Tzitzit is one of the most visible expressions of Torah observance within Jewish and Messianic communities. The details of this mitzvah are often the topic of debate and discussion among Messianic believers.
When we are encouraged by others in our congregations to do something or to believe something in regards to Scripture, we should always be like the Bereans and test everything against Scripture itself (Acts 17:11)... the whole of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If a person feels "led by the spirit" to speak, behave, or believe a certain way, they should test that spirit (1 John 4:1) and see if what that spirit says is in agreement with Scripture.
Let's walk together through Scripture and see what it says about the matter of tzitzit. As we do, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.
The first, second, and third use of tzitzit are found in Numbers 15 where a commandment is given to the sons of Israel:
The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel 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, so 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." (Numbers 15:37-41)
The last use of tzitzit is found in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel:
He [G-d] stretched out the form of a hand and caught me by a lock of my head; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the idol of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy, was located. (Ezekiel 8:3)
The prophet describes being picked up by tzitzitot roshei. The "head tzitzit" [plural]? This is not clear but may be the source for the traditional peyot [hair curls worn on the temple of head].
The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word tzitzit into the Greek word κράσπεδον (kraspedon- Strong's #2899). This word is found in two other verses of the Septuagint in addition to the three places noted above.
You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself. (Deuteronomy 22:12)
This verse does not contain the Hebrew word tzitzit. It uses a different word that is translated into kraspedon: גדל (gedil- Strong's #1434) which means "twisted threads".
The last instance of kraspedon in the Septuagint is from the prophet Zechariah:
"Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."'" (Zechariah 8:23)
This verse uses yet another word: כנף (kanaph- Strong's #3671) which means "a wing or an extremity". We will examine this word in more detail a bit later.
The Apostolic Writings
In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word tzitzit is translated into the Greek word kraspedon. We find this word used five times in the Greek Scriptures, the writings of the apostles.
While He was saying these things to them, a synagogue official came and bowed down before Him, and said, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live."
Jesus got up and began to follow him, and so did His disciples. And a woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak; for she was saying to herself, "If I only touch His garment, I will get well." But Jesus turning and seeing her said, "Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well." At once the woman was made well. (Matthew 9:18-22)
In this passage, we find that Yeshua was wearing kraspedon... tzitzit. The woman with the issue of blood touch the tzitzit and her faith made her well. We find a parallel to this passage in the writings of Luke:
And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. (Luke 8:43-44)
The next verse where we find kraspedon used is shortly after Messiah walks on water and calls Peter out to him. They both get back into the boat and dock at Gennesaret.
And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent word into all that surrounding district and brought to Him all who were sick; and they implored Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were cured. (Matthew 14:35-36)
When the sick of Gennesaret touch the tzitzit of Messiah's cloak, they were cured. We find a parallel passage in the writings of Mark:
Wherever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were being cured. (Mark 6:56)
The last time we find kraspedon in the writings of Matthew is in chapter 23.
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. (Matthew 23:1-5)
In this passage, Messiah condemns the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tzitzit in order to be noticed by men. He does not condemn their use of these items... only their hypocrisy in the way in which they use them. Indeed, later in the chapter, He goes on to say:
For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23) [emphasis added]
These are the five instances that kraspedon are found in the writings of the apostles.
Next, let's examine the commandment of tzitzit in more detail...
The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels [tzitzit] on the corners [kanephei] of their garments [begedaihem] throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord [petiyel] of blue [techelet]. It shall be a tassel 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, so 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." (Numbers 15:37-41)
The word ציצת (tzitzit), itself, is of uncertain derivation but is generally understood to mean "a tassel".
These "tassels" are to be on the corners (plural) of garments.
The Hebrew word translated as "corner" in these verses is כנף - kanaph. It literally means "wing" or "extremity". It is used in Genesis 1:21 to describe "every winged bird" that G-d created. It is also used in Psalm 17:8 when David cries out in song "Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings."
The word in the Numbers 15 passage that is translated as "garments" is the common Hebrew word בגד (beged). It literally means "garment" or "covering". The noun beged comes from the root verb bagad which means "to cover".
The word translated as "cord" is פתיל (patiyl) which means "twine" or "twisted cord". Patiyl comes from the verb patal which means to twine, to struggle, or twist.
Interestingly, we do not find the normal Hebrew word for blue (kakhol) in this passage. Instead, we find a word that describes a unique substance, תכלת (techelet). Scripture uses this word 49 times to describe various uses of this material in the tabernacle, in the priestly garments, and in other garments worn by royalty. Scripture does not, however, describe what techelet actually is.
Let's paraphrase the commandment using the information above:
They shall make for themselves tassels [tzitzit] on the extremities [kanephei] of their covering [begedaihem]... and that they shall put on the tassel of each extremity a twisted cord [petiyel] of techelet.
That does not add much clarity to the commandment, does it?
When we consider the Deuteronomy 22 passage that shares the Greek word for tzitzit (kraspedon) we find that there should be four corners on our garment:
You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners [kanephei] of your garment [beged] with which you cover yourself. (Deuteronomy 22:12)
It is only here that we can begin to see a specific type of garment take shape: one with four corners.
We find in these passages of Scripture that G-d commands the sons of Israel to make tassels [tzitzit] on the extremities [kanephei] of their covering/garment [begedaihem]... and that they shall put on the tassel of each extremity a twisted cord [petiyel] of techelet.
The purpose of these tassels is that we should look at them and remember all the commandments of the LORD, so as to do them. This should cause us not to follow after our own hearts and our own eyes, after which we have played the harlot, so that we may remember to do all G-d's commandments and be holy to Him.
That's it. That is all Scripture actually directly says about tzitzit. It is remarkably silent on the topic.
It is interesting to note that the commandment regarding tzitzit is found in parashah sh'lach ("send out") after the twelve spies are sent out to the Land and Israel refuses to enter it based upon the report ten of them bring back.
In the next section, we will look at some of the questions that remain and how those questions have been traditionally answered.
In the last section, we examined Scripture and found that it did not have much to tell us explicitly about tzitzit. Like most of the commandments, the "how" of tzitzit is almost entirely tradition. It is tradition informed by Scripture, true, but tradition nonetheless. The details provided below are traditions unless otherwise noted.
HOW should tzitzit be worn?
The commandment in Deuteronomy indicates tzitzit should be affixed to garments "with four corners". Since most attire does not have four corners, a special, square "prayer cloak" was devised to which the tzitzit could be affixed. This is the tallit gadol (the big tallit). Another, smaller garment was also devised called the tallit katan (the little tallit). The Hebrew word tallit comes from a root verb (talal) which means "to cover".
Mantle with fringes (ẓiẓit) at the four corners; a prayer-shawl worn over the garments, and used by men after marriage and, in modern times, by boys after their confirmation as "bar miẓwot." The ṭallit, which can be spread out like a sheet, is woven of wool or silk, in white, with black or blue stripes at the ends. The silk ones vary in size, for men, from about 36 × 54 inches to 72 × 96 inches. The woolen ṭallit is proportionately larger (sometimes reaching to the ankle) and is made of two lengths sewed together, the stitching being covered with a narrow silk ribbon. A ribbon, or, for the wealthy, a band artistically woven with silver or gold threads (called "spania"), with the ends hanging, and about 24 inches long by from 2 to 6 inches wide, is sewed on the top of the ṭallit. From the four corners of the ṭallit hang ẓiẓit, in compliance with the Mosaic law (Num. xv. 38 et seq.; see Ẓiẓit). The woolen ṭallit is preferred by the pious, especially if made of coarse and half-bleached lamb's wool from the Holy Land, when it is known as a "Turkish ṭallit." Woolen ṭallits are made in Russia also, but are finer spun and almost pure white.1
The tallit gadol (tah LEET gah DOHL) is a four-cornered garment that was created as a cloak to cover the entire upper body. The tzitzit are affixed to the "extremities" (the corners) of this cloak. Today it is generally worn only during times of prayer; however, in the days of Yeshua, it was common to carry this cloak throughout the day rolled up on one's shoulders. It was likely this type of cloak that the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch. (Matthew 9:18-22) Tallit gadol means "a big covering".
The second way the commandment is observed is by wearing a smaller, poncho-like garment that has four corners to which the tzitzit are affixed. This garment is often worn under one's clothing and is called a tallit katan (tah LEET kah TAHN)- a little covering.
It has been suggested that this smaller garment was devised during periods of persecution for the Jews. It allowed the wearer to observe the commandment while wearing the smaller tallit under outer garments thus hiding the person's Jewish identity. This seems unlikely given the ease with which the garment could be untucked revealing the tzitzit.
WHEN should tzitzit be worn?
This question of "when" has three aspects:
- what time of day/month/year?
- how frequently?
- at what age?
The commandment to wear tzitzit carries with it this purpose: to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD.
Since they are worn to be seen then they should be worn during the day when they can be seen. Wearing them in the dark does not serve the purpose for which they are commanded.
There are no days specifically mentioned in Scripture when tzitzit should not be worn and the tallit is generally worn daily.
Scripture is once again silent regarding the frequency with which the tzitzit should be worn.
Generally speaking, the tallit gadol is only worn during morning prayers but not during afternoon prayers.
The tallit katan is usually worn from morning until evening.
At what age?
This question recently came up in conversation in my community. The question was actually posed whether or not an infant should have tzitzit on their onesie!
Traditions vary throughout history and geography. Some hold that young men should wear tallit beginning with their bar mitzvah (a "coming of age" ceremony in which a 13-year-old becomes a bar mitzvah [a "son of the commandments"]). Others hold that men should begin wearing a tallit once they are married. The logic here is that the commandment says "so that you will not go astray after your heart and your eyes".
WHO should wear tzitzit?
The commandment literally says benei Yisrael which can be either "sons" (literally) or "children" (figuratively) of Israel.
Traditionally, women are not required to wear tzitzit because it is a time-bound commandment. Women are considered to be exempt from time-bound commandments that might take them away from their parental or spousal responsibilities.
Although they were permitted to wear a tallit well into the 18th century, a gradual movement towards prohibition arose and today women are not allowed to wear a tallit in Orthodox Judaism. Conservative and Reform Judaism have, to varying degrees, allowed women to wear tallits.
WHERE should tzitzit be worn?
The "where" question applies in two ways: where on the garment and in what physical locations can it be worn?
On the garment
The commandment in Numbers 15 indicates the tzitzit should be worn on the extremities/wings [kanaph] of the garment. The sheet-like tallit gadol definitely has extremities: its four corners definitely qualify for the "four corners" of Deuteronomy 22 and the "extremities" of Numbers 15. The poncho-like tallit katan also has extremities: its four corners meet the same requirements.
Belt loops on pants or skirts (of which there are usually 5) do not meet the "four corners" requirement nor do they meet the "extremities" requirement since there are no belt loops at the opposite extremity of the garment.
The Numbers 15 commandment regarding tzitzit indicates that they should be worn so that we will be holy to our G-d. Tzitzit then are garments of holiness. Traditionally, the tallit gadol (which can easily be removed) is not taken into places where human or animal refuse is present. The tallit katan (which cannot easily be removed) is allowed into such places but the tzitzit must be treated with caution so that they do not come into contact with dung or refuse.
HOW should tzitzit be made?
This question has a whole host of related questions:
What qualifies as "tassels"?
Traditionally, tzitzit is made from high-quality twisted linen twine that is bleached white.
How long, high, or wide should they be?
The individual strands are about a yard (a meter) long to allow them to be folded in half through the corners of the tallit and then knotted and wrapped. The diameter of the strands varies according to tradition. Ashkenazic (Eastern-European) strands are thinner than Sephardic (Southwestern-Europe/North Africa).
What shape should they have?
The strands themselves are round but they are wrapped and knotted into various shapes depending on the specific tradition that is used to attach the tzitzit to the tallit.
From WHAT should tzitzit be made?
Tzitzit are generally made from twined linen that is bleached white.
The tallit gadol is generally made from wool (sometimes cotton) that has various colors and patterns woven into the fabric.
The tallit katan is generally made from knit cotton or synthetic materials.
The "blue" mentioned in the commandment is not the generic Hebrew word for the color blue. It is a specific material called techelet (teh KHEL et). At some point in the past, the exact source of techelet was lost and so many Orthodox communities today wear plain white tzitzit without the "thread of blue". Although the Talmud describes the source as an animal called a "chilazon" the exact type of animal is unknown.
In the latter half of the 20th century, archaeological discoveries appear to have identified the source of techelet: a dark blue dye that comes from the Murex snail. Millions of snail shells have been found in archaeological sites where the dye was known to originate. An alternate opinion exists that suggests the dye comes from a common type of cuttlefish which has been found at other archaeological sites.
The thread of techelet included with the tzitzit should be made from the appropriate source. Some groups have chosen one or the other of the animals noted above while mainstream Orthodoxy remains undecided.
By WHOM should tzitzit be made?
The threads themselves can be made by any skilled individual.
The attachment and wrapping/knotting of tzitzit are sometimes performed by a man's wife since the purpose of the tzitzit is to keep him from "going astray after his heart and his eyes". It is considered by some to be a wife's duty to wrap tzitzit for her husband to help keep him faithful.
Given how it is made and the material from which it is made, how should it be washed?
Since most tallit gadol are made from wool, washing them in a sink using cool water and Woolite (or similar gentle cleaner) works. Drying them on a line or just hanging over a bathtub is recommended rather than risking damage in a dryer. This works for tallit katans as well.
Should the tassels be cut at any time or not?
If they can (or should) be cut, with what should they be cut?
Generally speaking, the tzitzit threads are not cut except during original production.
If you have any additional questions that you would like answered regarding tzitzit, please contact us!