A French Catholic priest was once visiting a synagogue similar to ours.
He noted, “That which revealed itself to me at that moment was not at all the Jewish religion. It was the Jewish people. The spectacle of that large number … assembled, their shoulders covered by the tallit, suddenly disclosed to my eyes a far-off past… At first on seeing the prayer shawls uniformly worn by all the participants in the service, I felt that in a way they were all officiating… In fact, in the synagogue service all Jews are equal, all are priests, all may participate in the holy functions, even officiate in the name of the entire community, when they have the required training.”
Perhaps you’ve seen it happen. Perhaps you have done it yourself. When the Torah scroll passes by in synagogue, you might have reached down for a moment and grasped just a few threads that were dragging on the floor. You picked up these specially knotted sacred threads touched them to the Torah scroll and then to your lips out of respect for the Torah. That which was dragging on the floor, became the vehicle for sacred connection.
Why do we wear these fringes? The explanation begins in the book of Numbers:
Adonai said to Moses as follows:
Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners/wings 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 Lord 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 God.
I Adonai am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God:
I, Adonai am your God.
According to this core text, wearing fringes is a model of behavioral education — looking leads to remembering leads to doing.
Now, here is the last twist. The common name for the fringe is tzitzit. But in the week’s portion, the fringe is called g’dilim, “You shall make tassels, twisted threads, braids on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.”
Why not fringes, tzitzit? The word for tassel, g’dlim, is only used twice in the entire Bible: Here and in I Kings 7:17 while Hiram was preparing the Temple for Solomon “also nets of meshwork with tassels (Festoons) of chainwork for the capitals that were on the top of the columns, seven for each of the two capitals.”
The mitzvah described in Numbers: wearing fringes like the ones we are accustomed to seeing in Temple combined with its repetition in Deuteronomy: instructing us to wear sanctuary like tassels like those of the First Temple, leads me to believe that in addition to serving as a sign of nobility and priesthood, the fringe which many of us wear in Temple on a regular basis, some wear all day long, and some will wear during these upcoming holy days is in fact the elaborate decoration of your personal sanctuary. Just as the French Catholic Priest commented, Jews in fringes are all priests, for we wrap ourselves in a garment of fringes we allow the quiet tactile message of the threads and their knots to speak to us through the soft touch of our hands.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association)