The Blue Does Not Hold Up the White

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התכלת אינה מעכבת את הלבן והלבן אינו מעכב את התכלת תפילה של יד אינה מעכבת של ראש ושל ראש אינה מעכבת של יד הסולת והשמן אינן מעכבין את היין ולא היין מעכבן המתנות של מזבח החיצון אינן מעכבות זו את זו.

[The absence of] the tekheiles [strings of a tzitzis] does not hold up [the validity of] the white [string], and the white does not hold up [the validity] of the tekheiles ones.

[The absence of] the tefillin of the hand does not hold up [the validity of that] of the head, and [the tefillin] of the head does not hold up [the validity of] the hand [tefillin]. …

– Mishnah Menachos 4:1

You would think from the way the two are listed side-by-side that the reasoning behind these rulings are identical. But the Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvos lists tzitzis, including both white and blue, in mitzvas asei #14, whereas the previous two mitzvos are #12 – the head tefillah and #13 — the hand tefillah. Each tefillah can be a fulfillment of a mitzvah on its own, because each is an individual mitzvah among the 613. But tzitzis is a single mitzvah that can be fulfilled in part.

Even more than that, in asei #13 the Rambam cites this mishnah and the ability to do the mitzvah of each tefillah separately as proof that that tefillin are distinct mitzvos. In #14 the Rambam says that the halves of tzitzis are an exception to the rule. Citing the Sifri (Shelach #115), who learns from the words of the pasuq, “והיה לכם לציצית — and it will be for you tzitzis“, in the singular, that the combined tassel of whites strings and the blue one is one mitzvah.

As the Sifri continues, putting tzitzis on fewer than four corners is not a fulfillment of the mitzvah.

So it seems there is something unique about this particular kind of partial performance of the mitzvah of tzitzis — the blue vs. the white — which makes it unique in still being a fulfillment of the mitzvah. (Unlike tefillin, where each tefillah is its own mitzvah. And unlike only putting tzitzis on some of the corners, or only picking up some of the Four Species on Sukkos, which is not a fulfillment of a mitzvah.)

My first thought was to connect this to a gemara that is frequently quoted this time of year (Qiddushin 49b).  If a man gives a ring to a woman and says, “You are hereby married to me … on the condition I am a tzadiq” they are married. Even if the groom was completely evil. Because it is possible that he had a hirhur teshuvah (a musing about teshuvah).

So I was thinking — a passing thought of teshuvah doesn’t include all the ingredients of teshuvah! There is no vidui, he didn’t necessarily feel regret, leave the sin AND make plans for the future.

But then the gemara continues with the opposite case. Even if the groom was a great tzadiq, and he gives the ring with the words “You are hereby married to me … on the condition I am evil”, they are also married. Because maybe he had a passing thought about idolatry or whatnot at that moment.

The discussion doesn’t appear to be about fulfilling the mitzvah of teshuvah after all. This seems to be more about thinking about being a better person is a good start to actually being one — teshuvah‘s salvific effect rather than meeting its halachic requirements. Who said that his no longer being fully evil means that he fulfilled the mitzvah (asei #73 – which the Rambam says is Vidui in particular)?

However, I wasn’t so ready to give up on the idea that tzitzis and teshuvah are connected. (Mostly because wearing a tallis is so much part of the experience of Yom Kippur.) And I did find a way in which teshuvah too has this property where partial performance of teshuvah qualifies as fulfillment of the mitzvah — completely doing teshuvah for only one of a person’s sins or flaws.

Shir haShirim Rabba (5:3) on the words “פִּתְחִי־לִ֞י אֲחֹתִ֤י רַעְיָתִי֙ יוֹנָתִ֣י תַמָּתִ֔י — Open up for me, my own, My darling, my faultless dove!” writes:

רַבִּי יַסָּא אָמַר, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּנַי, פִּתְחוּ לִי פֶּתַח אֶחָד שֶׁל תְּשׁוּבָה כְּחֻדָּהּ שֶׁל מַחַט, וַאֲנִי פּוֹתֵחַ לָכֶם פְּתָחִים שֶׁיִּהְיוּ עֲגָלוֹת וּקְרוֹנִיּוֹת נִכְנָסוֹת בּוֹ.

Rabbi Yassa said: HQBH said to Israel, “My children! Open up for me a one opening for teshuvah like the eye of a needle, and I will open for you openings that wagons and royal carriages could enter through.”

In Michtav meiEliyahu, Rav Dessler explains that the opening we make must be like the opening of an eye of a needle — all the way through. It could be small, only an incremental improvement in one small area of our lives. But it must be complete and wholehearted.

So it seems that the two mitzvos indeed have something in common. Tzitzis must be on all four corners, but you needn’t do both white tzitzis and blue ones to do the mitzvah. Teshuvah must involve regret, vidui, abandoning the sin, and strategies for the future, but it is still teshuvah if it is for just one small flaw and not everything wrong about us.

I was thinking about why this would be. As for teshuvah, I think it makes sense from first principles. After all, perfecting our tzelem Elokim, our “Image” of G-d, is impossible for creatures who are not G-d Himself. As I’ve written in the past, no matter how much we elevate ourselves, the gap between us and HQBH is still infinite. Where we find human transcendence is in our very ability to transcend. Not in how high we reach, but in the very act of reaching upward. Being able to define for ourselves who to be is our most G-dly quality. And so all teshuvah must be of only of a subset of those things we need to “return” from. But if we do so in a way that makes the change permanent it is a qiyum hamitzvah (literally: establishment, permanence of the mitzvah) and in the “image” of Divine Transcendence.

Tzitzis… well it turns out that the end of my search for the connection between teshuvah and tzitzis ended with just paying attention to a line of Shema I’ve been saying every day…

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת ה֔’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

And it will be for you tzitzis, and you will see them; and you will remember all of Hashem’s mitzvos and do them; and do not wander after your heart and after your eyes which you stray after.

– Bamidbar 15:39

Notice the change in tense* between “do not wander” and “which you stray after”.

(Really Tanakh Hebrew works in aspects, not tenses, but that is its own conversation with its own blog post.)

Looking at tzitzis is supposed to stop me from wandering in the future after things I am currently prone to stray after. It’s not only about doing the right thing in general, the pasuq describes teshuvah in particular.

Tzitzis is a Mussar tool for teshuvah.

And so, one can wear a reminder to work on the “blue” parts of our avodas Hashem or on the “white” ones, and still have a valid reminder to do teshuvah. Because I have to pick my teshuvah battles anyway. But I have to go after whatever it is I am working on with all four corners of my garment — wholeheartedly.

And your thoughts...?