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Tzitzit as War Amulet

An amulet is defined as “an ornament or small piece of jewelry thought to give protection against evil, danger, or disease.” Throughout the ages and all across the globe, soldiers have worn amulets hoping to increase their protection against harm—thus also increasing their courage. 
    Whereas articles of clothing are typically not used as war amulets, tzitzit have filled this role for many IDF soldiers. I assume that for religious soldiers, this has always been the case; that is, given that tzitzit are part of a religious man’s attire (in that they are considered to fulfill a mitzvah), it is natural for a religious soldier to feel through their tzitzit a protective bond with G-d.
    Over the last few decades, however, there has been a growing demand for tzitzit as war amulet from non-religious soldiers as well.
    What was a relatively minor phenomenon in “Cast Lead” and in “Protective Edge” (wars fought in 2009 and 2014, respectively), became in “Iron Swords” a juggernaut. With demand reaching into the hundreds of thousands, Rabbi Asher Weiss, a major haredi halakhic posek (ultra-orthodox Judaic decisor), even ruled that due to the need, women and minors are permitted to braid/make tzitzit.
    It is not clear to what extent the large demand for tzitzit has been stimulated by the soldiers themselves or by a haredi desire to contribute to the war effort (while very few haredim are in the military, the tzitzit suppliers are predominantly haredi).  
    It is evident that after the shocking events of October 7th, voluntarism skyrocketed among haredim. Video clips of different tzitzit initiatives are widely accessible on the internet, and they feature haredi adults and youth braiding tzitzit and distributing them to soldiers. In one of these, presumably shot on the Gazan border, a haredi man calls out: “Who else needs tzitzit for the battle.”
    What to make out of tzitzit as war amulet? Seemingly, this is a significant departure from how the bible describes tzitzit’s purpose: “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d” (Numbers 15.40). And given that in the United States usually only very religious men wear tzitzit, it is a bit jarring to see tzitzit on soldiers who are bareheaded.
    On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to speak of any kind of “profanation” of tzitzit in that they do not in themselves have the highest sanctity, which is why, for example, one takes off tefilin before entering a washroom but not tzitzit. What’s more, because Judaism encourages people to take upon themselves commandments even if they do not experience them as divine imperatives (in hopes that their experience will deepen over time), there is no warrant for criticizing a non-religious soldier who first puts on tzitzit just as war amulet.
    Even more importantly, precisely the tzitzit with its unruly fringes always getting in the way, may remind the solder to remain ethical, “to be holy.” With the removal of ordinary restraints against violence during wartime and the temptations involved when coming into contact with enemy civilians, it can be very good for a soldier to wear on his body something that is designed to make him, as the bible says, “recall all the commandments of the lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Numbers 15.39).
    We all are familiar with the aphorism “There are no atheists in foxholes,” but in American culture this is usually depicted in Christian terms, with a soldier crossing himself, or saying an “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary,” or touching a cross around his neck.
    In Israel, if there is some truth to the aphorism, it should not come as a surprise that many Israeli soldiers, whether religious or not, want to wear tztizit when they go into war.

TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.

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