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Why Hassel with a Tassel?

The tassel attached to the Hebrew male’s outer garment is a wonderful example of artifact communication in the Bible. That is, the tassel is an item used in Israel to communicate a particular meaning within that culture… one which is foreign and, thus, unintelligible to most of the modern world.

In case you didn’t know that Hebrew males attached tassels to their outer garments you can read about its installment in Numbers 15:38ff and see its codified legal setting in Deuteronomy 22:12. We know from ancient inscriptions, that, unlike the common men from the societies around Israel, Israelite men, did in fact wear them… indeed devotees wear them still in a fashion.

The details involved in coming to understand the meaning of the tassels in the Ancient Near East and Israel is long, but I will cut to the chase. Once we understand their  meaning, the events in which the tassels and their attachments (pardon the pun) make an appearance can, over the following weeks, be profitably unlocked.

The obvious facts of the giving of the tassels in Num 15 are 4 in number:

  1. The tassels are given as a perpetual statute (Num 15:38) on the heels of three events:
    1. the failure of Israel to enter into the promised land because they heeded the testimony of the unfaithful spies. (Num 14:1-45)
    2. The promise of future entrance and the list of commandments detailing the offerings for forgivable sins. (Num 15:1-29)
    3. The unforgivable sin of high handed sin and the killing of the wood gatherer for high handedly defying the Sabbath. (Num 15:30-37)
  2. The intention in giving the tassel is its function as an ever visible reminder of the commandments of YHWH to keep the Israelites from following their own heart (so much for 13% of all hallmark cards, and 7% of all FB motivational pics). (Num 15:39)
  3. It is intended to remind them to do all the commandments and to “be holy” to YHWH. (Num 15:40)
  4. The giving of the tassel is sealed with powerful lines from the prologue of the Mosaic covenant. (Num 15:41)

The less obvious facts of the giving of the tassels in Num 15:38ff are, for our purposes today, three in number:

  1. As extensions of the garment hem, tassels were powerful statements about of the one who wore them, especially in relation to his God.
  2. Generally, only priests, kings & gods (i.e. clothed idols and artistic renderings) wore tassels in the biblical world.
  3. The construction of the tassel is important for this priest meaning, but I’ll explain that more in a later blog.

The tassels were, then, visible signs of the sacred and covenantal relationship between Israel and YHWH. The tassels, perhaps, played off these very elements in Israel’s commission in Exodus 19:5-6a,  “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The tassel screamed to all who saw them, “my wearer is a priest of God.” More importantly, they screamed to each Israelite male who put them on each morning and took them off each night, “You are holy to YHWH! Act like it!”

Objects talk; are you listening?

[1] Media pic is from www.tallit-shop.com

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