Most of the Old Covenant laws seem arbitrary, unreasonable and even somewhat senseless or pointless to us; one command in particular appears to be a bit odd and it’s the commandment to wear tassels.
Numbers 15:37-39, ‘The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot.”
Today, many orthodox and observant Jewish men obey this commandment of wearing tassels (tzitzit, ZEET-zeet) attached to a garment under their shirts, the tassels remain on the outside visibly hanging down over their trousers. As we’ve mentioned before, Jewish understanding of their own Scriptures is that they hold very much to a literal understanding rather than a symbolic or allegorical understanding, as many Christians do. Unless Scripture indicates what is being said is ‘like’ something or ‘symbolic’ of something, it will be interpreted in a literal context. Examples of ‘like’ would be God using the stars and sand to describe how numerous Abraham’s future offspring were going to become, and an example of something ‘symbolic’ would be Joseph’s dream of the sun, moon and stars bowing down before him which were symbolic of his parents and brothers bowing before him at some future time to come.
So with regard to tassels, this strange commandment to always wear tassels on the outside of their clothes is taken very seriously by religious Jews; the command is explicit for all generations of Jews, not just that generation to whom the command was given. They take it so seriously in fact, that the text of the command is repeated as part of their daily prayers. Scripture doesn’t place this command on women, but there’s a possibility that they may have attached tassels to their garments in ancient times as well.
There are other religious Jews today who don’t wear tassels all the time, but for prayer, Bible reading and study, worship and religious ceremony and some special events such as weddings and the like, will wear a prayer shawl (tallit) to which tzitzit (tassels) are attached at the four corners. Those that wear them all the time, kind of like a vest or undershirt with a long tassel attached to each corner. They must ensure they hang visibly on the outside of their clothing and not tucked in, because the Scripture says that you have them look at them, they’re to be obvious to everyone around. The tassels serve a real purpose and it’s not decoration.
The practice may appear to Christians to be a strange form of legalism and subservience under the oppressive and now, obsolete Law. This is a wrong assumption on our part and it doesn’t take much to understand just how important and practical the tassels were and are for the Jews and perhaps there’s something we can learn too.
Significance In The Tzitzit
Tassels could have been made of anything if they were just for the purpose of being a reminder of something, much like tying a string to your finger to remember to buy a loaf of bread on the way home. But God gave very explicit and detailed instructions on what the materials were to be, what the colours were to be, where they were to be attached and so on. God never does anything just for the sake of it, the instructions all have important meaning and significance.
To our western mind, tzitzit or tassel wearing is ridiculous and in our culture it would be really embarrassing as well. But in the culture of the ancient Hebrews, (and other ancient cultures as well) garments were very much an indication of a person’s identity, social status and standing, as well as their authority and position within society. For example, the hem of the garment was symbolic of its owner’s identity and authority, the corner of the hem could be used for legal transactions when it was pressed into a clay or wax seal to leave an impression, kind of like a signature.
One of the reasons David was so remorseful after he cut a portion of Saul’s robe was because it was in effect an undermining of Saul’s authority as king of Israel, a little like pushing him off his throne or knocking the crown off his head, Remember, Saul’s kingship came about because God had personally selected him. In spite of the fact that David had also been anointed to be Israel’s next king, David wouldn’t usurp Saul’s authority while he was still officially the king; to do so was to violate God’s order and undermine the man God placed in authority to rule the nation. (1 Sam 24:4)
Another example took place before David was anointed; it was when Saul disobeyed God’s instructions regarding the Amalekites and the offering of sacrifices. Samuel informed him that because he rejected God’s instructions God was going to reject him from being Israel’s king. When Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed the edge of Samuel’s robe and it tore, this was an instant prophetic event that Samuel used to announce that God would tear Saul’s authority as king away from him and give it to another. (1 Sam 15:1-28)
Royal & Noble Significance
Not only did the hem represent authority but in ancient cultures hems were decorated for kings and princes, and such garments were fitting for those of royal and noble blood. So when God’s people wore tassels on their garments they were in a manner, wearing royal robes signifying them as people chosen by God, with a noble purpose, separate and distinct from other peoples – not better than other peoples but appointed for authority, purpose and position by God for a specific reason. Their tassels were a statement to those around them who understood perfectly the regal design of their garments.
So tzitzit were attached to the hem or fringe or edge or wings of a person’s garment and they were to be a visual reminder of one of the most important promises that God made on Mt. Sinai.
Exodus 19:6-7, “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The tassel’s themselves had to have a blue thread woven through them; blue was the colour of the High Priests robes, they used a very expensive dye which only came from a rare sea snail and it was as if every Israelite wore a piece of the High Priest’s blue robe at all times to remind them that just as the priests were set apart for a specific role in service to God in Temple services and sacrifices, they too were set apart for service to God before the nations. Today, the blue dye is prohibitively expensive and therefore, is no longer used all that often.
The tassels during the Bible age were made of linen except for the blue strand which was wool, which is strange because not only is the dye from an unclean creature, a sea mollusk (shell fish), but there was also the prohibition of mixing wool and linen in clothing on a normal basis. The reason this command was ignored in the case of the tassels however, was to remind the general population of their national priestly status of being ‘priests’ before God in the sight of the nations. Not all Jews are priests, but collectively they are a priestly nation with a collective calling to be a light to the nations. The tassels were woven and knotted in a specific pattern to remind the wearer of God’s commandments; and while this particular practice began after first century, all the preceding centuries from the time God commanded the wearing of tassels was clearly understood, and in Jesus’s time tassels were still worn to remind a person to be continually obedient to God. Wearing tzitzit reminded every Jew of his unique relationship with God and his obligation to serve Him.
The tassels not only gave a distinctive physical look, but the make up and materials emphasised the distinctive role of the Jewish people among all other peoples. They had a role of authority, a royal and noble role as well as a priestly role.
In the next program we’ll learn why the tzitzit were so important for the nation of Israel to wear collectively.
Based on the writing of Lois Tverberg