|Halakhic texts relating to this article|
Numbers 15:38 |
and Deuteronomy 22:12
|Babylonian Talmud:||Menachos 39-42|
|Mishneh Torah:||Ahavah (Love): Tzitzit|
|Shulchan Aruch:||Orach Chayim 8-25|
Tzitzit [tsiˈtsit] (Hebrew: ציצית, Modern tsitsit, Tiberian sˤisˤiṯ; plural tsitsiyot) are specially knotted ritual fringes, or tassels, worn in antiquity by Israelites and today by observant Jews and Samaritans. Tzitzit are attached to the four corners of the tallit (prayer shawl) and tallit katan (everyday undergarment).
Other pronunciations include Biblical and Middle Eastern (i.e. Mizrachi): ṣiṣit (pl. Ṣiṣiyot), Spanish and Mediterranean (i. e., Sephardic): tzitzit; European and Yiddish (i. e., Ashkenazi): tzitzis; Yemenite (i. e., Temani): ṣiṣith; Samaritan: ṣeṣet.
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The word may derive from the semitic root N-TZ-H (נ-צ-ה). The ending -it is the feminine adjectival suffix, used here to form a feminine singular noun. N-TZ-H comes from the root word for "flower" and originally meant a "tassel" or "lock", as in the Book of Ezekiel where Ezekiel is picked up by an angel and carried by a "lock" (Hebrew tzitzit) of hair. In English-language academic texts on Judaica the term is sometimes rendered "show-fringes". In the Hebrew Bible the use is singular, but the feminine plural tzitziyot is found in later texts. The Septuagint translation is "tassels" (Greek plural kraspeda κράσπεδα, from kraspedon κράσπεδον singular).
A popular etymological interpretation of Heb. tzitzit is that which derives the word from Akkadian clothing vocabulary: either sisiktu (a thread, edge, loom) or tsitstsatu (a floral ornamentation). This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the custom of making fringes from extending the threads of embroidery was common in the ancient Near East as the means of strengthening the fabric. The further analyses of the antique iconography suggest that apart from this pragmatic purpose the tassels could also decorate the cloth and as such be a marker of the social status: the more elaborate and elegant the fringes, the higher the position of the owner. In addition to this and given the unique nature of each of the tassels it could also be used as a personal “signet” for sealing documents. This data has led the scholars to assume that the practice itself is of very ancient origins and was only secondarily incorporated into the Hebrew Bible where it was invested with new religious meaning.
The Torah mentions tzitzit in two places:
Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be a fringe for you, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)
However, there is an important difference between the two. While Numbers 15:37-41 uses the Heb. tzitzit, the passage in Deuteronomy 22:12 employs the plural form of gadil, which is an Akkadian loanword for a "cord" or "string". The reason for this lexical change is opened to speculations, yet, the scholars are inclined to assume that in the times when the Book of Deuteronomy was composed, the meaning of the tzitzit of Num. 15:37 had been lost and the gedîlîm is a dynamic translation of an unusual term.
What is more, the biblical sources are rather ambiguous. Since the Heb. word kanaph can mean a “corner” or a “border”, the specific place of the attachment of the fringes remains unsure. Their exact number is also not specified. Obviously, there is no mention of tallit, which is a later rabbinic invention developed probably with convenience in mind. Lastly, the passage lacks any instructions on the binding of the fringes, save for the obligation to include “a cord of blue” (Heb. ptil tchelet). Somewhat contrary to the technical laconicism of the sources, the primary mnemonic purpose of the mitzvah is expressed clearly: it is supposed to remind about the proper performance of all the other commandments and thus to prevent from engaging in idolatry. In sum, the biblical sources are very scarce what leads to conclusion that the mitzvat tzitzit was to a great extent developed by the rabbis of the Late Antiquity.
The blue thread mentioned in the Torah is omitted by most Rabbinic Jews due to controversy over the dye-making process.
Halakah forbids kil'ayim (shatnez), "intertying" wool and linen together. Rabbinic Judaism, but not Karaite Judaism, or Samaritanism, makes an exemption to this law for Temple robes and tzitzit. Concerning tzitzit, Chazal (the rabbinic sages) permit using wool and linen strings in tandem only when what they hold to be genuine tekhelet (extracted from a marine creature known as the Ḥillazon) is available, whereas kabbalist sources take it a step further by encouraging its practice.
The origins and the sense of the forbiddance of shatnez are problematic. For sure, it fits the Pentateuchal ban on the combinations of various phenomena like planting different types of seed or ploughing with different animals. Yet, unlike other such mixtures, shatnez was not only allowed but also required in the priestly garments according to Exodus 28:6, 8, 15, and 39:29. In addition to this, the temple staff was obliged to wear shatnez only during their ritual duties, while when outside of the temple, they still needed to perform the obligation of shatnez. Thus, both the laymen and the priests were supposed to have with them a specific item made of the mixture of wool and linen all the time. The rabbis were clearly aware of the presence of shatnez in the fringes, what in turn is corroborated by Menahot 39b-40a, 43a or Leviticus Rabbah 22:10 and from this perspective the shatnez of the layman reflects that of the priest.
Threads and knots
The tassel (tzitzit) on each corner is made of four strands, which must be made with intent. These strands are then threaded and hang down, appearing to be eight. (It is customary that each of the four strands is made of eight fine threads, known as kaful shemoneh). The four strands are passed through a hole (or according to some: two holes) 1-2 inches (25 to 50 mm) away from the corner of the cloth. There are numerous customs as to how to tie the tassels. The Talmud explains that the Bible requires an upper knot (kesher elyon) and one wrapping of three winds (hulya). The Talmud enjoined that between 7 and 13 hulyot be tied, and that "one must start and end with the color of the garment". As for the making of knots in between the hulyot, the Talmud is inconclusive, and as such later poskim have interpreted this requirement in various ways. The Talmud described tying assuming the use of tekhelet dye. Following the loss of the source of the dye, various customs of tying were introduced to compensate for the lack of this primary element.
The tying method which gained the widest acceptance can be described as follows: The four strands of the tzitzit are passed through a hole near the garment's corner. The two groups of four ends are double-knotted to each other at the edge of the garment near the hole. One of the four strands (known as the shamash) is made longer than the others. The long end of the shamash is wound around the other seven ends and double-knotted; this is done repeatedly so as to make a total of five double knots separated by four sections of winding, with a total length of at least four inches, leaving free-hanging ends that are twice that long  This tying procedure is used for each of the garment's four corners; if it has more than four corners, the four that are farthest apart are used.
In Ashkenazi custom, the four sections of winding number 7-8-11-13 winds, respectively. The total number of winds comes to 39, which is the same number of winds if one were to tie according to the Talmud's instruction of 13 hulyot of 3 winds each. Furthermore, the number 39 is found to be significant in that it is the gematria (numerical equivalent) of the words: "The Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Others, especially Sephardi Jews, use 10-5-6-5 as the number of windings, a combination that represents directly the spelling of the Tetragrammaton (whose numerical value is 26).
Before tying begins, declaration of intent is recited: L'Shem Mitzvat Tzitzit ("for the sake of the commandment of tzitzit").
Rashi, a prominent Jewish commentator, bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (in its Mishnaic spelling, ציצית) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totaling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613, traditionally the number of commandments in the Torah. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzyot reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments, as specified in Numbers 15:39. (Rashi knots are worn by the majority of Ashkenazic Eastern European Jews.)
Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi, pointing out that the Biblical spelling of the word tzitzit (ציצת) has the gematria of 590 rather than 600, which upends Rashi's proposed gematria. He points out that in the Biblical quote "you shall see it and remember them", the singular form "it" can refer only to the thread of tekhelet. The tekhelet strand serves this purpose, explains the Talmud, for the blue color of tekhelet resembles the ocean, which in turn resembles the sky, which in turn is said to resemble God's holy throne – thus reminding all of the divine mission to fulfill His commandments. (Nachmanides knots are worn by the majority of Sephardic Jews and Teimani Jews)
Modern Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom notes than in ancient Middle Eastern societies, the corner of the garment was often elaboratedly decorated to "ma[k]e an important social statement", functioning as an "symbolic extension of the owner himself". He also notes that the Torah requires tekhelet, normally a royal and priestly color, to be used by all Jews:
The tzitzit are the epitome of the democratic thrust within Judaism, which equalizes not by leveling but by elevating. all of Israel is enjoined to become a nation of priests... tzitzit is not restricted to Israel's leaders, be they kings, rabbis or scholars. It is the uniform of all Israel...
Color of the strings
Tekhelet (תכלת) is a color dye which the Hebrew Bible commands the Jews to use for one, two, or four of the eight half-strings hanging down (as interpreted in Rabbinic Judaism), or a number of cords ranging from one up to the same amount of threads as the non-tekhelet threads (according to opinions in Karaite Judaism). At some point following the destruction of the Second Temple, the knowledge and tradition about the correct method of the dye was lost for Rabbinic Judaism in Israel and since then, most rabbinic diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews as well have worn plain white tzitziyot without any dyes. Tekhelet, which appears 48 times in the Tanakh – translated by the Septuagint as iakinthinos (Greek: ὑακίνθινος, blue) – is a specific blue-violet dye produced, according to the rabbis, from a creature referred to as a Ḥillazon, other blue dyes being unacceptable. Some explain the black stripes found on many traditional prayer shawls as representing the loss of this dye.
While there is no prohibition on wearing blue dye from another source, the rabbis maintain that other kinds of tekhelet do not fulfill the mitzvah of tekhelet, and thus all the strings have been traditionally kept un-dyed (i. e., white) for many centuries. In recent times, with the (debated) re-discovery of the Ḥillazon in the Murex trunculus mollusk, some have noted that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit without the tekhelet strand. This position, however, has been strongly disputed.
When tekhelet is used, there are varying opinions in rabbinic literature as to how many of the strands are to be dyed: one of eight (Rambam), two of eight (Raavad), four of eight (Tosafot). While the white threads are to be made of the material of the garment, rabbinic law instructs that the tekhelet-dyed thread must be made of wool.
According to several rabbinic sages, blue is the color of God's Glory. Staring at this color aids in meditation, bringing us a glimpse of the "pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity", which is a likeness of the Throne of God. Many items in the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, such as the Menorah, many of the vessels, and the Ark of the Covenant, were covered with a blue-violet cloth when transported from place to place.
The other threads
The other threads in the tzitzit (all the threads, where tekhelet is not used) are described as "white". This may be interpreted either literally (by Rama) or as meaning the same colour as the main garment (Rambam). Normally, the garment itself is white so that the divergence does not arise. Similarly the threads may be made either of wool or of the same fabric as the garment; again many authorities recommend using a woollen garment so that all views are satisfied.
Karaites tzitziyot have blue-violet threads (tekhelet) in them. In contrast to rabbinic Jews, Karaites believe that the tekhelet source can be any dye, except those produced from impure (a definition mostly overlapping "un-kosher") species, such as the molluscs used by Rabbinic Jews. Instead, Karaites propose that the source of the dye was indigo or woad (Isatis tinctoria). Karaites also consider synthetic blue or blue-violet to be acceptable for tekhelet. Contrary to some claims, Karaites do not hang tzitziyot on their walls.
In the Samaritan tradition, the tallit is a gown worn over their clothes during most holy days, and the tzitzit are considered the 22 "buttons" on the right lapel of the gown, and the corresponding loops on its left lapel. The tzitziyot are always in the same color as the gown, which is usually white.
Another version of Samaritan tzitzit is the simple fringes on the sides of the very large white tallit worn by the priests when carrying a Torah scroll.
Similarly to most Orthodox rabbinic Jews, the Samaritans hold that the blue-violet tekhelet thread for their tzitziyot was produced from a specific dye, and claim that the tradition for producing it was lost.
Contrary to some rumors, the Samaritans do not use either rabbinic or Karaite tziziyot.
In archaeology and secular scholarship
According to the modern documentary hypothesis, the reference to tzitzit in Numbers comes from the Priestly Code, while that from Deuteronomy comes from the Deuteronomic Code. They are believed to date to around the late 8th century BCE and late 7th century BCE, respectively, some time after the practice became part of regular ritual. The custom however, clearly predates these codes, and was not limited to Israel. Images of the custom have been found on several ancient Near East inscriptions in contexts suggesting that it was practiced across the Near East. Some scholars believe that the practice among ancients originated due to the wearing of animal skins, which have legs at each corner, and that later fabrics symbolized the presence of such legs, first by the use of amulets, and later by tzitzit.
- Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
- A Theological Commentary to the Midrash: Song of Songs Rabbah - Page 243 Jacob Neusner - 2001 "The religious duties beautify Israel, now with reference to not shaving, circumcision, and show-fringes. ... The religious duties embody God's love for Israel: show-fringes, phylacteries, Shema', Prayer; then tabernacle, "
- Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver and Charles A. Briggs C.A., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1907/2013) [BDB], (CD-ROM), 8084.
- Stephen Bertman, “Tasseled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean”, The Biblical Archaeologist, 24.4 (1961): 120-122, 128. Jacob Milgrom, “Of Hems and Tassels. Rank, Authority and Holiness Were Expressed in Antiquity by Fringes on Garments”, Biblical Archeology Review, 9.3 (1983): 410. Jacob Milgrom, “Excursus 38 The Tassels (Tzitzit)”, in JPS Torah Commentary. Numbers, (Philadelphia, 1990), 62. See also: Eric Silverman, A Cultural History of Jewish Dress (London, 2013), ch. 1.
- Kosior, Wojciech (2018-07-27). ""Like a Throne of Glory:" The Apotropaic Potential of Ṣîṣîṯ in the Hebrew Bible and Early Rabbinic Literature". Review of Rabbinic Judaism. 21 (2): 176–201. doi:10.1163/15700704-12341342. ISSN 1570-0704.
- Stephen Bertman, “Tasseled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean”, The Biblical Archaeologist, 24.4 (1961): 119.
- "Tzitzit made of kilayim?". Kehuna.org. 2016-05-11. Retrieved 2018-04-18.
- Calum M. Carmichael, “Forbidden Mixtures”, Vetus Testamentum, 32.4 (1982): 394.
- Diagrams, Videos, & Explanations of Tying Methods Archived 2008-03-21 at the Wayback Machine.
- Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 11:9-11:15
- ibid. 11:12-13
- ibid. 11:14,15
- ibid. 11:4
- ibid. 11:14
- ibid. 10:1
- Rav's Beautiful Ratio: An Excursion into Aestheticslink=link=link=, Mois Navon, B'Or Ha'Torah, Vol. 19, 2009
- Ohr Sameach: The Wrap on Tzitzit
- Of Hems and Tassels, Jacob Milgrom, BAR 9:03, May-Jun 1983.
- Milgrom, Numbers, 414
- On History, Mesora and Nignazlink=link=link=, Mois Navon, Threads Of Reason, 2013
- Why the Tallit Barcode?; Pri Megadim, Orach Chaim 9:6
- Threads of Reasonlink=link=link=, Mois Navon, Threads Of Reason, 2013
- Tekhelet in Tzitzit: A Choice Mitzvah or an Absolute Obligationlink=link=link= R. Shmuel Ariel, Techumin 21 (5761)
- The Definition of Nullifying a Mitzvahlink=link=link= R. Yehuda Rock, Techumin 24 (5764)
- Numbers Rabbah 14:3; Hullin 89a.
- Exodus 24:10; Ezekiel 1:26; Hullin 89a.
- Numbers 4:6-12.
- "Tzitzit". The Karaite Korner. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
- Hakham Meir Yosef Rekhavi, "They Shall Make for Themselves Sisith (Fringe/Tassel)", Kharaite Judasim
- Dr. Curtis D. Ward, "What is the True Tekhelet?", 5 January 2011, Ward blog
- Freeman, Joshua (July 5, 2012). "Laying down the (Oral) law". Jerusalem Post.
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?
- Peake's Commentary on the Bible
- AskMoses.com explains tzizit
- Tzitzith - The Laws of Fringes. Explores the significance of the ritually fringed four-cornered garment. Complete with basic laws, blessings and diagrams. chabad.org
- How to tie tzitzit
- JewFAQ.org on tzitzit
- Instructions how to make Karaite Tzitziyot
- The Laws of Tzitzit according to mainstream Ashkenazic and Sephardic opinions
- Beged Ivri- A society which studies ancient Israeli customs takes on Ptil Tekhelet.
- Ptil Tekhelet – A group that promotes the view that the lost chilazon (the animal required to make tekhelet) to be the snail Murex trunculus.
- Explanation of how tekhelet was discovered and made from the Murex trunculus