The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Understanding the Practice and Meaning of Halakha
Shiur #17: Signs
by Rav Ezra Bick
"... And you shall tie them (the commandments) as a sign on
your hands, and a frontlet between your eyes, and you shall write them on the
posts of your houses and your gates" (Deut. 6,8).
"And you shall see it (the tzitzit, fringes attached to a
garment), and you shall remember all the commandments of God, and you shall
fulfill them" (Num. 15,30).
The first verse describes the mitzva of tefillin (the two
tefillin boxes, one on the arm and one on the head) and the mitzva of mezuza
(attached to the doorpost), while the second describes the mitzva of tzitzit.
While the second does not explicitly define tzitzit as a "sign," it does say
that tzitzit function by being seen and engendering memory - which I think is
the proper function of a sign - to be seen and signify something for the
There are other mitzvot which might be described as signs, but
I think we should concentrate on these, at least at first, and try to understand
both the purpose of "signs," and the particular nature of these.
Let us begin with tefillin. In our minds, these small black
boxes are identified solely with prayer, but this is a misconception. Nowhere in
the Torah or in the Talmud is a connection made between tefillin and prayer. The
Torah simply says that one should wear them, and the simple understanding would
be that they are obligatory all day long. In this case, popular usage,
restricting them to times of prayer (and, in fact, to the morning prayer only),
has contributed to a subtle change in the way that we view them and their role
in our lives that I believe is misleading. But first, let us understand how this
restriction took place.
Tefillin contain four sections from the Torah, written on
scrolls according to the laws governing the writing of Torah scrolls themselves.
In fact, examination of the verse quoted at the start of today's shiur shows
that no explicit mention is made in the Torah of boxes at all - the verse says
one should tie the "words" to one's arm. Because tefillin are essentially
"words," Torah, the word of God, they are sacred objects. Ultimately, all sacred
objects acquire their holy status from their relationship with the word, the
divine communication. Now, a visit to any synagogue demonstrates how one is
meant to relate to a sacred object. The proper description in English is
VENERATION. A Torah scroll is kept in a special container, protected and
adorned, in the front of the synagogue. When it is taken out, everyone stands.
The sanctity of tefillin is basically of the same sort. This means that tefillin
too must be treated with reverence. What is more, because they are worn, there
are special requirements concerning cleanliness of the body. There is even an
opinion that one must "pay attention" - keep the tefillin in mind, as long as
they are worn. For this reason, given the nature of daily life and mundane
activities, it is customary not to wear tefillin except at a time when one's
mind is naturally on sanctity, devoted to the service of God, so as to avoid the
possibility of inadvertently transgressing the obligation to treat the tefillin
So, in conclusion, we see that, in principle, tefillin has
nothing to do with prayer or any specifically "religious" activity. One is
supposed to be all day dressed in tefillin, enveloped, as it were, in sanctity,
wearing a sign of devotion to the word of God. The result is - and this is true
even for us who wear tefillin only an hour a day - that tefillin is not so much
a mitzva to DO something, as to be in a state of wearing tefillin while doing
This is even clearer concerning the mitzva of mezuza. A Jewish
house should have mezuzot - like tefillin, basically a section from the Torah
written on parchment, according to the special rules of writing holy texts - on
the right doorpost of every passageway, both in and out of the house. The mitzva
is to have a house in such a state, not to nail up mezuzot. That is why if one
moves into a house that already has mezuzot, no further action is necessary. One
does not DO anything actively - mezuza is the way a Jewish household looks. In
the same way, tefillin is not a mitzva to DO anything actively; tefillin is part
of the way a Jewish individual (male, in this case) looks.
To this we may add the mitzva of tzitzit. "Speak unto the Jews
and say to them, that they should make fringes (tzitzit) for themselves on the
edge of their garments, for (all) their generations." Here too the mitzva is not
actually to MAKE tzitzit, but to have them on the edges of our clothes.
Halakhically, only four-cornered garments are obligated in tzitzit. The "talit"
("talis") is not in original Hebrew the name of a "prayer-shawl." The word means
simply "garment," and was the normal outer clothing (sort of like a toga). Since
in modern times, we do not have a regular article of clothing which is
four-cornered, a special "talit" has become a ritual object, in order that we
still fulfill this mitzva. The medieval Spanish commentator, R. David Abudraham,
claims that the command of the Torah to make tzitzit "FOR ALL YOUR GENERATIONS"
refers to a time when in fact there will not be a normal four-cornered garment.
The Torah, looking ahead, is telling us to make a special effort to wear such a
garment, in order that there always be tzitzit on our clothes.
Once again, Jewish custom has created a special connection
between prayer and this mitzva where none existed originally. The "large talit"
is especially worn during morning prayer. But in this case, despite the modern
"artificiality" of wearing a four-cornered garment, Jewish life refused to
restrict this mitzva only to an hour a day, and therefore invented the "small
talit," which is usually worn under one's shirt all day long.
And so, divorcing ourselves from the association with ritual
prayers, and adding mezuza to the list, we have three mitzvot that describe how
Jews look - how they dress - talit and tefillin - and how their settlement
(houses) look - mezuza. These are the signs - not things we do, but things that
are part of the background, the "scene" so to speak, of Jewish existence.
(To this list we may add one more passive mitzva which is more
or less a sign, though a private one - circumcision. Here it is how a Jew looks,
and not merely in his attire. I assume that most of you have noticed that for
three out of these four signs women are exempt - only mezuza is all-gender.
Specifically, signs that pertain to the person of the Jew are incumbent only on
males, whereas the sign that pertains to the social collective of the Jews -
their homes and settlements, including the gates of their cities, apply to women
as well. I believe that this distinction is more important for understanding the
gender distinction in mitzvot than the usual search for a time-related factor -
but I shall leave this topic for a different day. For now, I wish to address the
general topic of signs without getting embroiled in gender differentiation, and
it is sufficient to note that in general there are signs for Jews.)
Passive mitzvot, relating to what we are rather than what we
do, are at once more subtle and more powerful than specific acts. Precisely
because they do not require one to directly concentrate on performing them, they
carry the potential to define "who we are" in a sense that "what we do" does
not. In an assimilated society, even a pluralistic one, this poses a special
difficulty. It is not that hard for a Jew to declare, even publicly, that he has
to go now and perform a mitzva. It is no longer that surprising to find law
offices or even State Department meetings with a break for the mincha prayer.
But wearing one's tzitzit out would be a definite statement of not-belonging, a
declaration of outsiderness, of alienation, because it says not that I do
strange things, but that I myself am strange and different. And indeed, although
the Torah clearly indicates that tzitzit should be SEEN, Jews normally
discreetly tuck them in, and not only because they fear an anti-semitic
reaction. It just seems to be flaunting one's Jewishness too much to be dressed
like a stranger. Imagine what it would be like to walk around in America with
tefillin on one's head. And yet, the Sages declare that the verse, "And all the
peoples of the land shall see that the name of God is called on you, and they
shall fear you" (Deut. 28,10), is referring to the head-tefillin.
(Tefillin can cause trepidation in more ways than one. Many
years ago, after a spate of airjackings, I was flying from Bangor, Maine back to
New York. Bangor happens to be an international airport, and naturally there
were strict precautions to prevent bringing explosives onto the plane. When the
security guard got to my tefillin, I could see right away that there was going
to be a problem. Turning them over and over, he demanded to know what they were.
My learned explanation, citing chapter and verse, failed to assuage his
suspicions and he insisted on cutting them open, something which I was not about
to allow. Suffice it to say that I was the last to board, with my tefillin
There are in fact a number of times other than prayer when it
is customary to wear the large talit over one's clothes. One is at a
circumcision. I would like to think that it is actually the child who should be
wearing "Jewish clothes," and the father, mohel, the one who holds the child,
and he who recites the blessing are merely filling in. A Jew enters the fold
(the blessing at circumcision is "... to bring him into the covenant of
Abraham"); we dress especially like a Jew. Another time comes a bit later -
Jewish men are taken to be buried in a talit. It seems that there are three
times when we are not willing to be disguised - at the beginning, when standing
before God, and at the end (when standing before God). That is why there were
many instances during the holocaust of men putting on their talit before
marching to their deaths. There is also a famous story, which I am not sure if
it is legend or history, about the siege of Nemirov in 1648. The Cossack revolt
in Poland swept from city to city. The city of Nemirov was an ancient walled
fortress which was put to the siege, the Poles and the Jews sharing in its
defense. In desperation, the Jews one day decided to sally forth and attack.
Fully expecting to die, they dressed themselves in the talit and rode out of the
gates against the Cossacks, who were so amazed at the sight of the white-robed
figures riding at them on horseback that, at least on that day, they fled. (The
story did not end as well - the Cossacks eventually made a deal with the Polish
contingent to open the gates and betray the Jews, nearly all of whom were
killed, mostly in the cemetery. The Cossacks then killed the Poles as well.)
There is an important difference between the two mitzvot of
tefillin and tzitzit. Tefillin have an explicit content - the boxes contain four
passages from the Torah. As we saw above, the Torah does not explicitly say
which passages should be included, so that the first level of meaning of
tefillin is that the word of God, the contents of Torah, should be a sign on our
arms and in the center of out heads. The actual four passages are the four
places in the Torah where the mitzva of tefillin is mentioned, and even a
superficial examination reveals that all four express the commitment, the sense
of belonging, to God:
1. Shema - Hear O Israel, HaShem your God, HaShem is one. This
constitutes the basic affirmation of faith, not merely that metaphysically there
is only one God, but that He is our God, to whom, as the passage continues, we
direct our love "with all our hearts, our souls, and our might." This is called
by the Sages the passage of "accepting the yoke of heaven."
2. Ve-haya im shamo'a. The covenant - we accept the mitzvot,
and God will be our God, to protect us and care for us.
3. Kadesh li kol bekhor. We actually belong to God, as the
firstborn is sanctified to Him from the time that the firstborn of Israel were
saved when the firstborn of Egypt were slain and we were all taken out of
4. Ve-haya ki yevi'akha. God has taken us out of Egypt the
house of bondage; therefore we dedicate ourselves to Him.
These passages are not being recited by us now, but are being
bound on our arms and heads, as a SIGN, that this is what a Jew is - his might
(arm) and intelligence (head) dedicated to God. The verse quoted above spoke of
the name of God that is called "on you," and indeed the head-tefillin has the
letter "shin," representing God's name, engraved on the outside (unlike the
Torah passages that are sealed inside).
Tzitzit, on the other hand, do not have literal content. The
Torah says that we should see the fringes and remember all the commandments of
God. This can be no more than a hint, and it is usually explained as a numeric
one - the numeric value of the letters of the word "tzitzit" in Hebrew is 600,
to which if we add the eight strings and the five knots on each fringe, we reach
613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah. To this I would add the following. The
fringes of our garments are the very ends, dragging along behind us. Tzitzit is
not actually a garment, but an appendage, literally the fringe, away from the
center, straggling along almost as an afterthought. If the tzitzit represent
"all the mitzvot," then by wearing them we are dragging along, as it were, all
the mitzvot, all the accumulated baggage of being a committed Jew, with us
wherever we go, no matter what is actually at the center of our attention at the
This is corroborated by another feature of tzitzit, one so
central that in the Talmud tzitzit is often called by the name of this feature,
although today it is rare. The Torah says that one of the tzitzit strings should
be dyed with "tekhelet," - a blue dye derived from a sea mollusk. (The exact
process of preparing the dye was lost over the centuries, which is why tzitzit
generally today are only white). The Sages comment on this color - "Tekhelet is
like the sea, and the sea is like the heavens, and the heavens are like the
throne of glory." The tzitzit reflect the reflection of the reflection of the
heavenly throne. As we go about our every day mundane lives, we bear a hint of
the sea and the heavens. The blue is a reflection of the clarity and depth of
the boundless seas and the vastness of the universe, themselves a reflection of
the purity of the kingdom of heaven. A touch of that deep blue, a string like a
loose thread attached to my jacket, follows us wherever we go.
Mezuza, the small scroll attached to the doorpost, basically
has the same status as tefillin, this time not on our bodies but on our homes.
(There are only two passages in a mezuza, the two passages where the mitzva of
mezuza is mentioned in the Torah - 1 & 2 in the list above). I always found
the American custom of wearing a mezuza trinket around one's neck to be very
curious. (I had a teacher who used to say that if you are a doorpost you should
wear a mezuza.) It seemed almost a deliberate confusion with tefillin (as well
as an obvious imitation of a different religious symbol worn by many Catholics).
The mezuza is not a star of David - it does not say, "I am a Jew." It says, like
the tefillin, this house belongs to God, it is dedicated not only to shelter but
to creating a community of faith.
Interestingly, it is placed not in the center of the room but
on the door. This is perhaps a parallel to the fringe-status of tzitzit, but I
think there is a more basic reason. The content of your room needs to have more
than a sign, just as the content of your head needs to have more than tefillin.
But when one passes from one room to another, when we are moving about, then we
need to remember that we should enter the new room by first, before anything
else, seeing that mezuza. The mezuza DEDICATES by being BEFORE the room, by
meeting us first before we enter a new room. It is the passages of time that are
being claimed by the mezuza - thereby leaving the stations of time for us to
fill with content.
Now, one might claim that the laws of the sanctity of tefillin
I mentioned at the beginning, which lead to its being restricted practically to
"holy hours" only, argue against my understanding. It seems as though the Torah
expects the wearing of tefillin to indicate that one is engrossed in holiness -
which is why Jewish tradition has eventually excluded them from the mundane. I
think though that the opposite is true. This is a fascinating case of how the
ideal and the real coexist in Halakha. The Torah suggests one wear tefillin all
day not because it believes we should spend our days in the synagogue, but
because it believes that we should drag the name of God into our daily mundane
lives. In truth, this requires a greater degree of awareness of the significance
of the name of God than most of us are capable of, and hence, we have restricted
our efforts, but the ideal of tefillin is indeed to live a regular life with
"the name of God called on you." It was not the world that was too mundane for
tefillin, but our minds, that were too muddled, too unfocused, too
absent-minded, to carry tefillin into the mundane world; and so we had to settle
only for a white strand which replaces the blue one which reflected the
reflection of the reflection of the heavenly throne. The Torah believes in
sanctity within the mundane world - but also demands that we, by purity of
thought and cleanliness of body, support and maintain that dynamic tension. In
the meantime, it seems, we have settled for a compromise - part tzitzit, mezuzot
on our doors, tefillin on our heads and arms for a half hour a day. The world,
it seems, is still out there, waiting to be conquered.