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12.06.2017 13:14    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  bamidbar  shelach  

“Make for themselves fringes”

The first verse of Shema is without doubt the best-known verse in the prayer book.  In times of persecution, many innocent and pure Jews went to their death with the words Shema Yisrael on their lips.  The Shema prayer consists of three passages:  the first, Shema Yisrael, appears in Parashat Va-Ethanan (Deut. 6:5-9); the second, ve-haya im shamo`a, appears in Parashat Ekev (Deut. 11:13-21); and the third, the passage on tzitzit (= “fringes”), appears in this week’s reading (Num. 15:37-41).

The reason this prayer is so important is easily understood.  The first passage speaks of loving the Lord (“You shall love the Lord your G‑d”), obeying the commandments (“Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day”), and studying the Torah (“Impress them upon your children.  Recite them”).  All these are central ideas in Jewish life.  The second passage goes over the same themes but adds a new and important idea:  the notion of reward and punishment.

The question we shall discuss below pertains to the third passage, on tzitzit.  Why, if the first two passages concern obeying the commandments, as illustrated by Torah study, the commandment of tefillin and that of mezuzah, did the Sages add a third passage containing another commandment?  If they wished to add a commandment, why of all things choose the commandment of tzitzit and not some other commandment, such as lulav, or blowing the shofar, or eating matzah at the Passover Seder?  What is so special about tzitzit that the Sages saw fit to require us to mention it twice daily?

This question is also asked by the gemara in Berakhot 12b, where several reasons are given, but I would like to add another reason.

The positive commandments can be categorized into three groups:

  1. A small number of constant, positive commands that apply all the time, such as the commandment to love the Lord.
  2. Positive commands that are time-related, i.e., that apply only on specific dates or at a specific time of day.  This category subsumes the vast majority of commandments, known as the Positive Time-Bound Commandments (mitzvot aseh she-ha-zeman graman), such as:  blowing the shofar, laying tefillin, and shaking the lulav.
  3. Positive commandments that apply only in certain circumstances, where the presence of these circumstances is up to the human being.  In other words, the human being determines whether and when the commandments in this group are to be observed.  This group includes such things as grace after meals, mezuzah, guard rails, and tzitzit.  For example, take the commandment of grace after meals.  If a person were to decide to eat only small portions of food that do not reach the amount that is said to constitute a meal, that person would not obligated by the Torah to recite the grace after meals (Shulhan ArukhOrah Hayyim 168).  Moreover, even if a person feasted like a king, but did not eat an olive’s worth of bread within the amount of time “a feast would last in Persia,” at the conclusion of the feast the person is not obliged to say grace.  Of course, on festivals and the Sabbath one is obliged to eat a meal that includes bread, and on Passover and Sukkot one is obliged to eat matzah or a meal (with bread) in the sukkah.  These obligations, however, are not tied to the commandment of saying grace after meals; rather, they are in honor of the Sabbath or the festival.

Thus the latter group of commandments depends on someone deciding to put himself in the position of being bound by the commandment.

Now let us consider the commandment of tzitzit.  Like that of grace after meals, the obligation of tzitzit does not apply as long as the person is not wearing a four-cornered garment.  In other words, throughout his entire life a person may wear such garments as do not require tzitzit, and if he chooses to wear only such garments, he does not transgress any prohibition.

The gemara (Menahot 41a) relates to a person who never performed the commandment of tzitzit:

An angel once found Rabbi Kattina wearing a linen wrap, and he exclaimed, “Kattina, Kattina, a wrap in summer and a cloak in winter, and what is to happen to the law of tzitzit?”  “And do you punish,” asked Rabbi Kattina, “a person [who omits to perform] a positive precept?”  “In a time of wrath,” replied the angel, “we do.”

Explanation:  an angel found Rabbi Kattina wearing summer clothing that did not require a tzitzit, and said to him, “Kattina, neither what you wear in the summer nor what you wear in the winter requires tzitzit.  That being so, when will you perform the commandment of tzitzit?”  Rabbi Kattina answered the angel, asking him whether a person is punished for not performing the commandment of tzitzit when the clothing he wears do not require tzitzit?  The angel responded:  when you are under criticism for other things, even non-performance of the commandment of tzitzit will be taken into account.

The gemara concludes that Rabbi Kattina did not transgress, even though he never wore a four-cornered garment with tzitzit, yet all the same the angel did not look kindly on such behavior on Rabbi Kattina’s part.

Tosefot makes a significant remark about this story of Rabbi Kattina and the angel (Shabbat 32b).  According to Tosefot, the angel’s complaint against Rabbi Kattina was that “specifically in their day, when clothing had four corners…but now that people do not tend to wear such garments, it is not necessary to buy them.”  In other words, nowadays one is not obligated to purchase a special garment with four corners, known as a tallit katan, in order to fulfill the commandment of tzitzit.  According to Tosefot it also follows that the angel’s warning to Rabbi Kattina that, when angry, the Holy One, blessed be He, is likely to take into consideration his not having worn tzitzit, does not apply to the present day.

Having presented this explanation, however, Tosefot goes on to say:  “Nevertheless, one would do well to purchase a tallit (katan) and recite the benediction when putting it on every day.”  The Shulhan Arukh saw fit to include these words in the laws on tzitzit (Orah Hayyim 24), saying:  “If a person does not wear a tallit with four corners, he is not obligated by the commandment of tzitzit, but it is well and good that every person take care to wear a tallit katan daily.”

What prompted Tosefot and the Shulhan Arukh to require this?  We find no similar statement with regard to any of the other positive commandments in this group.  For example, it does not say in Hilkhot Mezuzah that it is “well and good that a person should take care to live in a house with entrances that require a mezuzah, and thus to perform the commandment of mezuzah daily.”  If so, what is the difference between the commandments of mezuzah or of saying grace, on the one hand, and the commandment of tzitzit, on the other?  What makes this difference so important that the passage on tzitzit was included in the prayer of Shema, which we are all obliged to recite twice daily?

Tur (Orah Hayyim 24) and the Shitah Mekubetzet (on Arakhin 2b) give a reason, to which I would like to add.  The uniqueness of the commandment of tzitzit can be explained as follows.  Almost everyone lives in a house with entrances that require a mezuzah, and almost everyone eats meals that include an olive-sized bite of bread.  Therefore, there was no need to say of these things that it would be “well and good,” since these commandments are performed in any event.  However this is not the case with the commandment of tzitzit.  As Tosefot observed, in our day (and even in the time of Tosefot) it is no longer customary to wear a four-cornered garment.  Therefore, both Tosefot and the Shulhan Arukh saw fit to remind one that it would be “well and good” to put oneself in the situation that one could merit fulfilling this positive precept.

The importance of reading the passage on tzitzit follows from this discussion.  We learn that a person should not make do with minimal performance of the commandments, but rather should seek the opportunity to perform commandments, even when circumstances do not make it obligatory.  It is “well and good” that a person deliberately make this the case.  For, in the performance of each and every commandment a person strengthens the bond between him and his Creator.  The commandments are the means given human beings to draw closer to the Holy One, blessed be He, and it is “well and good” that they seek ways of taking advantage of this unique opportunity.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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