A MATH LESSON
At the end of this week's Torah portion we read the third paragraph of the shema prayer in which we are commanded regarding the mitzvah of tzitzit (the fringes worn on the corners of all four-cornered garments), along with the accompanying mitzvah of t'chelit, to wear a blue strand mixed in with the white fringes of the tzitzit.
At the end of this week's Torah portion we read the third paragraph of the shema prayer in which we are commanded regarding the mitzvah of tzitzit (the fringes worn on the corners of all four-cornered garments), along with the accompanying mitzvah of t'chelit, to wear a blue strand mixed in with the white fringes of the tzitzit. The rabbis teach us that these mitzvot symbolize all of the 613 commandments in the Torah. It is amazing that these two basic mitzvot could contain and deliver such a powerful and overwhelming concept. How do these simple strings convey such a broad and all-encompassing approach of Judaism?
Let us first examine the two significant aspects of tzitzit: the white strings and the blue strand. The Talmud (Tractate Menachot 43b) explains the significance of the blue strand as having an ability to inspire people to heavenly thoughts. "When one sees the blue of the t'chelit, one is reminded of the blue of the sea, which in turn reminds one of the blue of the heavens and Hashem's throne of glory."
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the outstanding leaders and halachik decisors of American and world Jewry during the 20th century, learns an interesting lesson based on this understanding of the blue strand. Just as the t'chelit reminds us of Hashem through a progressive stage process (sea, heavens, throne of glory), so too our spiritual growth should be through a step-by-step process. The most productive way to genuinely grow closer to Hashem is through gradual development.
The other aspect of the mitzvah, the white strings of the tzitzit, also inspires religious thought. Today, due to the loss of a tradition as to the exact identification of the source for the blue dye used for the t'chelit strand, we are unable to wear the blue and our tzitzit have only white fringes. Having lost the stimulant of the blue which reminded us of Hashem, how do the tzitzit that we wear today inspire us to spiritual growth? Rashi, the popular and fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains that the gematriah (the numerical value of the Hebrew letters) of the word tzitzit is 600. Each corner of the garment has fringes tied to it comprised of eight strings and five knots: 600 from the gematriah of tzitzit, plus the 8 strings and the 5 knots equals 613 -- the number of commandments in the Torah.
The characteristic element in this process of remembering the mitzvot is the calculations needed. It is striking to see the complexity of this formula; one has to combine the gematriah with the strings and knots. It would certainly have been easier if there was only one source giving the final number of 613 so as to avoid the need for any math. However for any mitzvah to symbolize the entire Torah, there must be calculations. Math is an analytical science that engages the intellect through logic, the primary factor which distinguishes man from animal. By the rabbis giving us this mathematical formulation to reaching the Torah, they are telling us that to understand the Torah one must apply the human intellect. It is only through plumbing the depths of Torah with our intellect that we will grow enthusiastically in our Judaism.
These two aspects of the mitzvah of tzitzit teach us two different but complimentary lessons about how to grow in our understanding and appreciation of the Torah. On the one hand, we must take religious growth gradually and in stages, allowing time for a solid foundation to be set. On the other hand, we must use our intellect to understand the depths of the Torah and its genius. These two lessons give good reason for the rabbis to attribute such significance to this mitzvah. Tzitzit are not merely a garment to be worn; rather they are a symbol to all of us on how to become the best Jews that we can be.
Note: Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. For more information and a clearer understanding of gematriah calculations, please speak to your local rabbi.
Ezra Cohen, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, recently graduated from Yeshiva University and is a smicha and graduate school student there.
Micha Gimpel, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a rising junior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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