Mystical Interpretation of Tiztzit


Mystical Interpretation of Tiztzit


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The Tzitzit - a Mystical Understanding

By Yechezkel Gold

The Torah says that we must make for ourselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of our garments (Numbers 15).The Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, explains that a man wearing a garment with four or more corners must tie the tzitzit on the four most distant corners of the garment.

A corner is the meeting point of two edges of the garment, each edge running in a different direction from the one it meets. That is, a corner is a point where two edges no longer can continue on their own separate paths, but rather each limits the other, thereby forming a corner, an area which comes to a point. Like an edge, a corner is an interface of the material and the area of non-material, but unlike the edge which forms a line, a corner is an area which comes to a point.

While checking the fringes before donning the tallit, we say: "Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord, my God, You are very great; You have clothed Yourself with majesty and glory. You cover with light like a garment, stretch out the heavens like a hanging." The garment of the tallit, then, is compared to a garment of light, and the tzitzit are compared to the heavens stretching and hanging downward.

The Talmud informs us that there are two worlds, the spiritual and the physical. For most of us, the physical world is reality and the spiritual world is ethereal and theoretical. For the mystic, though, spirituality is not only real, but it is true realism. Also, the notion of creation implies that this true reality existed before creation and is eternal, and creation of physicality lead to a derivative, new reality, by a process extending eternal reality to include also physical existence.

Thus, from a mystical perspective, the cloth of the tallit, the prayer shawl represents true reality; therefore it is substantial. Physical reality is less real, so it is represented by the area of non-cloth., by a void. From the perspective of the tallit, the created reality would be non-reality and nonexistence except for the tzitzit that stretch forth from real reality, extending reality also to the created realms.

The notion of an intrinsic, spiritual reality which existed before creation, the Infinite Light, the realm of sephiros, (the Holy Emanations of the Infinite Light), and the souls of the righteous, all emanating from the Holy King, raises the question how this reality can have permitted extension to non-intrinsic creation. True, in the infinite potential which is part our understanding of the Ayn Sof, the Infinite, is also the possibility of created reality. However, that created reality does not reflect its source and therefore will not be emanated spontaneously into existence.

That is, intrinsic reality reflects its source in the sense expressed in recounting of creation in Genesis. After God emanated the light, the verse continues: "And it was evening, and it was morning, one day." The first day was not creation, strictly, in this sense, but rather emanation of light, where light reveals its source but adds nothing new. Therefore, it is called "one day", as Rashi, the major source of Biblical explanations, explains: "According to the order of expression used in this chapter, it should have said 'first day' as it is written for the other days: second, third, fourth. Why did it write 'one'? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, was alone in His world, for the angels were only created on the second day."

Thus, beginning creation proper on the second day, (it at least seemed that) the Holy One, blessed be He, was not alone in His world. This was the creation of a new, non-intrinsic reality in which other beings came into existence, but on the first day, the light emanated revealed that God alone exists. That light and realm are intrinsic. They reflect reality before something new is created. The verse refers to this level as as "You cover with light like a garment."

That is, in the infinite potential of the Ayn Sof, there is the possibility of emanating what exists intrinsically in any case, and there is also the possibility of creating a new and different reality. We understand that these represent two distinctly different types of potential. On the level of potential, intrinsic reality exists already potentially, ready to be emanated, whereas created reality is in the realm of nonexistence until it is introduced ex nihilo.

The potential for intrinsic reality is represented by the tallit, and the potential for created reality by the empty space around the tallit. Moreover, the edge of the tallit separates them. That is, it is not in the nature of intrinsic, Godly reality to extend to created reality, nor is it in the nature of the created reality to attain the Godly. This is analogous to the division of the waters into upper and lower realms of the second day of creation.

The essence of mystical Judaism is that, although they should be connected, nevertheless, the intrinsic and created realms are connected. The question is how could this be possible? How could a new, separate and created reality issue from the intrinsic reality which simply reflects the Only One?

The letters of God's name provide the answer. Besides constituting a unity, as the verse states: "The Lord is One", each letter has its own individual signification.

The yud reflects intrinsic, eternal reality most purely. Analogous to what was described earlier, it does not extend down to the line, to the created reality of this world, but is separate from it, hovering above.

The hai at the beginning of a word means "the". Whereas without "the", a noun is indefinite, the word "the" renders it definite and denoted. The hai makes the separateness and ungraspable character, itself, of the yud definite, and thereby, somewhat closer to the line, to created reality. Nevertheless, it represents the resolution of pure spirituality, and does not really extend to created being.

The vov means "and". It adds something to what was previously there. It is the true source of created reality in the Ayn Sof, denoting that the intrinsic reality of yud and hai can not contain the Infinite Light, which extends outward to create a new, non-intrinsic reality, too. Thus, unlike the yud, it extends down to the line, extending its souce in intrinsic reality even to created reality.

Like the first hai, the second one renders the previous letter definite. Thus, just as the first hai represents the King, the yud, being on His throne, in the court and presence of His spiritual subjects, so the second hai represents the actual creation of a new reality through the extension of the Ayn Sof toward creation, represented by the vov.

That is, the vov links the intrinsic and created realities. How is it possible to connect a reality whose very nature is to be intrinsic and therefore separate, immutable and spiritual to a realm whose character is definite, new, and tends toward physicality and thus to transience?

The tallit provides us with the answer. The tallit represents a reality whose very nature is to be intrinsic and therefore separate, eternal, immutable and spiritual, and the edges represent the separateness of that reality. From that perspective, no new, created realm could ever exist. Moreover, it would seem impossible for two edges to come together, let alone to limit each other. After all, each edge is separate, eternal, immutable and spiritual in character. If, nevertheless, they do come together and do limit each other, it represents a domain well above and not contained by the intrinsic, eternal and immutable reality. This is the origin of the vov: the dimension of the Ayn Sof so infinite that it is not even contained by the intrinsic and eternal.

A corner of the tallit, then, represents the place or dimension of the infinite potential which is transcendent, which is not contained by the intrinsic and eternal, and extends even to what is new and created.

The corner of the tallit also represents orientation within the intrinsic realm toward the new reality beyond, toward creation. The (self-) limitation represented by the corner is a point, because in order to extend outside itself, outside the "one day", to the finite and created, it must begin with a definite point. For example, in order to say something (creation was with God's speech) one must first know specifically what one wants, which is a single point. Afterwards the multiple details of what means to employ to get it, including speech, and then choice of words, can develop.

It is curious that in order to extend beyond its intrinsic limits to the "outside", the Ayn Sof limits and turns away from itself. The expansion is achieved through contraction. As stated above, this limitation represents a level still higher than the reflection of the infinite in intrinsic reality. It is the origin of the "and", of the vov.

The actual extension of reality to the new and created goes over the point of the corner of the tallit, but it is not the tallit (intrinsic realm) itself. Rather, the extension is by the fringe, the tzitzit. Thus, the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah, of the commandment, is through the fringe, which represents the actualization and complete expression of the vov. The mitzvahs are even higher than the eternal intrinsic realm, adding a still higher level to the intrinsic realm by extending the Ayn Sof beyond it.

Indeed, in Jewish mysticism the mitzvah of tzitzit is particularly connected to the letter vov. Thus the mystical book , the Tanya, states that he who omits tzitzit blemishes the letter vov of His name.

Although the tzitzit represent turning away from intrinsic spirituality toward the created world, they connect the two realms too. Connecting the two disparate realms is achieved by a balance which includes and accounts for each. This is represented by the corners of the tallit, which are a place which unite the tallit representing the eternal realm, and the non tallit, representing the created realm. The verse refers to this level as "stretch out the heavens like hanging."

This is further represented in the form of the tzitzit, which are strings tied and wrapped around each other for the first third of their length, then separate loose strings hanging down freely for the remaining two thirds. In the teachings of the saintly Ari za"l, the famous mystic, the first third represents the inner dimension. That is, the mystical realm is reflected in the knots and wraps of the first third of the length of the tzitzit, denoting the mystical meanings of the mitzvahs. There, the strings are attached to the tallit and intertwined, yet they extend downward: the separate elements of the new created reality are interwoven with the intrinsic, eternal realm. Departing from that level for the remaining two thirds of the tzitzit, the separate elements of reality evolve independently, each achieving its own separate connection to the new, created realm.

By knowing and thinking about the significance of the mitzvah of tzitzit while performing the mitzvah, one is doing just what the tzitzit are supposed to do: to connect the inner, intrinsic, eternal realm to the new creation.

In the passage about tzitzit, the Torah states: "In order that you remember, and perform all of the commandments". From this the Rabbis derive that the commandment of tzitzit has the weight of all the other mitzvahs combined. That is, it has a general significance of which each other mitzvah partakes. Figuratively, each mitzvah is a fringe hanging at a corner of the tallit - of the eternal, intrinsic reality. The ideas behind tzitzit, linking eternity to the new creation through a series of spiritual levels and steps each of which are rooted in the intrinsic reality of "one day", a realm where only God exists, and simultaneously are oriented toward the physical creation, function in each mitzvah: they all serve to connect us to God.

Yechezkel Gold is a psychotherapist who lives with his family in Jerusalem


from the March 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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