Parashat Ki Teitzeh 2017, Congregation Agudas Achim, Iowa City
‘Oh, they are in a box somewhere’.
Only a few days ago, my husband and I were packing our belongings. Following Janice Weiner’s sound advice, I had packed my suitcase in advance so that the movers wouldn’t take things I’d need in transit. However, in the midst of the packing, I realized I had not seen my High Holiday or Shabbat tallit.
I have a few tallitot of which I am very fond; each one bought at a special junction of my life, each with a special purpose.
The tallit is not just a ritual object but a deeply personal garment. Many of us have deep and abiding connections to our tallitot, even if we don’t consciously examine them. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Maybe a bar or bat mitzvah gift. Or bought for oneself to mark a transitional moment. For those of us who do not wear a tallit, we might have equally powerful associations, both positive and negative.
The Midrash itself already issues this powerful statement:
“When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer-shawls, let them [feel] ... as though the glory of the [Divine] Presence were upon them, for . . . Scripture does not say: 'That ye may look upon them' [otam] [the fringes], but that ye may look upon Him [oto] (that is, upon the Holy One, blessed be He.)” - Midrash Tehillim 2:99
The Midrash strongly connects the tallit with an emotional experience of Divine intimacy. Does this interpretation match the expectations of the Torah’s initial commandment? What seems like a common ritual to us is actually steeped in layers upon layers of legal and homiletical interpretation.
The tallit, or rather the knotted fringes that make any four cornered garment a tallit, does not get a great deal of airplay in the Torah. There are only two mentions of the commandment of tzitzit. The first is in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, the Book of Numbers, 15:37, which has made it into our twice-daily recital of the Shema: ‘v’asu lahem tzitzit al kanfei bigdeihem’, ‘for they shall make fringes upon the corners of their garments’. The second reference is in this week’s parashah, Parashat Ki Teitzeh, where wedged in between a slew of ethical commandments, we are told ‘G’dilim ta’aseh lecha al arba kanfot kesut’cha asher techaseh ba.’ – ‘You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.’
Both descriptions are cryptic and open to multiple interpretations. What are these ‘tzitzit’ and ‘gedilim’? Some commentators translate them as braids, others as fringes or tassels. Most interpretations insist that these are attached to the ‘kanaf’, the corner or ‘wing’ of the garment, while some Biblical scholars think that the fringes were attached to the hem rather than the corners.
The Numbers version of the commandment is clearly religious: we are to attach tzitzit to the corners of our garments because it keeps us on the straight and narrow. ‘L’ma’an tizkeru v’asitem et kol mitzvotai v’he’item kedoshim le’Eloheichem.’ – ‘Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.’ We are not to be seduced by the false gods of irrelevant priorities but be singular in our commitment to the Divine.
The Deuteronomy version of the commandment, however, suggests no such deeper meaning. Rather, that verse is embedded in overarching notions of justice and separation, including of different species of seeds. If anything, the Deuteronomy text seems to suggest that tzitzit are an identity marker.
I would like us to dig a little deeper in a small word that is easy to overlook: kesut’cha, ‘your garment’. In Biblical Hebrew, Kesutah, like beged and simlah, refers to a garment, like a cloak. Indeed, in Roman times, the tallit resembled a pallium and functioned more like a cloak or coat than the indoor garment it has become nowadays.
The tallit is not just an accessory but an essential part of one’s wardrobe, practically and symbolically. For a poor person, one’s cloak – and by extension, one’s tallit – would double as a blanket and the Talmud records stories of friends or couples sharing a tallit as they bed down for the night.
Only a few chapters later, in Deut. 24:10 - 17, we are taught laws to protect and dignify the vulnerable: the destitute, stranger, orphan and widow. ‘V’im ish oni hu lo tishkav ba’avoto’ – ‘And if he (the debtor) is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge’. ‘V’lo tachabol beged almanah’ – ‘you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.’ It was common to take a person’s garment annex tallit as a pledge but there were ethical limitations placed on this.
The Bible is replete with sacred images of corners and wings – kenafaim. We know this even through our liturgy: ‘tachat kanfei Shechinah’, to [shelter] beneath the wings of the Divine Presence, a turn of phrase used in both the El Male Rachamim prayer for the dead as well as to welcome converts into Judaism. There is of course, the tender image of Boaz sheltering Ruth beneath his cloak, which in all likelihood would have been a tallit. It is this sacred Biblical foundation that the Midrash builds on.
We often see a detachment from material things as a mark of abstract sophistication. The thrust of the Torah, however, is quite the opposite: our material possessions achieve sanctification through ethics, meaning and connection, not through dispossessing them of these things.
During the High Holiday period, many of us are bound to wear a tallit more. We wear a tallit during the Kol Nidrey service and all day for Yom Kippur. We allow our emotions to be evoked by memories of sheltering loved ones (or being sheltered by loved ones) under a tallit. The tallit is not just a quaint object or fashion accessory but a bold, ideological statement of who we are: both religiously and ethically. The tallit in its Biblical understanding is counter-culturally democratic, universal and inclusive. It embodies protection, tenderness, intimacy, dignity and holiness. It allows us to bear our values into the world, like a banner. Moreover, the tallit allows us to cleave to each other as a community, in both senses of the word: through creating a private separation as well as collective connection.
I invite you to wear a tallit if you are comfortable or to perhaps make a New Year’s Resolution to consider wearing one of you do not yet wear one, and to take a moment to wrap yourself in a universe of sacred belonging.