Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Mitzvat Tzitzit: A Comprehensive, Holistic, and Integrative Approach to Avodat Hashem

Parshat Shelach, which chronicles the calamitous episode of the meraglim and its disastrous aftermath, concludes with the mitzvah of tzitzit. Chazal (see also Rashi citation of R' Moshe ha-Darshan, and Rav Hirsch's explanation of the introductory "vayomer") posit that this mitzvah constitutes a response and antidote not only to the egregious meraglim transgression, but also to the two core infractions that immediately precede the presentation of tzitzit: the shabbat desecration of the mekoshesh eitzim, as well as the idolater-blasphemer. Moreover, the Torah presents tzitzit as a method of precluding or neutralizing the impulse to stray from doctrinal loyalty to Torah principles and the temptation of immorality ("ve-lo taturu achrei levavchem ve-achrei eineichem"- levavchem-minut, eineichem- zenut). This ambitious perspective on tzitzit is even more striking according to Rambam's (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 2:3-5) expansive understanding of the prohibition of lo taturu. How does the making, wearing, and viewing of tzitzit embody and achieve these goals?

An analysis of Rambam's minyan ha-mitzvot policy on tzitzit may facilitate our understanding and appreciation of this singular mitzvah. Rambam (Aseh 14) counts the lavan and techelet components of tzitzit as a single mitzvah despite the fact that he generally (Sefer ha-Mitzvot Shoresh 11) embraces the view that components that are not indispensable to each other (ein meakvin zeh et zeh - like techelet and lavan or shel rosh and shel yad - mishnah Menachot) constitute independent mitzvot. Indeed, Rambam counts tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh discretely for this very reason in the very two mitzvot that precede his single count of tzitzit! The Rambam (both in mitzvah 14 and shoresh 11) addresses this difficulty, concedes that tzitzit is an anomaly, grounds his conclusion on the authority of a passage in the Sifrei that depicts lavan and techelet as a single, unified mitzvah, and concludes, without further elaboration, that the apparent thematic unity inherent in tzitzit overrides the typical implication of lack of indispensability!

Rambam's view is emphatically and extensively critiqued by both Ramban (shoresh 11) and Rashbaz (Zohar ha-Rakia, no. 17, also cited in Frankel edition of Sefer HaMitzvot, no. 14). Ramban expresses astonishment that Rambam would override a foundational methodological principle due to a mere textual formulation. Furthermore, Ramban notes that this problematic Sifrei statement seems also to be gratuitous, as the author was not himself engaged in enumerating the mitzvot. Why would Rambam assign so much weight to an apparently amorphous assertion? Moreover, he posits that the Sifrei text may be summarily dismissed as normatively irrelevant, as it perhaps reflects the rejected stance of Rebbe (mishnah Menachot), who ruled that lavan and techelet are, in fact, each indispensable to fulfilling mitzvat tzitzit. Ramban simply cannot fathom why Rambam would impute so much authority and stature to this Sifrei statement. Ramban further notes that while it is perfectly consistent for the Behag, who integrates the two components of tefilin as one mitzvah, to count a single mitzvah of tzitzit, the discrepancy in the Rambam's treatment of tefillin and tzitzit (both of which are cited as exemplifying non- indispensability in the same mishnah in Menachot, as Rashbaz emphasizes) is troublesome. Ramban even considers the possibility that tzitzit is more dichotomous than tefillin, before begrudgingly speculating that Rambam's view may stem from the fact that each tefillin requires a distinct act, in contrast to lavan-techelet. In fact, however, Rambam (shoresh 11) accentuates the thematic unity of tzitzit to justify his policy, not its status a single maaseh mitzvah. [Rambam's view (Hilchos Tefillin, Sefer HaMitzvot, and Responsa) on the relationship between the two tefilins is somewhat complex. I hope to address this theme elsewhere.] [Rashbaz cites and reinforces many of Ramban's arguments. He also speculates why Rambam did not at least count viewing the tzitzit as a distinct mitzvah.]

We may propose that the Rambam's deep conviction about the character of mitzvat tzitzit made the Sifrei text compelling and justified an exception to the standard methodological rule of minyan ha-mitzvot. The Torah's presentation of tzitzit, both context and substance, highlights the Torah's range and comprehensiveness. But it also underscores the unity, integrity, interconnectivity, and holistic nature of the halachic system. It is the core and essence of tzitzit's theme that notwithstanding the divergence of lavan and techelet, they constitute a unified, integrated philosophy of avodat Hashem that together are more than the sum of their parts, that further illumine and deepen the impact of each respective component. Moreover, according to various mefarshim (see, for example, Netziv, Keli Yakar) lavan and techelet each project this very theme albeit in a singular fashion. [It is both ironic and predictable that there is such an extensive range of views on the interrelationship of lavan and techelet, the central themes of each, the relative status of asiyat, levishat, and reiyat tzitzit, and other tzitzit motifs. I hope to elaborate the implications of these perspectives at another opportunity.] Indeed, the Sifrei text impressed the Rambam as a conceptual characterization of tzitzit precisely because it was not focused on minyan ha-mitzvot or any other concrete consequence. Rambam concluded that this theme of halachic complex unity dictated that tzitzit be counted as a single integrated mitzvah.

The roots of this perspective derive from the Torah's repeated presentation of tzitzit as designed to reinforce our cognizance of the totality of all the mitzvot ("u-reitem otam u-zechartem et kol mitzvot Hashem Elokeichem...leman tizkeru va-asitem et kol mitzvotai vihiyitem kedoshim lei-lokeichem"). Chazal note that tzitzit belongs to an elite cadre of mitzvot (avodah zarah, Shabbat- though each in a different manner...) that corresponds and embodies (shekulah- teluyah) and forms a linchpin for the totality of all the mitzvot. Indeed, Rambam codifies this assertion at the climax of hilchot tzitzit. The mefarshim (Rashi etc.) embrace the insight that the numerical equivalent of tzitzit plus kesharim and fringes total 613 because it coheres with a profound insight into the singular character of tzitzit, its emphasis on the significance of acknowledging and relating to the totality of the system and its interrelation.

Against this background, we may appreciate Chazal's conviction that tzitzit intentionally follows the severe prohibitions of avodah zarah and chilul Shabbat (shabbat desecration of mekoshesh eitzim) inasmuch as all three share the theme of embodying the totality of halachic observance. The verses that define idolatry in Parshat Shelach never explicate this transgression. [See Ramban's analysis.] They repeatedly emphasize a violation of the totality of the halachic system. Both idolatry and Shabbat constitute linchpins of halachic life. Their violations can never be perceived in a narrow light, as discrete violations. Disloyalty in these domains compromises the fabric and foundation of the total halachic system, rendering insignificant even the scrupulous observance of the remaining 612 commandments. Tzitzit's projection of the theme of "u-zechartem et kol mitzvot Hashem" accentuates these cardinal infractions and constitutes a critical corrective to the misconception that produces them.

As noted, while there is a wide range and variety of explanations and interpretations of the central motif of tzitzit, the overriding common view is that tzitzit underscores a comprehensive, integrated, and holistic halachic system. In this respect, tzitzit constitutes an embodiment, thus a constant reminder, that the discrete imperatives of the halachah also and especially constitutes a unified if complex outlook on life. This perspective undergirds the notion that halachah constitutes a value system that addresses all facets of existence and that defines and dictates interactions and priorities. It eschews a narrow and compartmentalized stance that enables one to pick and choose in the domain of religious commitment, or to assert a secular or neutral domain. Theological crisis and philosophical confusion are typically engendered by confrontation with apparent insoluble dichotomies. A narrow halachic perspective that promotes compartmentalization shorn of context, framework, and interactions, fosters misconception, laxity and even immorality.

We may now better appreciate that tzitzit forestalls the challenge and pitfalls of "ve-lo taturu achrei levavchem ve-achrei einechem", even as the Rambam depicts it as a consequence of grappling with questions and ideologies or struggling to assimilate and integrate one's passions. Tzitzit - awareness in all of its manifestations (ve-asu, ve-natnu, u-reitem, u-zechartem, va-asitem, vi-hiyitem kedoshim) constitutes a powerful multi-faceted ideology. It has the capacity to provide proper context and perspective, to appropriately guide, direct, process and filter theological inquiry as well as human impulses and emotions.

Malbim (ad loc - ve-lo taturu) notes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Torah emphasizes the impact of ideology and religious commitment on sensual perception and physical temptation. [Compare Ibn Ezra and Chinuch on lo tachmod and the broader issue of halachic legislation in the area of belief and emotion!] Thus, the religious outlook of ve-lo taturu achrei levavchem-eilu ha-minut (corrupt ideology or heresy) Is prior to and fosters the physical experience of ve-achrei eineichem- zenut (physical temptation-immorality)[compare to Rav Hirsch ad loc].

In this respect as well, tzitzit constitutes a subtle yet critical response and corrective to the flaw of the meraglim. Numerous mefarshim link the meraglim's, "latur et ha-aretz" and "lo taturu" that is precluded by tzitzit. The meraglim improperly perceived and pursued their mission as a narrow, secular, strategic assessment, disconnected from the broad agenda of avodat Hashem and hashgahah that is always a sine qua non for Am Yisrael. They felt justified in merely reporting the military reality, failing to appreciate that their eyes experienced and processed what the narrower agenda of their hearts had already determined. This core flaw catastrophically undermined the spiritual destiny of Klal Yisrael. The comprehensive-holistic tzitzit ideology always and emphatically rejects the compartmentalized outlook of the meraglim. It demands a levavchem suffused with u-zechartem et kol mitzvot Hashem va-asitem otam that dictates and defines "u-reitem otam" and that ultimately insures "vihiyitem kedoshim lei-lokeichem."

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