A Homily on the Fringes and Phylacteries


I wish to express my thanks to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Klau library per Ms. Noni Rudavsky for permission to publish on the Web my translation of unpublished ms. 129 in Judeo-Arabic.

This homily is written in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic, and probably was composed in the nineteenth century. It quotes R. Haim Azulai (known as Hida) who died early in that century. The language is a remarkable mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. Hebrew words constitute almost half of the total content, but the syntax is Arabic. This mixed language was chiefly in use only in religious compositions of this type, and helped give the listener the illusion that the rabbi was speaking Hebrew.

The construction of the homily is rather elegant. Desirous of speaking about the fringes and phylacteries, two key Jewish ritual observances (see Numbers 14.37-41 and Deuteronomy 6.8), the homilist begins by speaking of the divine revelation as a whole, since these observances are hyperbolically equated to the whole. This gives him the opportunity to recommend generosity to scholars, including himself, one assumes. His plea for a hand-out is appealing, one which could hardly be refused. He then goes on to probe the meaning of biblical and rabbinic statements, pointing out problems or contradictions, and resolving them, interweaving statements of past authorities and his own insights. The far-fetched nature of these exercises should not blind the modern reader to their positive side. A certain play-element is involved, akin to that contained in a skilful pun or crossword puzzle. The exponent's success is measured by his skill in marshalling his proofs, and giving new insights into old and loved texts. Some intriguing situations are presented, often borrowed from the Talmud: the wealthy man uncomfortable on his admission to the heavenly university, and requiring a crash course; the man choking on a steak debating what benediction to recite; the secret ambitions of the angels. This is a world in which incriminating evidence literally flies away under appropriate conditions, and no prescription is needed for wonder drugs. Maybe it was not such a bad world as we sometimes think.

Note that the references to the translation of the Babylonian Talmud, edited by I. Epstein, refer to the page of the individual tractate.

The Homily

There is a statement in the Midrash Rabba which goes like this:

Our rabbis decreed that when men are called up to the reading of the Torah (ritually, in the Synagogue) the first one recites a benediction before the reading, and the last one recites a benediction after the reading. Actually, when you bless the Torah, you bless yourself. Do you think God gave you the Torah to your detriment? No, God gave the Torah to Israel only in order to benefit them. The very angels who minister to God wanted to have it, but God would not give it to them.

Now, gentlemen, we all know what a great thing it is for a Jew to involve himself in pious acts and good deeds, especially when he fulfils to the letter the commandments relating to the fringes and phylacteries which he must put on. Their worth is boundless. Now God and Israel have made mutual declarations. God acknowledges that Israel makes known His unity in the world by declaring: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!" Deuteronomy 6.4 He in turn declares: "Who is like Israel, one nation in the earth!" II Samuel 7.23, I Chronicles 17.21 (Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 6a, page 25 in the Soncino translation.) Israel declares that God is one; God declares that Israel is His only son in the earth, and in comparison the gentiles are nothing, for Israel is unique to Him who is unique. So God chose us from all the nations of the earth, and gave us the Torah which weakens the strength of man's Evil Inclination. For this reason, in the biblical passages dealing with the fringes and phylacteries it is said: "And you shall put these words of Mine on your heart and soul." Deuteronomy 11.8 Now the word for put (sam-tem) can be understood as panacea (sam tam), because the Torah is a miracle drug.

You can compare the matter to a man who wounded his son, and placed a plaster on the wound. He said: "My boy, so long as this plaster is on the wound, eat and drink what you like, hot or cold, and have no fear. But if you take it off, you will get a nasty boil." Similarly, God says to Israel: "My boy, I created the Evil Inclination, and the Torah as a cure for it. If you study the Torah, you will not fall into the hands of the Evil Inclination." Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30b (Page 146 in the Soncino translation.) The Torah says: "If you do good, will you not be on top?" Genesis 4.7 But if you do not study the Torah, you will fall into the hands of the Evil Inclination, as the Torah goes on: "Sin crouches at the door!" The Torah further says: "Its desire is towards you" which means that the Evil Inclination is always out to get you, but you can overcome it if you really want, because it continues: "And you shall rule over it."

The rabbis were puzzled by the expression "And you shall put these words of Mine," because the word put normally applies to something you can move manually, and not to mere words. The verse should have said: "And you shall do them" or "observe them". Hence they explained away put (sam-tem) as panacea (sam tam). The parable I mentioned is well known. It compares the evil inclination to a wound which God inflicted upon us, causing us to neglect the commandments. The plaster on the wound signifies the Torah which protects us and weakens the power of the Evil Inclination so that we are not entrapped by it and transgress. When it goes on to say that you can eat and drink what you like, it means that so long as a man occupies himself with the Torah, even though he surrounds himself with the pleasures of this world, he will not come to transgress, for the Torah will protect him like a plaster on a wound. If, however, he does not occupy himself with the Torah, he will be injured by the wound which has no plaster. Accordingly, a man who does not occupy himself with the Torah cannot but transgress, since he does not study what is permitted and what is forbidden, as the teacher said: "An ignoramus cannot be pious." Ethics of the Fathers, 2.5 Hence, the parable concludes: "If you take it off, you will get a nasty boil."

Rashi explains the verse "If you do good, will you not be on top?" in the light of the verse "I gave you a good doctrine." Proverbs 4.2 That is to say, "If you study the Torah – which is called good – will you not be on top – of the Evil Inclination." You will not fall into its power.

However, Maharsha found it difficult to believe that the verse about doing good refers to Israel as a whole, for in the text it is addressed to Cain only. He resolved the difficulty as follows. The verse contains a repetition – "Will you not be on top" and "You shall rule over it." Accordingly, the first expression speaks of Israel as a whole, while the second refers to Cain, who had not been given the Torah, but he did have free will with which he could overcome his Evil Inclination. Moreover, the word you in "You shall rule over it" in the Hebrew is singular and emphatic, to point out that it refers to a specific individual, namely Cain, in contrast to "Will you not be on top" where the pronoun is missing because it refers to Israel as a whole.

Rab Alghazi raises a problem. If we say that the Torah is a remedy for the Evil Inclination, why do we recite over it daily the benediction: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments and enjoined upon us words of Torah?" We have a clear rule not to recite a benediction over anything eaten or drunk for health reasons. It says in the Talmud: "One who drinks water on account of being thirsty recites the benediction: 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, by Whose word all things were created.' Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 44a (Page 269 in the Soncino translation.) The Talmud asks why the expression "on account of being thirsty" is used, since another version of the statement does not include this phrase.

The problem is resolved in the Talmud by R. Idi b. Abin, who declares that one drinking water to remove something stuck in his throat need not recite a benediction, since benedictions are recited on receiving a benefit but not on being saved from injury. By the same token, it would seem that one ought not to recite a benediction on the Torah, since we just observed that the Torah saves us from injury. Rab Alghazi goes on to explain that the Tosaphists (medieval compilers of glosses on the Talmud) point out that the rule of the Talmud applies only to drinking something like water from which he does not derive pleasure and enjoyment. But if it was a liquid from which he derives pleasure and enjoyment, then he should in any case recite a benediction.

So we learn from the statement of the Tosaphists that we should recite a benediction over a liquid which at one and the same time cures the throat and gives pleasure and enjoyment to the body. The Torah is comparable. At one and the same time, it is a cure for the Evil Inclination, and a pleasure and enjoyment for us in the World to Come. So it is in order to recite a benediction over it ...

Since, gentlemen, the Torah is a remedy for the Evil Inclination, we should fix times to study it, for it is the pillar on which the world stands, as the prophet said: "Were it not for my covenant (i.e. the Torah) day and night, I would never have set the bounds of heaven and earth..." Jeremiah 33.25 Even if you do not study the Torah personally, you can do it through others, by supporting those who do study Torah. As the verse says: "Being in the shade of wisdom is like being in the shade of money." Ecclesiastes 7.12 A wealthy man who supports those who study Torah will live with them in Paradise under the same canopy, since he fulfils the Torah through them. He will get the same reward as they, just as though he had studied himself, and they will live together in Paradise.

Rab Azulai commented that this would not be much of a reward for him. Since the scholars would go on studying Torah in Paradise, the rich but ignorant man would not understand what they were talking about, and would be embarrassed! However, Rab Azulai promptly resolved the difficulty. Surely God will see to it that the man who supports scholars will learn Torah effortlessly in Heaven in accordance with the statement that "all your children will be students of the Lord. Isaiah 54.13 But have we not learned that "those who worked on the eve of Sabbath will eat on the Sabbath?" – that is to say, those who studied in this world will enjoy the fruit of their labors in the world to come. What about the rest of the people? Ah, the verse goes on: "Great shall be the peace of your children." Peace implies charity in accordance with the verse "The work of charity is peace. Isaiah 32.17 This means that those who support scholars will get to learn Torah in the world to come.

This helps us understand the deeper meaning of the verse "Great peace have the lovers of your Torah, and they have no obstacle." Psalm 119.165 What obstacle is referred to? First, we have to give the Ari's explanation of the verse "The rich and poor are met together: the Lord makes both of them." Proverbs 22.2 This means that when the rich Israelite meets the poor man and gives him charity in the proper manner, the divine name LORD is kabbalistically indicated in the transaction. The money, which the donor gives, is symbolized by the pound sign £. The palm of the donor is symbolized by O. The flexed arm of the donor is symbolized by R. The fist which the poor man makes around the gift is symbolized by D. There we are with the divine name in the right order, £-O-R-D! Now this applies if the donor extends his hand first. If the poor man extends his hand first, the symbolic order is £-D-R-O and this is incorrect! Accordingly, the sages say that if you want to perform charity, perform it to scholars, because they do not put out their hand first. This accounts nicely for the verse "Great peace have the lovers of your Torah, and they have no obstacle." Peace means charity, as I have proved above; when it is done to the lovers of Torah there is no obstacle, that is to say, the proper kabbalistic order of the divine name is not spoiled by their putting out their hands first. Moreover, the divine name LORD stresses the attribute of mercy.

Let me now explain the verse "The whole order I command you this day you shall observe to do it." Deuteronomy 8.1 R. Sheshet said that if you do not wear fringes on your garments, you transgress five positive commandments. Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 44a (Page 266 in the Soncino Translation.) Rashi explains that they are the following:

  1. You shall make for yourself fringes;
  2. You shall place a blue thread upon the fringe;
  3. They shall be fringes for you;
  4. You shall see them;
  5. You shall make fringes. Numbers 15.38-39; Deuteronomy 22.12.

The whole order refers to the fringes, because the fringes have five commandments connected with them, and the word order has five letters, and so does the word whole. The reward for the proper observance of this commandment is that you will be granted life. Deuteronomy 8.1

Let me give another explanation of the verse "the whole order..." With regard to the phylacteries, R. Sheshet declared that if you do not wear them, you transgress eight positive commandments. Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 44a The commandments are as follows: Exodus 13.19, 13.16, Deuteronomy 6.8, 11.8

  1. They shall be for a sign on your hand, and for a reminder between your eyes;
  2. They shall be for a sign upon your hand and for frontlets between your eyes;
  3. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes;
  4. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.

Since the phylactery of the hand and the phylactery of the head are separate, this doubles the number to eight. Now, the whole order I command you this day consists of eight words, and consequently refers to the commandment of the phylacteries.

A demonstration how life is granted in reward for the fulfilment of this commandment is found in the tale of "Elisha the Winged." Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 49a, 130a (Pages 221-222, 651-652 in the Soncino Translation.) He was wearing phylacteries at a time of religious persecution, and one of the king's officers saw him. He ran away, and the king's officer ran after him. When the officer overtook him, he removed his phylacteries, and held them in his hand. The officer said: "What do you have in your hand?" He said: "A dove." He opened his hand, and lo and behold, God made a miracle, and the phylacteries became a dove. We conclude from this, gentlemen, that the Torah and its commandments rank high indeed, especially the commandments of fringes and phylacteries which are called the whole order, and are hence equated with the entire Torah.

In order not to keep you too long, gentlemen, let us return to the statement in the Midrash Rabba with which we began this discourse.

What does the question of God's giving the Torah to our detriment have to do with the first part of the statement? And, anyway, how could we even conceive that God would give us something to our detriment? Why should he specify that it is advantageous? Moreover, what does the fact that the angels wanted it prove? You might argue that it would have been good only for the angels, who have no evil side to their nature, and not for us!

In order to understand the statement, let us first observe that when we said above that "you shall put them" (sam-tem) may be read as "panacea" (sam tam), it means that the Torah is advantageous because it delivers you from the Evil Inclination. An additional benefit is that it confers life on those who observe it both in this world and the world to come. Let us observe that Rambam declares that the reason that we do not recite a benediction over the washing of the hands after a meal, even though such washing is obligatory, is because it constitutes removal of a danger, namely that occasioned by Sodom salt. On the other hand, the washing before a meal, which confers and advantage, requires a benediction. It follows from this, that if we say that the particular merit of the Torah is that it delivers from the Evil Inclination – which constitutes removal of an injury – one should not recite a benediction. But if we say – in accordance with the truth – that it contains a great many special advantages, in giving life to those who follow it, and through it the world continues to exist, then it is appropriate to recite a benediction over it.

"Put upon it a thread of blue; it shall be over the mitre." Exodus 28.47 Gentlemen, this verse also hints at the fringes and phylacteries. Our rabbis ask what man can do seeing that he is subject to the Evil Inclination? The answer is that when he completes thirteen years, and enters his fourteenth, the Good Inclination comes to him. Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba to 4.13 (Page 123 in the Soncino Midrash Rabba.) This is hinted at in the verse just cited which contains thirteen words. When the verse says "put" it hints at the phylacteries which must be "put" on hand and head. When it says "thread" it hints at the fringes which are made of threads. "Over the mitre" hints that the fringes should be put on before, and have preference over the phylacteries which are put in the same spot as the mitre…

May it be the Divine Will that the Messiah will soon be revealed to us, speedily, in our days, in due season, and at a near time. Amen.

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Alan D. Corré