Rabbi Nathan’s story of the tzitzit and the prostitute is introduced to illustrate the reward of a “light” commandment.(Menachot 44b; see also yesterday’s “Power of Tzitzit“). This post continues exploring the intersection of “light” commandments and tzitzit.
Which Are Light Mitzvot?
The Talmud mentions commandments categorized as “light” (minor) and “grave” (major). A convert is to be taught some light and some grave mitzvot, for example (Yevamot 47a), but all Jews should “be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a grave one” (Avot 2:1).
The Rabbis seem quicker to recognize grave mitzvot. Biblical commandments that come down with a punishment specified — whoever works on Shabbat should be put to death, e.g. — seem grave. As do a few absolute bottom lines: Don’t murder, engage in adultery or incest, or participate in idol worship, even at the cost of your life (Sanhedrin 74a). Do not speak or listen to slander; the tongue kills as surely as the sword (Arakhin 15b).
The Talmud pursues order and balance among competing mitzvot, without declaring one graver than the other. The need for priorities and good sense is evident:
What is a foolish pietist like? — E.g., a woman is drowning in the river, and he says: ‘It is improper for me to look upon her and rescue her.’
— Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 21b
What is not clear, as far as I can tell, is which commandments, if any, are “light.”
Yeshivat Har Etzion offers a searchable resource on its Virtual Beit Midrash, and the same material is available in print: Jewish Values in a Changing World by Yehuda Amital (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV, 2005).
Rabbi Nathan’s Story
The idea of a “light commandment” appears in tractate Avot:
Rabbi [Judah HaNasi] would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever brings תפארת [tiferet; harmony, honor, beauty] for the one who does it, and תפארת for mankind.
Be as careful with a light [קלה] mitzvah as with a grave one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.
Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.
— Avot 2:1
According to a contemporary overview of the topic, a “light commandment” has been variously explained as one that is “perceived as bearing minimal reward”; as one that the individual accomplished easily, took lightly, did out of habit or without intention, or did with a wrong intention.
Rabbi Nathan’s prostitute/tzitzit story seems entirely focused on “light” as a matter of reward, however: Intention in the practice of tzizit can hardly be at issue with a man described as being “very scrupulous in the precept.” And the man’s explanation to the prostitute suggests that he views the practice of tzitzit quite seriously:
There is one precept which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called zizith, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is twice written,** signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the
future, and I am He who will give reward in the future. Now [the zizith] appeared to me as four witnesses [testifying against me].’
— Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 44b
**Numbers 15:38ff, Deuteronomy 22:12
Reward in this World
Haviva Ner-David mentions Rabbi Nathan’s story when describing her experiences in wearing tzitzit:
The tzitzit that I wear beneath my clothing serve to remind me all day long of the mitzvoth, the sacred obligations that I have to fulfill, but they also remind me of the holiness of my body. According to the tradition, each person is a world unto him- or herself. When a person dies, a world is lost. This does not refer only to a person’s spirit; it refers also to a person’s physical body….Our bodies and our spirits are holy. By wearing a holy garment next to my skin, I am reminded of this notion, I feel, in a very physical way, that I was created in the image of God.
For me a big part of this mitzvah is also wearing my tzitzit in the form of a tallit gadol (prayer shawl) each morning when I say my prayers. My tallit gadol enhances kavanah, or focused, meditative concentration. I can simply pull the tallit gadol over my head and block out the many things that distract me….
However, my tallit gadol does not always function as a vehicle to block others out. At times I use it to bring others closer to me….
— pp28-29, The Rituals & Practices of a Jewish Life: A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal. Kerry M. Olitzky & Daniel Judson, eds. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2002
Ner-David’s personal report — and there are many of related interest in the handbook cited above — echoes Rabbi Nathan’s statement that the reward of tzitzit is “enjoyed in this world.” Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that many Jews find reward in the practice itself.
Weightier Than They Look?
Let’s circle back to Rabbi’s teaching above and consider the whole, not just the remarks about reward calculations and “light” and “grave” commandments. Avot 2.1 describes a whole system of thought and behavior: seeking out a path that brings harmony/honor to the individual and to the greater society; considering that even the small stuff matters; and retaining awareness of consequences.
Ner-David speaks of using her tallit both to block out distractions so she can pray and to bring her children closer; this sounds like an example of concern for harmony/beauty individually and in a wider view. She also notes how “tzitzit can at least metaphorically slap us in the face when we are about to transgress” (op cit., p.29); this seems consonant with awareness of consequences. As in the case of Rabbi Nathan’s tzitzit wearer, Ner-David’s tzitzit don’t function on their own; they operate, as it were, within a whole system of commandments, which may or may not be “light,” and symbolize a whole way of thinking and acting.
There is all sorts of numerical-based commentary suggesting that tzitzit are reminders of, if not somehow equivalent to, all the other commandments. (See, e.g., this piece by R. Louis Jacobs).
R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of deeds, good or bad], if he performs one good deed, happy is he for turning the scale both
for himself and for the whole world on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for weighting himself and the whole world in the scale of guilt, for it is said: ‘but one sinner, etc.’ — on account of the single sin which this man commits he and the whole world lose much good.
— Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b
So, perhaps there is no such thing as a “light” commandment after all? Or maybe “light” is, as some teachers suggest, solely in the eyes of the one doing the weighing. [stay tuned]
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. This post follows a thread begun with the 30-day grace period on attaching tzitzit to a four-cornered garment.