Rav Kook Torah

Shelach: Garments of the Soul


“Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments for all generations. They shall include a thread of sky-blue [wool] in the corner tassels.” (Num. 15:38)

Three Levels of the Soul

How is the human soul recognizable to the outside world? We may speak of a hierarchy of three levels:

  • The soul itself.
  • Its character traits — compassion, generosity, tolerance, humility, and so on.
  • Its actions and conduct.

  • The innermost level, the soul itself, is hidden from the outside world. The soul can only be observed through the outer two levels, its traits and actions. Character traits are like the soul’s “clothing.” Through its distinctive characteristics, the soul reveals itself to the outside world. This is similar to the way we present ourselves to others through our garments. We are judged by the style and quality of our clothes. Yet, we are not our clothes; we may change them at will. So too, we are judged by our character traits, but they are external to the soul itself, and may be changed.

    The Symbolism of Tzitzit

    The ultimate manifestation of the soul in the outside world is in its day-to-day deportment. If our character traits constitute a metaphoric garment that clothes the soul, then our deeds are tassels that emanate from the corners of the garment. Each trait of the soul is revealed in a variety of actions, since different situations require specific responses. These varied actions are like the many tzitziot (tassels), extending naturally from the corners of the garment.

    To summarize the metaphor:

  • The inner soul is represented by the body.
  • Personality traits are clothes covering the body.
  • Actions are the tassels extending from the garment.

  • The Thread of Techelet

    We are accustomed to the tassels being white, but the actual Halachic requirement is that they be the same color as the garment. Sharing the same color indicates that our actions derive their power and direction from the garment, i.e., our character traits.

    One thread, however, is not the color of the garment. The Torah instructs us to tie an additional thread, dyed sky-blue techelet. This color reminds us of hidden, sublime matters: the sea, the sky, and God’s Holy Throne (Sotah 17a). Sky-blue is the background color of the universe. The techelet thread connects us to the very Source of life, from whom all forces flow. Together with the other threads, which correspond to the color of the garment and represent the diverse range of human activity, the techelet thread complements and completes the function of the tassels.

    The Torah teaches that the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit corresponds to all 613 mitzvot: “When you see [the tassels], you will remember all of God’s commandments and you will observe them” (Num. 15:39). By wearing a garment with these special tassels, we envelop our souls in the Torah’s magnificent fabric of values and deeds.

    (Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 246-248. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 4-5)