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A Deeper Look by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Z"L

Copyright Kaplan, A. 1984. Tzitzith, A THREAD OF LIGHT.
New York: National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY),
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Quoted with permission from the publisher.
One of the most obvious points about Tzitzis is the fact that they involve a commandment directly related to clothing. They are not a Mitzvah in their own right as are Tefillin, but one that pertains to the garments we wear. If we are to understand fully the meaning of Tzitzis, we must first explore the significance that clothing plays in human society.

Of all living creatures, man is unique in the fact that he covers his body with clothing. Homo Sapiens is the only species the wears clothing. The reason for this has been the subject of study for philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and ethnologies for many years, and they have come up with some interesting theories. Even more fascinating is the fact that their conclusions often agree with those taught by our great religious sages.

The most obvious reason for wearing clothing might appear to be to provide protection from the elements. However, when anthropologists studied primitive tribes in even the warmest climates, they found that people still wore clothing as a matter of course. The human practice of wearing clothing seems to be universal, even where there is no need for protection from the elements.

What was discovered was that people covered their sexual organs in virtually every human society. Let us now see how this agrees with the Torah view. One of the most intriguing stories in the Torah is that of Adam's sin. We all know the story: How the serpent tempted Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (Etz HaDaath), and, as a result, both Adam and Eve were cursed and driven out of the Garden of Eden. Taken superficially, this is an intriguing story; but on a deeper level, it provides us with a profound insight into human psychology. The existence of a walking, talking serpent might seem difficult to understand, but our sages teach us that it was the very incarnation of evil. In order for man to have free will, at least the possibility of evil had to exist. Before Adam sinned, evil was not part of man, but something external. It was therefore represented by the serpent, an entity external to man. It was only after man sinned that evil became an integral part of his being. From then on, man's battle with evil became as much a battle with himself as one against an external force.

Before Adam sinned, the Torah says of him, "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed" (Genesis 2.25). Our sages comment that they were not ashamed because they had no sexual desire. Sex was as natural a body function as eating and drinking. It was something completely under man's control. Sexual pleasure may have been something that they could enjoy, but it was not the overwhelming passion that it is today, where it drives people to foolish and even destructive acts. Sex, like the serpent, was something external to man. Man could enjoy it when he wanted to, but he was not driven by it.

Since sexual desire was not an integral part of man's nature, there was no shame in exposing the sexual organs. They were no different than his eyes, ears, hands or feet. They were not something that could arouse another individual, or in any way make one feel like a sex object. Indeed, so innocent and natural was the sexual act, that Adam and Eve did not even feel compelled to perform it in private.

The external incarnation that led them to sin was represented be the serpent. It is a well-known fact that in almost every culture the serpent represents some sort of phallic symbol. To a large degree then, the serpent represents sexual temptation. Our sages teach us that the main temptation the serpent used to lure Eve was that of sex. As soon as man sinned, he began to have an Evil Urge or Yetzer HaRa. Evil was no longer something outside of himself, but an integral part of his being. It was now a force that man could overcome only with the greatest difficulty.

Our sages teach us that, "The Evil Urge exists mainly in the area of sex." Very often, it is sexual temptation that leads a person away from religion and godliness in other areas. It is often the strongest barrier standing in the way of an individual's spiritual perfection.

On the other hand, the individual who can completely control his sexual desires is counted as one who can control all his emotions. Here again, our sages teach us that a person is only called a Tzadik or saint when he can control his sexual passions. The main path to holiness is through self-mastery, and the most difficult area for such mastery is sex. To achieve such self-mastery takes great internal strength, to which our sages allude when they say, "Who is strong? He who overcomes his passions."

As soon as man sinned, his sexuality was aroused. Immediately after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of Knowledge, the Torah tells us, "The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths" (Gernesis 3:7). The major commentators explain that now their sexual desires were aroused, they were ashamed to stand naked. They had begun to view others as sex objects, and were themselves ashamed to be seen in that light.

It is interesting to note how closely the opinions of social scientists parallel the Torah. Where science seeks with an unprejudiced eye, it is merely another way of approaching truth. In this particular area, honest investigation had discovered a truth revealed in the Torah thousands of years ago. Even more interesting is the fact that some of these concepts are indicated by the very etymology of the Hebrew language. Hebrew is called the "Holy Tongue" (Lashon HaKodesh), and as such, even its grammatical and etymological rules teach us important lessons. In the area under discussion, we see an important case in point. First of all, The Hebrew word for "garment" is Le-bhush. This comes from the word Bush, which means "to be ashamed." The very structure of the Hebrew language indicates that clothing is worn because of shame.

Another Hebrew word for garment is BeGed. This has the same root as the word BaGad, meaning "to rebel." This indicates that man wears clothing because he originally rebelled against G-d. Before man sinned and rebelled, he was perfectly content and unashamed of being nude.

G-d also understood that in his fallen state man had a need for clothing. The Torah states that before ejecting man from the Garden of Eden, "G-d made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them" (Genesis 3:21).

From all this, we see that the main function of human clothing is to act as barrier against sexual desires. As such, it is particularly related to the sense of sight. The purpose of clothing is to cover the body in order that it not be visible as a source of sexual arousal. We can now understand the purpose of Tzitzis. Here again, we can actually see this in the etymological structure of the word. The word Tzitzis has the same root as the word Tzutz, meaning "to look." Tzitzis are therefore something to look at. The torah says of the Tzitzis, "You shall see them, and not stray after your heart and after your eyes, which have led you to immorality." The Talmud explains that the injunction not to stray "after your eyes" refers to visual sexual stimulation. Clothing in general acts as a natural barrier to such arousal, and the Tzitzis serve to reinforce this barrier.

None of this, however, is meant to imply that sex is something dirty of evil. To the contrary, Judaism looks upon sex as something beautiful and pleasurable. The Torah views sexual relations between husband and wife as something normal, desirable, and the one act that does the most to strengthen the bond of love between them. But at the same time, the Torah realizes that when misused, sex can be a most destructive and debilitating force. Historians tell us of entire civilizations that have fallen as a result of sexual corruption, and here again, this view is reflected in our Torah's teachings. The type of sex that the Torah proscribes is that which is irresponsible, exploitative and destructive. The commandment of Tzitzis was given as a safeguard against such activity.

» Torah Insights, Shabbat Shlach by Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Copyright Kaplan, A. 1984. Tzitzith, A THREAD OF LIGHT.
New York: National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY),
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Quoted with permission from the publisher.