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…
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Purposefully Blue

The peculiar blue [תכלת, tekhelet] thread used in tzitzit [ritual fringes] (Numbers 15:37-41) also appears prominently in the construction of Tabernacle (Exodus 25ff). It is used in the inner curtains and the loops that connect them; it also appears throughout the priestly vestments.

Why this blue?

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue [תכלת] specified from all the varieties of colours? Because blue resembles [the colour of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the colour of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the colour of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said: And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone [לבנת הספיר], and as it were the very heaven for clearness (Exod. 24:10) and it is written: The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone [אֶבֶן-סַפִּיר] (Ezek 1:26).
— Sotah 17a (also: Menachot 43b and Chullin 89a)

Kedushat Levi links the above passage about blue, תכלת, to the stages of a creative act, beginning and ending with its purpose [תכלית]:

[A project from thought to completion] has undergone four distinct stages. 1) original mental image of the project; 2) clarification of the details, etc. 3) translating thought into deed. 4) carrying out the intention which originally prompted the project. [Punctuation follows translation.] When the original mental image of the project is seen reflected after its successful completion, the person inhabiting this building will experience a sense of satisfaction and joy.
— Kedushat Levi, p. 475 (see Source Materials for full citation)

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Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer

Wrapping

The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:

  • God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
  • Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
  • Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).

The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
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Shelach: Something to Notice

Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-41 is found in most prayerbooks at the third paragraph of Torah study after the Shema:

…Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments through the ages; let them attach a chord of blue to the fringe at each corner….”

It is interesting to note that Mishkan T’filah [tent/sanctuary of prayer], the Reform movement’s new (2007) siddur, restores this passage, with the following explanation:

This text was omitted from many Reform prayer books when it was not customary for Reform Jews to don tallitot [prayer shawls, with fringes on the corners] for prayer. Now that many Reform Jews find meaning in this custom, Mishkan T’filah has restored the full paragraph as an optional recitation.

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