At the conclusion of this week’s parsha, we find the third and final paragraph of the Shema Yisroel prayer, and although Jews are bidden to recite it twice daily, like most prayers, unfortunately, the tendency is to say it without as much intention as one ought to apply — perhaps you’ll enjoy this particular insight.
The parsha ends with the commandment to make tzitzis (v’asu lahem tzitzis) and the next verse seemingly comes to explain the purpose of the tzitzis (Number 15:39):
- u’re’isem oso — “you shall look at the tzitzis”
- u’zchartem es kol mitzvos Hashem — “you will remember all of God’s commandments”
- v’asisem osom — “you will fulfill the commandments”
- v’lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem — “you will not veer, in following your inclinations, etc.”
The previous verse instructs us to construct the fringes on our garments, and this verse instructs us to look at the fringes, but these two instructions are not equivalent. One must affix the fringes and wear the garment to fulfill the commandment, but the directive that we “shall look at them” is more of a description of what we will do, rather than an instruction on what we must do.
What does it mean when the Torah tells us that we will remember all of God’s commandments upon looking at the tzitzis? There is no intrinsic attribute of the tzitzis (even with techeiles) that would cause us to remember all of God’s commandments — v’haraya (and the proof is that), giving someone tzitzis without them knowing what the commandments are will not cause them to know what the commandments are, and giving someone who does know what the commandments are but doesn’t know that the verse states that tzitzis shall be a reminder will not be reminded of anything. So what does it mean that we “shall remember”?
This reminds me of when I was a little kid and I first heard about the idea of tying a string around one’s finger so as not to forget something important. My question was always, “how do you remember what the thing was that you were supposed to remember, because the string is so generic? Won’t you need a string around another finger to remind you to remember what it was that the first string was there to remind you of?”
The Torah is not telling us that the strings (and the techeiles string in particular) will actually remind us of anything independent of our own concern for the commandment of tzitzis. Rather, the Torah is instructing us to remember — that’s a part of the directive, rather than a natural outgrowth of tzitzis possession. Even though one is very likely in complete fulfillment despite not remembering any other commandments, the Torah tells us that we are to think of the tzitzis as a constant visual cue to the rest of our obligations.
And wouldn’t you know…it’s not just a single string. There’s so many strings, and Chazal suggested that we make 5 knots (instead of only the biblically required 2) so that we may construct mnemonics about how the number of strings and knots added to the numerical value of the word serves to remind us of all the purported 613 commandments, despite the gematria not working out because the word is spelled deficiently (with only one yud), because it’s a bacronym mnemonic and all we’re interested in is if it can serve as a reminder. (Mizrachi on Rashi, Numbers 15:39) ‘Old people from Texas eat spiders’ doesn’t make any sense, but as long as people can remember it, that’s all that counts. We are told of a man who lived at the time of the siege of Jerusalem, and the Talmud recounts how he was given a special name because he was so meticulous in caring for his tzitzis, representative of the entire Torah (Bavli Gittin 56a) We are instructed to conjure up images of a high-end prostitute seeking out her would-be client in the holy beis medrash in order to solve the mystery of her would-be suitor’s ‘strings of remembrance’ that swatted him in the face (Bavli Menachos 44a)
We are the ones who need to give the tzitzis its power to guide our thoughts, and let’s make sure we remember to do so…