[Wear an old slippery tallis that will fall off your shoulders again and again.] I remember as a teenager my surprise at seeing many of the men in shul move away from the traditional tallis design of black or blue stripes or the folded up silk tallis that looked much like a long scarf. It became fashionable—especially after one visited Israel—to wear a tallis designed by an Israeli artist. Some made their own tie-dyed tallesim. The popular Jewish Catalogue had detailed instructions on how to make your own tallis. It was all an attempt to make the mitzvah more personal and meaningful.
Since then, nothing much has changed in tallesim. A few years ago a dear friend and colleague casually mentioned that as a gift for his birthday his wife presented him with a new tallis which looked pretty traditional, but whose main feature was that the fabric was the product of new technology. What was so special about this fabric was that it does not constantly slip off of one’s shoulders when in prayerful use.
I was intrigued on 2 counts. 1st, there are still spouses who give each other birthday gifts. And 2nd, is it possible that technology has finally achieved a solution to the millennia old problem of the discomfort of trying to maintain concentration on one’s prayers to Gd while one’s tallis keeps on slipping?
Assured by those who had purchased one of these non-slip tallesim that they are 90% effective…I took the plunge and purchased one next time I was in Israel to try it out and replace one of the constantly-slipping-off-my-shoulders type that I owned. [Put on newer non-slip tallis.] Though it’s my policy not to endorse or disparage products or people publicly, I have found that this non-slip tallis is a boon to mankind in general and to Jewish prayer concentration in particular. It is a practical achievement long overdue.
A tallis that constantly slips off of one’s shoulders during prayer is at best an annoyance…but it gradually grows into a distraction and a disturbance. When I would speak in shul—teaching or giving a sermon—it was counter-productive to keep the attention of my listeners when I constantly had to re-adjust my tallis—sometimes as much as 6 times in a short sermon. I think sometimes people became more fascinated by the slipping tallis than by what I had to say. So this non-slip tallis is a blessing.
Today’s Torah reading ends with what became the last paragraph of the Shema which contains the mitzvah of tzitzit and wearing a tallis. Strangely, it follows the tragic incident of the sin of the 12 spies Moses sent to survey the Holy Land. There is even a linguistic link with the word tur as in latur et haaretz (to tour the land) as Gd commanded the spies (Num. 13:17). I suspect the English word “tour” is from the Hebrew. And we find in the paragraph on tzitzit at the end of the parsha v’lo taturu (and you shall not stray after your eyes). The inference being “straying after your eyes” is what the spies did and this caused them to sin in giving a bad report.
“Yes,” 10 of them said as they gave their report upon their return, “the land is wonderful and its fruits are luscious. Efes, BUT…its cities are well-fortified and its people are giants so there’s no way we can take it.” The people were so stunned that they said to Moses (Num. 14: 3): “It would be better for us to go back to [the slavery of] Egypt” than to move ahead and face the Canaanites. This is unbelievable. After all Gd had done for them. He defeated the mightiest force on earth—the Egyptian army. Certainly He would help them defeat the Canaanites.
This rebellion came on the heels of several others—all demonstrating a lack of faith and appreciation for what Gd had done for them. And so after this latest rebellion Gd realized that this generation of Egyptian slaves had to be replaced in order for the Children of Israel to go into the Holy Land. When the people heard Gd’s decree that they would have to wander 40 years in the desert and a new generation would enter the land, they were distraught, they cried and then they changed their minds. “Too late,” Moses told them. Gd’s word is firm.
In order for them not to become too discouraged Moses then informs them about some of the offerings they were to bring to the Temple when the people would come into the land—the implication being that the Jewish people would eventually enter the land. And then Moses concludes the parsha with the mitzvah of tzitzit—which includes wearing a tallis—because this mitzvah tells us (Num. 15:38): uritem oto uzchartem et kol mitzvot Hashem (when you look upon it you shall remember all the commandments of Hashem). In other words, the tallis—because of the codes contained in the fringes and knots would be a constant reminder not to stray from Gd.
When I was reviewing the Torah reading this week I realized that my non-slip tallis might be a pretty good metaphor for the story of the Jewish people in our time. There’s no question that the tallis has slipped off of the shoulders of millions of Jews today—so much so that many Jews don’t don a tallis at all anymore—not even on Yom Kippur! The intermarriage rate is now 71%. Less than ½ of Jewish children today receive any kind of Jewish education. What’s going on?
We Jews need a non-slip tallis today. We’ve become so enamored with our uber-connected world—our smart phones, IPads, laptops, email, social networks, twitter, snapchat and texting—that we have little room left for Gd and Torah. 90% of us are within 3 feet of one of our devices 24/7. Would that 90% be so close to their tallesim once a day.
Clearly, the Torah looks upon the tallis as an important tool in avoiding sin. The Talmud (Menachot 44a) tells a great story about a man who was scrupulous in his observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit: However, he was not immune to the temptations of the world. He had heard of a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who was so beautiful and skillful that she charged 400 gold denars for her services. He sent her the money and scheduled a time to be with her. When he was led into her chamber, she was lying on a gold bed fully naked waiting for him. He was so excited and began to remove his clothes when all of a sudden the fringes of his tzitzit flipped up and struck him in the face. He jumped off the bed and sat on the floor. The prostitute was insulted and demanded to know what flaw he saw in her that caused him to do this.
The man explained, “Never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you. But there is a mitzvah that God has commanded us called tzitzit…Now the tzitzit appeared before me as 4 witnesses testifying against me.”
The woman demanded that he identify himself and his teacher and the name of the school where he studied Torah. This same woman came to his teacher, Rabbi Chiya, and studied with him for conversion and later married him.
Such is the power of tzitzit in preventing sin.
During the War in Gaza in 2009, there was a great spiritual hunger among Israeli soldiers—most of whom were from secular backgrounds. Several minyanim were hastily formed in the field and well attended. Before boarding buses into Gaza, a great many soldiers stationed at the border stopped to put on tefillin and were handed free tzitzit—a small tallis worn under one’s shirt—for their prayers. So many went into battle wearing their tzitzit under their uniforms that Israeli Army rabbis referred to them as, “heavenly flak jackets!” Miraculously, not one of them was killed in battle!
The next verse answers the question of why should we wear a tallis: L’maan tizk’ru va-asitem et kol mitzvotai, v’hiyitem k’doshim leylokeychem, “So that you shall remember and do all My commandments and be holy onto your Gd.” What is the purpose of the tallis? To remember to observe Gd’s commandments and be holy. Our tallesim pleads with us to keep our holy souls one with Gd and not stain them by straying from Gd and His Torah. So if you’re a man, don’t let your tallis slip off—appreciate its message. And if you’re a woman, think about getting the men you care about a non-slip tallis. It’ll make a great Father’s Day gift. Amen!