It's a good thing my rabbinic smicha wasn't contingent on my sewing skills. That was the thought which kept going through my head as I struggled with carefully snipping seams (without snipping fabric), placing careful stitches to keep the seams from unravelling further, and then stitching four squares of folded fabric to make reinforced corners. I am not a seamstress, so this pushed the limits of my sewing capabilities. My stitches are far from beautiful or even. But they're functional, and that's what matters. Then I lined up threads in groups of four -- three short, one long -- and pushed them through the reinforced corners. And then I twisted them and tied them.1 By the time I was done, I had made myself a tallit katan.
Next week I'm going to be teaching my fifth-through-seventh-grade class about the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of tzitzit: wearing fringes on our garments. In theory they should already be familiar with this one. They've seen adults wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) in shul. And every Saturday morning, in the third paragraph of the Shema, we pray the verses which instruct us to place fringes on the corners of our garments in order that we might remember the commandments, and the Exodus from Egypt, and our relationship with God. Here's the way I usually sing them (the translation is designed to be singable to the same trope melody as the Hebrew):
And God spoke to Moses saying: speak to the children of Israel and say to them
that they should make tzitzit on the corners of their garments for all time,
and they shall place on the tzitzit a little thread of blue.
And these shall be for you as tzitzit, that you may look upon them,
that you will remember all of the mitzvot of Adonai and you shall do them,
so that you will not go running after the cravings of your heart
or the turnings of your eyes which might take you into places where you should not be!
So that you may remember and do all of My mitzvot, and be holy like your God.
I am Adonai your God,
the One Who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God.
I am Adonai your God!
(These verses are part of Jewish daily prayer too, though most of my students have never experienced weekday davenen.) But just because we sing the words all the time -- even given that I sing these particular words in English to make sure they're understood, and hold up my own tzitzit as a visual aid -- that doesn't necessarily mean that my students have ever paid attention, or thought about what the mitzvah means. I want to change that.
Sometimes I offer the translation created by Reb Zalman (may his memory be a blessing.) His rendering is a little bit different from the one with which most of us grew up, and I love it. Like all of his liturgical renderings, it's rooted deep in the Hebrew from which it derives:
ה׳ Who Is said to Moshe
"Speak, telling the Yisrael folks to make tzitzit
on the corners of their garments,
so they will have generations to follow them.
On each tzitzit-tassel let them set a blue thread.
Glance at it and in your seeing
remember all of the other directives of ה׳ who Is,
and act on them!
This way you will not be led astray,
craving to see and want,
and then prostitute yourself for your cravings.
This way you will be mindful to actualize my directions
for becoming dedicated to your God,
to be aware that I AM ה׳ who is your God --
the One who freed you from the oppression
in order to God you.
I am ה׳ your God."
If I were to present these two texts in an adult education class, we would probably have a fascinating conversation: about the two translations, about the Hebrew words behind them, about the mitzvah of tzitzit and how we might understand it as liberal Jews today. But I wanted to give my ten-through-twelve-year-olds a different relationship with the words, something more experiential.
It would be neat to teach the kids how to tie tzitzit, was my first thought. That way if we ever want to make tallitot with the kids who are becoming bar or bat mitzvah, they could tie their own fringes on the edges of their decorated cloth. But then I realized that teaching them to tie tzitzit for that purpose was probably premature. Most of the kids in this mixed-age-group class won't be ascending to that lifecycle event this year, and a tallit is only worn by those of bar or bat mitzvah age or older.
And then I thought: hey, there's another way to fulfill this mitzvah! The variant with which most liberal Jews are familiar is the fringed prayer shawl called a tallit (or tallis -- one is Sefardic / modern Hebrew pronunciation, the other is Ashkenazic pronunciation, but they're the same word.) Tallitot come in a variety of styles and shapes. (I myself own several. My mother has been known to say that one can't have too many shoes; my variation on that theme is that one can't have too many tallitot!) But there's another way to wear fringes: on a tallit katan ("little tallit), a fringed undergarment, which unlike the tallit gadol is worn all day long.
And also unlike a tallit gadol ("big tallit"), a tallit katan can be worn before one comes of age. In some communities boys begin wearing them at the age of three. By that metric, my group of ten-to-twelve-year-olds is well overdue! In Orthodox settings, of course, the tallit katan is worn only by boys and men. (In that same paradigm, the tallit gadol is worn only by men, too.) But in the liberal Jewish world I inhabit, people of all genders can wear tallit gadol for prayer... and there are people of all genders who have taken on the mitzvah of wearing fringes all day every day, as well.
I remembered that Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg had written something about how to make a tallit katan for a woman's body, so I dug up her instructions. Before I made them with the kids, I wanted to make my own, first. I needed to do it before I asked them to do it, both so that I would be a more effective help to them in the nitty-gritty of the stitching and tying, and also so that I wouldn't be asking them to do something I hadn't myself been willing to do. Because I didn't want the journey to end with tying the knots. Making the tallit katan would be part one of the project. Part two would be wearing it throughout at least one day in the coming week, and then reporting back to the class about how it had felt to wear this palpable reminder of Jewishness, of the mitzvot, and of God all day long.
Of course, wearing visible fringes can be chutzpahdik. In some religious settings, if I were wearing fringes, someone might stop me and challenge my my entitlement to take on the mitzvah because I am female. In some secular settings, someone might stop me and say "what are those?" because they've never seen such a thing in their life. (I've had both of those experiences while wearing a kippah.) I don't want to give my kids an assignment which could lead to them feeling ostracized or uncomfortably weird, or perhaps even being bullied. So I did a bit of studying and confirmed that wearing fringes doesn't necessarily have to be a visible act. (Granted, many authorities will argue that we ought to let our fringes hang out, but there are also interpretations which hold that tallit katan represents one's inner relationship with God and therefore can be kept private.)
There are people who keep tzitzit tucked away. Certainly if one's safety would be compromised by wearing this visible sign of Jewishness, then it's okay to conceal it. As far as I'm concerned, that includes emotional safety as well as physical safety. Each of my students will make their own decision about what feels right and comfortable for them. I suspect that they will choose to wear their fringes inside their clothes, and that's okay. It's hard enough being different when you're an adolescent, and when you're one of only a handful of Jewish kids in your school, the otherness can be challenging even without a visible reminder of difference. But even if they wear the fringes in a hidden way, they'll be reminded of them as they go about their day, and I think that will be an interesting experience in all four worlds -- physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.
At least, that was my theory. Would it be borne out in practice? There was only one way to find out. And I would find out along with them by wearing tallit katan one day, too -- though of course as The Local Rabbi in a smalltown community, I'm accustomed to being visible as a Jew, so letting my fringes fly didn't seem as scary to me as it might to them. Still, I was excited to explore this new experience. How might wearing fringes feel different from, and also similar to, wearing a kippah? Would it feel different if I made a point of entering into secular spaces (the grocery store, e.g., or the town coffee shop) than it would if I were only walking around the shul? Would tzitzit feel different from a kippah in those non-Jewish spaces? Would I find myself explaining and teaching more than usual? Would that be fun for me, or frustrating, or both?
I learned from Rabbi Marcia Prager the following rule of thumb for exploring a new practice: doing it once is an experiment; doing it a second time is a way to test the experience one had the first time; and doing it a third time is a commitment to continue with the practice. She offered that teaching in the context of a conversation about adults trying on new Jewish practices, and I like her rubric. For kids, I think there's even more flexibility. Especially in the years leading up to bar or bat mitzvah, I want our kids to be thinking about what Judaism means to them and experimenting with different forms of Jewish practice. I think this tzitzit experiment is a good way for my students to live out one of the core values of Reform Judaism: making informed choices bout one's own Jewish practice.
(And, of course, any decision one makes at the age of ten, eleven, or twelve can and should be revisited over the course of one's life! But I like the idea of empowering my students to learn about a mitzvah and to have a direct experience of that mitzvah, even if their decision-making at this age isn't binding for life.)
I don't think that wearing tallit katan is something my students will take on as a daily practice. I don't think it's something I'm going to take on, either. But it's a piece of Jewish practice I have long wanted to try out. And I know that many mitzvot operate on an experiential level more than on an intellectual one. Intellectually I can tell you why it's nice to light Shabbat candles; experientially, the feeling I have while lighting them far transcends that intellectual explanation. (I've written about that before: To Do is To Understand.) So I'm open to the possibility that wearing tzitzit all day will be a transformative experience in ways I don't intellectually expect beforehand.
In any event, even if my students don't wear their tzitzit again after their one-day experiment, I imagine that the embodied experience of tying them and wearing them for a day will be more memorable than any lesson or lecture I could offer. And I am already glad to have given my fingers the experience of tying these holy knots, this metaphysical string-around-the-finger, meant to remind me of connection with the Holy One of Blessing.
1. How did I tie them? There are many different methods for tying tzitzit. (Here are a few of them.) Next time I have the chance, I aspire to learn Reb Zalman's method, which features both white threads and tchelet (blue threads) and knots instead of merely twists. But for my first set of tzitzit, and for this class project, I'm using a simple and fairly standard Ashkenazic method as outlined in the First Jewish Catalogue. You can see that technique illustrated in the image which accompanies this post. In every variation I know of, the strings and knots and windings are given meaning; often the number of twists is correlated to the phrase Adonai Echad, "God is One," in gematria, Hebrew letter-math.↩