Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
(For a long time I couldn't understand how tying a string on your finger could ever help you to remember whatever it was you had to do. If, say, you were supposed to get a pound of sugar at the store, how would the string help? Granted, it was there to remind you of something, but what? It's the old joke about the guy who walks into the store, pauses at the counter, looks at the string on his finger, and asks for a pound of string.
But the answer is, of course, that if the errand had any significance, the sight of the string would bring it immediately to mind. So, if he had no sugar to put into his coffee that morning, and he simply cannot have his coffee without sugar, the string would remind him of the needed sugar.
This simple aid to memory has probably been around as long we've had fingers and strings. But I came across a very similar version of it recently in the laws of tsitsit. The purpose of the Torah precept of tying tsisit (strings) onto a four-cornered garment is to remind us of our Creator and the various things He has commanded us. How? Well, the Tur, a fourteenth century rabbinic authority, compares it to the ancient mnemonic of tying a string onto one's belt. Likewise, we tie strings onto our clothing to remind us of the G-d that we might otherwise forget.
But again, there is the question, how does one make that connection between the string hanging from his clothing and the King of the universe? The answer is that the gematria, or numerical value, of the Hebrew word tsitsit equals 600; plus the 5 knots and 8 strings; a total of 613, which is the number of commandments in the Torah according to traditional counting. One looks at the strings, thinks of the number, and the G-d who commanded them. It may sound a bit far-fetched at first; but again one must keep in mind that the mnemonic works for those who are trying to remember something of some significance to them. Just as the string on your finger will only help to remind you of the sugar if you care about the sugar, so too the strings on your garment will only help to remind you of G-d if you care about G-d.**
Actually, there are many mitzvot (commandments) that are designed for the same purpose: tefilin, mezuzah, Shabbat and the festivals are among them. Each one takes a different form, but all are designed for essentially the same purpose, to remind us of where we came from.
But why is it necessary to have so many of these Torah mnemonics? How many knots do we have to tie ourselves into in order to be good Jews?
Indeed, there is an opinion that originally there was only one mitzvah for this purpose: when Adam was told not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. This prohibition was given in order to remind him of his Creator.
Once he transgressed, and ate of its fruit, however, everything changed. We know from Kabbalah that his seminal neshama (soul) then split into many neshamos; and that his work of carrying out G-d's will in the world likewise became the fragmented burden of millions of individuals over many generations. The proliferation of mitzvot (by Divine decree) reflects this historical process. In other words, it may be that we need many different ways of remembering G-d because of the different aspects of Adam contained in all of us.
The existence of so many mitzvot to help us to think about G-d is a standing rebuttal to those who would exempt themselves from greater religious observance by maintaining that some people are innately more religious than others. They claim that they just don't have the religion gene. But the fact that the Torah commands Jews generally in these mitzvot, and not just a certain segment of the population that suffers from this supposed gene deficiency, is evidence that all of us---whether we have long beards or not, were born into religious families or not, are spiritually inclined or not---are in need of daily, multifarious reminders of the most important fact of life---that life itself is a gift from the Creator.
But it's really not so hard to be a good Jew. In fact, it's as easy as tying a string on your finger.
**This also answers the question I had about the techelet, the blue thread which is supposed to remind one of the blue of the sea, which in turn reminds one of the blue of the sky, and ultimately of the blue of the Heavenly Throne. It seems awfully far-fetched. And the truth is, it would never work, unless the person wearing the tsitsit starts off with a deep and abiding interest in remembering his Creator. For then the merest sight of blue would trigger the thoughts of the chain of blue all the way up to Heaven.
Sources: Tur (Siman 24), with Bach; Rosh to Parashat Bereishit; Michtav MiEliyahu, Vol. 2, P. 152; Rabbi Dovid Klein, Safed.
Reprinted with permission from www.e-geress.org