Learning from the Tzitzit

If you’ve learned much of anything about Judaism, you know about the commandment to wear tassels on the corners of one’s garments in Numbers 15:37-41, which Jewish men still do today. In Jesus’ time, tzitziyot (plural of tzitzit) were worn all the time, and some Orthodox still do. Others wear them only on prayer shawls during times of prayer and worship.I used to think they were just a silly legalism, but it turns out that they are deeply significant and are full of meaning. (I wrote about this before.) In ancient times, tassels were a sign of nobility, and blue dye a sign of priesthood. God was giving the Jews a special uniform to wear to make them stand out as his representatives, a nation of priests. He tells them that when they look at their tassels it will remind them to be obedient – since everyone knows how they’re supposed to live. What a tough thing to be told to always wear a uniform that says that you represent a holy God!

In Jesus’ time they were quite simple, but at some point a tradition of winding elaborate knots began. Various patterns in the knots and windings point to the 4 letters of God’s name, the 5 books of the Torah, the 613 commandments, etc. At one point in time the need for one blue strand was dropped when the dye became extremely expensive. (All of these details are just tradition, but they really are beautiful and wise.)

Despite all of these beautiful customs about tzitziot, one observation about them has always bugged me. Since before Jesus’ time they’ve been considered the holiest part of one’s garment (which is why the woman grasped Jesus’ tassels), and like every Jewish holy thing, they are made with great care. So why is it that they always hang down at random lengths, one or two strings much longer, the rest at all different lengths too? Considering how much emphasis that they place on beautifying God’s commands, I find this really surprising. It used to bug me every time I looked at them. I had a huge urge to go around with a scissors and give everyone a trim.

If you can’t tell, this kind of silly observation about tzitzit only comes from someone who has a problem with perfectionism – who sees things around her that need to be “corrected” and spends way too long doing everything so that it is “just so.” Who can even sacrifice the feelings of others for the sake of having things perfect, and insists on having everything her way, the only perfect way.

Then I learned a lesson by finding out more. The reason they are not trimmed is because once they are completely wound together, they become holy. A person prays before and during their making, and as they work, they are producing an object dedicated to God’s use. As soon as they are done, a scissors cannot touch them — they are to be used as they are, uneven lengths and all.

What I learned from the tzitzit is that these little objects become holy to God in all their imperfection. In all their scraggly-looking unevenness, God calls them “done.” He likes them the way they are, and doesn’t want them trimmed any more.

To me it is a lesson that holiness is not the same as earthly perfection. That once God gives us a task to do and we accomplish it, it becomes holy and special to him, warts and all. Often he even uses the warts to his glory. I think it’s just human pride to get angry at yourself for not being perfect – why do you think you even could?

Now when I look at my bathroom wallpapering job and see seams that don’t quite butt together and bumps in the wall underneath, I proclaim it good enough, beautiful as it is, and enjoy the fact that God has given me the skills to do as well as I did.

It’s very freeing to let God be perfect, and not have to be perfect myself.

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Published in: on May 24, 2007 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)  

One Comment

  1. Fantastic writing, Lois! Great insights! This would make an excellent chapter in one of your books. Love the personal example. — marylin


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