Large Talit, Small Talit

June 14, 2012

At the end of this week’s Torah reading of Shelach Lecha we find the mitzva of tzitzit; that is of attaching fringes to a four cornered garment.

The paragraph (Numbers 15:36) commences with the unusual phrase “Vayomer HaShem el Moshe” rather than the usual phrase for a mitzvah ” Vayedaber HaShem el Moshe”.

The Midrash explains that Moshe was naturally upset by the incident of the “Mekoshesh aitzim” the man who went out and gathered sticks on Shabbat. Perhaps he forgot that it was Shabbat? He needed a sign to remember the mitzvot. Tefillin were not enough. They are only worn on weekdays and NOT on Shabbat. So Moshe asked for something that would remind people of all the mitzvot on Shabbat as well. The equivalent of tying a knot in a handkerchief if you like. And the answer came back. Tzitzit. Strings with knots in them attached to the four corners of one’s garment. Probably a cloak in those days.
This is what Rashi tells us on verse 39. You shall see them – the Tzitzit – and remember all the mitzvot. The number of the word tzitzit is 600 plus the 8 strings and 5 knots comes to 613 – the number of the commandments in the Torah.

Nowadays, people do not wear four cornered garments and for many Jews the talit has become a prayer shawl reserved for prayer time to fulfil the mitzva.

However, the Talmud tells us that the mitzva of tzitzit is so precious that is considered to be equivalent to ALL the mitzvot. That is, those people who wear tzitzit are credited with the fulfilment of all the mitzvot so to speak.

My illustrious teacher, the Rosh Yeshiva of Maalei Adumim posed the question, how can that be? After all, it is not an absolute mitzva. It is a mitzvah taluyah a hanging or depending mitzva. It depends and only applies if you wear a 4 cornered garment. But the Torah doesn’t demand of you to wear a four cornered garment.
It’s like shechita or bentching ( grace after meals). If you want to eat meat, you have mitzva of shechita. But not if you don’t want to.
If you wash and eat bread you need to bench which is a Torah mitzvah but if, like me you are watching your figure, you don’t have to eat bread. Well perhaps a kezayit on Shabbat…..
Writing a get (divorce bill) is also a mitzva of the 613 but let’s not go there!

So how could the Talmud say that it is equivalent to ALL the mitzvot?

Also we find that there are two mitzvot of tzitzit. With different berachot (blessings).

As mentioned there is the Tallit gedolah, the large prayer shawl over which one blesses lehitatef batzitzit before wearing it.
But since people stopped wearing 4 cornered garments sometime towards the end of the Geonic period, the rabbis invented the tallit ketana – the small talit, often called arba kanfot ( 4 corners) or just tzitsit (fringes) worn under the shirt. In order to fulfil this important mitzva all day. Before putting this on, one blesses al mitzvat tzitsit.

So from no absolute obligation we have gone to two mitzvot of tzitzit? What is going on here?

Maran, the Rosh Yeshiva explained.

There are two reasons and effects of wearing clothes. They are diametrically opposite.

One reason is the express one’s personality. You only have to walk down Oxford Street or Dizengoff to see the weird and wonderful fashions, from the sublime to the ridiculous! Here in hot Israel there is no such thing as fashion any more. The fatter a person gets, the more hangs out! Lycra is very unforgiving! And men with disgusting toe nails really ought to wear socks in shul!

On the other hand, clothes can hide ones personality. For example, soldiers, police, nurses etc ec all wear uniforms to hide the individual personality so that you only see a soldier or a nurse.

When we wear the tallit gedolah in prayer, this is the uniform of the Jew. We hide ourselves, our individuality under the Tallit. After all, what right do I have to stand before HaShem and ask Him for x,y and z. Actually, it is dangerous. Whoever prays alone is asking to be examined under a microscope as an individual. But when one joins a minyan (quorum of 10 adult males) one joins together with the Jewish people, past, present and future – as a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Hiding under a Tallit, connected to a people that contains many tzaddikim with many merits. Didn’t Maimonides tell us that the prayer of the congregation is never rejected!

Of course this is wherever possible. Even so, one must always pray the set prayers at the set times come what may.

When the Talmud said that the mitzva of tzitzit is equivalent to all the mitzvot it was talking about the Tallit ketana.

This is a reflection of one’s personality. After all, when a person gets up in the morning, he has to make a decision. To wear tzitzit or not. To be a servant of HaShem, wearing His uniform, to remember all His mitzvot or not. And this is hidden. This garment is under the shirt. This is a personal decision only known to the person and to HaShem Himself.

Women, who are on a higher spiritual level than men are exempt from this time bound mitzva. They do not need reminding that they are servants of HaShem and they do not need to ape men in this matter. And in this heat who would want to wrap themselves in a blanket if they didn’t have to. When I bless shelo asani isha, I am grateful that I don’t have to wear a sheitel or tights!

I am also strongly of the opinion that unmarried men should wear a large tallit in prayer even before marriage. This was the custom of the vast majority of the Jewish people and one should not do away with this important mitzva from the Torah based on a custom which was initiated as a fine for older yeshiva boys who didn’t want to get married!

Good Shabbes

Rabbi Meir Wise

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2 Responses to “Large Talit, Small Talit”

  1. Fabulous piece and great chakira regarding the difference between the Tallit Gadol and Katan! Thanks to you, I always wore a Tallit Gadol after Bar Mitzva
    .

  2. MP said

    I totally agree with you that young men should wear a talis from the time they understand to keep two tzitzis in front of them and two behind them; and, more importantly, that their parents have (talking about mitzvos!) a mitzva of chinuch and shouldn’t “follow the crowd” unless they can’t afford to buy a talis for their son(s). I never heard of the rationale for their not wearing a talis being a ” fine for older yeshiva boys who didn’t want to get married” (how ironic nowadays when yeshiva boys, for the most part, are looking to get married even before they’re earning a living); I saw a rationale in Seifer MaHaRYL, where he answers the sh’eilah of someone from a region where men only acquire a talis when preparing for marriage because of the confluence of “g’dilim ta’aseh lach” with “ki yikach ish ishah.”

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