Considering Tassels

Abstract: Wearing culturally-developed tzitzit on one’s belt loops is a valid manner of honoring the command of Num. 15:38 and Deut. 22:12, but is not a literal fulfillment of the commandment. All things considered, for Gentile believers it is likely not the most well-advised manner of honoring this instruction. Additional reflection may yield a more advantageous and multiple-commandment-balancing approach.
 

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.” Numbers 15:38

You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself” Deuteronomy 22:12

The command regarding tassels ought to instruct all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. The question of how it ought to instruct may depend upon on one’s ethnicity, time or place.

I would assert, for example, that a Jewish man (or woman, potentially) wearing a tallit kitan or using a tallit gadol with tzitzit attached is a valid keeping of this command, and that a Gentile doing so may be a valid keeping of this command.

I would also posit that a Gentile wearing culturally-developed tzitzit on one’s belt loops is a valid manner of honoring the command, but not a literal fulfillment (or keeping). All things considered, I would also suggest it is likely not the most well-advised manner of honoring this instruction due to reasons of potential misunderstanding, misapplication, and offense.

Nevertheless, we see from the text that God considered it important for His people and we might observe that the principle behind this case law related to: remembrance, identity, and witness. Furthermore, that the keeping of the command assisted the Israelites in the practice of walking in godliness, and promoted a sense of belonging and community. Could anyone argue that today’s Gentile believers don’t also need this?! Additional reflection may yield a more advantageous and multiple-commandment-balancing approach to honoring this instruction.

I am, therefore, seeking an application of the command regarding tassels that is: 1) consistent with God’s original intent, 2) consistent with the significance of the command in the milieu of the original implementation, 3) inoffensive to as many parties as possible, 4) consistent with a professional image (be in the world but not of the world), and 5) feasible for wide-scale adoption across the people of God in the United States (our milieu).

Historically speaking, it is of great interest to note that at the time when God gave this commandment, everyone in the ANE (Ancient Near East) wore tassels on their garments—Israelite and non-Israelite. The fringe functioned as one’s signature (pressing the fringe into clay in the same manner as signet rings came to be used), as a sign of your prestige, and were a method of identification or sign of belonging (to a class, family, or tribe). The Israelites’ fringes were to be a distinctive application of a normative cultural expectation.

If one were to argue that wearing tassels on one’s belt loops is a direct fulfillment of the command and that this is necessary, I would ask, “Where is the parapet around your roof?” (Deuteronomy 22:8)
 
Similarly, wrapping teffilin is a valid method of honoring, or helpful symbolic application in the interest of keeping the commands of Deut. 6:8; 11:18, but it does not—in and of itself—fulfill the commandment. How can we prove this? Because we are also told in the same language that the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the redemption of the first born “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes” (Ex 13:9, 16).
 
In my personal edition of the Morning Prayers I attempted to capture the heart of these commands in the following manner: “Today, Father, may your words be always in front of my eyes; may my hands be engaged in the practice of your commands.” There is a wide variety of ways in which to keep this injunction; observing Unleavened Bread is among them, and the phrasing of the commandment to let this observance be a sign on your hand and memorial between your eyes speaks more to observing the festival with intention than with a physical practice of writing the date of Unleavened Bread on our hand or something similar.
 
So long as one recognizes that wrapping tefillin is not the actual keeping of the commandment, it remains a helpful spiritual discipline, but once one begins to think that in the practice of wrapping tefillin you have satisfied the intent of the commandment, problems develop.
 
Given that 1) specifically knotted tzitzit have become an ethnic identity marker for the Jewish people, 2) that unless I wear a cornered garment I cannot literally fulfill this commandment anyway, and 3) that the commandment was given in the context of a distinctive application of a cultural norm, I think it is beyond well-advised to practice the command in a manner that does not potentially lay a stumbling block in the path of my brother the Jew (saved or unsaved: one thinks of the reaction of UMJC types to Gentiles wearing tzitzit in general and specifically to wearing them on the belt loops) or the misinformed Gentile Christian, who perceives it as coming back under the law.
 
For the last couple of years I have worn a blue and white bracelet as my manner of honoring the tzitzit (and tefillin) command. I am not entirely satisfied (theologically nor practically) with a tzitzit bracelet, but it was a healthy step in the right direction (in response to having become a stumbling block to my Synagogue President neighbor, even though wearing tzitzit “properly” on a tallit kitan).
 
I am entertaining ideas like embroidering 3 white and one blue line on the sleeves of my shirts, or attaching a fringe that is clearly different from the traditional Jewish tying of the tzitzit to the corners created by the vents of a camp-style shirt. I don’t always wear un-tucked, vented shirts, however, so I lean toward the embroidery idea, as this is non-offensive and within the bounds of normative cultural expectation (one thinks of logos on shirt sleeves) that is nevertheless distinctive.
 
Imagine if every man in our congregations wore shirts with the “tzitzit logo” on the edges/wings (canaphim, c.f. Malachi 4:2 & Numbers 15:38) of their sleeves! Think of the identity-lending power, and the community-belonging power of this! Invest that practice with the significance of fulfilling Deut. 6:8 and one is keeping the commandment in a way that is faithful to God’s intent while also conscious of the commands, “You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:14), and “Build up, build up, prepare the way, Remove every obstacle out of the way of My people” (Is 57:14).
 
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this sleeve logo idea is probably the application most consistent with the spirit of the command regarding tzitzit. Think about it: our culture is familiar with all football jerseys being the same and yet having distinct identification markings, both in color and logo. Logos have become ubiquitous on a variety of culturally normative clothing styles. To put a distinct arrangement of white and blue threads on the sleeves of a shirt (sleeves being the closest thing to “wings/corners” we have on contemporary clothing) references a familiarity with the most recently common observance of the command (rabbinically defined tzitzit), honors the commandment, offends no one, and yet retains the reminding, identifying, community-building power of the original command in its Bronze Age context.
 
How shall today’s believing Laplander apply this command? I don’t know, but they ought to be asking that question. And the eventual result will be a culturally diverse, yet commandment-honoring keeping of God’s law that testifies both to the “house of prayer for all nations” reality of God’s people, but also to the coalescing power and identity-giving nature of being “imitators of God therefore like dearly beloved children.”
 
P.S. It occurs to me that I have elsewhere expressed some of what undergirds the above in a very succinct manner:

If love emphasizes people and law emphasizes principle, without the dynamic interplay of both aspects of God’s character, we get an unhealthy (i.e., sinful) imbalance. Therefore, if it is lawful, “so far as it depends on you,” to “live peaceably with all,” then it seems it would be loving to use language [or halacha] that puts, “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”

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Background on fringes as normative ANE dress:
  • “… The tassels, according to ancient Near East parallels, were threads of the embroidery and could be decorated with a flower head or bell. The more ornate the hem, the greater the social status and wealth of a person (Milgrom 1983: 61–65).” from Douglas R. Edwards, “Dress and Ornamentation,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 233.
  • “fringes (tassels, borders, hems), a common decoration on Near Eastern garments.” from Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 323.
  • “Fringes,” in J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 68-70.
  • Stephen Bertman, “Tassled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean”, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1961), pp. 119-128.
  • http://rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity/from-the-fringes
  • J. Milgrom, “Of hems and tassels: Rank, authority and holiness were expressed in antiquity by fringes on garments,” Biblical Archaeology Review, v. IX, # 3, May/June 1983, pp. 61-65.
  • J. Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary, Volume 4 – NUMBERS, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989 – 1996, p. 410-412
  • W. Gunther Plaut, et al. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. N.Y., Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p. 1123

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