Something Borrowed, Something Blue: prayer shawls and fringes

Rami bar Tamri, a traveler from another town, engaged in behavior contrary to local custom and apparently contrary to Jewish law. He was brought before R. Hisda. After inquiring into several other matters, R. Hisda asked Rami bar Tamri why his coat was missing tzitzit [required ritual fringes].

[Rami] replied. ‘The coat is borrowed, and Rab Judah has said. A borrowed coat is, for the first thirty days, exempt from the zizith.’ While this was going on a man was brought in [to the court] for not honouring his father and mother. They bound him [to have him flogged], whereupon [Rami] said to them. ‘Leave him alone, for it has been taught. Every commandment which carries its reward by its side does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court below.’** Said [R. Hisda] to him. ‘I see that you are very sharp.’ He replied. ‘If only you would come to Rab Judah’s school I would show you how sharp I am!’
— Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 110a-110b

**The commandment to honor parents is listed with its reward “by its side”: “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12)

Leaving for another day’s discussion the relationship of tzitzit, commandment and reward…

Borrowing and Conditional Gifts

The Talmud remarks on the borrowing of a cloak that is presumably four-cornered and so requires fringes:

As regards the law of zizith, although it is written: Thy covering (Ex. 22:12), thine only is subject but not what is held jointly, the Divine Law stated: In the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:38). What then is the significance of ‘thy covering’? — It is as Rab Judah said. For Rab Judah said: A borrowed garment is for the first thirty days exempt from zizith. [It is not “thy” covering].
— Chullin 136a

In halakhah, rights and obligations of borrower and owner are sometimes linked to a 30-day period: a new residence is generally exempt from needing a mezuza, e.g., for 30 days; see also “Find a Scroll.” (In U.S. civic law, unclaimed items become ownerless after 30 days: see, e.g., DC’s train station and public transit rules.)

There is also a principle of “gift on condition of return.” This facilitates several people sharing one ritual item — a lulav and etrog at Sukkot, e.g. — even though the law requires each individual to obtain his/her own (See B. Sukkah 41b). There are many rules regarding when and how to borrow a prayer shawl or garment which already has tzitzit attached. (For those interested, here’s an entire book on the subject.)

The Rest of the Story

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses the story of Rami bar Tamri in his book, Heavenly Torah. He points out odd elements of the visitor’s behavior:

  • Heschel raises the point about “gift conditional on return,” marveling that Rami would not ask for coat in this way, in order to try to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit.
  • Heschel also asks why Rami, who is not described as a beggar, doesn’t have his own coat: “Is it not astonishing that a scholar would be naked, with no clothes of his own, so that he would have to borrow a cloak in order to cover his body?”
  • Rami was a visitor, so why wasn’t he offered kosher food? Instead, he’s found eating discarded udders (considered unkosher by town practice); asked about this, Rami says he ate them outside the town limits (thus, not violating town practice).
  • Rami, who goes out of his way to eat odd food, then claims he cannot put on tefillin because of stomach troubles (which provide an exemption, to allow for frequent toilet trips).
  • And the whole thing, including the individual brought to court for failing to honor his parents, is happening on the day before Yom Kippur.

“The entire narrative is bizarre and unusual from every angle,” says Heschel. He concludes:

It is clear that a sharp Sage such as [Rami] must have done what he did intentionally — and deliberately on the eve of the Holy Day — in order to demonstrate examples of “the power of leniency,” of leniencies which exist within the bounds of the halakhah. It is possible that he also intended a proclamation, a public expression of protest against false piety, and against a multiplication of decrees and stringencies.
— Heschel, Heavenly Torah, p.729 (See Source Materials for full citation)

Heschel’s editor, Gordon Tucker, notes that the author “may perhaps be taking the details of what is a stylized polemic far too literally here,” but grants that Heschel’s view of the story, as a polemic argument “against those who attempt to make the law as difficult as possible to comply with…cannot be dismissed.”
— see footnotes, which are plentiful, detailed, and fascinating in their own right

As part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), a cousin of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), “A Song Every Day” plans thirty daily posts with some connection to the number 30.NaBloPoMo_November_blogroll_large

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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