1. Today we’re going to try to uncover the underlying connections between a whole host of passages, strewn across the Torah, which seem, at first glance, entirely unrelated to each other. Most of these passages are familiar to us; in fact, we recite some of them on a daily basis. But our wide-ranging theory actually begins in one of this week’s two parshahs, with an unlikely starting point: the head plate worn by the Kohen Gadol. In Hebrew, this head plate is called a “tzitz” (Hebrew: ציץ). Many of us don’t know much about this head plate. However, the tzitz does bear striking similarities to a ritual garment which is far more well-known: the tzitzis (ציצית), i.e., the tassels worn at the edges of a four cornered garment. To that end: Both the tzitz and the tzitzis bear blue-ish threads, which are referred to by the Torah as “pesil techeles” (Exod. 39:31; Num. 15:38). Both must be placed before one’s eyes: the tzitz is placed “on the forehead” (Exod. 28:38–reference is from parshas Tetzaveh, where the tzitz is originally introduced), while, of the tzitzis, the Torah states, “and you shall see them” (Num. 15:39). Both serve to protect against sin (Exod. 28:38; Num. 15:39). And, both remind those who wear them that they are “holy to God:” “and you shall engrave upon it: ‘Holy to the Lord’” (Exod. 28:36); “and you shall see them… and you shall be holy to your God” (Num. 15:39-40).
2. It seems, then, that the tzitzis are meant to replicate the tzitz: the Kohen Gadol wears the tzitz to indicate his holiness; the members of his nation wear the tzitzis to indicate theirs. Indeed, the Zohar, in his kabbalistic commentary at the end of parshas Shelach, makes this connection explicitly. In fact, he suggests that the word “tzitzis” is simply the feminine form of the word “tzitz!” For more, see Zohar, Shelach 174b.
3. This insight radically shapes the way we read one of the Torah’s most famous stories: the story of Korach’s rebellion, told in sefer Bamidbar. Immediately after the Torah introduces the mitzvah of tzitzis, Korach rebels against his cousin Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (=High Priest). Korach’s claim is: “The entire congregation is holy – so why do you elevate yourself above the community of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3). If our observation about the tzitzis is correct, then this complaint could not be better timed. Until now, Aharon’s tzitz reminded the nation of of his uniquely holy status. But now that everyone has been invited to wear tzitzis themselves–now that they too don clothes which announce “and you shall be holy to your God”–Korach feels justified in challenging Aaron’s priestly authority. In fact, others have made this connection before us, including Rabbi Yaakov Medan.
4. With this in mind, we better understand a famous medrash concerning Korach. According to the medrash, Korach launched his attack on Aharon’s authority by mocking the idea that a garment made entirely of techeles-wool would nevertheless require four techeles strings in order to meet the religious requirement of tzitzis. Where did Korach come up with the idea that a garment might be made entirely of techeles? Well, the Torah does speak of such a garment: shortly before it tells us of the tzitz which Aharon wore, it tells us that the me’il (robe) which he wore was made entirely of techeles. So the garment mentioned by Korach wasn’t a figment of his imagination; it was actually one of the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol. And why would Korach have been thinking about the priestly garments? Well, his doing so makes perfect sense, in the context of what we’ve been saying: if indeed the tzitzis are just a “folk version” of the tzitz–and if it was indeed the similarities between these two which provided the fuel for Korach’s rebellion–then we understand well why Korach would launch his attack against Aharon by arguing that the wardrobe of the Kohen Gadol is incompatible with the mitzvah of tzitzis!
5. Our interpretation also offers much insight into the otherwise enigmatic climax of Korach’s rebellion. Following Korach’s death, Hashem demonstrates that Aharon alone has been elected to serve as Kohen Gadol by bidding the tribal leaders to bring wooden staffs to the ohel mo’ed (“tent of meeting”), and asking Aharon to do the same. The next morning, the staffs the tribal leaders remain unchanged, whereas Aharon’s has a bud/blossom which Torah describes as… a “tzitz!” (Num. 17:23). The symbolism is hard to miss. Surely what Hashem intends to communicate through this curious miracle is that it is Aharon alone who holds the right to wear the tzitz (indeed, Chizkuni states as much explicitly in his commentary on that passage). And, if what we are claiming is correct, then this message could not be more apt. Korach rebelled against Aharon because, armed with the mitzvah of tzitzis, Korach now considered himself to stand on equal footing as the one chosen to wear the tzitz. Hashem rebuts that claim by providing Korach’s survivors with a visual sign that, tzitzis notwithstanding, it is Aharon alone who can bear the tzitz.
6. Let’s take the next step. The Torah tells us that the tzitz was placed on Aharon’s “forehead.” Specifically, Chazal tell us, it was placed above his hairline. Why there? Well, one meaning of the word tzitzis is, in fact, “lock of hair;” thus, Yechezkel HaNavi, much later in Tanach, recounts how Hashem pulled him by “tzitzis roshi,” “a lock of my hair,” to transport him to the site of the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim (Ezek. 8:3; indeed, several of the classical mefarshim cite this passuk in attempting to explain the meaning of the word “tzitz”). So it seems that there’s a fundamental relationship between the “tzitz” and the “hair.”
7. And this relationship–between the tzitz and the hair– is especially interesting to consider given that the man who rebelled against the wearing of the tzitz was named none other than “Korach:” literally, “the bald one.” That cannot be a coincidence! In fact, it seems to fit perfectly with our conclusion (reached in a series of articles earlier last year–“Out of This World” and “The Hair Affair”) that it is specifically through the imagery of hair that Korach (“the bald one”) seeks to undermine the Torah’s two paragons of spirituality: the kohanim (who are specifically bidden, at one point, to cut their hair); and the nezirim (who may never cut their hair). Hair, we noted at that time, is a symbol of death; it is comprised entirely of dead cells. Korach, the bald one, is always cutting his hair; he engages excessively with his hair, because he represents the spiritual service of death. By contrast, the kohen and the nazir (who are connected to each other in many ways besides for through their hair, by the way), place limits upon their engagement with their hair, because they represent a form of spiritual service which is life affirming rather than life denying. [There is much more to say on the relationship between the nazir, the kohen, and Korach, but this summary will suffice for our purposes; if you are interested, please see the articles from last year for more on this topic].
8. Given that the kohen and the nazir are connected specifically through the imagery of hair, it should not surprise us to find the Torah referring to the tzitz, in our Parshah, as a nezer (i.e. “crown”–the same root as the word nazir–Exod. 39:30). This association fits beautifully into the dynamic we’ve been tracing: kohen and nazir, on the one side, versus Korach, on the other. It also underscores the theory that the tzitz is to be somehow associated with the hair, specifically, and that the imagery of hair is somehow essential to the role of the kohen.
9. There’s yet another, fascinating connection to be made here. We’ve mentioned that the tzitz was worn above the hairline. But do you know what else is worn above the hairline? The tefillin (see Zevachim 19a-b). And why are the tefillin worn above the hairline? Well, Chazal tell us (Menachos 37b), we know that tefillin go above the hairline because the Torah refers to the site of tefillin using the same phrase (בין עיניכם) as the site of “death gashes.” See, in ancient times, it was common for people to honor the dead by gashing themselves above their hairline; the Torah, for its part, explicitly forbids this practice. And do you know what these “death gashes” are actually called, in the Torah’s terminology? קרחה״”-Korchah (Deut. 14:1). Yes, that’s correct–it’s the same root as Korach! And it makes for quite a picture: Korach is the “bald one;” the one, that is, who rips out his hair in an act of death worship. Against him stands the kohen: the one who must place above his hairline the crown of the tzitz in order to serve the God of life.
10. And under the kohen stand all those who wear the tefillin: ritual objects which promote the sanctity of life, and which render impossible participation in the cult of death. Indeed, halachah actually insists that one not wear tefillin when one is in mourning. This makes sense, given all we’ve been saying: tefillin, as a symbol of life, are fundamentally incompatible with death. And, of course, the same is true for the “twin mitzvah” of tefillin–namely, the tzitzis. Just like the tefillin, the tzitzis, as we have seen, is something of a “mini-tzitz;” both ritual garments parallel, in a sense, the crown worn above the hairline of the Kohen Gadol. Thus, it should not surprise us that halachah forbids us from wearing out our tzitzis in a cemetery. Nor should it surprise us that we cut the tzitzis off the tallis which we wrap around a corpse. Tzitzis, like tefillin, celebrate life; they are fundamentally incompatible with death.
11. One final strand to tie together here. Earlier last year–in an analysis separate from anything connected to Korach, kohanim, nezirim, etc.–we showed how the language the Torah uses to describe tzitzis, the context in which the Torah chooses to discuss tzitzis, and the manner in which we perform the actual mitzvah of tzitzis, all suggest that the aim of this mitzvah is to encourage reproductive propriety. (We won’t summarize those observations now, but interested readers can read more here). Well, now: if that’s true, and if it’s also true (as we’ve been arguing in this piece) that the tzitzis is meant to serve as a sort of mini-tzitz, then we would expect to find the theme of reproductive propriety associated with the tzitz as well. Do we? In fact–we do. For the same passage of the Torah which begins with the command to wear the tzitz culminates with the command that the kohanim wear special “pants” to “cover their nakedness” while serving in the sanctuary (note: the passages are delineated by the letter “samech” in the masoretic notation, and are set off with indents in any sefer Torah you will consult). The term for “covering” used in the context of Aharon’s pants (כ.ס.ה) is the same term used with reference to the tzitzis garment in sefer Devarim which we looked at last year. And it is the same fundamental idea which underlies both commands: namely, the imperative of reproductive propriety.
12. Putting it all together, then, we find that the tzitzis–like the tzitz, which they replicate–are all about affirming life. And they do this in two ways. On the one hand, they discourage practices which affirm death–most concretely, the tearing of one’s hear or gashing of one’s hairline (=the credo of Korach) in honor of the dead. On the other hand, they encourage reproductive propriety, to ensure that life is preserved and perpetuated in a way that is optimally sanctified and sustainable.
13. And now, perhaps, we can come full circle on the imagery of the tzitz. For, as we saw in that passage about Aharon’s staffs, tzitz, fundamentally, means “blossom,” or “bud.” The tzitz, in other words, is the paradigmatic symbol of life. And whereas some of the life force which God plants within us is inevitably channelled towards death (represented, biologically, through the dead cells which make up our hair), the Torah challenges us to resist placing death at the top of our spiritual consciousness: to resist worshipping the tzitzis which grow from our hairlines, and to fashion a different set of tzitzis, modelled upon the the tzitz, which we must place at the forefront of our minds instead. For the Torah calls upon us to search for Hashem not in the there-and-then, but in the here-and-now; to find Him not by escaping human life, but my embracing it, and elevating it. In this way alone can we aspire to the ideal etched on the kohen’s forehead, and mandated of us all–to be “holy to the Lord.”