The mitzvah of tallis by Rov Joseph Kon

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Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (KSA) starts the chapter of The Laws of Tzitzis by stating: “The mitzvah of tzitzis is of great importance for according to the evaluation of the Scriptures all the mitzvos depend on it, as it said: ‘And you will look upon it and you will remember all the mitzvos of Hashem.’ The numerical value of the word, tzitzis equals 600, and the eight fringes and five knots make total of 613 (this is the number of commandments contained in the Torah).” (KSA 9:1)

In regards to mitzvah of tallis KSA states: “You should hold tallis with both hands and think consciously that the Holy One, Blessed is He, commanded us to wrap ourselves with tzitzis so that we remember to do all His mitzvos, as it said: ‘And you will look upon it and you will remember all the mitzvos of Hashem.’ While standing recite the berachah [to enwrap oneself in tzitzis]. You should then immediately cover your head [with the tallis] so that the tallis extends below the mouth and then bring the corners [of the tallis] up to your neck and wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs.” (KSA 9:8)

There are 6 questions come to the mind in regards to the above statement:

  1. How do Arabs wrap themselves?
  2. Do they all wrap themselves the same way?
  3. If they change their way of wrapping should we change also?
  4. Why such important miztvah we should learn from Arabs (gentiles)? (‘The mitzvah of tzitzis is of great importance for according to the evaluation of the Scriptures all [613] the mitzvos depend on it’)
  5. Why does KSA tell us how to wrap, if we have to learn from Arabs?

If you say: ‘all Arabs wrap the same way’, why there are different customs?

  1. Why does the KSA contradict the Laws of Dressing, which forbids us to follow the practice of gentiles, by instructing us: “and wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs”? The KSA in the chapter of Laws of Dressing and Conduct states: “We are not permitted to follow the ways of the gentiles, nor adopt their styles in dress or in hair style or similar things, as it is said: ‘You shall not follow the ways of gentile.’(Leviticus 20:33).” (KSA 3:2) The Talmud states:’ that it is forbidden for a Jew to be similar to them (gentiles) even in regard to shoelaces; if their practice was to tie one way and the practice of Jews to tie another way. It is forbidden for a Jew to deviate.’ (Maseches Sanhedrin 74a)?

To answer the above questions we have to go to the source, the Torah.

Bereishis/ Genesis, Parshas Vayishlach, 32/4-5: “Then Jacob sent angels ahead of him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. He charged them, saying: “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord, to Esau, so said your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban and have lingered until now.’””

The Ohr HaChaim comments on: “He charged them, saying” – ‘Jacob wanted his messengers to deliver the massage verbatim, including the fact that in his conversation with them he had referred to Esau as “my Lord” and to himself as Esau’s “servant.” This was part of Jacob’s tactful approach, because thereby Esau would realize that Jacob truly held him in great esteem.’

Rashi comments on: “I have sojourned with Laban” – ‘The verb “garty” (lodged) implies staying as a stranger (from ger = alien). Thus Jacob meant to tell Esau, “I have not become a great prince nor have I achieved status… I remained merely an alien. Therefore, you need not hate me for having received Father’s blessing [27:29], since it has clearly not been fulfilled.”

Midrashically, the number value of “garty” equals 613. Thus Jacob implied to Esau, “Though I have sojourned with Laban, I have observed the 613 Divine Commandments, and I have not learned from his evil ways”’

The common understanding of Rashi’s Midrashical explanation is that ‘this was a message to Esau that he should not trifle with Jacob, for his righteousness was still intact.’ This seems contradict Ohr HaChaim’s and first Rashi’s explanations that Jacob wanted to influence Esau to believe that he truly held Esau in great esteem and tried to please him. This understanding of Rashi’s Midrashical explanation implies that Jacob tried to scare Esau.

There is another understanding of Rashi’s Midrashical explanation is that by saying: ‘I have observed the 613 Divine Commandments, and I have not learned from his (Laban) evil ways’. Rashi explains that Jacob implied that even though I observed the 613 Divine Commandments, I have not learned from Laban’s “evil ways” meaning the enthusiasm with which Laban served idols. Jacob did not learn and did not apply Laban’s enthusiasm to the observance of 613 Divine Commandments. Therefore, Jacob was saying: I am not so great and Esau should not be jealous of me.

The second explanation does not contradict Ohr HaChaim and Rashi’s first explanations. However, it raises a question why did Rashi give two explanations which mean essentially the same? One reason would be to let us know that our father Jacob was teaching us that even though, it is forbidden to follow the practice of gentiles, it is permitted and necessary to learn the enthusiasm with which the gentiles are connected to the physical world (would it be pursuing entertainments like TV, movies, internet games, gambling in Las Vegas, or supporting their favorite sport team). We should apply this enthusiasm when we fulfilling all 613 commandments and especially the commandment of tzitzis on which all 613 mitzvos depend.

This explanation of Rashi gives us understanding what the KSA means by ‘“Wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs” in tallis. Arabs wrap themselves in their cloth with enthusiasm that the cloth will give them life-force, protect their bodies and rescue them from the external forces.

Now we can give the answers to the 6 questions above:

  1. How do Arabs wrap themselves? – With enthusiasm that the cloth will give them life-force, protect their bodies and rescue them from external forces.
  2. Do they all wrap themselves the same way? – Yes, they are all connected to the physical world the same way.
  3. If they change their way of wrapping should we change also? – They will not change their way until Messiah time.
  4. Why such important miztvah we should learn from Arabs (gentiles)? – Our father Jacob and Rashi say that such important miztvah we should learn from gentiles. Gentiles have a great connection to the physical world, since Evil Inclination does not care to fight it. It is much more difficult for Jews to get the same connection to the Spiritual world, since Evil Inclination fights it tooth and nail.
  5. Why does KSA tell us how to wrap, if we have to learn from Arabs?

If you say: ‘all Arabs wrap the same way’, why there are different customs? – KSA and other customs tell us how physically we should wrap ourselves in tallis according with Jewish customs, to promote the concentration and importance of the mitzvah. KSA defines the process by which we physically wrap ourselves in the tallis, it then further adds that we should “Wrap ourselves in the manner of the Arabs,” as they do, to protect their life-force physically that we apply this focus and concentration spiritually. As Chazal states: “Through the mitzvah of the tzitzis may my life-force, spirit, soul and prayer be rescued from the external forces”.

  1. Why KSA contradicts Laws of Dressing, which forbids following the practice of gentiles, by instructing us: “and wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs”? – That is what our father Jacob and Rashi taught us, when it comes to spiritual matters Scriptures states:  ‘In their ways you shall not follow’ (Leviticus 18:3) and it said: ‘Heed yourself lest you be ensnared to follow them.’ (Deuteronomy 12:30). However, to learn their enthusiasm in connection to the physical world and apply this connection to the spiritual world is permitted and necessary.

May Hashem, Blessed be He, give the Jewish People the deepest understandings of all words of Torah, and an opportunity to fulfill all 613 commandments to their highest degree with the coming of Messiah.

With Hashem’s help,

By Rov Joseph Kon