The Power of Tzitzit

“Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” posted last week, mentions a 30-day grace period before a four-cornered garment requires tzitzit [ritual fringes].

This ruling is attributed to Rav Judah. It appears in his name in tractate Chullin (110a-110b) within a story that appears to be challenging strictures that serve as barriers to observance. The same ruling is mentioned following a very different story:

It was taught: R. Nathan said, There is not a single precept in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world; and as to its reward in the future world I know not how great it is. Go and learn this from the precept of zizith.

[There follows the story of a pious man visiting a prostitute: he is stopped from sin when his four tzitzit stand up and strike him in the face. As a result of the encounter, the prostitute seeks out the pious man’s teacher and converts to Judaism. Eventually, the pious man and the woman wed.]

Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully. This is the reward [of the precept] in this world; and as for its reward in the future world I know not how great it is. Rab Judah said, A borrowed garment is exempt from zizith for the first thirty days, thereafter it is subject to it.
— B. Talmud, Menachot 44a

This is followed by brief mention of a similar 30-day grace period for affixing a mezuzah to a new residence. The grace-period comments are apropos of nothing apparent to me in the prostitute-convert story, and I’ve never studied this. But the stated context is the reward of “light” commandments and, more broadly, the relationship of effort to commandment and reward.

The concept of “reward in this world and… in the future world” is one I generally steer around. But I have been interested in this idea of “light” commandments ever since Gerry Serotta introduced me to it some years ago.

A Light Commandment

Is a “light” commandment one that requires light effort? One that is presumed to carry a light reward? One that is treated lightly for another reason? More on this later (there is an extensive, well-sourced, and readable discussion of the concept at Emor Project, meanwhile.)

For the moment, let’s return to Rabbi Nathan’s story and look to what immediately precedes it. There’s a statement about how hard it is to come by hillazon, from which the special blue, tekhelet, thread was made:

Our Rabbis taught: The hillazon resembles the sea in its colour, and in shape it resembles a fish; it appears [comes up from the sea] once in seventy years, and with its blood one dyes the blue thread; and therefore it is so expensive.
— Babylonian Talmud Menachot 44a

Some paragraphs above, R. Meir notes that the punishment for failing to add the white fringes, which were less expensive and easier to obtain, was more serious than that for failing to add the blue thread.

But one thing I love about the hillazon remark is that it seems reminiscent of R. Meir’s comment about the blue dye and the sea and the heavens and the Throne of Glory. I don’t know if the rabbis were trying for humor, but I think it’s funny, this parallel of tekhelet and tachlis [purpose; business; result, bottom line]: Sometimes it’s about the Throne of Glory, and sometimes it’s about the cost of hillazon in Palestine.

…there is, BTW, a reward-related explanation for the “Throne of Glory” comment, i.e., that Jews with their tzitzit and blue thread remind God to bestow blessing on Israel…. [more to come]




This is Rav Judah bar Ezekiel, not to be confused with the older Rabbi Judah haNasi [the prince]. Rav Judah is a 3rd Century CE Babylonian teacher, founder of the academy at Pumbedita. He was a student of the famous teachers “Rav” and “Samuel,” who were, in turn, students of Rabbi Judah haNasi, compiler of the Mishnah. More in Wikipedia or the Jewish Encyclopedia
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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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