Friday, June 19, 2009

Shelah Lekha (Zohar)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to the blog at June 2006.

The Zohar on Tzitzit

This week I shall depart from our regular framework this year, in which I have presented translations from what is referred to by scholars as guf ha-Zohar, “the main body of the Zohar”; instead, I shall bring a passage from Ra’ya Mehemna (lit, “the Faithful Shepherd,” an appellation for Moshe Rabbenu), a section or stratum of the Zohar which, while traditionally printed in standard editions of the Zohar (going back to the earliest printed editions in Mantua and Cremona around 1558), is generally agreed to be from another hand. Many think that it is by the same author, or in even event from the same milieu, as Tikkunei ha-Zohar, a separate book with seventy tikkunim, chapters based on combinations of the opening word of the Torah, Bereshit. Ra’ya Mehemna is especially interested in the subject of ta’amei ha-mitzvot, the rationales and explanations for the mitzvot of the Torah. Hence, we shall present here a selection from its discussion of tzitzit, a mitzvah which forms a familiar part of daily Jewish practice that appears in the concluding section of this week’s parashah. Zohar III:174b-175a:

Tzitzit. This commandment is so as to remember all the commandments of the Torah on its account, as it says, “and you shall see it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Num 15:39). And this is the sign of the king, to remember and to serve Him. It is written, “and you shall make a golden frontlet (tzitz)” (Exod 28:36). And we have learned that the secret of the tzitz is to adorn the high priest, and that certainly it [is called] tzitz, that the eyes may gaze upon it, as it is a sign of the Upper World with which the high priest is adorned. And for that reason, gazing upon it atones for arrogance (azut panim), for before Him there can only be a truthful face, the secret of all those supernal faces that are faces of truth, included in “the truth of Jacob.

Ra’ya Mehemna opens by noting a generally overlooked linguistic similarity between the word ציצית, the fringes tied onto the four corners of the garment, and ציץ, tzitz, the golden frontlet engraved with the words קודש לה' (“holy to the Lord”), which was part of the golden vestments worn by the High Priest. The similarity in names betrays an analogous function, according to this passage: they are both meant to be looked at. And, indeed, the verb צ[ו]ץ means “to blossom” (i.e., to suddenly be visible), “to flash” (e.g., like lightning), or “to gaze” (in modern Hebrew a voyeur is called a מציץ; a famous Israeli film about girl-watchers is called Metzitzanim).

Unlike the tzitzit, meant to be worn by all males, the tzitz was a unique item, worn by only one person in the entire world, the High Priest. One of its function was to atone for sin: this is inferred, both from its biblical source—through means of the tzitz, Aaron carries avon hakodashim, “the transgressions of sacred things… always upon his shoulders” (i.e., opposite the miter that is on his head); it is also described as being לרצון להם לפני ה' (“to appease for them before the Lord”)—and from the Rabbinic statement that הציץ מרצה, the frontlet appeases between God and Israel. Here, looking at the tzitz is seen as a kind of segulah or cure for “arrogance of the face.”

This is also reminiscent of the tefillin, worn on the forehead of every Jew, which like the priest’s frontlet also bear God’s Name, to which there has been applied the verse “And all the nations of the world shall see that God’s Name is called upon you, and shall fear you” (Deut 28:10). Thus, too, Rambam sees the wearing of tefillin as having an invisible moral effect on the individual wearing them: “so long as he wears the tefillin… he is modest and God-fearing and is not drawn to mirth and idle talk, nor does he think wicked thoughts, but tursn his heart to words of truth and righteousness”—Hilkhot Tefillin 4.25)

Tzitzit correspond to the female, the secret of the lower world, whose looking upon is for remembrance. The frontlet is male, the fringes are female—and it is for all people. The tzitz is [only] for the priest. And we have been taught: It is forbidden to gaze upon the Shekhinah. For that reason there is the azure [thread] therein, for all of it is the throne of the Davidic House. And its raiment is so that one may fear before God, to be in awe of that place. Concerning that it says, “And you shall see it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord”—certainly, that is the seat of those that judge capital cases. As we have learned: “All colors are good for dreams, except for blue” (b. Berakhot 57b), for that is the Throne, which is removed in capital cases. It is written, “and you shall place upon the tzitzit a blue thread.” It is not written, “you shall place upon the corner,” but “you shall place upon the fringes a blue thread”—for it covers all the other threads.

This passage is pregnant with meaning, but I cannot unravel the threads of its meaning. Why is the tzitz male, and the tzitzit female? And where does the Davidic house fit in, and the relation to capital crimes? In any event, this section introduces the theme developed later, in which the blue or azure thread symbolizes Judgment.

“And you shall see them and remember” (ibid.), and it is written “Remember what Amalek did to you” (Deut 25:17). What is the reason for this? Rather, it may be compared to a son, who broke through the fence and was bitten by a dog. Whenever the father wishes to rebuke his son, he says to him: Remember how the dog bit you! Here too, “you shall see them and remember,” for that is the place where souls go to be judged. Likewise, “and whoever was bitten and saw it, and lived” (Num 21:8). Why? Rather, when he is taken for affliction, and sees the image of that which bit him, he is fearful and prays before God, and he knows that this is his punishment because of his guilt.

So long as the son sees the whip of his father, he is afraid of his father. Once he is saved from the whip, he is saved from everything. What caused him to be saved? That in his suffering he saw the whip. That whip caused him to be saved. And for this it is written, “and saw it, and lived.” He saw the whip with which he was beaten, and it was his salvation. Here too, “and you shall see it, and remember… and do.” Certainly! For that whip causes him to return to His service constantly.

Here, the purpose of the tzitzit is to serve as a reminder, specifically, of Divine judgment and punishment: “fear of God” in the simplest, most elemental sense. On the concrete level, as illustrated in one colorful aggadah, its function is to turn a person back on the very brink of (sexual) transgression. It belongs to the world of hard discipline and fear of punishment, not that of mystical love and longing. That is the point of the parable of the dog, as well as that of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, at which the Israelites who had been bitten by snakes as punishment for murmuring against God, were cured by looking at the representation of the snake. This was a kind of curative inoculation: a small dose or reminder of what was in the past a harrowing experience is meant to bring a person back “to his senses”; as the person doesn’t wish to repeat what happened, he will do whatever needed to avoid it. (I’m reminded of the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s father throwing him in jail for a night at age five! It certainly traumatized him about crime, and also about the horror of innocent people being wrongly punished!)

Thus, “you shall do” and “you shall not go astray after your hearts” will certainly prevent you from going on other, bad paths. “You shall not go astray” and not do evil. And for that reason it has the color blue, for blue is like the Throne of Glory [an abbreviated allusion to the Rabbinic midrash in b. Menahot 43b: “the blue is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the heavens are like the Throne of Glory”]. Just as the Throne of Glory makes human beings to walk in the straight path so as to be purified, so does the blue thread make human beings certainly return to the right path, for all need to fear that place, to walk uprightly. …..

This commandment of tzitzit incorporates blue and white, judgment and mercy. In a flame, the white fire does not consume, but the blue fire consumes completely—“and it consumed the burnt offering” (2 Chronicles 7:1—the verse describes fire coming down from Heaven at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple). White on the right, blue on the left, and the middle column, which unifies between the two, is green. And for that reason, the masters of the Mishnah taught: “From whence does one read the Shema in the morning? From the time one can distinguish between blue and white” (m. Berakhot 1.2). And for that reason they instituted that one should read the passage of tzitzit then, particularly [an allusion to the original Rabbinic halakhah, that Parshat Tzitzit is not read at night; see j. Berakhot 1.5; b. Berakhot 14b]

This final section (I have skipped the end of the preceding section) sets on a new tack, in which the tzitzit themselves, with their combination of two elements, of blue and white, are seen as combining disparate elements: Judgment and Compassion, the right side and the left side of the sefirotic tree. There are of course no green threads in the tzitzit; hence, it seems to me that the “middle column” here is simply part of the general tendency of the Zohar to reconcile and harmonize opposites by means of a third element, reconciling and combining both: in sefirotic terms Tiferet, the sign of Jacob, the central bar or spine of the sefirotic scheme.


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