Clothes Make the Man
Parashat Shlach L’cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Clothes make the man, or so it is said, but the Torah turns this principle around. Clothing cannot make us something we’re not, but it can remind us what we’re supposed to be. Moses instructs the Israelites “to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Num. 15:38–39).
“Tassel” is tzitzit in Hebrew, and the traditional prayer shawl, or tallit, has a tzitzit at each corner, thus providing a way to fulfill the commandment.
In the ancient world, nobles wore garments with ornate hems as a sign of their status. “The more important the individual, the more elaborate the embroidery of his hem. Its significance lies not in its artistry but in its symbolism as an extension of its owner’s person and authority” (Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers, p. 343). Thus, a husband would divorce his wife by cutting off the hem of her garment. A seer in ancient Mari would send his report to the king with a portion of his hem and a lock of his hair, to attest its authenticity. From this we can see why David’s heart troubled him after he cut a piece of the hem off Saul’s robe, and why Saul took it as a sign that David would succeed him as king (1 Sam. 24:6, 20; Milgrom, p. 343). Likewise, we can see why a woman in need of healing grabbed the hem of Yeshua’s garment (Matt. 9:20).
“Thus the significance of the tzitzit lies in this: It was worn by those who counted; it was the identification tag of nobility” (Milgrom, p. 344). In Israel, the Torah decrees, it is not only the nobles, but every Israelite who is to wear such fringes on their garments.
The requirement to include a thread of blue in the tzitzit heightens its noble quality. Blue is the color of nobility, largely because of the cost of the dye in the ancient world. Indeed, the dye was so costly that the rabbis eventually decreed that the blue thread was no longer to be worn, and the fringe should be white, so that all Jewish men would enjoy equal dignity (Milgrom p. 345). Nevertheless, the original significance remains. Blue is the color of royalty. The single blue thread of the tzitzit reflects the single blue thread that held the golden head plate of the High Priest, on which were inscribed the words kodesh l’Adonai, “Holy to the Lord” (Exod. 28:36). Just as the priestly garment was made of both linen and woolen strands—a combination forbidden to the ordinary Israelites—so the early rabbis ordained that the tzitzit contain both white linen and blue woolen strands. “Thus the tzitzit, according to the rabbis, are modeled after a priestly garment that is taboo for the rest of Israel!” (Milgrom p. 346).
It is clear, then, that the tzitzit not only reminds the Israelites to obey the commandments, but also reveals that they receive these commandments as a holy priesthood. Obedience isn’t just a way to keep the Israelites in line. Rather, it expresses the holiness of their calling and the purpose of their redemption from Egypt. Hence, the Lord concludes the instruction of the tzitzit with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God” (Num. 15:41).
This is indeed a lofty calling. Yet even more striking is its position in the text of Numbers. Parashat Shlach L’cha opens with Moses sending twelve men to scout out the Land of Israel in preparation for its conquest. Ten of the twelve scouts bring back an evil report. Only Joshua and Caleb encourage the people to take the Land. The people believe the majority, refuse to take the Land as God has commanded, and end up being condemned to perish in the wilderness. After the ordinance of tzitzit is given, things don’t improve at all. Korach joins Dathan, Abiram, and others to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron. The Lord puts down this rebellion in the most drastic way, with the earth swallowing up Korach and his family, and fire from heaven striking down 250 other rebels.
So it’s clear that when the Lord clothes the Israelites as priests, he does so fully knowing their tendency to rebel. The holy garment is not a reward for faithfulness, because they have hardly been faithful. Instead, the tzitzit expresses the faithfulness of God. By it, he creates a holy priesthood out of the unqualified and unworthy.
Is it possible that God still views Israel as a holy priesthood, despite its corporate failure to acknowledge Yeshua as Lord and Messiah, and still has a holy destination in mind for the whole people? As Paul reminded the Gentiles who believed in Yeshua, “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28–29).
Clothes make the man. The tzitzit not only reminds Israel of the irrevocable commandments of the Lord, but of their irrevocable calling as a royal priesthood and a holy nation.
In our day, we are seeing a great move of reconciliation between Christians and Jews. Despite the corporate Jewish “no” to Yeshua, God still has a glorious plan for the Jewish people, which will ultimately be fulfilled in this same Yeshua. As the tzitzit is a reminder to Israel of their holy calling, so may it be a reminder to Christians, after centuries of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions, to love and honor the Jewish people.
In memory of Father Peter Hocken, 1932-2017
Adapted from Creation to Completion: A Guide to Life’s Journey from the Five Books of Moses, published by Lederer Books, Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2006,www.messianicjewish.net.