Tzitzit: The Commandment of the Fringes
By Glenn Weaver
Through the ages G*d has given man many guidelines and instructions, which if followed would open a way for him to draw closer to G*d and receive His blessings (Lev. 26:3,9,11,12). He also warns us of the chastisement we will receive if we are disobedient to these commands. (Lev. 26:14-39)
Because of His Love for us, and His desire to bless rather than chasten, He has given us physical objects as visual reminders to do all He has commanded. One such object is the "tzitzit", or in English "fringe".
The Lord also spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of
Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves
fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments through-
out their generations, and that they shall put on the
tzitzit of each corner a cord of blue. And it shall be a
tzitzit for you to look at and remember all the commandments
of the Lord, so as to do them and not follow after your own
heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot,
in order that you may remember to do all My commandments,
and be holy to your God. I AM the Lord your God who brought
you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I AM the Lord
your God." [Num. 15:37-41]
The original tzitzit were comprised of several white cords [threads]
entwined by a cord of blue. It has been said that the cord of blue was included because blue is the color of the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory. The blue cord of the tzitzit was to be a reminder that G*d fills His creation and is present everywhere.
Originally the tzitzit were attached to the outer garment of a man's everyday clothing so they were always visible, and the command was observed for centuries. However, it is believed that some time after the destruction of the second temple [70 AD] this observance was changed due to the oppressive rule of the Roman authorities. It is thought that the Jews stopped placing these tzitzit on their clothing in an attempt to draw less attention to themselves and blend in with the peoples around them. It is most likely that the Jews of this time, not wishing to completely forsake the command of the fringed garments, began to make for themselves "tallitot," or in Yiddish "talesim" [meaning gown or cloak]. These were square or rectangular pieces of woven cloth, usually wool, which had the tzitzit attached to their corners. These cloaks were worn at times of prayer and worship as is the custom to this day. It is for this reason that the tallit worn today has acquired the name "prayer shawl". It is also believed that the cord of blue entwining the tzitzit was done away with at this time for the Romans observed blue to be a color reserved for royalty.
The tallit, or prayer shawl of today, is still made much the same as its first century ancestor. It is still a square or rectangular piece of woven material, however, it can be made of wool, cotton or silk. Jews who are most strict in their observance still prefer a tallit made of halfbleached lamb's wool from the holy land.
The size of a tallit can vary, but it should be large enough to cover the greater portion of a man's torso. The most widely accepted tallit is one with black stripes in remembrance of the destruction of the first and second temples. Many tallitot of more recent times have blue stripes in remembrance of the blue cord of the tzitzit. However, the modern day tallit is not limited to these colors, nor is the design limited to stripes.
At the top of the tallit is a neck bank ["atarah" -- crown or diadem]. These generally have scripture verses or intricate designs embroidered on them. The size of this band varies and serves no purpose other than to mark the top to the tallit. Any and all other verses, designs, or fringes serve no purpose and give no added scriptural or biblical value to the tallit. The tzitzit alone give the tallit its purpose, meaning and worth. When the tallit is used as a burial garment, the tzitzit are removed or cut to signify that the commandments of Torah are no longer binding on the one who has died.
The tallit is worn only at morning prayer except on "Tish'ah b'av" [fast of the fifth month], when it is donned at the afternoon service. The exception to this rule is with regard to the one who is called to read from the Torah. Generally, if this person does not have a tallit, he is asked to borrow one while reading, regardless of the time of day.
At times of prayer the tallit is often draped over the head in an attempt to reduce distraction. In this way it provides its wearer with, what might be referred to as, a portable prayer closet.
There are various ways to put on a tallit, however, most prefer to hold the upper corners [one in each hand] and extend the arms out to either side. At the same time, the under side of the atarah is placed on or above the head, and the following blessing is recited:
"Baruch ata Adonai Elohainu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu
b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hit-atef b'tzitzit" [Blessed are
thou, L*rd our G*d, King of the universe, who has sanctified
us with His Commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves
in the fringed garment].
The tallit is then allowed to rest on the shoulders and the arms are lowered. If the wearer wishes, he may flip the sides of the tallit onto the shoulders so his arms are uncovered.
For those wishing to observe the commandment of the tzitzit more closely, there is the tallit katan, or small tallit. Unlike the larger prayer tallit, the tallit katan may be worn all day long. In view of this point, the tallit katan is most appropriate, since we are warned to be mindful of His commandments at all times, not just at times of prayer and worship. According to tradition,, this tallit must never be worn on bare skin, but must be worn over a T-shirt or other undergarment. When the tallit katan is put on the following blessing is recited:
Baruch ata Adonai Elohainu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu
b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al mitzvat tzitzit" [Blessed are thou,
L*rd our G*d, King of the universe who has sanctified us
with His commandments and commanded us concerning the
mitzvah of tzitzit].
At times of prayer and worship the tallit katan is not to be used as a substitute for the Prayer tallit. As with the large tallit, if a cord of the tzitzit is torn or broken it must not be worn until it has been repaired.
In more recent times some groups and individuals have returned to entwining the tzitzit of their tallits, (large and small), with a cord of blue to more closely fulfill the command in Numbers 15:38. Most sects of Judaism contend that this is not appropriate because the proper shade of blue and the method of dying have been lost.
However, from both a Scriptural and traditional viewpoint, the issue is quite clear -- the fringes of white are to be used as a reminder to perform the commandments of G*d, and the one cord of blue indicative of the One who issued those commandments. Therefore, it would seem that shades and methods of dying are of less consequence than the remembering to keep the commandments of G*d.
As with all things, anyone who is considering wearing a tallit or dying a cord blue, should only do so after much prayer and with the leading of G*d Himself.