“You shall put fringes on the corners of your garments” -Numbers 15:37
My first time I can remember being in Israel was for my brother’s bar mitzvah when I was 9. At the Western Wall, he read from the Torah for the first time, and afterwards we had a small brunch at a small restaurant somewhere in the Old City with the few family and friends who were able to be in Israel with us. The two things I remember most clearly about that day are the black velvet dress I wore and the long, spiral staircase in the restaurant. The rest of the week we spent touring all over Israel, and those days, I do remember. I remember the day we went to the Biblical Zoo, and the day we climbed Masada. And I remember the day we went to buy my brother a new tallit, the four-cornered garment with white strings (tzizit) tied to each corner worn by religious men.
It was then that I first saw tchelet, the specific blue dye used on some tzitzit. All over the store were tzizit with a light blue string hanging from the corners. Never before had I seen tzizit that weren’t white, and this new color fascinated me. After that, I began seeing it more, or maybe just paying more attention. The light blue color of the tchelet comes from a certain type of snail. Even today, the rabbis aren’t sure that they have found the correct snail, and so many people wear their tzizit without the blue string. The color, though, is supposed to remind the wearer of the sky, and when looking at the sky, he or she is supposed to be reminded of God and all of God’s commandments.
Walking through the streets of New York City, you easily can find a good number of Jews – especially young men – dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, like many others, but with strings hanging out over their pants. It is their way of saying, “I’m different. I may look like everyone else, but I’m not like them. I’m Jewish, and I have these strings on my shirt because I am bound to God and the commandments.”
In a way, tzizit are like Israel. We have created a country for ourselves, and by establishing it as a Jewish country, we are saying that we, as a nation, are different.
Not very long ago, being Jewish was sometimes seen as something about which to be ashamed. During the Holocaust, Jews were persecuted because of their Jewish identity, and wearing the quintessential Jewish symbol – a golden star – was considered a punishment, not a privilege. Suddenly, not so many years later, wearing a Jewish symbol has become a fad. Young men are proud to have their tzizit hanging from beneath their shirts. They are a symbol of the new age, not one of persecution, but of pride in our religion. Not only are we lucky enough to have our own country, but even in the Diaspora, we are not persecuted. The tzizit are an outward symbol of Judaism and belief in God.
It is only appropriate, then, that when creating the Israeli national flag, tzizit were incorporated. The color from the tchelet serves as the color of the two stripes and the Star of David, the symbols on the flag, which represents Jewish pride. Tzizit, likewise, have become such a symbol of Jewish pride and protection that a number of organizations exist solely to deliver tzizit to Israeli soldiers.
Some people, of course, emphasize one and not the other. Although tzizit have a religious spin, and many religious Jews wear them, these same individuals, for various reasons, do not identify with the modern Jewish state. And the opposite also is true: Many secular Jews are incredibly Zionistic, but tzizit, being a religious symbol, are not found beneath their shirts.
Tallitot with tzizit are traditionally worn only by males, though many Reform and Conservative women wear them. I never have done so, but I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have that constant reminder of God and the commandments hanging out from underneath my shirt. Would it be overwhelming or inspiring? Even if I choose not to wear a tallit, I do have the Israeli flag, though, as a constant reminder of my Jewish individuality, strength, and pride.