What Is A Tzitzit?
Today we move to a device that God instructed for the express purpose of assisting men to avoid these missteps when it came to obeying His Laws. And, that device is, in Hebrew, Tzitzit.
Let’s read this short section of Numbers 15:37-41 about Tzitzit and its purpose.
In the most ancient era of Hebrew culture, Tzitzit more or less meant, “lock of hair”; indeed, a Tzitzit resembles a lock of hair. And, in modern terms, it looks much like what we would call a tassel. But, of course, in ancient times, tassels BEGAN as but beautiful locks of hair.
As with so many of these sorts of things we find in the Torah, the concept of Tzitzit was not an entirely new invention, as much as it was an evolution and transformation of something that already existed. Ancient etchings and pictographs from various regions in Asia show that the wearing of tassels on garments was fairly widespread.
Though, as far as anyone knows, the Hebrew PURPOSE for the tassels, the Tzitzit, was unique.
And, that stated purpose for Tzitzit is laid out in Numbers 15 verse 39: that when the Israelites looked at them, it would remind them of God’s commandments.
And, so we see how this instruction is connected to the story of the man who gathered the firewood. The Tzitzit were intended to be a continuously worn reminder that God’s Laws were to be obeyed, so that the Israelites would not commit sins against the Lord and thus be subjected to the curse of the law.
The vast majority of the details concerning exactly how a Tzitzit is to be made and worn are Tradition. We get the first Biblical instructions right here in Numbers 15, and there is precious little said about the subject.
However, if we are to understand, today, the significance of the Tzitzit, we must begin by understanding what the writers of the Old Testament knew: that what was worn as, or on the hem of one’s garment was an indication of one’s status in the community.
Even more now please pay close attention to this. The hem of one’s garment was seen as an extension of one’s personality and authority. The hem was the universal status symbol of the Biblical era, throughout the Middle East, and even in somewhat earlier times.
Now, you might scoff and say, the hem of a garment as a status symbol as an extension of one’s personality? Sure, we do the very same thing only in different ways in each culture of the world.
In America in general, we believe the car we drive or the brand of the clothing chosen says something about whom we are inside. Christians often plaster their cars with bumper stickers and various religious insignias as another means of explaining something about our beliefs.
Or we wear Crosses, or Stars of David, or that 3-part Symbol, or other items that are but visible extensions of our personalities and persona. And don’t even think some people aren’t superstitious about these emblems with St. Christopher’s medals, WWJD bracelets, and so on. The hem of the garment played a similar role in more ancient times.
Ancient Akkadian documents indicate that a husband who cuts the hem off of his wife’s garment thereby divorces her. A sorcerer might recite an incantation over a cut-off piece of hem from a demon-possessed person, so much was the hem thought to be a real extension of that person.
And of course, we find several mentions of hems of garments being involved in some of the more famous Biblical stories. Though we Christians have had some rather odd notions of what was being indicated such that had a person of the Biblical era listened in on our views about it, they would have rolled in laughter.
We must understand that hems of garments held actual legal force thousands of years ago. They were more than mere status symbols; they were legal I.D. in many cases.
Thus kings and very great leaders might wear a very intricate hem that often included the use of the color purple. Purple was, and remains, a symbol of royalty in most Middle and Far Eastern cultures, and the practice of using purple as a royal color became practically worldwide in time.
In fact, written records found in Mesopotamia indicate that a seer or a wise man in service to the King was required not only to TELL the King his vision or prophetic dream but that he had to write it down.
Once written the document was presented to the King along with a lock of hair from that seer’s head, along with a piece of the hem of his garment. And this was the equivalent of a sworn and notarized affidavit and indicated the truthfulness of what was recorded.
So in the Tzitzit, we see the blending of two ancient symbolic elements:
- The “lock of hair” with
- The “hem of the garment.”
But we also need to recognize that it was primarily royalty and aristocrats who HAD elaborate garment hems not the common folk. The average ordinary person had no reason to display his status nor could he afford to.
In the ancient world, we must add to the equation the concept of hems as a means of state (that at God’s direction evolved into Tzitzit) is also generally considered to be an indication of royalty and legal authority.
Now, let’s apply this to the Hebrew Tzitzit.
The Tzitzit is but an extension of the hem. Notice that the Tzitzit is commanded to be worn on the corners of the garment. And this usually is taken to mean an outer garment, something that is visible. However not all Hebrew sects accept that, and many wear them underneath their outer garments.
The Hebrew word usually translated as corners (as in corners of the garment) is kanaf. And kanaf more correctly means “extremity” or “wing” not corners. The idea is that the hem is the extremity of any garment. So it’s not that Tzitzit directly represents the hem of the garment, rather Tzitzit are to be ATTACHED to the hem of the garment. Although, exactly how this was manifested varied over the centuries.