The Torah can be an extremely peculiar text. In some sections, it goes into painstaking detail about the observance of how to keep the mitzvot – the holy instructions for living. In other sections, it is quite vague and provides an avenue for self-expression on the part of the Torah keeper. One of my favorite examples of this pocket of expression in regards to tying style of tzitzit – the ritual fringes worn on the four corners of one’s garment in order to remind them of the holy instructions found in the Torah. As background, the wearing of tzitzit is instructed in two separate sections of the Torah.
1. Bemidbar/Numbers 15:38-40
ויאמר יהוה אל־משה לאמר
דבר אל־בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על־כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם ונתנו על־ציצת הכנף פתיל תכלת
והיה לכם לציצת וראיתם אתו וזכרתם את־כל־מצות יהוה ועשיתם אתם ולא־תתרו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר־אתם זנים אחריהם
למען תזכרו ועשיתם את־כל־מצותי והייתם קדשים לאלהיכם
“יהוה said to Moshe, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and a petil (cord, ribbon, string, or lace depending on the context) tekhelet (of blue) on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all of the commandments mitzvot (instructions) of יהוה, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember to do all my mitzvotay (instructions) and be holy to your Elohekem (Deity).”
2. Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:12
גדלים תעשה־לך על־ארבע כנפות כסותך אשר תכסה־בה
“You shall make yourself tassels on your arba kanfot (four-cornered garment) with which you cover yourself.”
With the exception of other mitzvot that instruct Israel to not mix certain fibers together and traditions surrounding the material for the tzitzit itself as well as the origin of tekhelet used, even the most strict Jewish movements will admit that there is no single prescribed style in which to tie or knot these tassels worn on “על־ארבע כנפות כסותך אשר תכסה־בה” – the four-corned garment we use to cover ourselves. Because of this, different Jewish movements have their own styles for tying tzitzit – and each way has a particular meaning behind it. So, what happens when you enter one Jewish community wearing a starkly different style of tzitzit?
Building Bridges With String
I pride myself at being a Jewish bridge-builder between movements. Even if that bridge at the moment is nothing more than a tightrope, I feel it’s better than nothing. I’ve prayed in Orthodox Jewish minyanim – groups of 10 or more halakhically (official according to tradition) Jewish men. I’ve fully-prostrated, shoeless, on rugs in traditional Karaite Jewish prayer services. I’ve prayed in Conservative Jewish synagogues with no mechitza – division of women and women. Jewish unity is something of which I am quite passionate. Though I consider myself mainly a Karaite in my observance, before I am anything, I am a Jew. With this in mind and appreciating the respect given to me by these diverse Jewish groups, I desire to respect their customs when I am on their turf – whether that be in their homes, their synagogues and at their events. In this way, I strive to jive with their style of doing things where Torah allows. For example, if I’m at a Rabbinic Jew’s house, I wouldn’t put cheese on my burger – mainly because I’m a vegetarian, but also out of respect for their custom of separating meat and dairy. If I attending an ultra-Orthodox event, I would make sure to dress as modestly as a member of an ultra-Orthodox community. The same goes with my tzitzit.
Man of Many Tzitzit, Even Though Only “Arba”
As of now, I have three different styles of tzitzit – Karaite (my main go-to), Rabbinic Ashkenazi and Rabbinic Sefardi. Depending on the synagogue I am attending and the people I am praying with, I will wear both on my arba kanfot/tallit katan (the small pancho-like four-cornered garment I wear under my main shirt) and my tallit ha’gadol (my prayer shawl) with the appropriate tzitzit. Some of you may be saying, “Yefet/Ken, you’re a Karaite Jew. Be proud of being a Karaite no matter where you’re praying!” My reasoning is this: There are certain places I will proudly wave the Karaite Jewish flag and other places where I will strive to simply blend in with the congregants. If I am attending an event in which a diverse array of Jews are present, I have no problem representing Karaite Judaism by wearing traditional Karaite Jewish tzitzit. However, if I am attending a synagogue service where I am most likely the only Karaite there, the focus is not about diversity – it is about praising the Creator of the Universe. It is never my desire to distract anyone from their own worshipful experience in any way, shape or form. I am yet another Jew in the room along with my fellow Jews – studying the Torah, praying and enjoying each other’s company.
Unity Through Listening
This post really have very little to do with tzitzit. This post is about unity. Unity occurs when we put our differences aside and learn to respect each other’s cultures. You are certainly allowed to completely disagree, but actually attempt to listen to each other – hear someone out rather than either waiting for your chance to tell them how their wrong or not listen at all.