Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Shelah 5784

Parashat Shelah 5784

Equality, Hierarchy, and Tzitzit

June 24, 2024
by Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

A French Catholic teen’s first glimpse of Jews wrapped in their Tallitot led him to intuit one of Judaism’s essential values

One autumn afternoon in the 1880s, two Catholic teenagers passed by the synagogue in their home city of Lyon, France, and something inexplicable prompted them to enter. Being religious Catholics, neither had ever set foot in a non-Catholic house of worship.

One of these young men, Aimé Pallière, would later write that his visit to that synagogue was a life-changing experience for him, which set him on a spiritual journey that would last for the rest of his life.

Coincidentally, the day that Pallière and his friend visited the synagogue happened to be Yom Kippur, and they caught a glimpse of the Neilah service. But what transformed Pallière was something that he could have seen there any day of the year. “The spectacle of that large number of men assembled, their shoulders covered by Tallitot, suddenly disclosed to my eyes a far-off past…. At first on seeing the prayer-shawls uniformly worn by all the participants in the service, I thought that in a way they were all officiating.” (Pallière, The Unknown Sanctuary, 20-21) For Pallière, this sight of a room full of people all wearing religious garb, such that (in contrast to his own Catholic church) he could not tell based on their clothing which of them was the leader of the community or the officiant at that prayer service, exemplified for him “the form of collective priesthood” that characterizes Judaism, in which any individual, if sufficiently knowledgeable, could be called upon to lead the community in prayer, to read from the Bible, and to teach the community. All these people appearing to wear the robes of religious leaders reminded him of the verse from Exodus, “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

Pallière was so moved by this experience that it propelled him to delve more deeply into Judaism, and he even returned to the synagogue for Yom Kippur the following year (to the consternation of the educators in the Catholic school he was attending). He even contemplated conversion to Judaism. But the rabbis he consulted with (including the rabbi who would become his primary mentor, Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh of Leghorn, Italy) encouraged him to fulfill the values that he admired so much in Judaism but without conversion. He took this advice and, without converting, remained a life-long student and teacher of Judaism. In his later years, living in France under the Nazis, he did what he could to assist the Jewish community and to give them spiritual support.

For Aimé Pallière, the Tallit became a symbol of Judaism’s non-hierarchical ethos and its belief in the radical equality of all. He had in fact identified one of the original messages of the Tallit and the tzitziyot (fringes) that are tied on it.

The mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes on the Tallit, is described in this week’s Torah portion of Shelah. The Torah instructs: “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue (tekhelet) to the fringe at each corner.” (Numbers 15:37ff). This cord of blue is an essential part of the meaning of the tzitzit.  Today we take it for granted that we can wear whatever colors we would like, and it is not necessarily more expensive to get clothes in one color rather than another. But it used to be that certain dyes were especially expensive to produce, and as a result, certain colors became the mark of royalty or nobility. One of those royal colors was tekhelet, deep azure blue. Under the Roman Empire, there were even regulations about who was allowed to wear anything of this noble color. Yet the Torah commands that all Israelites wear one cord of this royal, special color on their garments, to highlight the special status of everyone in the community. (Over the last 2000 years, this commandment of the blue thread has fallen into disuse, in part because obtaining such blue threads were prohibitively expensive. Today, however, it is again possible to obtain threads of tekhelet for use on a tallit.)

Additionally, the word tzitzit itself is regarded by many scholars to be a diminutive form of the word tzitz, the golden frontlet or headplate worn by the High Priest (attached to his turban by a cord of tekhelet; see Exodus 28:36-37). The tzitz is an adornment specifically for the High Priest, but all Israelites were to wear a tzitzit, or a “little tzitz,” demonstrating that all people in the community have some level of the special holiness that characterizes the High Priest. In other words, the tzitzit evokes both royal and priestly garments, and yet it is worn by the community at large, to highlight that everyone is at least a little bit royal and a little bit priestly in this “kingdom of priests.”

These days, in most of the communities represented in the AJR family, people of every gender (and not only men) are encouraged to wear tzitzit. As a result, today tzitzit can be an even more powerful symbol of the non-hierarchy to which the Jewish community aspires — a quality that Aimé Pallière noticed when he saw what he thought was a room full of officiating religious leaders.                                                                                  

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.