Mitzvos on the Fringe

Just as the Torah carefully directs us in the arena of kosher diet, what we can and cannot eat, how food may and may not be prepared, and what foods are considered required eating, similarly, the Torah provides us with a kosher dress code regarding the clothing we wear, what fabrics or combination thereof may or may not be used, how clothing should or should not be worn, and what styles of clothing are recommended. One of the Torah‘s great “how to” mitzvos is the mitzvah of tzitzis. The Torah instructs us to insert specially wound fringes onto the corners of any four cornered garments where the corners surround the wearer.

Tzitzis is one of the Torah‘s great mitzvah facilitators. The Torah tells us that when a person sees his tzitzis his mind’s eye perceives far more than strings and knots. Through seeing one’s tzitzis a person perceives and remembers all Hashem‘s mitzvos and is motivated to mitzvah performance.

According to Torah law one is not obligated to actively wear a tzitzis garment daily. However, since the rewards and dividends for one who observes this mitzvah are so great, it has become the practice among Orthodox Jewish men everywhere to make sure to wear a garment which requires tzitzis. This custom of wearing tzitzis was so widely accepted that our Rabbis frowned upon the person who did not take advantage of performing this great mitzvah.

The Torah uses the words, “and you should see them,” as a descriptive phrase concerning tzitzis. Our Rabbis teach us that this positive commandment has a daytime requisite. According to some opinions, the mitzvah of tzitzis only applies during the day. According to others, it applies to a daytime garment even when worn at night.1 Since this is a time restricted positive commandment, only men are obligated to fulfill this mitzvah. It is the custom to teach little boys to wear tzitzis from the time they are three years old, as long as they are toilet-trained, so that they too become participants in this important commandment.

It is imperative that all aspects of tzitzis making meticulously follow the prescribed halachic directions of the Shulchan Aruch. If not, the tzitzis may be posul, unkosher, and the garment unfit for use. Wearing posul tzitzis creates numerous negative repercussions: 1) A Torah law has been violated by wearing a garment without tzitzis, 2) A person is making a blessing in vain over a non-tzitzis garment, 3) A person may be violating the laws of Shabbos by wearing non-functional extra fringes, which would be considered carrying.

There are three major areas of concern regarding kosher tzitzis: 1) the beged (garment), 2) the tzitzis (strings) 3) the proper manner of combining the tzitzis onto the beged.

The garment’s fabric must be made of woven material. A plastic poncho-style raincoat or a four cornered leather vest would not require tzitzis because the material is not woven. Also, it is the opinion of a leading Torah authority that garments woven with synthetic fibers do not require tzitzis. This means that a polyester or rayon garment does not require tzitzis. What about a wool-rayon blend, which is a blend of natural and synthetic fibers? The criteria for determining tzitzis obligation is which of the two fabrics covers the majority of fabric area. If, for example, the fabric is a 50-50 blend of natural and synthetic fibers, but the synthetic thread is thicker than the natural, then the garment would not require tzitzis. Wearing an Arba Kanfos (beged with tzitzis) made of synthetic fabric would present the problems stated earlier: 1) non-fulfillment of the mitzvah, 2) uttering a blessing in vain, 3) carrying on Shabbos.

The four corners of the garment must be well defined; there may not be any other fringes protruding from the corners of the garment. This problem can arise when the ornamental pom-poms extend all the way down to the edges of the tallis. If this is the case, the excess ornamentation must be removed before the tzitzis are inserted into the garment; the corners cannot be edged ex post facto, i.e. after the tzitzis are attached.

There are different views amongst halachic authorities regarding the minimum size of the beged. A beged‘s measurements are taken from corner to corner width-wise, and from the collar to the bottom edge lengthwise. According to most halachic authorities, these point to point measurements can range from 17 inches by 17 inches to 24 inches by 24 inches. Furthermore, sizes are not absolute. The 17″ to 24″ range is given for men of average height. Obviously, the size of the garment varies with a person whose height and girth is outside the parameters of average. Similarly, the size of a child’s Arba Kanfos is determined proportionally to the father’s standard. For example, if a person is 70″ tall and wears a beged that is 24″ x 24″, if he has a 50″ son he should wear an Arba Kanfos of proportional size, namely, 17″ x 17″. If the father follows the 17″ opinion, then his 50″ son should wear a 12 1/4tallis koton. Bear in mind, that as children grow, so should the tzitzis. Therefore, with growth spurts, new begadim should be bought if the beged is not large enough.

Where along the corner of the garment must the hole through which the tzitzis are inserted be made? To be considered within the parameters of the corner, the hole must be made somewhere between 1.3 inches to 2.65 inches from the corner of the beged. The measurements are made vertically and horizontally from the edge of the garment to the point of intersection. Measurements are not made diagonally. All holes must fall within these measurements. If one of the holes is outside these limits and the tzitzis were made, the tallis or tallis koton would not be considered kosher.

Before the tzitzis can be inserted, the garment must be fully prepared to receive tzitzis. Fully prepared means that the garments, holes, and measurements must be completed prior to tzitzis insertion. That means that tzitzis cannot be placed on a circular piece of material, then cut around to make four corners to create a completed garment.

If the tzitzis have already been made properly, but the tallis is torn or the corners ripped, as long as the material is still hanging together, albeit by a thread, the beged can be repaired. What happens if the garment ripped or the corner tore, or a string of the tzitzis snapped? If one string snapped the tzitzis is still kosher; if two snapped a sheila should be asked. To prevent unraveling, tzitzis may be knotted at the ends of the strings.

Of all the areas of concern, the aspect of greatest importance is that tzitzis must be made lishma, i.e. with the intention of being made for the sake of the mitzvah. This concept of lishma pertains to the tzitzis at crucial stages of construction, manufacturing the strings and inserting the strings into the holes of the beged, when they are to be wound into tzitzis. When a person makes the tzitzis he should say, “L’shem Mitzvas Tzitzis.” (I am putting these tzitzis into this garment for the sake of the commandment of tzitzis.)

This article gives the reader only a brief overview of the halachos of tzitzis, but does not cover many detailed aspects. For more details of this important mitzvah, see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Chapters 8-24.

1. For Kol Nidrei services we wear a tallis at night based on this opinion.