"Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments… And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of G‑d, and perform them" (Numbers 15:38-39).
Most people don't think of Judaism as a fringe religion. Yet that's our uniform and badge of honor, our everyday reminder of who we are and what we're here for—four tassels hanging from the fringes of our clothes.
In ancient times, we would hang the tassels from the fringes of the four-cornered cloaks that were part of people's everyday wardrobe. Today, Jewish men and boys have two ways to do this mitzvah every day:
a) During prayer, wrap yourself in a tallit gadol (literally: big cloak). This is the large sheet-like fringed prayer shawl worn during the morning prayers.
b) Wear a little poncho called a tallit katan (literally: small cloak). For most of us, it fits neatly under the shirt.
The fringe tassels themselves are called tzitzit. Their strings and knots are a physical representation of the Torah's 613 do's and don'ts. It works like this: Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. The numerical values of the five letters that comprise the Hebrew word tzitzit add up to 600. Add the eight strings and five knots of each tassel, and the total is 613.
Wearing tzitzit is a sign of Jewish pride. Jews have always had a way of dress to distinguish them from the people of the lands in which they lived—even when that meant exposing themselves to danger and bigotry. By the grace of G‑d, today most of us live in lands where we are free to practice our religion without such fears. Today we wear our Jewish uniform with pride and with our head's held high.
Kabbalah teaches that the tallit garment is a metaphor for G‑d's infinite transcendent light. The fringes allude to the immanent divine light which permeates every element of creation. By wearing a tallit gadol or a tallit katan, a Jew synthesizes these two elements and makes them real in his life.