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).
- In the Responsa of the Rashbash, No. 26, Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimon Duran (Algiers, 1400-1467) sums up the question that was addressed to him: “And you told him that indeed it is written, in the name of Rabbanan Savoraei, that whoever passes his tzitzit across his eyes will never lose his eyesight.“ “Rabbanan Savoraei” apparently lived in the 5th-6th centuries, and, if so, this is an ancient custom. However, since the custom is not mentioned by the Geonim, it can be assumed that it was not a custom of Rabbanan Savoraei. In any case, the Aharonim [Rabbis who lived after 1550] cite this custom besheim hakadmonim, “in the name of the ancients” (Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim [hereafter: OH] 24, subparagraph 14; Rabbi Ya’akov Reischer, Responsa Shevut Ya’akov, Part II, No. 38, in the name of Rabbi Nathan Shapira, Matzat Shimurim, Zolkiew, 1776) and one can assume that they derived this tradition from the Responsa of the Rashbash.
- Rabbi Tuvia b”r Eliezer lived in Greece where he wrote his Midrash Lekah Tov — also known as Pesikta Zutreta — in 1097. And thus he writes in his commentary on Numbers (Parshat Shelakh Lekha, fol. 113b):
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.
- Rabbi Isaac ben Abba Mari (Provence, 1122-1193) dealt with our topic in his Sefer Ha’ittur (ed. Meir Yonah, Vilna, 1874, Part I, fol. 75c): “And those who gather the tzitzit during the recitation of Shema and pass them across their eyes, possibly do so because it is written ‘and you shall look upon it,’ since their wearing of the tzitzit was underneath their clothing”; he then summarizes some of the words of Rabbi Tuvia b”r Eliezer. In other words, the author of Sefer Ha’ittur was familiar with this custom in Provence in the twelfth century, and he suggests that the custom came about because in his time it was already customary to wear the tallit katan under one’s clothes (see ibid. at length). His testimony is important, but his explanation is not necessarily correct, since the custom could have been derived directly from the verse “and you shall look upon it” without any connection to the wearing of the tallit katan.
- The first sentence from Sefer Ha’ittur was quoted by Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1340) in Tur OH 24, and from there it was transmitted in concise form by Rabbi Yosef Karo (Safed, 1488-1575) in Shulkhan Arukh OH 24:4 “and to place them on one’s eyes”.
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:
- Rabbi Yitzhak of Corbeil (France, d. 1280), Sefer Mitzvot Katan, Semak, Mitzvah 29: “To look at the tzizit, as it is written ‘and you shall look upon it’ “, but he does not state when one must do so.
- Rabbi Ishtori Haparhi (made Aliyah in 1313; Kaftor Vaferah, Chapter 60, Jerusalem, 5759, Vol. 3, p. 349) states: “…and one should bless it each time one puts it on, standing up, and one should look at it, as it is written ‘and you shall look upon it,’ and so wrote the author of Sefer Hamitzvot Hakatzar Rabbi Yitzhak of Corbeil b”r Yosef.” He seems to be saying that one should look at the tzitzit when wrapping oneself in the tallit.
- Indeed, Rabbi Shimon bar Tzemah Duran (Spain and Algiers, 1361-1444; Zohar Haraki’a, Vilna, 1879, fol. 17a-b, note 20, Positive Mitzvah 18) also agrees with the Semak that seeing the tzitzit is a positive commandment in its own right (his opinion is also cited by his son the Rashbash) .
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:
- Rabbeinu Yonah (Spain, 1210-1263) wrote in Sefer Hayir’ah: “Upon reaching ‘and you shall look upon it’ one should look carefully at his tzitzit“ (ed. Jerusalem, 5751, p. 204; also quoted in Responsa of the Rashbash, 26; Responsa of the Rivash, No. 486, in the question)
- Rabbi Menahem Recanati, an Italian kabbalist (1250-1310), wrote as follows (end of Parashat Shelakh Lekha; quoted in Bet Yosef to OH 24, s.v. vekhatav Haram Meireikanat): “When one looks at his tzitzit, he looks at the two tzitzit in front of him, which have ten knots, hinting at the Havayot [= Sefirot]”.
- The Rivash (Spain and Algiers, 1326-1408; Responsa of the Rivash, No. 486) is of the opinion that seeing the tzitzit is not a separate commandment, yet it is good and commendable to look at the tzitzit whilst wrapping oneself in the tallit, “and so is my custom”. At the same time, he defends the custom of the questioner:
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).
- The Rashbash, mentioned above, was familiar with the custom of looking at the tzitzit; he neither supported nor opposed it: “In any case, one who does so should not be prevented, and one who does not, should not be reprimanded, just leave it to the Jewish people, [for if they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets].” He is alluding to Pesahim 66a, that if the Jewish people observe a custom, they are “the sons of prophets”, and the custom should not be opposed.
- Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote in Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 24:4: “Some have a custom to look at the tzitzit when they reach the verse ‘And you shall look upon it’ ”.
- The Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, Lithuania and Eretz Israel, 1878-1953) used to look at his tzitzit without kissing them (quoted in Kaftor Vaferah, cit., end of note 50; and see below).
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”
- This custom is mentioned by the Arab poet Labid who lived in the seventh century CE, during the time of Mohammad. One of his anecdotes mentions a praying Jew:
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).
- A similar opinion appears in Sha’arei Teshuvah, No. 88, following the responsum of Rav Natronai Gaon (see below). Albeck (Sefer Ha’eshkol, cit., note 9) and Brody (in the Responsa of Rav Natronai, quoted below, note 1) maintain that the reaction in Sha’arei Teshuvah is by the Nasi Rabbi Yehudah Habarceloni (Spain, 11th-12th centuries). He differentiates between the three cases in Rav Natronai’s responsum: There is no obligation to kiss the mezuzah during the Shema; as for tzizit, if he gazes upon them and touches them while reciting the Shema, which contains this mitzvah, “fine, for what is it to us?”; but as for tefillin, “one must touch his tefillin frequently…” (Shabbat 12a).
It may be assumed that touching the tzitzit came about as a result of touching the tefillin, which is mentioned in Shabbat 12a.
- Rabbi David Abudarham (Seville; written in 1340), describes a similar custom in his Abudarham Hashalem, p. 83:
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.
- Abudarham is quoted, with slight variations, in Tur OH 24, at the end.
- A similar custom is mentioned in the nineteenth century by Rabbi Ya’akov of Lissa, Derekh Hahayyim 32:36: “Upon reciting ‘and you shall look upon it’ he should touch the two tzitzit in front of him.” While the verse is different, and mention is made of two tzitzit only, we are nevertheless dealing here with the custom of touching the tzitzit.
VI) To hold the tzitzit while reciting the Shema
- The earliest source for this custom appears to be Midrash Tehillim, also known as Midrash Shoher Tov, which was apparently redacted in Eretz Yisrael at the end of the Geonic period (ca. the 10th century). This is what it says regarding our topic (35:2, ed. Buber, p. 248; then quoted by Yalkut Shimoni to Psalms, paragraph 763):
“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.
- Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen of Rothenberg (1260-1298) quoted this midrash in his Hagahot Maimoniyot to the Rambam (Hilkhot Tzitzit, Chapter 3, paragraph 80), and added: “Thus, it is a mitzvah to hold one’s tzitzit in the left hand, against his heart, while reciting the Shema”.
This law, quoted also in the Bet Yosef to OH 24, is based on Midrash Tehillim, but the author added the words “against his heart”.
- The Ra’aviyah, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi (Ashkenaz, 1140-1220; paragraph 683, ed. Aptowitzer, pp. 388-389), quotes a passage from the “Yerushalmi of our chapter”, e., Yerushalmi Sukkah 3:15, fol. 54a:
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.
- Rabbi Yitzhak b”r Moshe of Vienna (1180-1250), disciple of the Ra’aviyah, quotes the beginning of the above baraita from Sukkah 42a, then continues: “And one holds the tzitzit like a row during the recitation of the Shema, that is, as is our custom. . .”.(Or Zaru’a, Hilkhot Sukkah, paragraph 314, Part II, fol. 68d). One may assume that he copied this line from the Ra’aviyah or from the Sefer Yerushalmi, and he emphasizes that this is “our custom”.
- Sefer Hamordechai was written by Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel Hacohen (Ashkenaz, 1250-1298). He copied the above passage from the Ra’aviyah in the Mordechai on Sukkah, end of the chapter Lulav Hagazul, paragraph 763: “Our Sages have taught in the Yerushalmi of our chapter… And one holds the tzitzit like a row during the recitation of the Shema”.(1)
- Rabbi Yosef Karo cited Midrash Tehillim, Hagahot Maimoniyot, and the Mordechai, in Bet Yosef to OH He sums up the issue of holding the tzitzit as follows in Shulkhan Arukh OH 24:2: “It is a mitzvah to hold the tzitzit with your left hand near your heart during the recitation of the Shema. This is alluded to [in the verse] ‘And these words… shall be on your heart’.” The first sentence is taken from Hagahot Maimoniyot; the second is apparently an addition by Rabbi Yosef Karo.
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:
- When Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) would recite the verse “and you shall look upon it”, he would gather two of his tzitzit in a certain fashion and look at them (Leket Yosher, Part I, p. 18).
- Rabbi Ya’akov Weil (Ashkenaz, ca. 1380-1460) would also gather up the two tzitzit that were in front of him and look at them ().
- Rabbi Yisrael Bruna (Ashkenaz, 1400-1480) would hold one tzitzit and look at it (Responsa Mohari Bruna, 100).
- Rabbi Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal (Poland, 1510-1573) would hold the two tzitzit hanging in front of him in a certain manner, “and so it is in the Kabbalah and its secret is deep” (Yam Shel Shlomo to Yevamot, Chapter 1, paragraph 3; also quoted by the Hida in Shiyurei Berakhah to OH 24).
- Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari (Safed, 1534-1572), would hold all four tzitziyot from the beginning of the paragraph about tzitzit until the words ne’emanim v’nehmadim la’ad in the prayer emet v’yatziv (see the quotation and references below, in paragraph IX).
- According to Rabbi Issachar Ber of Vilna (Sefer Ma’aseh Rav, No. 39), his teacher, the Vilna Gaon “during the recitation of Shema, holds the two tzitzit that are in front of him without kissing them at all”. In Bei’ur Hagra to OH 24, subparagraph 6, the Vilna Gaon quotes Midrash Tehillim =Yalkut Shimoni (quoted above). In other words, he held the tzitzit because that is the custom described in Midrash Tehillim. (2)
- In our time, the custom of holding the tzitzit was codified by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in the name of his father, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yalkut Yosef on Tzizit, ed. 5764, p. 392; She’erit Yosef, Part I, pp. 284-285).
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:
- Sefer Minhag Tov, Meir Tzvi Weiss, Hatzofeh Lehokhmat Yisrael 13 (5689), composed apparently in Italy after the year 1273. There we read, on pp. 235-236:
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.
- The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Poland, 1530-1572) writes in his Darkhei Moshe to Tur OH 24, subparagraph 1:
And I have seen those whose custom it is to kiss the tzitzit and to place it on their eyes while reciting the verse “and you shall look upon it and remember”, all of which is intended to express affection for the mitzvah.And so he writes in his glosses to Shulkhan Arukh OH 24:4:
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:
- Sha’ar Hakavanot by Rabbi Haim Vital (Safed, 1542-1620; fol. 50d) contains “the liturgy as I received it from my teacher, of blessed memory”, i.e., from Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari, of blessed memory. He goes on to write (fol. 51c, s.v. Shema):
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)
- In a responsum dealing with a blind person and the recitation of the Shema, Rabbi Ya’akov Reischer (Ashkenaz, 1670-1733) mentions, in passing, holding the tzitzit, passing them over one’s eyes, and “to kiss them for the sake of hibub mitzvah” (Responsa Shevut Ya’akov, Part II, No. 38).
- Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein (Novaradok, 1829-1908) adds (Arukh Hashulhan, OH 24:3): “And it is also the custom to kiss the tzitzit several times while reciting parashat tzitzit, and all of it is hibub mitzvah”. In other words, in his time it was already the custom to kiss the tzitzit several times during the recitation of “Vayomer” – not only at the words “and you shall look upon it.”
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
- As we have seen, this was the custom of the Vilna Gaon, according to Sefer Ma’aseh Rav, No. 39:
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.
- Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the Hazon Ish (Lithuania and Eretz Yisrael, 1878-1953), followed the custom, as described above, of looking at his tzitzit without kissing them (see Kaftor Vaferah, above, end of note 50).
- My teacher Rabbi Prof. Shamma Friedman told me that our teacher Rabbi Prof. Saul Lieberman – cousin of the Hazon Ish(11) and the greatest Talmud scholar in the twentieth century – did not hold his tzitzit nor kiss them while reciting the Shema. Prof. Lieberman stressed to his students that he was not belittling the prevalent custom, but it was not his custom. Prof. Lieberman was born in Lithuania and studied in yeshivot there, so it is likely that they followed there the original custom, quoted above, of looking at the tzitzit without holding or kissing them.
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:
- To pass them over the eyes or to look at/see them or to lift them up and show them, all in accordance with the verse “and you shall look upon it”;
- To touch or hold the tzitzit;
- To kiss them, as an expression of hibub mitzvah.
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.
- The Mordechai is quoted by the Bet Yosef to OH 24, s.v. vegam hamordechai, and by Prof. Sperber, p. 89, but neither of them saw the Ra’aviyah. Prof. Sperber, too, suggested in note 25 – independently of Prof. Aptowitzer – that this passage in the Mordechai is taken from Sefer Hayerushalmi and not from the Talmud Yerushalmi.
- See some additional sources in Ma’aseh Rav Hashalem, Jerusalem, 5750, p. 50.
- In Sha’arei Teshuvah, No. 88, this responsum is attributed to Rav Hai Gaon, but Rabbi Levi Ginzberg rightly claimed in Ginzei Schechter, Vol. II, pp. 98-99, that it was written by Rav Natronai Gaon. In Orhot Hayyim, someone added after Rav Natronai’s comment about “arrogance” a note which was apparently a marginal gloss: “And so wrote Rav Moshe Gaon z”l”. The Rashbash also added: “So too they wrote in the name of the Gaon, Rav Moshe bar Rav Hanoch Gaon z”l”.
- Sha’arei Teshuvah, No. 88 (in the name of Rav Hai Gaon); Orhot Hayyim, Florence, Part I, fol. 3d, Hilkhot Tzitzit, paragraph 32; Teshuvot Geonei Mizrah Uma’arav, No. 38. And from there in Otzar Hageonim to Berakhot, Responsa section, No. 74 , pp. 35-36; and in Responsa of Rav Natronai Gaon, ed. Brody, Orah Hayyim, No. 6, pp. 103-104.
- Rabbi Levi Ginzberg, Ginzei Schechter, Vol. II, p. 105; Rabbi Avraham b”r Yitzhak, Av Bet Din of Narbonne, Sefer Ha’eshkol, ed. Albeck, Part I, p. 103; Kol Bo, paragraph 22, ed. David Avraham, Part I, Jerusalem, 5767, col. 506; Rabbi Ishtori Haparhi, Kaftor Vaferah, Chapter 60, ed. Jerusalem, 5759, Part III, p. 350; Rabbi David Abudarham, Sefer Abudarham Hashalem, p. 83; Responsa of the Rivash, No. 486; Responsa of the Rashbash, No. 26.
- Gartner, p. 271, note 55, who also tries to link the passage in Midrash Lekah Tov to the struggle against the Karaites.
- The Ari’s custom is quoted in various ways in Magen Avraham to OH 24, subparagraph 1; Hida, Shiyurei Berakhah to OH 24; Responsa Torah Lishmah, attributed to Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, No. 39, at the end, based on a manuscript of Sefer Hakavanot.
- See the discussion in H. J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, London, 1958, pp. 259-262.
- Prof. Sperber, p. 83, note 22; as well as the responsum by Rabbi Simchah Roth z”l, 10 Menahem Av, 5767, which appeared in brief in: Kehilaton published by the Masorti Movement, Rosh Hashanah 5768, p. 6.
- See Chaim Tchernowitz, Toledot Haposkim, Part 3, New York, 1947, p. 218.
- For a fascinating description of the Hazon Ish when living in Minsk, as recounted by his cousin Prof. Saul Lieberman, see Saul Lieberman, Mehkarim Betorat Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 5751, pp. 608-609.
- David Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment, II, Jerusalem, 2011, No. 17 = www.schechter.edu  under “Responsa in a Moment”.
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.