For the week ending 29 June 2024 / 23 Sivan 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos - Tzitzis

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: Tzitzis

By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines

“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)

Mitzvos #386 (Bamidbar 15:37-41)


A master places a seal upon his servants to show his ownership and to remind them of their responsibilities. So too, Hashem commands us to wear tzitzis to distinguish us from non-Jews and to remind us of the mitzvos (see Menachos 43b).


The Torah tells us that tzitzis are especially helpful in reminding a person to avoid “straying after his heart and eyes,” which the Sages interpret as a reference to heretical thoughts and immoral sights (Berachos 12b). These sins require special protection because they are attractive and at the same time spiritually destructive. When a person’s eye sees something desirable but prohibited, it is difficult for him to restrain himself by merely recalling the prohibition and the destructive results of a transgression. Hashem therefore countered sinful visual attraction with a visual reminder in the form of tzitzis (Ohr Hachaim). We may suggest further that when a person wears a garment over his heart and body that is tied with knots that symbolize subjugation to Hashem, he is reminded that his heart and body are not free to do as they please. Other than functioning as a reminder, the very wearing of tzitzis adds holiness to a person (Sifri), thereby elevating him above lowly temptations.


The Torah indicates that by wearing tzitzis will be reminded to observe all the mitzvos. We remind ourselves of all the mitzvos through the tzitzis by tying five knots on each set of eight strings. For, “tzitzis” has the numerical value 600, which together with 5 and 8 adds up to 613 (Bamidbar Rabbah 8:21 and Gur Aryeh). In addition, by tying five knots upon eight strings on each corner, we remind ourselves to follow the five books of the Torah when using eight parts of the body: ears, eyes, mouth, nose, hands, feet, reproductive organ, and heart (Baal HaTurim). We also spin rows of strings between the knots in a way that alludes to Hashem. For example, many tie a total of 39 rows, which is the numerical value of "Hashem is one." There are 32 strings on all corners combined, which reminds us not to stray after our hearts, for the heart (lev) has a numerical value of 32 (Mekor Chaim).

We may suggest that the strings and knots allude to the mitzvos in another way as well. The tzitzis strings are comprised of three parts: the knots, the area between the knots, and the eight strings that continue separately after the knots. Each knot is actually a double knot, which means that each string makes two appearances in each knot, and eight strings make sixteen appearances in each knot, or eighty appearances in the five knots combined [8x2x5=80]. In between the five knots there are four spaces, in which one string winds around the other seven strings. According to the common custom recorded in Mishnah Berurah, there are seven, eight, eleven, and thirteen windings in those four spaces, totaling 39 windings. Accordingly, in the spaces between the knots there are seven strings times four spaces and one string times thirty-nine [7x4=28; 1x39=39]. After the knots, the strings continue separately. 80+28+39+8=155. There are four sets of strings, one on each corner. 155x4=620. This is precisely the number of the mitzvos, including the 613 mitzvos in the Torah and seven that were enacted by the Sages (Hallel, Megillah, Eruv, Berachos, Shabbos candles, Chanukah candles, and washing of the hands). Thus, the tzitzis remind us of all the mitzvos.

The colors of the strings are white and blue, which are colors that remind us of Hashem. White is the color of the Divine Attribute of Kindness, and blue is the color of Divine the Attribute of Mercy and of the sapphire Throne of Glory (Sotah 17a and Ohr HaChaim).


Just as a slave wears a seal on which is stamped his master’s name, tzitzis strings are attached to four corners, corresponding to the four letters of Hashem’s name (see Rosh David, Ki Seitzei). The four corners indicate that our Master’s kingship extends to the “four corners” of the world (Ohr HaChaim). The four corners (kenafos) also allude to the time of the Exodus, when Hashem claimed us as his slaves. Then, He lifted us on eagle's wings (kenafos) and fulfilled four expressions of redemption: "I will take them out; I will save them; I will redeem them; I will take them to be My nation" (Rashi). Another reason why the Torah commands us to place tzitzis on each corner is that they are thereby noticed whichever way a person turns (Baal HaTurim).


The Sages compare the tzitzis strings to a lifeline. It is as if someone falls off a ship into the raging ocean, and the captain throws him a rope and tells him to hold on for his life. So too, keeping spiritually alive in this temptation-filled world is like staying afloat in a raging ocean. Hashem, the captain of the ship, gave us tzitzis as a reminder to fulfill the mitzvos, and thereby to hold tightly onto Him, the source of life (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6 and Radal).

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