In memory of my aunt Miriam Golinkin z”l, a beloved educator and Zionist, who passed away 12 Adar, 5751
Question from Rabbi Steve Morgen, Houston, Texas: There is a widespread custom to kiss one’s tzitzit three times during the recitation of the third paragraph of the Shema, upon pronouncing the word emet immediately after the end of Shema, and again upon pronouncing the word la’ad. On the other hand, there are renowned rabbis such as the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Prof. Saul Lieberman who did not kiss their tzitzit at all. What are the sources and approaches regarding these customs?
While much has been written about this custom throughout the generations, a comprehensive study on the subject has yet to be published (see the Bibliography below). Therefore, I will attempt to fill this gap.
I) Passing the tzitzit across one’s eyes while reciting the Shema
It may be assumed that this custom derives from the verse “and you shall look upon it” (Numbers 15:39).
When people gather the tzitzit [in their hand] during the recitation of the Shema and pass it across their eyes, although it may seem that this is done out of hibub mitzvah [affection for a mitzvah], it is not an obligation, for if so, one would also touch the tefillin upon pronouncing “and bind them”; rather, it is merely a custom, where “forbidden” and “permissible ” do not apply.
We will see below that indeed there was a prevalent custom to touch one’s tefillin while reciting the Shema. In any case, here we have a description of the custom of passing the tzitzit across one’s eyes in Byzantium, ca. 1100.
II) To look at the tzizit while pronouncing the verse “and you shall look upon it”
This custom was possibly influenced by a baraita in Menahot 43b:
And it is taught in another baraita: “And you shall look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” — looking leads to remembering, and remembering leads to doing. (This baraita is also quoted in the Responsa of the Rashbash mentioned above, and in the Responsa of the Rivash, to be quoted below.)
A) A number of Rishonim thought that looking at or gazing at the tzitzit is in itself a positive commandment:
Thus, it is not surprising if others ruled that one should look at the tzitzit while reciting the verse “and you shall look upon it”, as emphasized by the Rashbash in his responsum above: “Thus, it is proper that this looking should take place while reciting ‘and you shall look upon it,’ so that one may look and remember, and one encourages [a religious act] at the time of the action”.
4. And so wrote the author of Hesed Le’avraham, paragraph 2 (quoted by Kaf Hahayyim to OH 24, subparagraph 15): “Some people have the custom of gazing at the tzitzit when they reach the verse ‘and you shall look upon it’ etc., and [in doing so] one should intend to fulfill the positive commandment of ‘and you shall look upon it’ ”
B) Other Poskim ruled that one should look at the tzitzit upon reciting “and you shall look upon it”, even though they did not consider it a separate mitzvah:
As for your custom of looking at it during recitation of the Shema when you reach “and you shall look upon it” – do not relinquish your custom, for it is a good custom, and it is hibub mitzvah. Such too was the custom of my teacher the Hasid Rabbi Peretz Hacohen, ztz”l (Spain, 1304-1370).
III) Not to look at the Tzitzit
A certain “maskil” in the fifteenth century, probably from Algiers, opposed the custom of looking at the tzitzit. His opinion is quoted in the question addressed to the Rashbash (above):
You ask as well, that one of the maskilim said that it is not appropriate to look at the tzitzit when reciting the verse “and you shall look upon it”, nor to touch the tefillin when reciting “and bind them”; for if it were so, we would say that he should also touch the mezuzah when reciting “and write them”.
The rabbi who sent the question to the Rashbash replied to him, as did the Rashbash — see his responsum quoted above. That maskil was probably influenced by the responsum of Rav Natronai Gaon, which we shall cite below. In any case, his was apparently a solitary opinion which was not accepted. As we have seen, there was a widespread custom of looking at the tzitzit from the thirteenth century onward.
IV) Raising and showing the tzitzit
Rabbi Avraham of Lunel wrote in his Sefer Hamanhig (Toledo, 1204; ed. Raphael, Part I, p. 76):
And it is the custom to lift the corners of the tallit in order to show the tzitzit as one says “And it shall be for you tzitzit; and you shall look upon it” as a reminder of the 613 mitzvot. Tzitzit is linguistically related to “peering [meitzitz] through the lattice” (Song of Songs 2:9).
Thus, according to Sefer Hamanhig, one not only looks at the tzitzit but also lifts and shows it. The theme of remembering the 613 mitzvot is similar to several baraitot in Menahot 43b, while the theme of “peering through the lattice” appears in Sifre Numbers, paragraph 115 (ed. Horowitz, p. 125; ed. Kahana, p. 321).
V) Touch the tzitzit upon pronouncing “And it shall be for you tzitzit”
He touches the blankets there, as a praying Jew (touches the tzitzit on his tallit). (Diwan 39, 30, quoted by Gartner, p. 270, apud H. Z. Hirshberg, Yisrael B’arav, Tel Aviv, 5706, p. 113).
It may be assumed that touching the tzitzit came about as a result of touching the tefillin, which is mentioned in Shabbat 12a.
Some people follow the custom, upon reciting “Bind them as a sign upon your hand”, to touch the tefillin on the arm; and upon reciting “let them serve as totafot between your eyes”, to touch the tefillin on the head; and upon reciting “and it shall be for you tzitzit”, to touch the tzitziyot.
VI) To hold the tzitzit while reciting the Shema
“All my bones shall say: O Lord, who is like unto You!” (Psalms 35:10). Said the Holy One Blessed be He to him: David, what are you doing to me? He said to him: I am praising you with all my limbs… the left hand I bind with the tefillin of the hand, and with it I hold my tzitziyot during the recitation of the Shema…
Although this is not a halakhic source, it inadvertently reveals the custom at the time and place of this Midrash.
Our Sages have taught: If [the child] knows how to wave the lulav, he is obligated [in the mitzvah of] lulav… if he knows how to wrap himself in tzitzit, his [father] buys him tzitzit… and he holds the tzitzit like a row… during the recitation of the Shema.
The last sentence in bold is not found in Yerushalmi Sukkah. Prof. Aptowitzer maintained (p. 390, end of note 4), and rightly so, that it is not from the Talmud Yerushalmi but from Sefer Yerushalmi, which was widespread in Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages; Prof. Ya’akov Sussman and others published parts of this work in the late twentieth century. Prof. Aptowitzer further claimed that the sentence about holding the tzitzit is a later addition based on Midrash Tehillim, quoted above.
The custom of holding the tzitzit is mentioned by many poskim, with all kinds of minor variations as to how the tzitzit should be held:
VII) It is permissible to hold the tzitzit while reciting Shema, but not obligatory
Rabbi Avraham b”r Yitzhak, Av Bet Din of Narbonne (1110-1179) wrote in Sefer Ha’eshkol (ed. Albeck, Part I, p. 16): ”A person reciting the Shema does not need to hold his tzitzitiyot; but a person who puts on tefillin must touch them frequently.” In other words, a person must touch his tefillin frequently, according to what is said in Shabbat 12a, but he is not required to hold the tzitzit, probably because there is no Talmudic source for this custom.
VIII) It is forbidden to hold the tzitzit
The key geonic responsum opposing the custom of holding the tzitzit is attributed by most sources to Rav Natronai Gaon.(3) Five books quote the responsum in full (4), while seven sources either summarize it or quote part of it.(5) Here, then, is an eclectic edition, based on all the sources:
And so said Rav Natronai Gaon: And regarding what you asked, when a person recites the Shema, should he hold his four tzitzitiyot or not?
This thing is not the way of Sages and disciples, it is the way of arrogance. For once he has looked upon his tziztzit while wrapping [himself in] them and blessed over them, after that, why should he hold them in his hand? But, according to this, upon reaching “and you shall bind them,” he also needs to hold his tefillin! And if you say, let him hold them, upon reaching “and you shall write them”, he needs to go home and place his hand upon the mezuzah! Therefore, one who does so, one must teach him and explain to him [variant: warn him] not to do so.
The question is: why was Rav Natronai so vehemently opposed to holding the tzitzit? Rabbi Ya’akov Schorr (in his annotations to Sefer Ha’itim by Rabbi Yehudah Habarceloni, Cracow, 1903, p. 25, note 134) and Albeck (Sefer Ha’eshkol, Part I, p. 16, note 9) claimed that his opposition stemmed from his opposition to the Karaite custom.(6) However, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, Part 13, No. 3) vehemently rejected that claim; here are two of his reasons: When the Geonim wished to oppose the Karaites, they did so explicitly. Moreover, Rav Natronia Gaon explicitly says that he opposes the custom because it is “arrogance,” and Rabbi David Abudarham has already explained what he meant: “For everything that one is not obligated to do, yet does so in public with a display of piety, while everyone else is not doing it, it looks like arrogance”. Indeed, Prof. Brody cites (in note 2) several good examples of such arrogance in the Talmud: Berakhot 17b; Pesahim 54b-55a; Sukkah 26b, at bottom.
On the other hand, Prof. Sperber (pp. 89-90; cf. Dr. Gartner, pp. 270-271) maintains that Rav Natronai Gaon wanted to uproot the Eretz Yisrael custom described in Midrash Tehillim. This, however, is not clear, because Rav Natronai lived before Midrash Tehillim.
In any case, as mentioned, Rabbi Yehudah Habarceloni rejected Rav Natronai’s approach; and arrogance is not a factor today since everyone holds the tzitzit during the Shema.
IX) Kissing the Tzitzit
This is the prevailing custom today, but it is mentioned mainly from the sixteenth century onwards. I found only one mention of this custom in the time of the Rishonim (ca. 1000-1500), in an anonymous halakhic work published just once from a manuscript, in 1929:
It is a good custom, when one is reciting the Shema and reaches the paragraph about tzitzit, to the verse “and you shall look upon it and remember” to grab the tzitzit in his hands and pass them across his eyes, and to kiss them and to look at them. And so I found in Hama’or Hagadol, in Hilkhot Tzitzit, in the name of Rabbi Zemah Gaon [most of the following quotation is in Aramaic. DG]: … and when he reads the Shema, to hold the tzitzit in his left hand, and after he reads and reaches [the verse] in the paragraph about tzitzit “and you shall look upon them”, he kisses them and he looks at them for they remind him of all the commandments of the Master of the Universe, and he expresses affection for the mitzvot, and so they do in all of Eretz Yisrael and the land of the West.
This detailed passage begs an explanation: who is “Hama’or Hagadol”? Why have we not found this quotation from Rav Zemah Gaon anywhere else? Why have we not heard of such a custom “in all of Eretz Israel and the land of the West”? I do not have answers to these questions, but if Dr. Weiss’s dating of the passage is correct, this is the earliest mention of kissing the tzitzit during the recitation of Shema, as an expression of hibub mitzvah, affection for a mitzvah.
Some have the custom of kissing the tzitzit while looking at it, and all of this is hibub mitzvah.
After that, we hear about all kinds of variations regarding kissing the tzitzit:
And upon reaching Vayomer, that is, parashat tzitzit, take up the ends of the threads of the four tzitzitiyot in your right hand…and for as long as you are reciting parashat tzitzit, continue to look at and gaze upon those tzitziyot; and when you reach “and you shall look upon it”, pass them over your eyes and kiss them… and when you reach [the words] “udevarav hayyim vekayamim vene’emanim venehmadim la’ad”, at “la’ad” kiss them and pass them over your eyes, and let go of them so that they dangle down as usual.(7)
As stressed by several rabbis and scholars, such as Rabbi Lewysohn and Prof. Sperber, this custom of kissing the tzitzit is part of a general trend of “hibub mitzvah”. This concept appears in the Talmud (Sukkah 41b; Shabbat 33b; Shabbat 130a; Sotah 13a; Hullin 133a), as well as in medieval halakhic literature.(8)
One of the ways of expressing hibub mitzvah was – and still is – kissing the ritual object. Among other things, it was the custom to kiss tefillin (OH 28:3); a Torah scroll (Rema to OH 149:1, in the name of the Or Zaru’a; cf. Samuel Krauss, Korot Batei Hetefillah Beyisrael, New York, 1955, pp. 274-276); the mezuzah (Yoreh De’ah 285:2 in the Rema; Yam Shel Shlomo to Yevamot, loc. cit.; Hayyei Adam 15:1);(9) and one of the holy books (Arukh Hashulhan, Yoreh De’ah 282:11).
Moreover, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of the Shelah (Ashkenaz and Eretz Yisrael, 1565-1630), writes in Massekhet Pesahim of Shenei Luhot Habrit: “And I have seen the select few who love mitzvot, who used to kiss the matzot and the maror and all the mitzvot at the time they are observed; and so too the sukkah upon entering or leaving it, and so too the four species of the lulav, all of it to express affection for the mitzvah”. And this can be learned from what the Rema wrote about kissing the tzitzit in OH 24 (Shelah, ed. Jerusalem, 5729, Part II, fol. 20b, quoted briefly in Ateret Zekeinim to OH 12, and from there in Kaf Hahayyim to OH 24, paragraph 19).
X) Not to Kiss the Tzitzit
During the recitation of Shema, he holds the two tzitzit in front of him without kissing them at all.
Ma’aseh Rav Hashalem explains (in note 3) that the Vilna Gaon acted in this fashion so as not to abolish the mitzvah of seeing the tzitzit. In my opinion, there is a simpler explanation. It appears from Bei’ur Hagra to OH 24, cited above, that the Vilna Gaon’s custom did not derive from opposition to kissing the tzitzit. The Vilna Gaon always sought a talmudic/midrashic source for every paragraph in the Shulkhan Arukh, since he only considered the Talmud/Midrash as authoritative for deciding halakhah.(10)
In Bei’ur Hagra to OH 24, subparagraph 2, re. holding the tzitzit, he cites Midrash Tehillim and its parallels, which we quoted above. Therefore, it was his custom to hold the tzitzit, since this custom is mentioned in Midrash Tehillim, which he considered an ancient source. Since there is no ancient source for kissing the tzitzit, he did not kiss the tzitzit. It is not an issue of opposition to the custom, but of lack of an ancient authoritative source for the custom.
XI) An interesting parallel – the foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah
We have learned in Horayot 12a = Keritot 6a:
Abaye said: Now that you have said that an omen is a significant matter, a person should always be accustomed to see [variant: to eat] on Rosh Hashanah: squash, fenugreek, leeks, beet, and dates.
As I have shown in another responsum,(12) already in the Geonic period there were three textual variants and three customs regarding these foods on Rosh Hashanah:
l’mehezei = to see;
l’meihad = to hold;
l’meikhal = to eat.
Obviously, one cannot eat tzitzit, yet we have also seen two similar customs involving tzitzit from the period of the Geonim/Rishonim:
To look at the tzitzit;
To touch/hold the tzitzit.
XII) Conclusions and Practical Halakhah
We have seen above many customs concerning what one does with the tzitzit during the recitation of Shema, along with some opposition to these customs. Now, we shall present the customs in three categories:
Clearly, the first category fits the verse “and you shall look upon it” and thus, there is no reason to oppose these customs.
The second category met with the fierce opposition of Rav Natronai Gaon and Rav Moshe Gaon on the grounds of “arrogance”. “Arrogance”, however, is a halakhic term that depends on sociology – on a specific time and place. If a person strives to outdo others by ostentatious observance of the mitzvah, “it looks like arrogance”. It could be that in the time of Rav Natronai Gaon in Babylon, holding the tzitzit looked like arrogance. Today, given the fact that almost everyone holds the tzizit in his hand, there is nothing arrogant about it.
The third category, kissing the tzitzit, arises from the desire to express affection for the mitzvot, just as we kiss the Torah scroll, the tefillin, the mezuzah, and more. There is no obligation to do so, but it is a beautiful way of expressing hibub mitzvah.
May it be God’s will that by doing these actions during the recitation of the Shema, we may fulfill the verse “and you shall look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them”.
12 Adar II 5779
My thanks to Sara Friedman for her preliminary translation of this responsum.
Cohen — Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen, Timely Jewish Questions, Timeless Rabbinic Answers, Northvale, NJ, 1991, pp. 50-53
Gartner – Ya’akov Gartner, Sinai 103 (5749), pp. 270-271 = Ya’akov Gartner, Gilgulei Minhag Be’olam Hahalakhah, Jerusalem, 5755, p. 252
Kuk – Sh. H. Kuk, Iyunim Umehkarim, Vol. I, Jerusalem, 5719, pp. 334-335
Lewysohn – Avraham Lewysohn, Mekorei Minhagim, Berlin, 1846, paragraph 10, pp. 29-31
Sperber – Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Part II, Jerusalem, 5751, pp. 87-90
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is the President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.