Torah from Around the World #330

Recent Issues


Rabbi Fred Morgan


Temple Beth Israel

, Melbourne, Australia

Sometimes it’s valuable to remember where we came from and how far we’ve travelled.  When I was a child, the synagogue I grew up in was what we today call classical Reform. Head coverings were no-where to be seen, and the only people in the congregation who wore a tallit were the rabbi and the bar-mitzvah boys (only the boys!) when they were up on the bimah. The tallit was a thin scarf draped around the neck, not the large shawl folded over the shoulders that many of us don today. This large shawl enables us to wear and display a fringe – the tzitzit – prominently on each corner of our garment. Such a conspicuous expression of Jewish ritual practice would have been out of place in Reform synagogues in the decades immediately following the Second World War; but, with the rise of ethnic awareness and “the dignity of difference” (to use Jonathan Sacks’ felicitous phrase), it is now possible, and even desirable, to declare with the tallit that we are Jews and proud of it.

For some of us, the tallit is a significant fashion statement. We take great care in matching its colours to our shoes or our skin-tone, or in choosing a design that somehow captures our personal narrative. For others, it is a sign of our identification with Israel, our alignment with a particular group such as the Women of the Wall who have produced their own beautiful tallitot, or our association with a particular denomination of the Jewish people. There are powerful sociological and political meanings associated with it. This has long been noticed with the kippah, but it is true of the tallit as well: black stripes, blue stripes, rainbow colours, painted silk, hand-woven wool, weighty silver


(neck-bands) or


inscribed with the blessing for enveloping oneself in the tallit, in recent years whether a blue thread is knotted into the tzitzit or not; each choice makes a statement about who we are.

There is more to the kippah, the tallit and other Jewish ritual paraphernalia than fashion, ideology or social identification, however. These religiously motivated items of clothing are richly endowed with symbolic meaning. The meaning of the tallit is spelled out in the Torah portion

Shelach Lekha

. The concluding section of the portion, Numbers 15:37-41, instructs us in the mitzvah of the tzitzit.

The passage seems to stand alone in the text, disconnected from what came before. In it God calls upon Moses to instruct the people regarding the tzitzit. The fringes shall include a cord of blue. By looking at the fringe, the people shall remember God’s mitzvot so they do not simply follow the desires of their hearts and eyes without being mindful of their overarching goal. The goal is to live a life of holiness, and through holiness to acknowledge the sovereignty of God who brought the people out of Egypt.

Traditionally this passage comprised the third paragraph of the Shema. The reason for its inclusion in the Shema seems to be threefold: to underscore the importance of adapting even external features of our lives like the clothing we wear to godly ends; to deter us from wandering aimlessly in our religious life, simply going where our desires might take us; and to use it as an aide memoire to bring us to a life of service to God through the pursuit of holiness. During the century when congregations of Reform Jews were not wearing the tallit there was no point in reciting this passage within the Shema, so it disappeared from our siddurim. Only the final verses, which could (with some violence to the Torah text) be construed independently from the mitzvah to wear tzitzit, were retained.  Now that the tallit has returned to our wardrobes, the Reform siddur

Mishkan T’filah

has restored the third paragraph of the Shema in its entirety to the liturgy. Nevertheless, because it requires a deliberate and, for some, difficult, change in our liturgical habits to incorporate the additional verses, it has not become universal practice to include the verses referring to tzitzit and tallit in our worship across the progressive world.

But the question remains: Why is this paragraph located here, at the conclusion of Shelach Lekha? Is it as random as it seems? The answer is found in the use of the Hebrew word


, “follow”, in the verse, “Do not follow your hearts and eyes in pursuit of whatever you desire.” As the great medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) points out, the same verb is used a couple of chapters earlier, when the spies are sent to “scout out” (


) the land. The story of the spies and their failure to act with courage and determination in the face of their self-doubts is at the heart of

Shelach Lekha

. Of the twelve men who are sent to tour the land, only Joshua and Caleb resist the fears of the unknown. The ten men who lose their way infect the people with their fear. The result is that the generation who came out of Egyptian slavery must die off in the wilderness before a new generation, freed from the spiritual anxieties and misdirection of their parents, can resume the journey into the land that God has promised them.

The failure of the spies is a failure of the human spirit. It is a challenge to all of us, wherever and whenever we live. We are called upon to be vigilant in the manner in which we “scout out” life. By donning the tallit with its tzitzit, we drape ourselves in the clothing of the spiritual traveller. It is true that life is an adventure, but it is also a journey towards an end goal. The religious understanding is that life has a design and a direction to it, and the tallit can help us to focus on where we’re going and how we wish to get there. We are mindful of the need to show courage and determination in the face of the many distractions that may lead us off the path of holiness. By reading this paragraph as part of the Shema, we consciously and deliberately link the clothing we are wearing to its symbolic meaning. As long as the earlier Reform siddurim did not include the reference to the tzitzit in the liturgy, this symbolic meaning was not readily available to us. Having restored these few verses,

Mishkan T’filah

has given us another opportunity to enrich our spiritual life.

And if, at the same time, we can use the tallit to make a fashion statement, to express our concerns about the world or to intensify our Jewish identity, then why not?

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