by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Tzitzit are tassels that hang down from the four corners of a rectangular garment, as the Torah says: "You shall put fringes on your four-cornered garment."1
Why do we wear Tzitzit? The Torah explains that by doing so, "you will see it and remember all the mitzvot."2
How do the tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot? On the simple level, Tzitzit serve as the colloquial string-around-the-finger reminder.3 As we go about our daily chores, whether at work or at a ball game, Tzitzit give us an anchor to the world of spirituality.
Further, the numerical value of "Tzitzit" is 600. Add to that the 8 strings and 5 knots on each corner, and you get 613 -- the number of mitzvot in the Torah.4
Let's delve a bit deeper into the verse: "You will see it and remember all the mitzvot." If there are four strings on each corner, why does the Torah use the singular form "it"?
"It" refers to the single blue thread on each corner prescribed by the Torah.5The color blue is similar to the sea, which is like the clear blue sky, which is the color of the God's "heavenly throne."6
Our challenge is to make spirituality a part of daily reality. In seeing the Tzitzit, we have a tangible reminder of an incorporeal God.7 Seeing God in our lives is a progression -- from recognizing his presence in mundane things like a garment, all the way to the spiritual realms ("heavenly throne").
In this way, Tzitzit has a meta-physical "fringe" benefit (pun intended), in helping to safeguard one from temptation.8 The Torah tells us: "And you will see them, and remember not to follow after your heart and eyes, that you stray after them."9 Tzitzit remind us that God is watching, and our actions should reflect that realization.
The Talmud10 tells of a man who was intensely addicted to a dangerous vice and was willing to spend any amount of money to satisfy that desire. One time he traveled across the world, and at the moment before the forbidden activity, the man's Tzitzit "slapped him in the face." The commentators11 explain that the Tzitzit struck him not literally, but psychologically -- with the four corners appearing as witnesses against him.
On each corner, four strings are looped through a hole, and drape down on both sides, giving the appearance of eight tassels per corner.12 The upper one-third of the tassels are a series of five double-knots, separated one from another with four sets of windings. Below the bottom knot, the remaining two-thirds of each string hangs loosely.13
Each section of knots-and-windings should be approximately one inch (2.5 cm.) -- for a total of 4 inches of knots-and-windings, and 8 inches of loose hanging strings.
The hole on each corner should be about two inches from the edge,14 to fulfill the biblical requirement that it be on the garment's "corner." If the corner tears, it can usually be repaired.15
The strings must be made either from wool, or from the same material from which the garment is made.16 Each string actually consists of two threads twisted together, and must be spun especially for the sake of Tzitzit.17 Therefore one should buy Tzitzit that carry a proper rabbinic supervision.
Once you've purchased the strings, it's not so difficult to attach them yourself. It's fun and meaningful. The process of putting Tzitzit on the garment is as follows:
· use four strings, one which is longer, to wrap around the others
· tie the four ends together,18 to ensure that each string will end up with one end on each side.
· insert the strings into the hole, and be sure to say "Le'shem mitzvat Tzitzit."
· tie a double-knot
· wind the longer string around the others 7 times
· tie a double-knot, and wind the longer string around the others 8 times
· tie a double-knot, and wind the longer string around the others 11 times
· tie a double-knot, and wind the longer string around the others 13 times
· tie a (fifth and final) double-knot
Why are the strings wound with 7, 8, 11, and 13 windings?
· 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 God's Name.
· Thirteen is the numerical value of echad -- one.19
Although a Tallit Katan is worn underneath the shirt, there are different customs as to whether or not the tassels should be left hanging out and visible.20 Given the purpose of Tzitzit, it is considered better to wear them "untucked" so that we can look at them often and use them as an anchor. However, if this would cause embarrassment or dissent when living amongst non-Jews, it is acceptable to have the strings tucked in.21
What if one or more of the strings break?
Our custom is that each string, when originally inserted, should be a length of 24-28.8 cm.22 If thereafter a string should be cut or broken, then it will depend: If the break is within the section of knots-and-windings, then according to most opinions the Tzitzit are invalid.23
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.
If there are two breaks, then we must determine whether or not these are two ends of the same string, given that each string was initially inserted into the hole and doubled over. How can we know whether or not these are two ends of the same string?
Firstly, when initially tying the knots on the Tzitzit, one should ensure that the two ends of any given string are always on opposite sides of the knot. Thus in the event that two strings break:
· If the two broken strings are on the same side of the knot, one may rely that these are of two different strings. This is still kosher, even if the two strings are broken all the way up to the windings.
· If the two broken strings are on opposite sides, then one of the broken strings will require a length of ki'day aniva -- "enough of a string that it could be tied."24The length of ki'day aniva is minimally 4-4.8 cm.
If there are three broken strings, then ki'day aniva is not sufficient. Rather, you will need a full-length string, since we require at least two complete strings, and there is a concern that these three ends may be of three different strings, leaving only one complete string.25
Women and Tzitzit
Women have traditionally not worn Tzitzit. Here's why:
There are five mitzvot in the Torah that are "positive time-bound mitzvot." For example, waving a lulav is done during the time period of Sukkot. Tzitzit is also a time-bound mitzvah since the mitzvah applies only during the daytime (as implied by the verse "you shall see it" -- which excludes Tzitzit at night).53 As with all positive time-bound mitzvot, only men are required to perform this mitzvah.54See Women and Mitzvot for more perspective on this.
The Blue Thread
The Torah says that of the four threads at each corner, one should be of "techeilet."55 Techeilet is a blue dye made from the blood of the chilazon,56 a sea creature found on the coast of northern Israel.
Why don't we use the blue thread today? This particular blue dye was very precious and because of its value, the Romans (who conquered Israel in 63 BCE) decreed that only "blue-blooded" royalty could wear the color techeilet. This caused the Jewish dyers to go underground. By 639 CE, at the time of the Arab conquest, the secret of techeilet was lost all together.
It is interesting that the series of stripes (usually black or blue) on just about every Tallit Gadol may have their origin as a reminder of the "strand of techeilet" once worn as part of the Tzitzit.57
In the late 19th century, a massive international search was made to rediscover the original chilazon, the snail used to make techeilet. Since then, several species of snails have been suggested by researchers, but much controversy remains about the matter. Today, while some scholars advocate the wearing of "techeilet strings" from these snails, most scholars remain unconvinced. Consequently, most observant Jews wear only white Tzitzit.58 The Tzitzit are still fit for use, even if they are all white, without the blue string.59
1. Numbers 15:37
2. Numbers 15:39
3. Alshich - Numbers 15:39
4. Rashi - Numbers 15:39
5. Numbers 15:38
6. Talmud - Menachot 43b
7. This idea is evident from a verse in Song of Songs, where the word 'hatzitz means "to peak."
8. See Brachot 13a; Menachot 44a
9. Numbers 15:39
10. Menachot 44a
11. Alshich - Numbers 15:41
12. Menachot 39b, Orach Chaim 11:12
13. based on Ezekiel 8:3, where the word tzitzit refers to a [freely-hanging] lock of hair (Talmud - Menachot 42a; Rema - Orach Chaim 11:14)
14. Orach Chaim 11:9
15. Orach Chaim 16:4-5
16. Orach Chaim 9:2-3
17. Orach Chaim 11:1
18. Orach Chaim 12:1
19. Tzitzit by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p. 214
20. See Mishnah Berurah 8:25, Shu"t Tzitz Eliezer 8:3, 8:5
21. Mishnah Berurah 8:25-6, based on Tosfot - Brachot 18a
22. Orach Chaim 11:13
23. Orach Chaim 12:3
24. Orach Chaim 12:1
25. Orach Chaim 12:1 with Biur Halacha
26. Orach Chaim 10:1
27. Orach Chaim 24:1; see Abarbanel - Numbers 15:38
28. See Mishnah Berurah 8:17
29. Orach Chaim 18:1
30. Mishnah Berurah 8:24
31. Rema - Orach Chaim 8:6
32. Orach Chaim 17:3; Sha'arei Teshuva (Orach Chaim 17:2)
33. See Pri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav 9:6) and Ta'amei HaMinahgim 15
34. Mishnah Berurah 9:16
35. Orach Chaim 8:4
36. Orach Chaim 10:11
37. See Mishnah Berurah 16:4
38. Orach Chaim 25:1
39. Orach Chaim 8:7
40. Orach Chaim 8:9
41. Orach Chaim 8:5
42. Orach Chaim 8:1
43. Mishnah Berurah 8:24
44. Orach Chaim 8:8
45. Radvaz 3:571, quoting Rav Sa'adya Gaon (Bo)
46. Orach Chaim 8:4
47. Mishnah Berurah 8:4
48. Mishnah Berurah 21:14
49. Orach Chaim 21:4
50. Mishnah Berurah 21:14
51. Orach Chaim 21:3
52. Mishnah Berurah 17:10
53. Orach Chaim18:1
54. Orach Chaim 17:2; Halichot Shlomo (vol. I, pg. 35)
55. Numbers 15:38
56. Tosefta - Menachot 9:6
57. Legend says that the blue stripes on the Israeli flag are based on the stripes of the tallit.
58. Kaplan (pp. 218-222)
59. Talmud - Menachot 4:1