The Evolving Role of the Tallit

Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

When I was speaking with a 95-year-old congregant this week, she shared with me the uncomfortable feeling of having her synagogue change around her. “It feels like we have lost our way,” she said. “We used to be properly Reform. Now, when I come, I see people wearing a tallit. It makes me feel like the temple is trying to be Conservative or Orthodox. I feel like I don’t belong.”

I have great respect for this woman, who made a conscious choice in her youth to join a Reform synagogue for its progressiveness and its inclusivity. In her perception, it was a place where everyone was equal, united in a modern approach. For her, seeing fellow congregants wearing a tallit feels like a betrayal of the Reform principles she holds dear. “Why on earth are they doing this?” she asks. “And what do they think of me, when I don’t?”

The commandment to wear tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of the tallit, comes from this parashah. The context gives us insight into the origins of the practice, and what it might — and might not — mean to us today.

Sh’lach L’cha opens with God telling Moses to send 12 scouts to report on the Promised Land. All 12 come back describing its goodness; but 10 share their conviction that the Land “eats its inhabitants,” and moreover, is settled by giants whom the Israelites can not hope to conquer (Numbers 13:32-33). The Israelites believe them, and as a result, God condemns an entire generation to die in the wilderness.

Two words jump out from these opening chapters: latur, “to scout out,” and zenut, often translated as “faithlessness,” but really meaning “whoredom” (Numbers 13:16-17ff; 14:33). The 12 men are sent to scout out the Land: their negative reports, along with the Israelites’ agreement are seen as a betrayal of the most intimate kind.

These two words recur at the end of the parashah, in the passage concerning the tzitzit:

The Eternal One said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe: look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow [lo taturu] your heart and eyes to whore after them [zonim achareihem]. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Eternal your God. (Numbers 15:37-41)

This passage is included after the Shema in traditional prayer books. Most Reform prayer books eliminated it, with the notable exception of Mishkan T’fillah, which includes it as an option. It is understandable that it would have been removed in an era in which Reform Jews did not wear such ritual garb, seeing it, in the words of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, as something that was “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

So why the change? We do not, for the most part, wear tzitzit out of a strict sense of commandedness. After all, as the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow notes, “why should the creator of the universe care whether we put a ‘tassel on the corner of our clothes in every generation’ and what possible difference can it make…?” (Lawrence Hoffman, ed., My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 1 [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1997], p.115). And yet we see shifts in behavior. I doubt there are Reform synagogues in which everyone wears a tallit, but in most, many do. There are numerous sociological and historical reasons, including a renewed openness to Jewish peoplehood and particularistic practice, which developed after the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. Ultimately, though, I think the answer is that for many Reform Jews, wearing a tallit has once again become a source of spiritual meaning.

True to Reform theology and unlike a more Orthodox approach, wearing the tallit is equally open to women and men, and is never something we would make mandatory. Rather, we hold to individual choice, whereby individuals do not judge others for the ritual decisions they make. (From that perspective, the stoning of the man who gathers wood on the Sabbath, which comes immediately before the passage on tzitzit, is much more challenging!). The question remains: What is the meaning that can potentially be found in this choice?

First and foremost, tzitzit are tangible. We need not go as far as the midrashic story of the yeshivah student whose tzitzit take on a life of their own to keep him from consummating his visit to a prostitute (Babylonian Talmud, M’nachot 44a) to appreciate that physical reminders can help guide our actions. Like the proverbial string around one’s finger, tzitzit serve as a counterbalance to the forces of distraction or forgetting. The Torah portion begins with the scouts being led off course by what their eyes see and what their hearts fear. The commandment of tzitzit, at the end of the parashah, gives a strategy for avoiding such mistakes.

You or I may rarely be faced with a challenge like that of the scouts. But there is something universally human about the risk of going off course. As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer writes, “Human love and desire energize and inspire us. Conversely, though, they can completely knock us off track and make us do really stupid, if not hurtful, things” (Lisa Grushcow, ed., The Sacred Encounter [NY: CCAR Press, 2014], p.735). 

That, perhaps, may be what the tztitzit help us to avoid. But what might they help us to achieve? One answer might lie in a little-noticed word. We translate kanfei big’deihem as “the corners of their garments.” Kanaf more commonly means “wing,” and often refers metaphorically to the wings of the Divine Presence, kanfei haShechinah. On an individual level, the experience of wearing a tallit can be like being wrapped in something holy, creating a sacred space for prayer. And on the communal level? Perhaps the tallit can be seen as Judaism’s big tent. Whether or not you wear one, there is room enough for us all.

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis. 

A Practice That Helps Us Find the Right Path

Daver Acher By: do not use Rabbi Jill L. Maderer

Whoredom. Our text chooses an intense and potentially problematic symbol to illustrate deviation from the right path!

Leaving for a different study the troubling aspect of the gender and power issues around the concept of whoredom, I am interested in the way Rabbi Grushcow links two very different situations in the portion that use the term (zenut, "whoredom"). The first circumstance — scouting the Land — is a rare event. Whereas the second circumstance — the ritual of the fringes that remind us to observe the mitzvot — is an everyday occurrence.

To help us confront both those dramatic life experiences, and also those mundane life experiences, that could knock us off course, Judaism offers the practice of Musar, our tradition’s way to help us keep on course. More than one thousand years old, Musar is a Jewish practice, in which we engage in meditation and journaling to help us pay attention to the character virtues we need to develop. The Mussar Institute leader, Alan Morinis, teaches: Musar aims to help us close the gap between our ideals and the life we actually lead.

So often, we know which behaviors we are trying to avoid and which behaviors we are trying to pursue. But we need reminders along the way. The 18th century Musar teacher Rabbi Moses Chayim Luzzato cautions us not to overlook everyday character traits, such as generosity, patience, humility, compassion, trust, and truth. Sure, they seem obvious, he concedes, you already know them! Rabbi Luzzato says: I’m not teaching you anything new. I’m just directing your attention to it (paraphrase of Ira F. Stone, Mesillat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright [Philadelphia: JPS, 2010], p. 1).

We all have habits that are at risk of becoming hindrances to our spiritual growth and afflictions in our relationships. When we look at the fringes of tzitzit and when we engage in other Jewish ritual and mindfulness practices, may we come closer to the our best versions of ourselves.

Rabbi Jill L. Maderer is senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, PA.

Reference Materials

Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,107−1,122; Revised Edition, pp. 977−997
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 869–892
Haftarah, Joshua 2:1−24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,262−1,264; Revised Edition, pp. 998−1,000

Originally published: