To Look and To Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

To Look and To Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

What are we to make of the puzzling instruction that the Israelites – men and women- are to place fringes on the corners of their garments? The reason, given in Numbers 15, is that they will look at these fringes and remember all of God’s commandments. They seem to be an aide-memoir, in much the same way as people used to tie knots in their handkerchiefs for similar reasons. Are these  fringes- tzitizit in Hebrew- a sophisticated way of knotting a hanky?

The instruction to make fringes is delivered through a series of verbs. The Israelites are to make the fringes, to put upon them a thread of blue wool, to see them, to remember and do all the divine commandments. This sequence of positive actions is followed by two short negatives; they are not to follow their hearts and eyes, nor to go astray after them. Then the injunction to remember and keep the commandments is repeated.

The question is, how does making these tzitzit encourage people to remember and do all that they have been commanded? Equally, how do they stop them from going astray? It’s true that the fringes are a distinguishing feature, part of the Israelite uniform, people may indeed look at them and be reminded of their identity and of their religious duties. But will this happen every time? Isn’t it likely that sooner or later they will start to take these tzitzit for granted and stop thinking about them? After all, they wearthem every day of their lives.

The injunction to wear tzitzit contains an inherent contradiction, which may provide a better explanation of why they operate as an aid to memory. They are to include a thread of wool, coloured blue with a dye that the Bible calls t’chelet. But if every garment must have a woollen thread on it, what about the inexplicable commandment in Deuteronomy (22,11) that they are not to mix wool and linen in the same? Does the requirement to have a woollen thread mean they can never wear a linen garment, for if they did they would be mixing the two materials? Or does the injunction to make fringes override the prohibition to mix wool and linen?

The Talmud recognises this contradiction and decides that fringed garments are exempt from the prohibition to mix wool and linen. It notes that the priests in the Jerusalem Temple wore clothes containing a mixture of these two materials. Although we might think that there is something reproachful about wearing a linen and wool mixture it seems that the opposite is the case: such mixtures are reserved only for the most sacred garments.

Which brings us back to the question of why these fringes act as an aid to memory. It is the contradiction they represent which makes them notable. The commandments are not simply modes of behaviour to be carried out by rote; they are activities that contain meaning, they are be understood as well as performed.

Even things as apparently unimportant as strings hanging off the bottom of a garment are devices to make us think. We may not always rise to the challenge of using the aide-memoir properly, but when we do, it should put us mind of more than just a few knots and fringes.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books