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Tzizit - The Basics

by Neil 
Tzizit The Basics
Tzizit The Basics
Tzizit The Basics
Tzizit The Basics

Tztzit and me..


Each year after the Yomim Noraim, I try and think of something I can do to improve my level of observance both outside and inside shul. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't..


Last year, I decided I would wear tzitzit again, after a break of many decades. I don't know why I did so; it just seemed right at the time. So off I went to buy some. It turned into a little voyage of discovery.


I asked for tzitzit and was asked if I wanted a "tallit katan". Taking the easy way out, I said yes and was directed to towards a corner of the shop. I was told "you look like a size 9" which I decided to take as a compliment.


First discovery, tzitzit are not expensive! So I bought a set (or should that be a pair?), and then another shortly afterwards when I was politely reminded that, as an item of clothing, they need to be washed once in a while too! I put them on on my return home. It felt strange, but definitely in a good way because, as with so much of Jewish spiritual life, the physical experience is key. Just think of the seder at Pesach, of cheese cake on Shavuot and the succah at Succot.


I soon got used to wearing tzitzit, although arranging the threads in the morning "just right" takes a bit of concentration and some contortion. I had already decided that I would be wearing them "outside", not tucked in…more of this later. It was a good call. Personally, I have the threads hanging down each side, in close pairs, tucked into my pockets. One day I may pluck up the courage to "go all the way" and let them hang straight down, but one step at a time.


So every time I put my hands in my pockets, there they are. It is a constant physical reminder of the joy of obeying one of G-d's commandments and, I have to say, that feeling has never worn off, and I hope it never will.


Then the threads came loose and eventually unravelled. So I embarked on another voyage of discovery. I decided to fix it myself, call it the equivalent of a tiny little bit of succah building, or making my own cheesecake. How hard can it be? Pretty hard is the answer. I found a "how to" video on the internet, and had a go. What a total mess. Those who know me well know that I have no spatial awareness or sense of direction whatsoever. And you need a bit of both to knot your own tzitzit. When I'd finished it was a total mess and I had no tzitzit at all.


At that point, the final leg of my voyage of discovery began. I searched the internet and found many different types of tzitzit. I had never dreamt there could be any other design outside of the tzitzit of my childhood, which were basically a piece of cotton cloth with a hole in the middle. A sort of cotton polo mint. Well, suffice to say, that's the basic model, the design I eventually chose is a sort of t-shirt with threads, and I'm very happy with it.


Here it is:


So what are tzitzit all about? Why do we wear them? What's with the knots and so on..


Why do we wear tzitzit?


The commandment to wear tzitzit is contained in Bamidbar 15:38-39 where it says:


דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם; וְנָתְנו עַל-צִיצִת הַכָּנָף, פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת.


וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹת ה', וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא- תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם.


Which means:


Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves throughout their generations fringes on the corners of their garments; and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue


This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them. And you will not turn after your heart and after your eyes, after which you tend to stray


Note that the actual tzitzit are the fringes only, not the whole garment.


The obligation is also mentioned in Devarim 22:12, where it says:


גְּדִלִים, תַּעֲשֶׂה-לָּךְ, עַל-אַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת כְּסוּתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תְּכַסֶּה-בָּהּ


Which means:


You shall make for yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your covering, with which you cover yourself.


So, it's a sort of commandment about commandments. Put another way, tzitzit can be viewed as a guard against turning aside or astray from G-d's commandments. I think this gets back to the physical nature of many halacha, you can not only see your tzitzit, but you can feel them too. It is said that Judaism is as much concerned with the body (guf) as the mind (binah), and it seems to me that the wearing of tzitzit is a wonderful combination of the two. And wearing tzitzit while eating cheesecake on Shavuot – well that's just heaven!


How does the wearing of tzitzit remind us of G-d's commandments?


The threads and knots


According to Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchak an 11th century French rabbi and possibly Judaism's leading commentator on Tenach and Talmud), the design of the tzitzit alludes to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. This is how: the numerical equivalent of the word tzitzit is 600; add to this 8, for the number of threads which make up the fringe on each corner, and 5, for the number of knots in each thread, and you have 613. This is referred to in Menachot 43b (Menachot is a tractate of the Talmud dealing with tzitzit, tefillin and meal offerings).  This concept is also referred to in Midrash Tanchuma (which is three different collections of Torah aggadot, stories and homilies, or "bobba micer" as referred to by some of my less respectful ancestors).


Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nacḥman, a leading 13th century Jewish scholar) disagrees with Rashi but arrives at the same conclusion.


Ramban points out the Biblical spelling of the word tzitzit has only one yod rather than two, giving it a number equivalent of 590, thus adding up to a total of 603 with the threads and knots, rather than 613. However, he then points out that in the Biblical quote:


 וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹת ה', וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם


..when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them.


The singular form it can refer only to the p'til (the thread) of techelet. The techelet strand reminds us of all G-d's commandments, as explained in the Talmud (at Sotah 17b, quoting Rabbi Meir), for the blue colour of techelet resembles the ocean, which in turn resembles the sky, which in turn is said to resemble G-d's holy throne - thus reminding us of the divine mission to fulfil His commandments.


In between the knots there are 4 sets of windings, that is, 7, 8, 11, and 13 windings. What is the meaning of this? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his book Tzitzit explains as follows:


Seven represents the perfection of the physical world, which was created in seven days.

Eight is the number of transcendence that goes beyond nature.

Eleven is the numerical value of vav-hey, the last two letters of G-d's Name.

Thirteen is the numerical value of echad - one.


Tzitzit and kabbalah


There are also kabbalistic interpretations of tzitzit. For example, this is from Chabad, although un-sourced: The tzitzit has two parts - the garment itself and the tzitzit or fringes. The garment surrounds our body, and the fringes hang off it. They represent the two aspects of G-d's being. His true self is totally beyond our capacity to grasp, represented by the garment that envelops us. It is only a tiny fraction of His being, the little fringes dangling off the corners: that we can experience.


Tzitzit and the shema


Everyone who says his or her prayers, whether or not they wear tzitzit, is reminded of the commandment to wear tzitzit in our reading of the shema. Since the shema, which contains many of the basic tenets of Judaism, contains, in its third paragraph, three mentions of the obligation to wear tzitzit, it shows just what an important mitzvah it is.


Some laws of tzitzit


As mentioned above, there is a tractate of the Talmud, Menachot, which deals with the laws of tzitzit alongside just two other areas of halacha, tefillin and meal offerings. So you can imagine how complicated an area of halacha this is. Therefore, I will mention just a few of the halachot which I hope will be of interest to the beginner and expert alike.


Do we have to wear tzitzit?


Silly question? Surely we have to wear tzitzit, because it's mentioned in the Torah, right?  Wrong..


If you read the Torah obligation carefully, the obligation is to place threads on a four cornered garment that one wears.


It says (as mentioned above):


ועָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם.


Which means:


They shall make for themselves throughout their generations fringes on the corners of their garments


But there is no obligation to wear such a four cornered garment in the first place! In that case, there can be no obligation to wear tzitzit (the fringes) either..


This derives from Rambam (Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages) in his Hilchot Tzitzit (the Laws of Tzitzit) at 3:11; in the Tur (the Arba'ah Turim - a halachic code, composed by Yaakov ben Asher who lived in Cologne in the 14th and 15th century CE) at 24:1; and in the Shulchan Aruch (widely recognised as the most authoritative legal code of Judaism, written in Tzefat by Rav Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century CE) at 24:1.


However, our Rabbis have strongly promoted the observance of this relatively simple Mitzvah since it comes with great reward, For example by Rav Moshe Feinstein (a great American scholar and posek (an authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law) of Lithuanian descent of the 20th century CE), in his book Igres Moshe (Epistles of Moshe, a classic work of halachic responsa) at 4:4.


Do we say a bracha when we put on our tzitzit?


Yes, we say:

 בָּרוּך אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לקִינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם אַשֶׁר קִדְשָנו בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ עַל מִצְוַת צִיצִת


Which means:


Blessed are you, Lord our G d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the mitzvah of tzitzit


But if you are going to daven with a tallit gadol (the tallit we wear for most shul services), you need not recite this blessing. But when reciting the blessing on the tallit gadol, you should have in mind that this blessing covers your tzitzit as well.


Four cornered garments


Why do we attach tzitzit only to four cornered garments? According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his book Tzitzit, the answer is simple. This is because in ancient times, many garments were four-cornered and most often consisted of a simple rectangle of cloth, direct from the loom, which was worn as a shawl, cape, tunic or toga.


Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (a 15th century CE Biblical commentator), known simply as Abarbanel, in his commentary on Bamidbar 15:38 (mentioned above) stated that this is the reason why the Torah states that


וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם


the Jews must make for themselves throughout their generations [fringes on the corners of their garments].


Even though a time would come when four-cornered garments would not normally be worn, we must continue to wear a special garment in order to fulfil the commandment of tzitzit.


If you wear more than one four-cornered garment they are all treated as tzitzit but the bracha is only recited on the first one that you put on. But if you recited the bracha and only had in mind to wear one four-cornered garment and then changed your mind and put on another one, you must recite a new bracha (Shulchan Aruch at 8:12).


The obligation of tzitzit extends to any garment with at least 4 corners, for instance, a 5 or 6 cornered garment and the tzitzit should be attached to the four corners that are the farthest away from each other (Shulchan Aruch at 10.1).


What about shirts, T-shirts and the like?


Let's look at my tzitzit again:


What's with the funny tied bits below the shoulders? This is because a t-shirt, or indeed a regular shirt does not require tzitzit, as it has no corners (although a shirt has four corners, two on the collar and two at the front, they are both in front of the wearer and therefore it does not count as a four cornered garment). However, if you cut a slit up the sides of a t-shirt so that a majority of the side is "open", as above, that would in effect create "four corners," and the t-shirt would require tzitzit.


What material can be used for tzitzit?


Sephardim generally follow the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch (at 9:1, based on Rav Nachman (Rav Nachman bar Yaakov a Babylonian Talmudist of the 4th century CE) in Menachot 39b) that one can only fulfil the biblical mitzvah with either a wool garment or a linen garment.


But Ashkenazim rely on the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, a prominent 16th century CE Rabbi and posek, based on Rava (Abba ben Joseph bar Ḥama, a Babylonian Talmudist of the 3rd and 4th century CE) also in Menachot 39b) who holds that all materials are included in the Torah obligation.


The big question: to tuck the tzitzit in or leave out?


The answer is unclear. We have seen that the Torah commandment states:


 וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹת ה'


And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of G-d, and perform them.


Accordingly, the Shulchan Aruch states (at 8:11) that one should wear the tzitzit over your other garments so that you can constantly see them and be reminded of the mitzvot.


Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries CE) strongly objected to those who tucked in. He wrote in the Mishnah Berurah (a commentary on Orach Chaim, being a section of the Arba'ah Turim dealing with the laws of tefillah and shul, Shabbat and Yom Tov) at 8:26 that doing so is a denigration of the mitzvot.


On the other hand, the acknowledged father of Kabbala, the Arizal (Yitzhak Ben Sh'lomo Luria who lived in Tzefat in the 16th century CE) would tuck in his tzitzit because (concentrate now!) the tallit katan (what we call tzitzit) and the tallit gadol (what we call the tallit) relate to two kinds of reality: the internal reality and the external reality. The tallit katan represents the internal level and is therefore worn within other garments, while the tallit gadol represents the external and is therefore worn over the other garments (Pri Etz Chaim (the notes of Arizal's lectures which his disciples made), Shaar Tzitzit I).


What about the blue thread?


The shema mentions techelet, citing the above verse from Bamidbar:


But most tzitzit (or at least the ones I have seen) are only white. Why is this?


There are actually two commandments in the verse from Bamidbar: first to tie white tzitzit on the corners of a four-cornered garment; and the other is to add a thread of techelet to each corner. When techelet is available, we must therefore add a techelet fringe to the tzitzit; but when it is unavailable, we fulfil the mitzvah with plain white fringes.


Techelet is wool dyed with blood extracted from a sea animal called the chilazon. However, about 1,000 years ago, the chilazon died out. Indeed the Talmud (at Menachot 44a) tells us that it surfaced only once every seventy years.


So that's why most tzitzit today are white only.


Broken tzitzit


Essentially, there must be a kosher tzitzit at each corner of the garment. What if a tzitzit – that is, the fringe - breaks?


It depends. If the break is within the section of knots and windings, then according to most opinions the tzitzit are invalid (Orach Chaim 12:3). If the break is in the part where the strings hang loosely, then even if there is a break all the way up to the windings, it is still kosher. So, straggly looking tzitzit, as worn by most children, are OK.


If there are two breaks, then you must determine whether or not these are two ends of the same string, given that each string was initially inserted into the hole at each corner of the garment and doubled over. If the two broken strings are on the same side of the knot, these must be from two different strings. This is still kosher, even if the two strings are broken all the way up to the windings. But if the two broken strings are on opposite sides of the knot, then one of the broken strings will require a length of ki'day aniva - enough of a string that it could be tied (Orach Chaim 12:1). The length of ki'day aniva is at least 4 -  4.8 cm.


If there are three broken strings, it's more complicated..




As we have seen, tztzit is a very important commandment which we mention every day in the shema. It reminds us of all of G-d's commandments, so for me it represents a perfect Jewish storm, a mitzvah which enables us to experience a combination of our physical and spiritual natures.


For these reasons, I would recommend we all wear tzitzit even if, like me, we haven't done so since we were children.


I hope you have found this talk interesting, and that it will in the future enrich your appreciation of this wonderful mitzvah.


Chag sameach!


Neil Cohen

14/15 May 2013

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