Once more, with pigment
January 30, 2018
Tying tzitzit has become one of my favorite mitzvot. It's funny to remember that a mere four years ago the practice was new to me. I learned how to tie tzitzit in order to try out the mitzvah of wearing a tallit katan, the "small tallit" that some Jews wear in order to fulfill the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of wearing tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments.
I tried out the mitzvah myself in order to feel good about asking my students to do so, too. In those days I taught the fifth through seventh grade class at my shul. I wanted my students to learn how to tie tzitzit and to have the experience of wearing them, but they weren't yet old enough to take on the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the "big tallit" that adult Jews wear to pray.
In some shuls, tallit gadol is worn by kids of any age when they come up to the bimah to lead a prayer or song, but in my community the minhag -- custom -- is for tallit gadol to be formally taken on at b'nei mitzvah time as part of taking on an "adult" relationship with mitzvot. So we made tallit katan, and everyone tried it out and shared what it was like. (Here's the post I wrote then, about making my own tallit katan, and trying the mitzvah myself before assigning it to my students: String theory.)
In more recent years, the seventh graders have designed and decorated tallit gadol, a process that culminates in tying on the fringes that make it a ritual garment. But this year I'm working again with kids who have some time before their celebrations... so this year's "tallisareum" (a term I borrowed from Reb Zalman z"l) is a tallit-katan-making enterprise again.
In the years since I first learned to tie tzitzit in order to teach my students, I've learned Reb Zalman's mode of tying tzitzit, with the spiraling knots that make a diagonal line down the rows of seven and eight and eleven and thirteen knots. And I've learned more about different customs around colorful tzitzit.
The text from Torah that instructs us to wear tzitzit also instructs us to include a thread of blue. I asked my students what they thought that might represent. Their first thoughts were "sky" and "sea," which turn out to be exactly right: the blue represents the water of the sea, which represents the sapphire of the sky, which represents the sparkling floor described in Torah beneath the divine throne. (Actually Torah says it was like a sapphire floor, but not actually a sapphire floor. Nava Tehila wrote a beautiful setting for that verse. In any event, the blue reminds us of sea and sky and God.)
I've also seen the custom of including a green thread among the fringes on one's tzitzit. I asked them what they thought that might represent, and they suggested green growing things. Right again: the green thread is aimed at reminding us of our obligation to care for the environment. (I learned that from Rabbi Hanna Tiferet some years ago.) That seems particularly appropriate this week as we approach Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, a festival that reminds us to care for the earth.
And finally there's the custom of including pink and blue threads, representing the pink and blue colors of the transgender flag -- a reminder that we are all created in the Divine image regardless of gender or gender expression; a reminder of our obligation to treat people of all genders with kindness and respect. I learned that from my friend, teacher, and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz (you can see a photo of his beautiful trans inclusion tzitzit on his website.)
When my students tied their tzitzit on their tallit katan this year, each of them chose a different combination of threads. Some wanted trans inclusion colors. Some wanted earth / environment awareness colors. Some wanted the darker blue of the sea and sky. I love that they all made their own choices about what they want their fringes to remind them: not just that they are Jews, not just of the mitzvot writ large, but specific mitzvot of creation care and trans inclusion and remembrance of the Holy.
The assignment, once the tzitzit are tied, is the same as ever: wear it at least once, and report back on what it was like. Each student can make their own choice about whether or not to visibly display their fringes. (Based on what previous classes have reported, the experience of walking around for a day with tzitzit on is a consciousness-raiser even if the fringes are tucked in.) I can't wait to hear what they teach me about whether and how their color choices impact their experience of this mitzvah.