Tzitzith is a commandment related to clothing, garments we wear. What is the significance clothing plays in society?
Scientists often agree with the religious reasons for clothing. Anthropologists found a need to have clothing even in the warmest climates. People covered their sexual organs. In the story of Adam's sin, the serpent tempted Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and Adam and Eve were cursed and driven out of the Garden of Eden. This walking, talking serpent, according to the sages, was the incarnation of evil. Evil was not internalized until after Adam's sin, so it was represented as a serpent when it tempted Eve. After this sin, the battle became a battle with himself as well as against external evil.
The nakedness before the sin was not embarrasing to Adam and Eve, because their sexual desire was not accompanied by a passion to do foolish or destructive acts. Sex, like the the serpent was something external to man, which man could enjoy when he wanted to without being driven by it. Nakedness therefore did not arouse any desire. To a large degree the serpent, as a phallic symbol, represents sewual temptation, and our sages teach us that the main temptation the serpent used to tempt Eve was that of sex (Shabbath 146a). Our sages teach that the evil urge exists mainly in the area of sex (Zohar 3:15b, cf. Rashi Megillah 31a). Sexual temptation often leads a person away from religion and godliness in other areas, often the strongest barrier standing in the way of an individual's spiritual perfection. The Zohar teaches (159) that a person is only called 'righteous' if he can control his sexual passions. The Ethics of the Fathers (5:1) says, 'Who is strong? He who overcomes his passions.'
The Hebrew word for clothing, 'levush', contains a lamed and the word 'vush', which means 'to be ashamed.' The word for garment, 'beged', has the same letters as 'bagad', meaning 'to rebel'.
From all this, it comes out that the key function of human clothing is to act as a barrier against sexual desires. As such it is particularly related to the sense of sight. Tzitzith has the word 'tzutz' in it, which means 'to look.' Regarding tzitzith the Torah says 'You shall look at them and not stray after your heart and after your eyes, which had led you to immorality.' The Talmud (Berachoth 13a) says this verse discusses visual sexual stimulation. Clothing is the barrier, and tzitzith reinforce the concept.
This doesn't mean sex is dirty. It is beautiful, pleasurable, normal, desirable, and the one act that does the most to strengthen love between spouses. But when misused, sex can be destructive and debilitating, and widespread sexual corruption has been considered a factor that can bring down empires. Irresponsible, exploitative, and destructive sex is what the tzitzith is designed to safeguard against.
- adapted from Tzitzith by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan