Menachot 43b: Tzitzit – Sin, Mitzvot, and Identity

The Gemara on Menachot 43b-44a records R. Meir’s statement that a person (i.e., a man) must make three blessings every day, “… that God has not made me a non-Jew,” “… that God has not made me a woman,” and “… that God has not made me an ignoramus.”  

[Note: We will discuss in the next post the problematics of "shelo asani isha"]

This statement of R. Meir is mentioned after another statement of his that a person must make 100 blessings each day.  These two statements are, of course, of a similar theme, but they do not appear to be connected to the theme of the sugya, which is the mitzvah of tzitzit.  Rather, they are both quoted after two statements of his regarding tzitzit.  The first one describes how the symbolism of the techelet - that its blue is similar to the blue of the ocean, which is similar to the blue of the sky, which is similar to the blue of God’s heavenly throne.  His next statement is that the sin for a person who does not do the mitzvah of the white strings of tzitzit is greater than that for a person who does not do the mitzvah of techelet, since it is a lot easier to do the former than the latter.  Thus, it seems that we have a listing of statements of R. Meir, the last two not being relevant to the major theme, but quoted as part of a grouping of R. Meir’s statements.

However, since R. Meir made many statements, and these four were specifically were grouped together, the presumably are – in some way - interrelated.  Also, it should be noted that in the Tosefta in Berkahot 6:18 the statement of the three “personal status” blessings is made in the name of R. Yehudah, not R. Meir.  It is possible that our Gemara’s quoting it in the name of R. Meir reflects not just a random different tradition, but a tradition that specifically connected these two statements with the other two of R. Meir.

The connection between the two pairs of statements would seem to be on that goes to the heart of the mitzvah of tzitzit.  What is the purpose of tzitzit?  The Torah tells us: “… and you will see it, and you will remember all the mitzvot of God and do them, and you will not stray after your heart and after your eyes, which you lustily stray (lit. ‘fornicate’) after.”  Tzitzit, then, are a reminder to spur us to do mitzvot and a reminder to protect us against doing sins.  Which of these two – doing mitzvot or not sinning – is primary is, I believe, implicitly debated in some of the various statements in the sugya.

Let us examine what has been said in the Gemara until this point regarding tzitzit.  The Gemara earlier on 43b, asked the verse means us to remember when we look at the tzitzit. One opinion states that it is the Shema, whereas the other states that it is the prohibition against shatnez.  The Shema, of course, is about loving God and learning Torah constantly – with the emphasis on the doing.   When we go into the larger world, and we may be led astray, the tzitzit will remind us to love God, to learn Torah, to emphasize our commitments through doing all the mitzvot of God.  In contrast to the Shema, shatnez represents that most arbitrary of the negative prohibitions, one that, according to another source, the “non-Jews mock us for.”  So, if we are going to go out in the world, where there will be forces that will take us away from our commitments, that will mock us and lead us into sin, we will need the tzitzit as a constant visual reminder to observe and not transgress – to even observe the prohibition of shatnez.

These two contrasting emphases are also given voice in the next passage of the Gemara which discusses the power of observing the three ritual mitzvot of the Kriat Shema – teffilin, mezuzah, and tzitzit.  The Gemara first quotes a braitta that opens with the statement”Dear is Israel that God has surrounded them with mitzvot,” and continues to tell a story about King David in the bathhouse, who, upon seeing himself naked, and naked of these mitzvot, he became downcast, until he remembered the brit milah, which was always upon him, and his mind was set at ease.  Immediately after this braitta, the Gemara then quotes the statement of R. Eliezer ben Yaakov that the three mitzvot of teffilin, mezuzah, and tzitzit are a “threefold cord which is not easily broken” (Kohelet 3:12), and will stand as a sure protection against sin.   Now, this latter statement is clearly emphasizing tzitzit as a protection against sin.  In contrast, the emphasis of the first statement is not on avoiding sin, but on the opportunity for mitzvot – “God has surrounded them with mitzvot.”

So far, so good.  But I believe the first statement goes beyond just emphasizing tzitzit as a visual spur to performing mitzvot.  The first statement is saying something not just about action, but about identity.  Our tzitzit are on our clothes, and our clothes in many ways define our identity, define who we are.  (Consider the Gemara on 43a, that one cannot sell a garment with tzitzit to a non-Jew, because it will allow him to appear as a Jew.)  When we wear tzitzit on our garments, and teffilin on our heads, we are giving full expression to our Jewish identity.  And although a mezuzah is not clothing for us it is, in a way, clothing for the house.  And when our homes have mezuzot on them, then they become Jewish homes.  These mitzvot, then, define us (and our homes) as Jewish – we are dear to God; our relationship to God is manifest on our person.  Then comes the story of King David.  King David became dispirited when he realized that this identity can be shed.  We can be outside of our homes, we can not have these garments with us.  In such a case, what will define us as Jewish?  Then he remember the brit milah.  For him, and for all male Jews, our identity is inscribed in our flesh.  Our identity as a people with a covenant to God is always upon us.  [Obviously, this leaves unadressed the issue of women, who do not have such a mark inscribed in their flesh, and who are not obligated in teffilin and tzitzit.  For now we will bracket this and acknowledge that the Gemara is speaking from the perspective of men.]

Tzitzit, then, as they are on our garments, and become our “second skin,” define our identity as God’s people.  What is the nature of this identity?  What does it say about who we are?  While I grant that our identity could be defined as persons – a People – who avoid sin, it seems more intuitive that an identity would emphasize what we do, not what we avoid.   It would seem, then, that this concept of identity is linked to the concept of tzitzit reminding and spurring us to act, to do “all the mitzvot of Hashem.”  If we are choosing to actively express our Jewish identity by what we wear, then we will also give expression to that identity by what we do in this world, not by what we avoid.

So now, to the last passage in the Gemara.  This passage starts with the four statements of R. Meir mentioned above, and then concludes with a statement of R. Natan who relates the famous story of how tzitzit protected a person from sinning with a prostitute.  The reward of the mitzvah of tzitzit is so great, says R. Natan, that in the end, because this person did not sin, the prostitute was so impressed with this man’s convictions that she converted to Judaism and in the end married this man.   The point of this story of R. Natan is clear – tzitzit are a protection against sin.  Perhaps this story with the prostitute is meant as a literal application of the verse: “You shall not stray after your eyes and after your heart which you whore after.”   Of course, it is very hard to demand from someone to stay on the straight and narrow.  It means giving up a lot of freedom, and a lot of opportunities for pleasure.  Or, as Ophelia would have it:

But, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

Whiles, like a puff’ d and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,

And reaks not his own rede

(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3)

How, then, can one be encouraged to stay on this difficult “steep and thorny way to heaven”?  Tzitzit of course serve as a reminder, but beyond that, R. Natan teaches, you will reap your reward in this world.  While you must give up empty pleasures, leading a life of meaning, purpose, and restraint will lead to deeper, more satisfying pleasures.  The man, in the end, wound up marrying the prostitute, and then what they had together was not just sex, but was a deep and meaningful relationship.  That is the promise that tzitzit hold out, says Rav Natan, if you can avoid sin and stay on the straight and narrow.

So, with Rav Natan we have again an emphasis on tzitzit as a protection against sin.  The Gemara, then, is structured in the following way:

A1.  Tzitzit remind one of the Shema

B1. Tzitzit remind one of shatnez

A2. Tzitzit (and tefillin and mezuzah) means being surrounded by mitzvot, Israel is dear to God, and they are markers (and makers) of our identity

B2. Tzitzit are a “threefold cord” which protects us against sin

A3. The four statements of R. Meir

B3. Rav Natan – tzitzit protect one from sin and protected the man from sinning with the prostitute

The first of these statements, the “A”s, emphasize tzitzit‘s role to spur action, and to form identity, whereas the second one of each pair, the “B”s, emphasize tzitzit as a protection against sin.

So now we turn to R. Meir’s statements, ones which we can expect will emphasize tzitzit’s role in terms of action and identity.  And, lo and behold, the first statement of R. Meir is that the techelet reminds us of the blue of the ocean, the sky, and finally God.  This statement says more than just that techelet makes us think about God.  It says that the way we think about God is through connecting things we see in this world to God.   As the Keren Orah states (Menachot 43b):

 ובירושלמי (ברכות פ”א ה”ב) איתא וים דומה לעשבים, ועשבים דומה לרקיע, ורקיע דומה לכסא הכבוד, יכוין כי הצבע הזה יביא את האדם להתבוננות מלכותו ית’ בכל משלה, והן ברואי הארץ היינו עשבים בכללם, והים אשר הוא חלק המים והרקיע כולם (אין) [עין] אחד להם הכל נשפע מכסא כבוד מלכותו ית’ זכרו לנצח נצחים, וראיה זו מביא לידי זכירה להיות פחד אלהים לנגד עיניו, וה’ הוא הא-להים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד.

And in the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:2) it states “and the ocean’s blue is similar to grass, and grass to the sky, and the sky to the heavenly chariot.”  The intent is that this color (of techelet) brings a person to contemplation on God’s dominion in the entire world.  Through looking at the earth, including the grass, and the ocean, which is part of the water, and the sky – and will see that they all have one appearance, that they are all the overflowing of the heavenly chair of God, then this seeing will bring to a remembering, so that the fear of God is always in front of his eyes, and that God is the true God in the heavens above and the land below, there is no other.

According to Keren Orah, then, the point is not just that these colors allow us to associate and get to God, that they work “going up,” as it were, but they also work “going down.” By connecting things in the world to God, these associations allow us to see how everything in the world comes from God, and to see God in every blade of grass and every drop of water.  Now, while Keren Orah translates this religious experience into one of fear of God, it is more logical to associate it with love of God.  If we see God in every blade of grass, and are always thinking of, and appreciating God, then we will be spurred to act Godly in the world, and to bring God into all of our actions.  Thus, the first statement of R. Meir is, I believe, directly related to tzitzit as a way to see God in the world,  and as a spur to perform mitzvot in the world.

The next statement of R. Meir complements the first, and sees the role of tzitzit to be that of a marker of our identity.   To whom is the person who does not do the white strands to compared?  To a servant whose King told him to make and wear a seal of clay, and who did not make it.  As Tosafot (s.v. Chotam) explains:

מה שמדמה חותם של טיט לציצית שכן עושין לעבדים והציצית מעיד על ישראל שהם עבדי הקב”ה

The reason the Gemara compares a seal of clay to tzitzit is because such seals are made for slaves (to identify whose slave they are), and tzitzit testify regarding Israel that they are servants of God.

So, according to R. Meir, tzitzit encourage us to see God in the world, to perform the mitzvot, and mark us as God’s people.  Perhaps this is what he also means by saying that the sin of the one who does not perform the mitzvah of techelet is not as bad as that of not performing the white strands.  To not have techelet is to not achieve the experience of seeing God in every blade of grass.  That is the ideal, but it is also not achievable by all.  However, to not have the white strings is to not even have the “seal of clay,” the basic marker of one’s identity.  That is the most fundamental role of tzitzit, and to not do that, to not mark oneself as God’s people, cannot be forgiven.

So now we have the last two statements of R. Meir regarding the blessings.   First, one is to say 100 blessings every day.  What is the purpose of this?  It is, it would seem, the way to fulfil the verse he uses to derive this requirement: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”  (Deut 10:12).  How can one achieve such a lofty goal?  Says R. Meir: “By making blessings all the time, by making 100 blessings each day.”  As Keren Orah says:

דעיקר הכוונה בברכה להדבק בו יתברך בכל ברכה וברכה… ש”מ דמאה ברכות בכל יום המה חיובי למען הדבק בו זכרון השם הגדול ואהבתו ויראתו

The primary goal of a brakha is to cleave to God through each and every blessings … thus, we see that the 100 brakhot are obligatory, so that a person may cleave to the thought of God’s great name, and to the love of God and the fear of God.

These blessings, then, when made over not only mitzvot and prayer, but also on eating, smelling, and seeing the beauty of nature, are the way to see, feel, and experience God in the world.   These blessings are a way to achieve the same goal as the tzitzit  - how can one see God in the world?  By wearing tzitzit.  Or, since it is possible to not wear tzitzit, if one is not wearing a four-cornered garment or is a woman, and hence exempt from tzitzit, then one can experience God in the world by making 100 blessings each day.

And now to R. Meir’s statement of the three status brakhot.  These blessings are all about declaring and acknowledging one’s status.   Like tzitzit, they serve, through verbal declaration rather than through a physical act, as a way of owning one’s Jewish responsibility and one’s obligation in mitzvot.  Now, the idea of a threefold status blessing did not originate with R. Meir.  As is recorded by Hermipus in his Lives, the story is told of Plato, that every day he would thank God:

First, that I was born a human being, and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly that I was born a Greek and not a barbarian.

[This is also recorded as: "I thank the gods for having been born a Greek and not a foreigner, a man and not a woman, free and not a slave, but above all for having been born during the time of Socrates." ]

The parallel to the statement of R. Meir is obvious, and it speaks to the importance of acknowledging one’s status and the responsibilities that come with it.  Thus, R. Meir’s original statement did not mention slaves, but rather not having been created an ignoramus.  The reason for this is stated clearly in the Tosefta:

בור שאין בור ירא חטא אשה שאין הנשים חייבות במצות

“[Not an] ignoramus, because an ignoramus does not fear sin, and [not a] woman, because women are not obligated in mitzvot (sic!).

The status of being a male, knowledgeable Jew is the status of being fully obligated in mitzvot and having the ability to perform them.  This, says R. Meir, is what one must acknowledge through his blessings.  A hundred blessings, like the techelet, is a way of seeing God in the world, but also, minimally, the three status blessings, like the white strings of the tzitzit, are a way of affirming one’s Jewish identity, an identity that connects one to God and to one’s obligations in this world.

The structure then of the 4 statements of R. Meir, become a sub-structure in the overall structure of the sugya, with the last 2 paralleling the first 2.  We thus have:

A3. The four statements of R. Meir – Tzitzit are about doing and identity

a1.  Techelet reminds one of God (and seeing God in this world)
b1.  White strands are more basic, and represent a ownership seal that a master puts on a slave (=identity)

a2.  One must make 100 blessings, in order to bring about “a love of God, and to serve God with all our heart and all our soul”
b2. One must make 3 status blessings to acknowledge one’s status and identity as a Jew who is obligated in all mitzvot.

B3. Rav Natan - tzitzit protect one against sin and protected the man from sinning with the prostitute

So tzitzit protect us from sin, spur us to do mitzvot, and, perhaps most significantly, mark our Jewish identity. Of course, as stated parenthetically above, all of this leaves open the question of women. What does it mean not to have these markers of identity, to hear men make the blessing “… that God has not made me a woman,” and not have a comprable brakha to affirm and celebrate their status? These are difficult questions indeed, to which I believe there are no easy answers. In the next post we hope to continue this discussion.

About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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