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D'varim/Deuteronomy 22:12 Tassels you shall make for you on the four corners of your garment that you cover yourself in.
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More comfortably translated as "You shall make tassels for yourselves on the four corners of the garments that you wear", this command complements the original instruction given thirty eight years ago to the previous generation of Israelites as they turned away from the Land for their long sojourn in the desert. Then, Moshe was told:
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 L-RD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d. (B'Midbar 15:38-40, NJPS)
There, the word translated 'fringes' is , a fs noun from the root , "to flower, flourish" (Davidson), also translated as a lock of hair (Ezekiel 8:3). Here, the word , tassels, comes from the root , "to be or become great, to grow" (Davidson), from which we get the adjectives, "great, large, high, big". TheBaal HaTurim reports that "this word appears twice in the Tanakh: (i) here; and (ii) 'twisted threads of chainwork' (1 Kings 7:17, NASB)". Jastrow points to several instances of the word being used in the Talmud, meaning "twisted threads, fringes", while Jeffrey Tigay refers to similar words in the cognate languages meaning "twists or braids": Aramaic gedilta', Akkadian gidlu, Arabic jadila.
How are these twisted cords to be made?Sifrei tells us that "according the School of Hillel, of not less than three threads, while according to the School of Shammai, of (not less than) four threads of blue and four threads of white, each of four finger-lengths, and the law is according to the School of Shammai" (Sifrei Piska 234). Rashi adds that they are to be made and worn "even from the [otherwise forbidden] mixture [of wool and linen] [even if your garment is wool and these are linen, thus becoming forbidden]. This is why Scripture juxtaposed them" with the previous verse - "You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen" (D'varim 22:11, NJPS) - "as if to say, You shall not wear combined fibres, wool and linen together, but these twisted threads you may" (Maskil LeDavid). Jacob Milgrom explains that, "the sha'atnes mixture characterised the priestly garments; hence the wearing of these tassels reminds every Israelite of the duty to strive for holiness like the priests, to become 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Shemot 19:6)."
Why is this instruction repeated here?Ibn Ezra answers that, "the B'Midbar commandment is repeated here in order to clarify that the fringes must be added only to a garment that has 'four corners'". Rabbi Hirsch suggests that "the Torah adds to the previous commandment about particularity in clothing [i.e. verse 11] the positive command of tzitzit, by which, wherever we go, we are positively called to keep our eyes and thoughts directed to G-d and our specifically Jewish calling." While the command not to wear clothes of mixed fibres is a negative command - "You shall not ..." - this command is positive. This verse is used as a proof text for the rabbinic ruling that "a positive precept supersedes a negative precept" (b. Yevamot 4a).
Not every garment had four corners - some had more and some appear to have had less - but commenting on the four-cornered nature of the instruction, Tigay says that, "the tassels are to be attached to everyday clothing and worn all day. There is nothing in the commandment to suggest that it is limited to men and some of the early rabbis held that tassels are to be worn by women too." Although it was determined by the later rabbis that tzitzit are meant to be seen, so must be worn in daylight and hence that this is a time-related command from which women are exempt, there appears to be no textual reason why women should not wear them. Wearing tzitzit in broad daylight became hazardous for Jewish people so, to prevent drawing attention to their identity, the prayer shawl (tallit) - a broad flat strip of cloth with four clear corners - was designed to carry tzitzit when worn to fulfill the public aspect of the commandment in the private context of the morning prayer service in the synagogue, while the tallit katan - a small vest-like strip of cloth with a centre hole for the head - carried another set of tzitzit that could be worn all day underneath outer garments.
Mark Twain famously said, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society,"1 but was not the first to make the claim.2 William Shakespeare put the words in the mouth of Polonius - "For the apparel oft proclaims the man" (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3) - while adding in the same speech of advice to his son, "to thine own self be true." In today's world, people wear many clothes, whether a smart suit or a dress for an interview, jeans or leggings for the beach, or something revealing and flirtatious for the nightclub over the weekend. Which clothes show the true identity of the wearer, or are they all attempts to impress and paint a not necessarily faithful picture of the person inside? We all want to appear well in front of others, to have them think that we are capable, efficient, intelligent, suitable or pretty, depending on the context. We therefore choose clothes - sometimes at great expense or considerable pains - to cover ourselves, or provide a veneer that hides our true self in rags of respectability.
Now re-read our text for this week. The Israelites, both - at the time - men and women, are to display tassels on the four corners of their garments. The four-cornered garment was a commonly and easily worn garment in biblical times; it would be worn all day and possibly all night to keep warm; it was ubiquitous: easily made and efficient in its use of cloth. Different patterns and colours of weave were available, for a price, and people of wealth would have had several (or even many) so that they could choose how they wanted to look for each day or occasion. Perhaps they had a matching bag and shoes for that 'finished' look. But no matter the colour or design of the garment, stuck on each corner was a blue and white tassel, made of threads at least four finger-lengths long. These tassels are designed to be seen, both by the wearer and everyone with whom they come into contact; they are a visual identity marker proclaiming that the wearer is a Jew, a worshipper of the Lord, the G-d of Israel. To the wearer, they act as a reminder to observe the commandments and to be holy unto the L-rd. To the Jewish observer, they are a reminder of a common obligation of obedience - we are in this together - while to the non-Jewish observer they separate the wearer as someone of whom certain behaviour and standards can be expected. The wearer becomes, in a sense, a priest representing G-d to the observers.
In the Christian world, of course, similar tokens of identification are worn. Bishops wear large crosses and carry ornate shepherds' crooks; crosses and doves are commonplace as pendants, brooches, rings and lapel pins. They serve as tribal markers, telling the world that here is a person of faith, a follower of Yeshua, a fellow disciple, someone of whom certain behaviour and standards may be expected. Or do they? Such jewelry items are often worn by non-believers (or nominal believers) simply as just that: jewelry. In this case, the wearer is not trying to make any faith statement or generate behavioural expectations. Or are they? Sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, people will choose to wear such jewelry on certain occasions deliberately in order to create a particular impression, to make other people think they are "a nice girl" or to generate expectations of 'good' behaviour.
Like it or not, we are visually scanned and assessed by every person who sees us, whether we actually meet them or not. Profiling may be a modern security technique, based on hundreds of minute details of dress and behaviour, used in multiple security-conscious environments the world over, but every human being instinctively and instantly inspects everyone else they meet. In a fraction of a second, often without even moving the eyes, you are evaluated from top to toe: hair style and colour, face, make-up, the cut of the jacket and trousers, tie or jumper, length of skirt, shoes, posture and bearing, smile and laugh, not forgetting teeth. Do you match up? Will I like this person? Can I do business with them? Am I feeling safe or threatened? Is this a potential rival or an ally?
We are representatives of G-d to the people that we meet every day; Yeshua told the disciples they were "the light of the world, a city built on a hill" (Matthew 5:14). Oftentimes others will judge G-d on the basis of what they see in us. They will decide whether they are interested in meeting G-d depending on what it was like meeting us. People see, or think they see, G-d in us. We are the glass through which they glimpse heaven. Because of that, we need to ask ourselves what choices we should be taking with regard to our behaviour and our appearance, our dress and our conduct, our language and vocabulary. A lot of this is context dependent: a nicely spoken man with a BBC accent will be out of place in a homeless shelter or a tenement slum; even the rent collector doesn't sound like that! We must choose our clothing and our behaviour to match the job that we are doing and the people with whom we will be. But Shakespeare's words through Polonius also apply - to your own self be true - we cannot conceal who we are as followers of Yeshua. Not only can we not conceal it, we must not conceal it for it is "Messiah in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27, ESV) that God has chosen to make Himself known among the nations.
1. - Mark Twain, More Maxims of Mark, edited by Merle Johnson, (New York, privately printed, 1927).
2. - The earliest recorded use of the aphorism was the theologian Erasmus, whose Adagiorum Chiliades(in 1508) contained the Latin proverb: vestis virum facit which we can translate as "clothing makes the man."
Further Study: Colossians 4:5-6; 1 John 3:16-18
Application: What are you wearing today? Are you unmistakably representing "Messiah who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20) or are you letting Him down by dressing or acting for yourself? Are you wearing tassels on your four-cornered garment? You need to call the Master Tailor today and let Him set your style.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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