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Why Must a Tallit Have Four Fringed Corners?

Why Must a Tallit Have Four Fringed Corners?

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The simplest answer is that the verse states, “You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”1

But why four?

Tallit and the Exodus

Immediately following the commandment of the tallit, the Torah states, “I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d . . . ,”2 thereby linking this mitzvah to the Exodus.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) quotes a teaching3 that the corners of the tallit are alluded to in a verse describing the Exodus: “I carried you on the wings (כַּנְפֵי) of eagles.”4 The word kanaf, “wing,” can also mean “corner.” As for why there are specifically four corners, Rashi goes on to explain that they correspond to the four expressions of redemption associated with the Exodus: “I will take you out . . . I will save you . . . I will redeem you . . . I will take you . . .”5

But what does the tallit have to do with the Exodus?

Tallit Equal to All the Mitzvahs

The Torah tells us that the purpose of the tallit is to remind us of all the mitzvahs.6 The Midrash shares a fascinating insight into why this is so. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. The numerical values of the five letters that comprise the Hebrew word tzitzit (the tassels on the corners of the tallit) add up to 600:

‮09 = צ‭‭
‮01 = י‭‭
‮09 = צ‭‭
‮01 = י‭‭
‮004 = ת‭‭

Add the eight strings and five knots of each tassel, and the total is 613, the exact number of mitzvahs there are in the Torah.7

Additionally, our sages tell us that affixing and wearing tzitzit on the tallit is equal, in a certain sense, to all of the mitzvahs of the Torah (similar to what is said regarding idolatry and Shabbat).8

G‑d introduced the Ten Commandments (and by extension, all of the commandments) with the words "I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, who took you out of the land of Egypt.”9 G‑d is not some distant creator of the universe who is giving us commands. Rather, He gives us the mitzvahs as our personal and caring G‑d, the G‑d who took us out of Egyptian bondage and claimed us as His nation.10 Furthermore, G‑d is telling us that our bond is a supra-natural bond, forged by the miracles He performed for us in Egypt.11

It is for this reason that a tallit must have four corners, corresponding to the four promises of Exodus. As a representative of the 613 mitzvahs, the tallit is inherently connected to the Exodus that gave birth to all the mitzvahs.

Tallit and the Supernal Chariot

On a more mystical plane, Tikkunei Zohar explains at length that the four tassels of the tallit correspond to the four “beasts” that carry the supernal chariot described by the prophet Ezekiel.12 By fulfilling this mitzvah, we are building a throne for G‑d, as it were.13

Tallit and the Final Redemption

The four corners of the tallit don’t connect us just to our past redemption, but to our future redemption as well. In the messianic era G‑d will gather us from the “four corners (kanfot) of the world,”14 corresponding to the four corners of the tallit.15

May this be speedily in our days!



Footnotes
2.
Numbers 15:41; see also Sifri ad loc.
3.
Many say that this teaching comes from Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, whom Rashi mentions earlier.
7.
Bamidbar Rabbah 18:21.
8.
See Rashi on Numbers 15:41, and Likkutei Sichot, vol. 8, pp. 98–99.
10.
For more on this, see Making Judaism Relevant.
11.
For more on this, see The Miracle that is Israel.
12.
See Ezekiel, ch. 1.
13.
Tikkunei Zohar, Tikun 10. See also commentary of Rabbeinu Bechayei on Numbers 15:38.
15.
See Mishnat R. Eliezer, ch. 14.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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fro July 1, 2015

The most profound explanation here i found is in the 4 expressions of redemption : "I take you out..I save you...I redeem you....I take you." Thank you for the explanation. Reply

Alex Florida September 22, 2017
in response to fro :

Fro from Jacaranda? Reply

Anonymous June 12, 2015

Well put! Thanks for posting! Reply

M. S. Fenton NJ June 9, 2015

The last paragraph Gather us from the four corners...the four points of the compass...this is what I learned in Hebrew School. One can find lists of four in many places and spin them to fit the situation. Then we play with numbers, starting with the result we want...613...and we come up with a calculation that fits. I'm shaking my head in frustration with explanations for things that sound more like something out of a "penny dreadful" than an intelligent discourse on religious custom. The simplest answer is usually the correct one...but not here,eh? Reply

This is no fringe mitzvah! The tallit and tzitzit serves as constant reminders of our obligations to G-d and our fellows.

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