"These shall be your tassels, and when you see them, you shall remember all of G‑d's commandments so as to keep them." (Numbers 15, 28)
The mitzvah of tassels, tzitzis, the placing of specially knotted tassels on the corners of a four cornered garment, is one of those commandments that immediately comes to mind when one envisions a very observant Jew. Nowadays fulfilled by placing them on a specially made four cornered garment worn under the shirt, many follow the custom of arranging the tassels so that they hang over their trousers. Easily seen by all, they confirm for any passerby the Orthodox observance of the individual. After all, there are those who today wear kippot and others who sport beards as well, who are not Orthodox. Tassels, tzitzis, worn in the fashion I have described, is in the province of the very devout. The passage I quoted declares that there is something intrinsic to this mitzvah that will vouchsafe one's observance of all the commandments of G‑d. What exactly is this mechanism? How does it apply specifically to the wearing of tzitzis?
The Midrash, Tanna D'Bai Eliyahu Rabba, Chapter 26 recounts the following conversation between G‑d and Moses. "Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moses, 'What it is the cause for this violation of the Shabbat?' (referring to the gathering of sticks on the Shabbat mentioned just prior to our passage) He said to Him, 'I don't know.' Said the Holy One Blessed be He to him, 'I will tell you, six days of the week the Israelites have tephillin on their heads and arms, they see them and are careful of what they do. But on the Shabbat when they haven't them, they therefore violate the Shabbat.' Then The Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses, 'Go and clarify for them the mitzvah that they will be accustomed to fulfill on Sabbaths and Holy Days, this is the mitzvah of tzitzis.'" From this Midrash we can deduce that the first element found in tzitzis that aids the Jew in religious observance is the reality that they are worn every day of the year. Tephillin, in contrast, are worn on weekdays only as they are defined as a sign (Hebrew- Os) the same word that is used in defining the Shabbat.
The Rabbis taught that as we have a sign in Shabbat we do not don the tephillin as Shabbat itself serves the purpose of the tephillin, that of an Os (a sign). Are we then to assume that merely wearing the tsitzis will protect us from deviating from G‑d's Will? Does regular ritual observance alone guarantee the future of our Jewish People? The Talmud Menachos, 43 states: "We learn in a Braisa, 'And you shall see them, and you shall remember them, and you shall do them' (referring to tzitzis) - Seeing brings you to remembering, and remembering brings you to doing." The famous Sage of the early part of the twentieth century, the Hafetz Hayim comments, "Through the mitzvah of tzitzis an individual is brought to remembering all the mitzvos of G‑d, but this remembrance only works if the individual has prefaced it by learning the rules of the mitzvos of G‑d. That individual who has not studied these rules, of what help can this remembrance be? Therefore it is essential that , first and foremost, an individual learn the Torah of G‑d and know all the mitzvos, then the remembering of tzitzis will bring a person to the doing of the mitzvos." The idea expressed by the Hafetz Hayim, that remembering must be predicated upon learned concepts, a knowledge of the whys and the wherefores of practical observances, is fundamental to the passing on of our tradition to the next generation.
The operative question of Jewish life of yesteryear, the question of "How do I do such and such?" usually directed to the Rabbi, in today's Jewish world has been replaced by "Why should I bother?" The response to this question must be an intelligent one, justifying observance. Many years ago a very distressed woman came to me. She explained that her son, a medical student in one of the foremost Universities in the United States, had just called to tell her he was going to get married. To her horror he revealed that the bride to be was not Jewish. "Rabbi," she said in a plaintive voice, tears cascading down her face, "I don't understand. I always lit my Shabbat candles, why is this happening to me?" I responded by asking her if her son had ever questioned her about her Shabbat candles. She replied in the affirmative. "What did you tell him?" I inquired. "Why I told him that a Jew must light Shabbat candles," she said. "Did he ask you why a Jew must light Shabbat candles?" I responded. "Yes," she answered, continuing, "I told him you must light the candles and that is that." "Couldn't you have at the very least stated that you enjoyed lighting the candles, that their glow for you radiated a Jewish beauty, a Jewish majesty, that you felt them to be your personal connection to our People and its thousands of years of history, that they filled your heart with a sense of serenity?" I asked. She looked at me unable to speak. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that had she been able to offer such an answer this would have insured that her daughter-in-law to be would be Jewish. I am saying that to be able to present reasonable explanations as to why you practice Judaism is essential in providing some credibility for Jewish practice and observance to your own children. Surely even the simple statement of "It makes me feel good" warrants some interest as to why it makes you feel good.
That this ritual makes someone I love, my own parent, feel good de facto provides it with some substance. For many Jews who retain but some of Jewish practical observances, maintained, for the most part as an act of nostalgia, (remembering their youth, perhaps their grandparents), it should be obvious that their feelings are not automatically experienced by their children. Jews have made it in the United States. Along with this tremendous accomplishment comes options. Why should I continue the practice of Judaism in my own life? Why should I even maintain a parochial connection with the Jewish People? These questions need answers. The most potent answer can be given by the father and mother who can explain the reasons why they continue to observe Jewish practices. Nostalgia, merely utilizing rememberance as the sole rational for my religious practice, as the Hafetz Hayim points out, will not protect Judaism. Knowing why I observe, being able to clearly articulate my reasons to my own children and others is the key to the future of our People. Let each of us renew our own commitment to Judaism by seeking reasons for observance. Taking our heritage seriously, studying it, being familiar with its values and principles, is one way in which we can insure that the golden chain of our People will garner yet another link through the Jewish commitment of our children.