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The Tzitzit - a Mystical Understanding
By Yechezkel Gold
The Torah says that we must make for ourselves fringes (tzitzit) on the
corners of our garments (Numbers 15).The Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, explains that a
man wearing a garment with four or more corners must tie the tzitzit on
the four most distant corners of the garment.
A corner is the meeting point of two edges of the garment, each edge
running in a different direction from the one it meets. That is, a
corner is a point where two edges no longer can continue on their own
separate paths, but rather each limits the other, thereby forming a
corner, an area which comes to a point. Like an edge, a corner is an
interface of the material and the area of non-material, but unlike the
edge which forms a line, a corner is an area which comes to a point.
While checking the fringes before donning the tallit, we say: "Bless the
Lord, O my soul! O Lord, my God, You are very great; You have clothed
Yourself with majesty and glory. You cover with light like a garment,
stretch out the heavens like a hanging." The garment of the tallit,
then, is compared to a garment of light, and the tzitzit are compared to
the heavens stretching and hanging downward.
The Talmud informs us that there are two worlds, the
spiritual and the physical. For most of us, the physical world is
reality and the spiritual world is ethereal and theoretical. For the
mystic, though, spirituality is not only real, but it is true realism.
Also, the notion of creation implies that this true reality existed
before creation and is eternal, and creation of physicality lead to a
derivative, new reality, by a process extending eternal reality to
include also physical existence.
Thus, from a mystical perspective, the cloth of the tallit, the prayer shawl represents
true reality; therefore it is substantial. Physical reality is less
real, so it is represented by the area of non-cloth., by a void. From
the perspective of the tallit, the created reality would be non-reality
and nonexistence except for the tzitzit that stretch forth from real
reality, extending reality also to the created realms.
The notion of an intrinsic, spiritual reality which existed before
creation, the Infinite Light, the realm of sephiros, (the Holy Emanations of the Infinite Light), and the souls of the
righteous, all emanating from the Holy King, raises the question how
this reality can have permitted extension to non-intrinsic creation.
True, in the infinite potential which is part our understanding of the
Ayn Sof, the Infinite, is also the possibility of created reality. However, that
created reality does not reflect its source and therefore will not be
emanated spontaneously into existence.
That is, intrinsic reality reflects its source in the sense expressed in
recounting of creation in Genesis. After God emanated the light, the
verse continues: "And it was evening, and it was morning, one day." The
first day was not creation, strictly, in this sense, but rather
emanation of light, where light reveals its source but adds nothing new.
Therefore, it is called "one day", as Rashi, the major source of Biblical explanations, explains: "According to the
order of expression used in this chapter, it should have said 'first
day' as it is written for the other days: second, third, fourth. Why did
it write 'one'? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, was alone in His
world, for the angels were only created on the second day."
Thus, beginning creation proper on the second day, (it at least seemed
that) the Holy One, blessed be He, was not alone in His world. This was
the creation of a new, non-intrinsic reality in which other beings
came into existence, but on the first day, the light emanated
revealed that God alone exists. That light and realm are intrinsic. They
reflect reality before something new is created. The verse refers to this level as as "You cover with light like a garment."
That is, in the infinite potential of the Ayn Sof, there is the
possibility of emanating what exists intrinsically in any case, and
there is also the possibility of creating a new and different reality.
We understand that these represent two distinctly different types of
potential. On the level of potential, intrinsic reality exists already
potentially, ready to be emanated, whereas created reality is in the
realm of nonexistence until it is introduced ex nihilo.
The potential for intrinsic reality is represented by the tallit, and
the potential for created reality by the empty space around the tallit.
Moreover, the edge of the tallit separates them. That is, it is not in
the nature of intrinsic, Godly reality to extend to created reality, nor
is it in the nature of the created reality to attain the Godly. This is
analogous to the division of the waters into upper and lower realms of
the second day of creation.
The essence of mystical Judaism is that, although they should be connected,
nevertheless, the intrinsic and
created realms are connected. The question is how could this be
possible? How could a new, separate and created reality issue from the
intrinsic reality which simply reflects the Only One?
The letters of God's name provide the answer. Besides constituting a
unity, as the verse states: "The Lord is One", each letter has its own
The yud reflects intrinsic, eternal reality most purely. Analogous to
what was described earlier, it does not extend down to the line, to the
created reality of this world, but is separate from it, hovering above.
The hai at the beginning of a word means "the". Whereas without
"the", a noun is indefinite, the word "the" renders it definite and
denoted. The hai makes the separateness and ungraspable character,
itself, of the yud definite, and thereby, somewhat closer to the line,
to created reality. Nevertheless, it represents the resolution of pure
spirituality, and does not really extend to created being.
The vov means "and". It adds something to what was previously there.
It is the true source of created reality in the Ayn Sof, denoting that
the intrinsic reality of yud and hai can not contain the Infinite Light,
which extends outward to create a new, non-intrinsic reality, too. Thus,
unlike the yud, it extends down to the line, extending its souce in
intrinsic reality even to created reality.
Like the first hai, the second one renders the previous letter
definite. Thus, just as the first hai represents the King, the yud,
being on His throne, in the court and presence of His spiritual
subjects, so the second hai represents the actual creation of a new
reality through the extension of the Ayn Sof toward creation,
represented by the vov.
That is, the vov links the intrinsic and created realities. How is it
possible to connect a reality whose very nature is to be intrinsic and
therefore separate, immutable and spiritual to a realm whose character
is definite, new, and tends toward physicality and thus to transience?
The tallit provides us with the answer. The tallit represents a reality
whose very nature is to be intrinsic and therefore separate, eternal,
immutable and spiritual, and the edges represent the separateness of
that reality. From that perspective, no new, created realm could ever
exist. Moreover, it would seem impossible for two edges to come
together, let alone to limit each other. After all, each edge is
separate, eternal, immutable and spiritual in character. If,
nevertheless, they do come together and do limit each other, it
represents a domain well above and not contained by the intrinsic,
eternal and immutable reality. This is the origin of the vov: the
dimension of the Ayn Sof so infinite that it is not even contained by
the intrinsic and eternal.
A corner of the tallit, then, represents the place or dimension of the
infinite potential which is transcendent, which is not contained by the
intrinsic and eternal, and extends even to what is new and created.
The corner of the tallit also represents orientation within the
intrinsic realm toward the new reality beyond, toward creation. The
(self-) limitation represented by the corner is a point, because in
order to extend outside itself, outside the "one day", to the finite and
created, it must begin with a definite point. For example, in order to
say something (creation was with God's speech) one must first know
specifically what one wants, which is a single point. Afterwards the
multiple details of what means to employ to get it, including speech,
and then choice of words, can develop.
It is curious that in order to extend beyond its intrinsic limits to the
"outside", the Ayn Sof limits and turns away from itself. The expansion
is achieved through contraction. As stated above, this limitation
represents a level still higher than the reflection of the infinite in
intrinsic reality. It is the origin of the "and", of the vov.
The actual extension of reality to the new and created goes over the
point of the corner of the tallit, but it is not the tallit (intrinsic
realm) itself. Rather, the extension is by the fringe, the tzitzit.
Thus, the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah, of the commandment, is
through the fringe, which represents the actualization and complete
expression of the vov. The mitzvahs are even higher than the eternal
intrinsic realm, adding a still higher level to the intrinsic realm by
extending the Ayn Sof beyond it.
Indeed, in Jewish mysticism the mitzvah of tzitzit is particularly
connected to the letter vov. Thus the mystical book , the Tanya, states that he who omits tzitzit blemishes the letter vov of His name.
Although the tzitzit represent turning away from intrinsic spirituality
toward the created world, they connect the two realms too. Connecting
the two disparate realms is achieved by a balance which includes and
accounts for each. This is represented by the corners of the tallit,
which are a place which unite the tallit representing the eternal realm,
and the non tallit, representing the created realm. The verse refers to this level as "stretch out the heavens like hanging."
This is further represented in the form of the tzitzit, which are
strings tied and wrapped around each other for the first third of their
length, then separate loose strings hanging down freely for the
remaining two thirds. In the teachings of the saintly Ari za"l, the famous mystic, the
first third represents the inner dimension. That is, the mystical realm
is reflected in the knots and wraps of the first third of the length of
the tzitzit, denoting the mystical meanings of the mitzvahs. There, the
strings are attached to the tallit and intertwined, yet they extend
downward: the separate elements of the new created reality are
interwoven with the intrinsic, eternal realm. Departing from that level
for the remaining two thirds of the tzitzit, the separate elements of
reality evolve independently, each achieving its own separate connection
to the new, created realm.
By knowing and thinking about the significance of the mitzvah of tzitzit
while performing the mitzvah, one is doing just what the tzitzit are
supposed to do: to connect the inner, intrinsic, eternal realm to the
In the passage about tzitzit, the Torah states: "In order that you remember,
and perform all of the commandments". From this the Rabbis derive that
the commandment of tzitzit has the weight of all the other mitzvahs
combined. That is, it has a general significance of which each other
mitzvah partakes. Figuratively, each mitzvah is a fringe hanging at a
corner of the tallit - of the eternal, intrinsic reality. The ideas
behind tzitzit, linking eternity to the new creation through a series of
spiritual levels and steps each of which are rooted in the intrinsic
reality of "one day", a realm where only God exists, and simultaneously
are oriented toward the physical creation, function in each mitzvah:
they all serve to connect us to God.
Yechezkel Gold is a psychotherapist who lives with his family in Jerusalem
from the March 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine