillain,  Venom.

Imu: Mhm.

Daniel: And his powers are not innate. His powers are because he has this thing called a symbiote which, like, bonds to him and likes him, and so it gives him all these powers.

Imu: Right, it's like a little alien slug that kind of comes into this guy and gives him superpowers.

Daniel: Right, and like, you know, would you go on a rampage through the city, which is like the villainous equivalent of being a superhero, if at any point you thought, “Well, maybe the symbiote actually just doesn't like me, and, like, maybe I'm going to do this big giant Spiderman jump from building to building, and then it's going to say, ‘Bye-bye, ha ha!’ and then you're going to fall and splat on the floor and die.” Like, you wouldn't use your powers at all if you're worried about that relationship. 

Imu: So would you take risks? Would you actually go flying in the sky? Please, superhero fans, don't stone me, I know that's not one of Venom’s superpowers. But would you go flying in the sky if your superpower, or your power to fly, depended on a relationship?

Daniel: And that would really depend on the quality of the relationship, and in turn, that would depend on how much you think you're pulling weight, and how much you think you're worthy of the love and support of that other party in the relationship.

Imu: Yeah, so I think that's really powerful here because, fundamentally, I think tzitzis make a lot of sense as a commentary on the Spies story. Because what God seems to be saying with tzitzis is, לֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם. It's not so much, “Hey, don't be seduced by your carnal desires.” It's, “Don't see yourselves as a grasshopper. You're a superhero. You just have to believe that you're really in this relationship.”

So I think, to bring this back to the Israelites in the desert, the meraglim and the people knew themselves well. They knew that the next “Golden Calf moment,” or the next complaint might be right around the corner. And if their power to defeat an impossible enemy comes from the quality of their relationship with God, that could be terrifying. Because while God had forgiven them again and again, maybe He wouldn’t the next time. Maybe the people haven’t forgiven themselves. Maybe they were filled with shame at their sins. They claimed that God hated them, but maybe they believed that because they hated themselves. They saw themselves as small, pitiful, worthless. They were like grasshoppers in their own eyes. 

So maybe that’s what z’nus, the betrayal and the going after eyes and heart, is all about. And now that we understand that, now that we’re seeing that the problem the Torah is telling us about is shame and unworthiness, it would follow that tzitzis is the antidote. That tzitzis, somehow, can help us deal with unworthiness. 

But how do they do that? And how do all the other details fit in? Like, why are there strings and why does one of them need to be blue? What about the strange plant metaphors where “tzitzis” means blossoms, or the language in Deuteronomy where tzitzis are called gedilim? And is that what is going on for us when we wear tzitzis? Do tzitzis somehow help us with our own sense of unworthiness? What would that even mean? How does it all come together? 

Well, for that, I invite you into Part 2.

This episode was recorded by Imu Shalev and Daniel Loewenstein.

The scholar for this episode was Imu Shalev.

The senior editor was Daniel Loewenstein with additional editing by Beth Lesch.

Our audio editor is me, Hillary Guttman.

Our managing producer is Adina Blaustein.

Meaningful Judaism’s editorial director is Imu Shalev.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.