The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God! [Numbers 15:40-41 (NLT)]
In its entirety, the Shema consists of three sections: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–2, and Numbers 15:37–41. The second paragraph of the Shema repeats the first one’s commands regarding the binding of God’s words to hands and forehead, writing them on the doorways and gates, teaching them to the children, and talking about them throughout the day. The primary theme of this paragraph, however, is that the promised land and the people’s enjoyment of it depended on their faithfulness to God. As long as they loved God and served Him with heart and soul, the people and land would be blessed but, if they turned aside to serve other gods, God’s wrath would result and things would not go well for the people or their land. In this warning, that is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament, we see the fundamental Jewish belief that reward and punishment are based on the fulfillment of God’s commandments.
The third section of the Shema required the wearing of tassels or fringes (tzitzit) on the hems of clothing. Like the tefillin and mezuzot commanded in the first two sections, the fringes were a visual reminder to obey the commandments and “be holy to your God.” The final command of this last section was to remember the Exodus and that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.
It was a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice a day. Morning and night, the Israelites were to acknowledge the one God, who they were to love with heart, soul, and strength, and whose commandments they were to keep. Twice a day, they were reminded to impress God’s word on the next generation and, twice a day, they repeated God’s warning that things would not go well if they abandoned Him or turned to other gods. So, what went wrong? Did the Israelites put so much emphasis on performing rituals—repeating these words twice a day, putting on their tefillin, measuring the length of their tzitzit, and placing their mezuzot—that they forgot the rituals’ meanings? Did they let rituals replace loving God with their heart, soul, and strength? Were they so intent on doing the right thing that they forgot to be the right people? Did they start trusting in themselves rather than God?
God gave the Israelites a simple command—love the Lord alone, with heart, soul, and strength—and He gave them an equally simple choice—a blessing or a curse. He makes the same offer to us. The blessing, however, isn’t a reward; it’s a result. When we revere God, love Him fully, and put His word into practice, life will go well for us because God’s way is the right way and the right way is blessed. Like the blessing, the curse is the result of our choice and is found in the life we choose. A life lived without God is a cursed one. Even with tefillin on their arms and heads, mezuzot on their doorposts, tassels on their hems, and the continued repetition of the Shema’s words, the Israelites forgot the Lord and went their own way; let us not make the same mistake.