Have you ever walked the streets of Jerusalem, or even Brooklyn for that matter, and taken notice of four thin tassels peeking out from under the coats or shirts of Orthodox Jewish men? Perhaps you have watched Fiddler on the Roof, Ushpizin, The Chosen, or some other movie or documentary involving Jewish culture and noticed the same. Well, no matter if or where you have ever observed them, those tassels have a special meaning that applies to all of us.
The first place we see the significance of these strands of thread is in the Hebraic Scriptures (Old Testament). In Numbers 15:37-40, we read:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: Throughout the generations to come you must make tassels for the hems of your clothing and attach them with a blue cord. When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do. The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.”
As you can see, the tassels— tzitziyot (plural of tzitzit) in Hebrew—were literally to be worn on the fringe of clothing for inspiring recollection of God’s instructions. The garments themselves did not indicate what the commandments were; they were a visual reminder of what had already been learned. Whether or not you regard that as a fascinating bit of trivia, you may be curious how that information applies to all believers who embrace the same God of the Bible—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Take note that the passage mentions “throughout the generations to come.” This was clearly an instruction meant to be carried out perpetually, not a command with an expiration date. Even much farther in Biblical history, we see that the garment Yeshua (Jesus) wore very likely had tassels on it since He was a Jewish man and also a rabbi. In fact, some of the stories of sick people getting healed (Matthew 9:19-22 and 14:35-36) involved their touching the fringe—likely the tassels—of His robe or tallit (prayer shawl).
Now, despite the eternal nature of the instruction in Numbers 15, you may still be asking how a seemingly obscure commandment given to the people of Israel could possibly apply to us. Though this is a matter of debate in some circles, we are told in several Scriptures (Romans 11:12-24; Ephesians 2:12-13, 2:19-22 and 3:4-6; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Isaiah 14:1-2; Deuteronomy 29:12-15) that we believers are now part of the kingdom of Israel. We are co-inheritors of the blessings and promises God made with Israel; and, as grafted-in branches sharing the same root, we also share in the same expectations God has of the natural branches, the Jews. Therefore, if His instructions about not stealing, not worshipping idols and so forth apply to Israel, His commands about dietary restrictions, the seventh-day Sabbath, Biblical feasts and even tassels still apply to us as well.
At this point, some of you might say that we believers no longer need tassels to remind us of God’s laws since we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us…since He wrote His laws on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 8:20, 10:16). That sounds like a good point on the surface, but it falls under the assumption that God’s commandments were never in our hearts to begin with. Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Psalm 37:30-31 and 40:8 indicate that His laws are on our lips and written in our hearts so that we can delight in obeying them. The apostle Paul confirms that in Romans 2:14-15. Therefore, even with the indwelling Spirit, the instruction about tassels still applies today, especially with Jeremiah 17:9 telling us how deceitful and wicked are our hearts.
Another way of looking at the tassels is their comparison to a wedding ring. Most married couples wear some kind of metal band. However, is there any law telling us we have to? No, of course not. We wear it because we wish to outwardly honor our spouse and the covenant of our marriage. The ring sets us apart and makes several statements which people recognize in a momentary glance. With it, we openly acknowledge that we are off the market…that we are happily “taken” and that illicit hanky-panky is not a welcome part of our life. It is also an external symbol of a deeper internal commitment. To some, it is even a source of pride—pride that we have found a soul-mate and are no longer alone in the world. To those of us who might find ourselves in a tempting or distracting situation, the ring is even a reminder that we have someone waiting at home for us—someone to whom we have made a lifelong commitment to love, remain faithful, support, honor, bless, etc.
Would a husband or wife think their spouse did not love them anymore if they took off their ring to work in the garden, take a bath, change the oil, operate farm machinery or the like? Of course not. However, if a husband or wife made a point of simply not wearing their ring, their spouse might begin to feel like something special was missing…like they were not worth the public display of love, faithfulness and commitment. In other words, though it may seem like a minor trinket to some, the ring represents a deeper, sweeter relationship built on love, trust, honor, respect, etc.
As another practical example, we often have ichthys (“Jesus fish”) and/or crosses on our jewelry, clothing, Bible covers, wall décor, bumper stickers, notebooks, coffee mugs, key chains, fireplace mantles, etc. Why do we do that? Obviously we want to stand apart as believers by the apparel or other items and trinkets we display to the public. The cross itself—despite being a pagan culture’s execution device—reminds us of where our life truly began…of our Messiah’s sacrifice and our place of surrender. Further, icons like that remind us of our faith in God, our love for Him, His love for us, and our desire to “carry Him with us” wherever we go. Those items frequently draw notice—though they are almost overdone in secular society as well—and sometimes they may even inspire compliments or questions depending on where we go. Sure, we take a slight risk in being looked at funny—as a zealous “religious” person—by those obvious displays of faith-based icons, but we consider it worthwhile, right? After all, we do not want to be ashamed of our Lord.
However, we should keep in mind that there is nothing in Scripture instructing us to wear crosses, fish symbols, “WWJD” bracelets and the like. We also know that doing so does not make God love us any more than He already does…but perhaps it does make Him smile to see it. Maybe it honors Him that we do it because it shows we are not ashamed of Him. For all we know, there could even be some heavenly reward in store for being so bold and trying to honor Him in that fashion.
With all that said, is wearing four thin tassels such an issue? Is it really that strange a concept or hard to accomplish? Are we so concerned about appearances that we are ready to discard God’s command altogether because it does not jive with our fashion statement? More importantly, if our Father tells us that He wants us to do something that keeps us on the right path and honors Him, how bold are we to willfully disobey?
Since we can clearly see the places in Scripture where these tassels are mentioned—plus what they mean—our desire should be to honor God’s expectations and be set apart for Him, wearing something so simple that denotes much more than what a wedding ring or cross necklace does. None of those things can save us, of course, but in the case of the tassels there is a Biblical reason behind it. We obey that instruction, as any, because we are saved. Just a thought.