The Hassle With the Tassel

Tassel copyI’m not typically one to be too self-conscious about my dress. In second or third grade, I remember telling my mom  I wanted more “normal” t-shirts. What this translated to was: “I only have t-shirts from vacation and VBS and all the other boys at school have branded shirts.” But my mother, sensing the urgency in this issue, took me out to the store a few weeks later, and we scoured the racks for what I thought would help me fit in. We left with a pile of shirts littered with dragons, tie-dye, and sports equipment that I totally didn’t relate to.

Let’s have a moment of silence for children’s fashion circa 2003. And another for the present age of children’s fashion which will be looked back on by future generations as “The Minions Era.”

But the mission was accomplished. I went into school in these new, fresh duds and, though no one seemed to notice there was anything different about my clothes, I felt like I could be more at ease. I was blending in, reflecting the trends of my own little world.

That was the greatest instance of crisis I can remember feeling when it came to my dress. There would be other isolated instances. V-necks would come into fashion. I’d get hung up on having a pearl-snap shirt. I’d become convinced that cardigans were God’s gift to men who didn’t fill out Underarmour, mostly because they are. And to this day, I still hold onto clothes after I’m well aware I’ve outgrown them, typically because they remind me of something.

My Yeezus Tour shirt shrunk after about the third wash, but I still stubbornly sport it as a trophy for surviving the most horrific ice-drive I’ve ever experienced and ever hope to. I am still convinced I can do something with my Scott Pilgrim Sex Bob-Omb shirt that was only available in a ladies’ fit medium, and that I bought with a Hot Topic gift card.

Clothes, for whatever reason, are important to us. They’re like words and language in this way: they’re simultaneously a reflection of culture and reality, and they can create and shape culture and reality. They contribute to story in one way or another.

But that’s not exactly what this post is about. This was all just a round-about way to introduce the fact that this past week, I felt a little awkward about my appearance. That is because I was wearing these four tassels on my belt loops.

For about the past month, I’ve gotten to lead some small group discussions with the young professionals group at my church concerning the Sermon on the Mount. Each week we’ll meet, talk about a passage of the sermon, and consider seriously and radically what it would mean/look like for us to apply Jesus’ words and instructions to our daily lives. It’s heavy, it’s disruptive, and oftentimes it’s hard to sit through because I’m really passionate about it, and when I’m really passionate about something, I tend to ramble. But the group hangs with me in a great show of grace.

Anyway, after we discuss the passage and sort of “dream” about it in our lives, we develop a few challenges to help us go into the next week seeking ways to apply that portion of the sermon into our lives.

Last Sunday, we discussed Jesus’ declaration of his coming to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. And this led to one of our challenges: pick a law from the Torah, preferrably Leviticus-Deuteronomy as these are the books that are often cited as having a bunch of wacky and restrictive, arbitrary rules, and follow it throughout the week.

Now, does that challenge seem to be counter-intuitive to Jesus’ point in Matt. 5:17-20? Maybe a little, but we’ll come back to that.

The point is, this challenge brought me to Numbers 15:37-41, repeated and made more concise in Deuteronomy 22:12:

“Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear.”

Nice. Solid, obscure, and doable. I wouldn’t have to make a habit of making offerings so as to then abstain from boiling a goat in its mother’s milk.

So I googled it and found that this was and is actually a huge thing. The tassels are called tzitzit and the cloak is called tallit, and my mental image of what these would look like was totally wrong. And the more I read, them more I learned that what had seemed really simple to me was actually this really rich and deep part of Jewish culture. There are certain ways to tie the tzitzit, to knot them and strand them, to dye them certain colors.

Suddenly I was getting overwhelmed. But I didn’t just want to go back to the drawing board on this.

So I dug a little deeper, and found one source that said that a modern alternative to wearing the tallit was to hang tzitzit from belt loops. Which sounded great to me because I don’t have a tallit, but I do have belt loops. And apparently the Talmud has pretty extensive instructions on how to make tzitzit.

But again, I had to grapple with my current economic state, and the fact that this was only a week-long experiment. After all, I felt dangerously close to appropriating something sacred. However, looking over all that same tzitzit literature, there was a common thread (pun intended- HEYOOO!) in the tzitzit’s function and purpose. In Numbers, it says that they are to be a reminder of God and God’s commandments so that they will remember and obey God. And that this will be done for generations to come.

And this seemed sort of perfect to me.

When Jesus comes and promises not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, there are a few things happening. First, I think Jesus is asserting one of his defining identities: the Word made flesh. We like to think that upholding the law to a harmful extent was something exclusive to the Pharisees. However, it is still a task to constantly check ourselves and check our hearts; that we are truly pursuing the Word made flesh in Christ rather than the Word made words in the Bible. Idolization of the Bible can be a touchy subject and some would say it leads to some stances that might flirt with heresy, but I’m ok with that, because I put more stock in the Word made flesh than I do in the Word made words. The Bible is only so valuable as the Gospel which it contains.

Second, it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t posture himself against the Law, but rather against the interpretation of the Law which would make it a vessel through which one might achieve righteousness rather than an instrument through which one might grow close to God. There is restoration in Jesus’ words concerning the Law. No longer would it be a barrier to separate those who are more righteous from those who are less. It would not be a gateway through which some would have access to God while others would be denied. But rather, as he will then spend time in the following sections, it would be what it originally was intended to be: a means by which people might know God’s heart and attempt to live near it.

So the question became: what might these tassels tell me about God’s heart? And so I made them and wore them so that I might better reflect on that through the week.

I made a lot of it up as I went along, but did my best to preserve the fact that there are elements of the tzitzit that are important, intentional, and symbolic. For one, there are supposed to be 39 winds throughout the tzitzit, which is the gematria (or numerical equivalent) of the words “The Lord is One,” a part of the Shema. So I wanted to preserve that, as the Shema is a greatly significant part of Jewish culture and identity in regards to their relationship with God.

I decided to simply tie the sorts of tassels I was familiar with seeing, so I cut white strings in lengths of 7 inches (7 also being a biblical number), and laid out 8 for each tassel, except one with only 7 strings. There’s also supposed to be a blue chord in the tassel, either 1, 2, or 4 of the 8, so I did 3 tassels with 2, and 1 with 1 to make it 7 blue chords as well. I then made 4 loops, draped the tassel piles through, and tied them together with another piece of string, so that all four tassels had 10 strings, except the one that had 9: 39 strings altogether.

So I looped them through my belt loops. And I felt sort of ridiculous in some places, especially since they looked nothing like what they’re supposed to. They’d typically peek out from under the hem of my shirt, little tufts of white and blue, and completely contrast with what I was wearing. But I was nearly always conscious of them, and that made me conscious of their purpose.

It was a little rule. I’d never noticed it before now. But I think it’s taught me that story is near the heart of God. And our involvement in it, our participation in it, is just as near.

Remember your story. Remember your God. Pass this down for generations.

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