In Parsha Bamidbar, 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.
Originally posted in June 2011.
I’m hoping some people are still subscribed to this post. I have a friend who is allergic to wool. Are there commercial sources for non-wool tzitzit strings? From my reading, it seems to me that you can have cotton strings for a cotton garment. Is that correct?
My husband likes to use Woolite for washing his Talleisim (Gadolim and Katanim).
I second the mesh-bag suggestion. Works like a charm. Just be sure to get a good-quality mesh bag. Bed Bath Beyond has them.
Now, my question–I notice that the threads/strings yellow very quickly, even though I wear the beged only once or twice before washing, and generally keep them clean and non-sweaty. Could this yellowing be caused by bleach? Care to share what detergents you use, bleach if any, etc.?
Some use a special mesh bag that is used for things like pantyhose and other delicate items for their tzitzis. The strings remain within the bag and do not fray.
Thank you for the suggestion.
To Bob #12: No, I’m afraid not. Usually through normal wear only the Beged itself gets stained and/or sweaty. Of course little boys are famous for getting their Tzitzis soiled.
If you want to clean the actual tzitzis threads, I would suggest that hand washing is the only way to go.
Judy, by this method are the wrapped Tzitzis cleaned, too?
Shmuel, my husband Ira washes his Tallis Gadol and Tallis Katans himself in our washing machine (he knows how to do it the right way).
I believe that Ira keeps the Tzitzis from unraveling through this method: First, wrap the tzitzis in each corner in aluminum foil, press down for a tight package. Then tie a large Baggie or quart-size plastic food storage bag around each foil-wrapped corner. Wash in the delicates – slow – warm water cycle. To dry, remove the corner wrappings and either spread each Tallis Gadol or Katan flat on the contraption known as a standing dryer, or hang with clothespins from a line.
By the way, Ira ties his own tzitzis, so if the knots or windings do come apart in the wash, he can fix it himself.
anyone have any suggestions for washing tzitzis (ie tallis katan) in the washing machine without destroying them? I wash my own by hand in the sink, but my wife doesn’t want to have to do that for our sons’. when she has tried to put them in the washer/dryer, they come undone and I have to retie them. any solutions other than hand washing?
Most(all?) of them are the shitot of great Rabbis such as Rambam and the Vilna Gaon. I’m sure each one would think his is the “best”, but for us, none would be “defective”.
Why don’t read all about it on the Tekhelet site.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, of blessed memory, wrote a little pamphlet about the mitzvah of Tzitzit. The booklet also discussed the Techeilet controversy. Although slightly outdated (Rabbi Kaplan was niftar in January 1983 and his Tzitzit booklet was written more than thirty years ago) it is a very good overview of the topic.
I also wanted to add that some Chasidei Breslov wear Techailes. I am not sure what winding pattern they use. You would have to ask a member of that group. (“Hey, Nachman Leibish, whaddaya say?”)
Are all 7 varieties equally in accord with the basic halacha, or would some be viewed as defective (as opposed to “not the best”) by anyone?
I see 7 on the Techelet site. Why should there by a move toward standardization? It’s just another part of the mosaic of our traditions.
I’ve seen two people so far who wore tzitzis with the blue threads, and each had his tied in a different pattern. Among those in this group today, how many distinct winding patterns and sources/shades of techeles exist? Is there any move toward standardization?
Ron, hence the reason I said “Techelet or Not”.
The bottom line with techelet for me is that the evidence, talmudic, chemical, and archaeological, that this is techelet is overwhelming. Also, there is no major downside to wearing it (other than cost) while the upside is fulfilling a biblical obligation.
There are many major Rabbinic figures here who wear it, both on and off the record (one example is Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg). And, as you pointed out, Rav Schechter is very public in support of wearing techelet in spite of the fact that his Rebbe, the Rav, held that once the mesorah (tradition) is lost for something we cannot resurrect it until the time of Mashiach.
The bottom line, as with many issues of the day, is to consult with your LOR.
A number of reliable mail-order vendors, such as Tiferes Stam in Brooklyn, can supply not only arba kanfos, etc., with hand-tied tzitzis, but also tzitzis for the buyer to tie himself.
Very nice article! I wish I could tie my tzitzis myself, or repair them. It’s like, um, math for me. Finally one of my sons — the youngest! — has learned this craft. I will be impressing him into service soon.
Big vote for cotton tzitzis here, by the way, especially in the warm season. Yes, they are not as durable as the wool, but most of us who did not grow up wearing these are not as durable as those who did. As a beginner’s-outreach rabbi said to me many years ago (not entirely accurately but you will get the idea), “There’s not mitzvah to shvitz in your tzitzis!”
By the way, the techeles stuff is fascinating. BT’s should be aware that the topic is halachically complex and somewhat controversial, though — this is obvious from the website and the nature of questions published and addressed there. There are many different opinions about whether or not the techeles identified by this group is in fact the one referred to in the Torah, and even if so how to integrate (i.e., tie) a thread with techeles in your tzitzis. The conclusions of the dedicated, scholarly and earnest group behind the website Menachem links to are not universally accepted, though I have been told that no less an halachic authority than Rav Herschel Schachter does wear techeles, and it is hard to gainsay his halachic prowess. On the other hand, very few other rabbis of comparable seniority or stature do so, to my knowledge — so be sensitive to what your mentors have to say about the subject as well as your goals in terms of communal integration.
One more decision…
Techelet or Not
The verse two up from the one Ben quoted (15:38) says, “Speak to the Children of Israel and bid them that they make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (tekhelet).
For a wealth of information about Techelet see this web site. http://www.tekhelet.co.il/