At the end of last week’s Parsha the Torah instructs us to wear tzitzit “in order to remember and fulfill all of [the] mitzvahs” (Bamidbar 15:40). To explain the mitzvah, the Midrash brings an analogy of a ship passenger who fell into the water. The captain throws him a line, shouting, “Hold onto the rope and don’t let go, otherwise your life is finished!”
The following tzitzit primer was sent to us courtesy of Ben Slobodkin, owner of Ben’s Tallit Shop.
Tzitzit is considered a special, cherished mitzvah, because it helps us cleave to all of the other mitzvahs. Since we are enjoined to perform mitzvahs in an aesthetically pleasing manner – zeh Keli ve’anveiHu – wearing a nice tallit katan is commendable.
Wool or Cotton
According to the Shulchan Aruch, fabrics besides wool require tzitzits only according to Rabbinical Law, but the Rema rules that cotton and other fabrics must have tzitzits min haTorah (O.C. 9,1). Therefore Sephardim are usually stringent while Ashkenazim are often lenient. The Mishna Berura and the Pele Yoetz both state that even for Ashkenazim wool is preferable, whereas the Vilna Gaon and the Chazon Ish zt”l were known to wear cotton and Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l held that during the hot summer months, even according to Ashkenazim one can wear a tallit katan made of cotton if he finds wool uncomfortable.
Wool is more expensive than cotton, but it is also more durable and offers a number of other advantages. From my experience, wool tallit katan garments are generally of high quality, whereas cotton can be quite flimsy. If you go with cotton, make sure the eyelets are reinforced, otherwise the fabric will tear easily if the tzitzits get tugged for whatever reason. Tallit katan garments are sometimes made from a thicker, sturdy cotton fabric and feature high quality stitching, but this type is hard to find.
Strings and Knots
If you buy a tallit katan with the tzitzits already tied, look them over if possible. The quality of the knots can vary tremendously. I’ve seen factory tied tzitzits that were not even fully tied.
Tzitzits strings must be made leshem tzitzits (i.e. with intention to fulfill the mitzvah). The question is from what point in the production process this is required. The prevalent opinion is from the spinning stage. Whether machine-spun tzitzits can be made leshem tzitzits is questionable, therefore I strongly recommend buying hand-spun tzitzits, particularly since the difference in cost is relatively small (about $5). Sometimes you will come across tzitzits strings that are reinforced at the tips, which can preclude the need for dabbing glue or making little knots on the ends.
If you want the best tzitzits money can buy, look for niputz lishmah, which are made leshem mitzvah starting from the carding stage. According to the Rema, the custom is to be lenient, whereas the Mishna Berara notes that the Maharal of Prague and the Prisha held it’s best to be stringent in this regard. Expect to pay three times the cost of regular hand-spun tzitzit strings.
Here in Israel the Eida Chareidit of Jerusalem recently started insisting that tzitzits strings made under their supervision be made leshem mitzvah starting from the “lashonot” stage, which comes just before spinning. These tzitzits are known as “lashonot hatzemer” and are only slightly more expensive than other hand-spun tzitzits.
If you can’t afford to spend any money on tzitzits, there are still hiddurim available to you. First of all, you can make a point of tying the tzitzits yourself, since Chazal tell us doing a mitzvah yourself is better than having someone do it for you. There are also side benefits to be gained from DIY tzitzits tying: you will become more familiar with the mechanics behind the mitzvah and won’t be hapless if you ever face broken tzitzits strings.
Another hiddur is to make a point of wearing a size and design that meets the minimum size requirements according to all opinions. How big does a tallit katan have to be? Both the height and the width must be 50 cm according to Rav Chaim Na’eh, 55 cm according to Rav Moshe Feinstein and 60 cm according to the Chazon Ish. Whether you measure from the bottom of the slit in front or from the neckline is subject to some debate, but the widespread custom is to be lenient. If you prefer to be stringent, try to find a tallit katan with a round neck or sew it closed before you tie on the tzitzits.
Ben Slobodkin grew up in Los Angeles, has a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz and is an alumnus of Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim. He owns and operates Ben’s Tallit Shop, an Israel-based tallit and tzitzit webstore.