In a rather poignant section of the Haggadah, we read about Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya (who is well-known by most for his premature aging1) and his struggle to find a source requiring one to recite the third paragraph of Shema in the evening. While he refers to it as the “chapter of the Egyptian Exodus,” it primarily deals with the laws of tzitzis, and only culminates with our deliverance from Egyptian bondage. It is therefore appropriate to review some of the basic laws of tzitzis during the Pesach season, as tzitzis appear to be intrinsically related to our Exodus from Egypt.
In addition, Pesach cleaning and spring cleaning often go hand in hand and many use this time sort out old clothing from closets and drawers. What do you do with that pair of outgrown tzitzis? Or the pair that is so worn out it is torn? Or the pairs with missing or broken strings? Let’s discuss “kosher” tzitzis…
Although the Torah only requires one to place tzitzis on a four-cornered garment that one intends to wear,2 there is a Rabbinic commandment to purposely wear such a garment, with tzitzis, all day and especially during prayer.3
The original commandment required that each corner of the garment had strings4 that were dyed blue (techeles)5 from the blood of a chilazon (a sea creature that surfaces once every seventy years),6 but as most authorities feel that we can no longer identify this sea creature, it suffices to do without the blue strings. The blue is symbolic of the sea, which mimics the heavens and reminds us of the One Above.7 There are those who believe they have rediscovered the chilazon and they currently dye their tzitzis strings blue with its blood.
What Garments Require Tzitzis?
The mitzvah of tzitzis consists of placing strings through the corners of a four-cornered garment. If a garment has five corners, the tzitzis are placed through the four furthest corners.8 According to most authorities, the Biblical requirement of tzitzis applies only to garments made of linen or sheep’s wool9; because those were the only clothing materials discussed in the Torah. However, the Chachamim require tzitzis for all other materials, except leather10 (synthetic materials, like polyester mesh, also do not require tzitzis because they are categorized like leather11). Even so, it is proper to seek out a wool garment so as to fulfill the mitzvah according to the Torah ruling.12 While the strings must be made of the same material as the garment in order to fulfill the requirement, strings of wool or linen can satisfy the law in garments made of other materials. 13 However, one should not seek to utilize linen tzitzis at all.14
While there is a dispute if the mitzvah of tzitzis is a requirement on the person or on the garment, we follow the view that only garments intended for wear need tzitzis. The garment itself does not have its own requirement.15 Likewise, only garments utilized during the day need tzitzis.16 One must also own the garment in order to require tzitzis on it. However, if one borrows the garment for more than 30 days, the garment requires tzitzis.17
There is a dispute if the transgression of shatnez (mixing wool with linen) applies to tzitzis, with many feeling that one can wear linen tzitzis on a wool garment and vice versa. However, in practice, we do not follow those opinions. The common opinion is that linen tzitzis can only be mixed with wool tzitzis for the purpose of techeles (a wool string dyed blue), but since we do not have techeles today, they should not be mixed.18
The size of a garment that requires tzitzis is that which can cover most of a child that can walk in public unassisted (according to the Tur, approximately nine years old).19 This comes out to a cubit (20-24 inches by 20-24 inches) in front and the same in back.20
Blankets and other night wraps do not need tzitzis. In addition, clothing meant to wrap around the head (like a shawl) does not need tzitzis.21 Kapotes (sirtuks/frock coats) that have the front and back corners parallel to each other may require tzitzis. The solution is to round one of the corners.22 (Simply sewing up one corner is not sufficient, since all stitches eventually come undone.23) There is a dispute if designated nightclothes need tzitzis when worn during the day, and if designated day clothing needs tzitzis when worn at night. While nightclothes need tzitzis if worn during the day, one should accept the stringencies of both views.
The stripes on the tallis and tallis koton symbolize the techeles that is no longer utilized, and on a Kabbalistic level, because white represents Hashem’s chesed (kindness), while black represents Hashem’s gevurah (strength).24 We therefore demonstrate that we implore Hashem’s kindness to overwhelm His strength. Sefardim do not wear talleisim with stripes since they follow the view that tzitzis need to be the color of the garment and today tzitzis are white.25
Most talleisim (used for davening) contain a strip of cloth (often silk) attached to the head area and many even wear woven silver on their Shabbos tallis (the AriZal was not insistent on this).26 The AriZal did, however, require one to wear tzitzis while sleeping as protection.27 This is the custom of many Chassidim.
Although the Shulchan Oruch requires one to wear the tzitzis garment over one’s clothing (easier to be inspired by them), many follow the view that only the strings need to be exposed. 28 If one is uncomfortable in his surroundings, he may tuck the tzitzis in.29
The stripes on the tallis and tallis koton symbolize the techeles that is no longer utilized, and on a Kabbalistic level, because white represents Hashem’s chesed (kindness), while black represents Hashem’s gevurah (strength)
Regarding those tzitzis that double as an undershirt, several issues arise. Firstly, it is improper to wear the garment that one uses for the mitzvah of tzitzis directly on the body – it shows a lack of respect.30 Further, to require tzitzis, most of the side area must be ventilated, not including the area required for the arms to fit through. The shoulder areas together must also be wider than the neck cutout. The mostly closed sides on this type of tzitzis may make the garment as though it were partially closed up, which at the very least, negates the need for a brocha. Since one only wears tzitzis for the sake of the mitzvah, it may be forbidden to wear such tzitzis outside of an eruv on Shabbos because the actual strings would not be considered a necessary part of the garment, but rather a “burden”.31 Furthermore, some authorities hold that to require tzitzis, the sides must be completely open, without any snaps.32 It is best, therefore, to perform the mitzvah with a traditional pair of tzitzis.
The Tzitzis (Strings)
The hole to place the tzitzis through may not be more than three thumb breadths (approximately 2.25 inches) from the bottom of the garment33 and not less than the length from the first thumb joint to the tip (approximately 1.375 inches)34, so if the garment tears in the corner area, the tzitzis will still be attached.35 If the hole is outside of these parameters, it is not considered in the corner of the garment. These measurements are done vertically, not from an angle.36
One is allowed to repair the hole for the tzitzis to pass through if it is damaged,37 as long as the tzitzis are still well connected. It is recommended that the holes and rim of the garment are reinforced, because of the potential for tearing.38 Reinforcement is especially necessary for those that place the tzitzis through two holes near each other, since they are more likely to tear. (This practice of two holes is only utilized in a tallis koton.)39>
The strings must be spun for the sake of the mitzvah. Some rabbis even rule that the wool combing must be done for the sake of the mitzvah.40 Before spinning the wool, one should say aloud, “This wool is being spun for tzitzis.” If a non-Jew spins the tzitzis there is a conflict of opinions on whether the tzitzis are kosher. According to the Shulchan Oruch HaRav, such tzitzis are not kosher.41 The length of the eight strings must be at least 12 ordinary thumb breadths (approximately 9 inches) after the coils and knots are made.42 One of the strings must be longer than the others so as to create the revolutions.
The area where one ties the knots and revolutions should be approximately a third of the total string length after being doubled over.43 We follow the custom that the first set of revolutions is wrapped seven times, the second set wrapped eight times, the third set wrapped eleven times and the fourth set wrapped thirteen times. This is because 7+8=15 (the numerical value of the first part of the Divine name); 15+11=26 (the numerical value of the entire Divine name); and, 13 is the numerical value of Echad (one), signifying that Hashem is one.44
One should use strings that are of average width and are of nice quality to perform the mitzvah.45 While it is certainly permitted to utilize strings that were spun by Jewish women for the sake of tzitzis, a man should tie the actual knots.46 If one puts the strings on the garment without having the intention that it is for the mitzvah of tzitzis, if there are no other strings available it suffices, but a brocha cannot be made on such a garment.47 One cannot attach tzitzis and then create the garment since this would result in Taase v’lo mein hassoi (not following the prescribed sequence); tzitzis must be placed on a garment that already requires tzitzis.48
The five knots of the tzitzis represent the five chumashim and the four corners signify that one should always remember the Torah in every direction that he goes.49 (This is like a person who ties a string around his finger as a reminder to do something important.) In fact, if one recites Shema without tzitzis, it is as though he is proclaiming a falsehood since he is mentioning the commandment of tzitzis therein.50 The mitzvah of tzitzis protects us from the temptations of our evil inclination51 and passing the tzitzis over our eyes during Shema protects from blindness.52 Holding the two front tzitzis during Baruch She’amar puts a total of 10 knots and 16 strings in our hands, the numerical value of the Divine Name. One who is careful with the laws of tzitzis will be worthy to experience the Shechina, while one who is neglectful of these laws will suffer a harsh penalty.53 The Torah states that one who wears tzitzis will be reminded of all 613 commandments,54 since the gematria of the word tzitzis equals 600, plus the eight strings and five knots which total 613.55
As long as the garment remains more than half complete, once can sew up a tear.56 However, if a shoulder area tears through, then the garment can no longer be used, unless the tzitzis are removed and reattached. If the strings tear, it depends if when one made the knots and coils one kept track that the same four ends always remained on each side. In store-bought tzitzis, one cannot assume that this is the case. When a string tears anywhere above the final knot, the tzitzis become not kosher.57 Since an entire torn string makes the tzitzis possul, if one string tears below the knots, then the tzitzis are still kosher (because the actual string is still long enough). If two strings are torn after the knots, we suspect that this was both ends of one string unless one kept track as to which sides of the knots the strings originated and knows that the two torn strings are from different original strings. As long as each of the torn strings has a “bow’s worth” (approx. 1.575”) remaining, it is sufficient.58 However, if three strings are torn, even if a “bow’s worth” remains, the tzitzis will no longer be kosher.59 While a garment that is no longer kosher should be disposed of in a respectful manner (wrapped up), the strings themselves are treated as shaimos60 and should not be cut off with a knife or scissors, but rather with one’s teeth.61
Who wears tzitzis
Women are not required to wear tzitzis and, in fact, are discouraged from doing so.62
Boys traditionally start to wear tzitzis at age three (if toilet trained), but should wear the proper shiur when they turn nine. According to the Rambam, it is a Rabbinic obligation for every child who knows how to dress himself to wear tzitzis in order to educate him in Torah and mitzvos.63
As mentioned, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was relieved when ben Zoma explained a posuk to refer to the commandment to recite the third section of Shema at night. However, the Sages insist that it refers to our future requirement to recite the Shema even after the coming of Moshiach. In the merit of our observance of the mitzvah of tzitzis, which in turn represents all mitzvos, may we merit to bring Moshiach speedily in our days.
1. Gemara Berachos 12b.
2. Bamidbar 15:37-41.
3. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 24:1.
4. According to Rambam, Hilchos Tzitzis 1:1, 1 string per corner is dyed; according to Shulchan Oruch HaRav 11:1, 2 strings per corner.
5. Bamidbar 15:38.
6. Gemara Menachos 44a.
7. Gemara Menachos 43b.
8. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 10:3.
9. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 9:1; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tzitzis 3:1-2.
10. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 10:4.
11. Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:1.
12. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 9:6; Shulchan Oruch HaRav 9:4.
13. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 9:1.
14. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 9:6.
15. Gemara Menachos 41a.
16. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 18:1.
17. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 14:3.
18. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 9:4.
19. Tur, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 16:1.
20. Mishna Berurah, Orach Chaim 16:4.
21. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 10:20.
22. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 10:12.
23. Gemara Menachos 37b.
24. Zohar, Vol. 3, p. 227a.
25. Mishnah Berurah , Orach Chaim 16; Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 9:5.
26. Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 8:6.
27. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 21:15.
28. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 8:11; Shulchan Oruch HaRav 8:18.
29. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 8:26; Shulchan Oruch HaRav 8:19.
30. Rav Chayim Yosef David Azulai on Zohar I, 205a; Rav Uri of Strelisk, Minhagei HaAriZal, sec. 24.
31. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 10:16.
32. The Alter Rebbe’s Siddur, Laws of Tzitzis.
33. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:14.
34. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:16.
35. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 11:10.
36. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 11:9.
37. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 16:5.
38. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 11:10.
39. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:35.
40. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:3.
41. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:4.
42. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:7.
43. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 11:14.
44. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 11:70.
45. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 11:5.
46. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 14:1.
47. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 14:2.
48. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 15:2.
49. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 24:1.
50. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 8:1.
51. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 24:5.
52. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 24:7.
53. Gemara Menachos 43b; Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 24:6.
54. Gemara Menachot 43b and Rashi ibid.
55. Rashi on Bamidbar 15:39.
56. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 15:3.
57. Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 12:4.
58. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 12:1.
59. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 12:1.
60. Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 21:1.
61. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 11:24.
62. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 17:2.
63. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tzitzis 3:9; Rama, Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 17:3.