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.