A World on the Fringes

A World on the Fringes

01 Jul 2016

My fingers were deftly tying the smooth woolen strings onto the tallit (prayer shawl) as I looped, knotted, wound and counted.

Tying tzitziyot (fringes) is one of my more obscure rabbinic skills but comes in handy when a friend asks you to help her tie tzitzit onto the beautiful tallit she lovingly hand-sew for her husband-to-be.

There are many rabbinic interpretations for the intricacies of the knotted fringes on our prayer shawls.

The Torah’s initial commandment, from Numbers 15:38, is sparse: ‘V’asu lahem tzitzit al kanfei bigdeihem’ – ‘and they shall tie fringes onto the corners of their garments’.

The Torah does not specify the look of these ritual fringes apart from the fact that a royal blue threat (p’til techelet) should run through knotted or braided strings. It is the Talmud that specifies that each fringe should have a specific number of knots and windings, and even then these vary in minhag (custom) from community to community. For Ashkenazi Jews, the number of windings are wound in four clusters, separated by double knots. The first cluster has seven windings, the second, eight, the third, eleven and the fourth, thirteen. This totals 39 windings, the amount the Talmud specifies as ritually fit.

The numerical value of 39 matches the gematria (numerology) of ‘Adonai Echad’ – the Eternal is One. These symbolic intricacies may not interest everyone, but what does interest me is that the number of windings – seven, eight, eleven, thirteen – increases rather than decreases.

What is about the symbolic increase in the ties that bind?

The Torah’s commandment to attach tzitziyot to the corners of our garments makes it clear that this is an act of perpetuity: ‘ledorotam’ – ‘throughout their generations’. Not only does the mitzvah of tzitzit symbolise fidelity and commitment to God, but also unity and continuity in community and purpose. If anything, the very act itself, of the sanctification of our clothing—a powerful identity marker and great leveler—invites us into oneness. Oneness of the community of Jews who wear their tallitot during worship, oneness of my friend, the bride, with her beloved groom and the creation of a new ‘bayit b’Yisrael’, home among the Jewish people, and of course, oneness of all humanity and all creation with God.

We need constant reminders of this oneness in a world that feels more torn and more divided than ever. A world that seems to be splitting at the seams and fraying at the edges. This last week has seen the political fall-out from the Brexit vote here in the United Kingdom, which I have keenly observed both as a rabbi and a EU migrant.

Regardless of individual votes casts and ideological positions taken, many Brits feel taken aback by the tears that have appeared in the social fabric.
There has been an increase in feelings of isolation, alienation and discrimination. When we become divided, our eyes are lured away from unity and our common humanity is compromised. The Torah envisions the mitzvah of wearing fringes of our garments as an inoculation against idolatry, so that our eyes may not follow after ‘other gods’. Indeed, may we not follow after the small, vicious idols of fear, bigotry and hatred.

Some of us Jews could choose to wear a tallit to convey a message of communal solidarity. Others have launched a ‘safety pin campaign’ as a gesture of friendship and goodwill towards immigrants and those deemed ‘Other’. In a way, wearing a safety pin is a reminder, much like wearing tzitzit. It draws our eyes back to what is important and identifies us as an ally in the great project of humanitarian compassion.

I felt a moment of peace, tying tzitzit for my dear friend. I could shut out all other distractions and meditate on the deep, visceral wisdom of our ancient tradition and its ability to make Divine values tangible and accessible. I look forward to officiating at the wedding and seeing her wonderful husband don this symbol of covenant, compassion, relationship and unity. Let us all clothe ourselves in righteousness and stitch together what was torn asunder.

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Image credit: Folkert Gorter

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