This week’s parasha, Shlach, is primarily concerned with the Sin of the Spies. At the end of the parasha, we read the commandment to wear tzitzit on the corners of our clothes:
Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of blue on the fringe of each corner. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of God to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)
The passage above states that the purpose of tzitzit is to remind us of God’s commandments. The Torah states that people fall to sin because they follow after their evil inclination—residing in the heart—which itself follows after the eyes. The eyes see and stimulate the temptation inside the heart, and then the entire body succumbs. As an antidote to straying eyes, when we look at tzitzit we remember God’s mitzvot, and this should save us from sin. Rashi famously comments that the word “tzitzit” (ציצית) has a gematria of 600, and when adding the five knots and eight strings on each fringe, one gets 613 to represent the 613 commandments of the Torah.
The Talmud (Menachot 44a) recounts a story of a man who once went out of his way to sleep with a certain beautiful harlot. When it came time to undress, his tzitzit “struck him in the face”. He saw the fringes and remembered God, and held himself back from sin. The harlot was so impressed (as none was ever able to restrain himself from her) that she abandoned her whole world and her great wealth and went to study in the academy of Rabbi Chiya. She ended up converting to Judaism, and marrying that man. The Talmud uses this story both to illustrate the power of tzitzit, and also to show that “There is not a single precept in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world.”
The Sages state that the word tzitzit comes from the root verb l’hatzitz, “to gaze”. One is meant to see them and be reminded of God and His commandments. This is why the mitzvah was given in this week’s parasha in particular, which is mainly concerned with the Sin of the Spies. The spies were all great leaders and outstanding members of Israelite society. Yet, when they went out to spy the land and saw all kinds of things that terrified them, they followed after their eyes. They should have remembered God, and all the miracles that God had wrought for them. Instead, their hearts were filled with fear, and they led the entire nation astray. (Except for the righteous Joshua and Caleb.)
Similarly, the passage immediately preceding that of tzitzit is the story of the mekoshesh etzim—a man who had desecrated the Sabbath by going to deliberately gather wood, a forbidden act. He, too, had forgotten God’s mitzvot, and paid the ultimate price. This may be why the common Ashkenazi custom is to make 39 winds on the tzitzit, corresponding to the 39 melachot of Shabbat. Between the five knots, Ashkenazi tzizit have 7, 8, 11, and 13 winds, corresponding to the four categories of forbidden labours on Shabbat. There are 11 actions associated with farming and field work, 13 associated with producing fabrics, 7 with producing leather, and 8 that mostly involve construction.
Sephardic tzitzit, meanwhile, tend to have 26 knots, corresponding to the gematria of God’s Ineffable Name. Between the five knots are 10, 5, 6, and 5 winds, corresponding to the values of the letters of the Tetragrammaton. Perhaps Ashkenazis connected tzitzit to the mekoshesh etzim while Sephardis connected tzitzit to the Spies, as both narratives appear in the parasha commanding tzitzit. Both stories end with a punishment that could have been averted had the people involved worn and seen their tzitzit.
Just as tzitzit are supposed to be seen to prevent a person from sinning, they also serve as a spiritual rectification for having seen improper things. And just as they serve to rectify our plain, physical sense of sight, on a deeper level they are powerful tools to gaze into the spiritual worlds.
The same root verb, l’hatzitz, “to gaze”, is used in one of the most enigmatic passages in the Talmud: the Four Who Entered Pardes (Chagigah 14b). There, we read how Ben Azzai hetzitz, “gazed” at the Heavenly realms, and perished from the overwhelming experience. We learn from this that the verb l’hatzitz is not just referring to physical vision, but alludes to the possibility of spiritual vision. And this is intricately connected to tzitzit.
In his commentaries on Sefer haBahir (pg. 153-154), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes how tzitzit are specifically meant to hang around the legs of a person, and the legs in Kabbalah correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod. Without delving into what these sefirot are, we can briefly state that these sefirot are the two which are always described as the sources of prophecy. Rabbi Kaplan cites the Kabbalists as saying that the tzitzit, or tallit, is related to a phenomenon called hashmal. The word first appears in Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkavah, God’s “Divine Chariot” (Ezekiel 1:4). In Modern Hebrew, the word means “electricity” (for good reason, though this is beyond the scope of the present discussion).
The Kabbalists split the word hashmal (חשמל) into the letter chet (ח), which has a value of 8, and semel (שמל), which means “garment” or “dress” (like simlah). In other words, hashmal is associated with that garment that has eight strings on each end: a tallit. The Zohar (I, 100b, Sitrei Torah) explicitly states that hashmal is the force that allowed the prophets to see their spiritual visions. It explains that the eight refers to the Octagrammaton, a Name of God where the Tetragrammaton is combined with Adonai into an eight-letter name, as follows: יאהדונהי. (This is seen many times in our prayers inside many siddurim.) This is the Name through which God communicates with prophets. It is the chet of hashmal, and the mystical meaning of the eight tzitzit strings.
If we go back to the first place in the Tanakh where hashmal appears, we will find that the connection to tzitzit runs even deeper. Ezekiel describes the great Chariot of God, and states that God’s Throne is made of blue sapphire (1:26). On this, the Talmud (Sotah 17a) states that God commanded one blue thread inside the tzitzit because it resembles the blue sapphire of His Throne. Interestingly, the Torah calls this blue thread a kanaf, literally a “wing” (Numbers 15:38). When Ezekiel describes God’s Chariot, with the four angels at its four corners, he says:
And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings [knafaim]. And their legs were straight legs; and their feet were like the feet of a calf; and they sparkled [notzetzim] like the colour of burnished brass. (Ezekiel 1:6-7)
There are three key terms here which bring everything together. There are four wings, like the four blue threads of tzitzit which are called “wings”, and which hang around the legs. And once again, there is that same root within the word notzetzim, “sparkling”, alluding to the tzitzit. In short, tzitzit have the power to bring one into a state of prophecy, and witness the Merkavah, which is the vehicle of prophecy. The Sages state this outright, and explains that when the Torah says v’haya lachem l’tzitzit u’raitem oto, it does not mean “you will see it”—the string—but rather “you will see Him”—God! (Oto in Hebrew can mean either “it” or “him”.) With tzitzit, one can see pnei Shekhinah, “the face of the Divine Presence”. (See Menachot 43b and Sifrei Bamidbar 115.)
All of this is one big mystical reason (among others) for praying with a tallit wrapped around one’s self. Fittingly, one of the verses customarily said when putting on the tallit is Psalm 36:10, which states “in Your light, we see light”. God grants us some of His divine light, so that we can get a glimpse of the divine. This takes us back to the very origin of Creation, which began with God bringing forth a divine light.
The Sages state that God created everything through “32 paths of wisdom”. This is based on the 32 times that God’s Name appears in the account of Creation (Genesis 1), and is the focus of Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. And this is why a tallit has a total of 32 strings (eight on each corner). Each string represents one of the 32 paths of Creation, a path of light. There is a further allusion to this in the concluding words of the blessing recited before putting on the tallit: l’hita’atef b’tzitzit (להתעטף בציצית). The initials make 32, and also the word lev, “heart”. Just as the heart is intertwined with every little part of the body, and nourishes every cell of the body, so too is God intertwined with every iota of His universe, and brings each tiny particle into existence. The mystical purpose of tzitzit is to give us the spiritual vision to uncover that divine reality.