[1]

והיה לכם לציצת וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות היי

It will be a fringe for you: Look at it and remember all G-d’s commands… [2]

How does looking at the tzitzit/fringes remind us of G-d’s commands? The illustration above explains it, based on Rashi:

שמנין גמטריא של ציצית שש מאות ושמנה חטין וחמשה קשרים הרי תרי”ג

“The tzitzit will remind one of all the mitzvot because the gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew letters of the word “tzitzit” is 600, and there are 8 threads and 5 knots in the fringes, so that you have 613, which is also the number of mitzvot in Torah.” [3]

Yet, the Talmud notes that the Hebrew text doesn’t say look at “them” (plural), but look at “it” (singular), which can also be translated as “look at Him”:

“Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai says [4]: ‘All who do this mitzvah eagerly are worthy to receive the Divine Presence [מקבל פני שכינה] as it’s written here ‘…look upon it [וראיתם אותו]’ and elsewhere [5] ‘…and serve Him [אותו תעבוד]’…” 

Because [אותו] clearly means “Him” in the latter verse, it can be understood to mean it in the verse relating to tzitzit/fringes, too.

“Rabbi Hizkiyahu taught: ‘When the B’nai Yisrael are wrapped in their taleisim, let them [feel]…as though the Shechinah [Divine Presence] were upon them. Torah [2] doesn’t say, ‘…that you may look upon them [אתם]…’ but ‘…that you may look upon ‘it’ or ‘Him’ [אתו], that is, upon Ha-Shem’.” [6]

Which are we to understand? Is looking at tzitzit (fringes) a reminder of G-d, or a reminder of G-d’s commandments?

The contradiction is resolved by a teaching in the Zohar: [*]

דאורייתא כלא שמא דקודשא בריך הוא וכל את דאורייתא מתקשרא בשמא קדישא

“…Torah is wholly the Name of HKBH; every letter is bound up with the Holy Name.” [7]

Remembering the mitzvot is (or can be) remembering G-d. What G-d “says” and “does” is in no way separate from or other than what G-d is. But in the end, the connection with G-d is in consciousness; in spiritual recognition. Some even say ‘in the beginning’:

“Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: “…one should accept first the [yoke of the] Kingdom of Heaven and…afterwards the yoke of the commandments” [Mishnah Berachot 2:2]…one must first get one’s relationship with G-d straight before beginning to observe His commandments.” [8]

Does this teaching — “Torah is the Name of G-d” — seem “obscure,” even if “traditional”? It shouldn’t. When we open the aron to remove the sefer Torah, we recite “B’rich Sh’mei” — “Bless the Name…” It would seem that we’re thanking G-d for Torah, until we recall that the Zohar is the source of those words. Given that context, it becomes clear that we’re blessing G-d for being present to us as Torah: Torah is the Name.

If we’re still not sure, then let’s ask — Why do we sing/recite “Eitz Chaim He…” when the sefer Torah is returned to the aron? Weren’t we forbidden from eating of the “Eitz Chaim” as far back as Gan Eden? Again, we must remember that in Kabbalah, “Eitz Chaim” is also used as a metaphorical name for the diagram of the process of Divine Emanation through the sefirot. 

“The Tree of Life, or ‘Eitz Chaim’ (עץ חיים)…is a…diagrammatic representation of the process by which the Universe came into being [and of the perennial inter-play between the Divine and Creation]…” [9]

Torah is “the Name”; Torah is the “Eitz Chaim.” So, as before, “Eitz Chaim,” sung as the sefer Torah is returned to the aron in synagogue, really refers to the Ever-Creating-G-d-Who-is-Present-in-Creation, manifest as the letters of Torah. (Note: We don’t worship a physical sefer Torah. That would be avodah zarah/idolatry. Instead, we honor and respect it for what it is in essence).  

Only in their outer, “visible” aspect, do the mitzvot appear as something separate from G-d. In their inner aspect, they’re united with Divine Being. Doing any mitzvah, we are, in fact, joining ourselves with the “Name of G-d.” This becomes clearer to us as we gain higher awareness of the Divine interpenetrating Creation. In its highest stages, it’s even expressed as “ein od” — nothing really exists other than G-d, at all.

But our hearts can sense it, even now.

When we look at a photo of someone we love — a parent, a spouse, a child — our hearts melt. We don’t tell ourselves, “It’s only some chemicals smeared on a piece of paper” — even though that’s “true” on a literal level.

To our hearts, the picture is linked to the person; is the person; reawakens the experience of that person’s love for us, and ours for them — until we’re reunited so truly in the real presence of that person again, that the picture is no longer needed as a “memento.” Yet, even when sitting and embracing our beloved, pictures — by causing us to recall special moments — can intensify the love.

“It is truly through the wearing of the tzitzit that our clothes become bigdei kehunah [priest’s clothing], and that we are able to be like Kohanim.  Kohanim whose sphere of activity is not limited to the Temple, but…who wash their hands each morning, prepared to serve God and to bring kedusha in[to] the world.” [10]

Such are the mitzvot; especially tzitzit. A reminder, confirmed by direct person-al experience (e.g. in meditation), that Creation is permeated with — never separate from — the Loving Divine; is the Loving Divine. 

Look at the tzitzit, then, and remember…

                                         [11]

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[1] © 2010 by Rabbi Eli Mallon. All rights preserved. Do not use, copy, or reproduce without written permission.
[2] Bamidbar/Numbers 15:39
[3] Rashi on Bamidbar/Numbers 15:39. Thanks to Rabbi D. Linzer for the citation. Rashi’s comment is itself based on a Baraita “this mitzvah is equal to all the other mitzvot together” (Men. 43b). Note that in order for “tzitzit” to equal “400,” Rashi has to add a second “yud,” as the Hebrew of Torah spells it [ציצת] — i.e. with one “yud.” Without his doing that, the gematria would equal “390” instead of “400.” He does it without adding a consonant (thereby changing the root) by elongating the second vowel, necessitating the additional “yud.” He then counts the “yud” as a consonant equal to “10,” even though, strictly speaking, it’s functioning here as part of a vowel:
“Hiriq (חִירִיק‎‎) is a Hebrew vowel sign represented by a dot [“.”] underneath the letter. In modern Hebrew, it indicates the phoneme…”ee”…[A] Hiriq is often promoted to Hiriq Male (חִירִיק מָלֵא‎) [for grammatical reasons]…A Hiriq Male is a Yud [“י”] preceded by a letter with a hiriq [“.”] and in writing without niqqudot/vowels, the hiriq is omitted, leaving only the Yud [“י”]…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiriq 
[4] Menachot 43b
[5] D’varim/Deut. 6:13
[6] Midrash Tehillim 2:99
[*] Following Rabbi Yishmael’s 13th principle (intro. to Sifra; recited as part of the traditional Shachrit/Morning service): A contradiction between two verses can be resolved by a third verse.
[7] Zohar; Soncino Publishers; vol. V (English ed.), p. 73 (parshah Acharei Mot); see also http://www2.kabbalah.com/k/index.php/p=zohar/zohar&vol=32&sec=1167 (# 296)
[8] Bivin, David; http://blog.jerusalemperspective.com/archives/000011.html
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life_(Kabbalah) The liturgical verse that mentions “Etz Hayim” is borrowed from Mishlei/Proverbs 3:18. There, the “Tree of Life” is a metaphor for “Wisdom.” The term was more recently borrowed from the liturgy as the title of the commentary on the chumash produced by the Conservative movement, but without Kabbalistic reference or connotation.
[10] Linzer, Rabbi Dov; http://www.the-daf.com/talmud-conceptual/menachot-43-tzitzit-and-priestly-garments/
[11] Karaite tzitzit; http://www.karaite-korner.org/tzitzit.shtml The Karaites, in not accepting the authority of the rabbinic tradition, consequently don’t accept the rabbinic prohibition against including a “blue thread,” as mandated in Torah. However, there have also been some modern rabbinic arguments for re-introducing the “blue thread”: “Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1888 – 1959) succeeded Rav Abraham Isaac Kook from 1937 until his death in 1959 as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine and of Israel after its independence in 1948.
After mastering Talmudic studies at a young age, he went on to attend the Sorbonne and later the University of London, where he received his doctorate. His thesis, which made him famous in the Jewish world, concerned his claim of re-discovering Techelet, the type of blue dye once used for the making of Tzitzit.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitzhak_HaLevi_Herzog