The Source and Significance of the Mitzvah

The commandment to place tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of one’s garments is discussed twice in the Torah: once in the book of Bamidbar, at the conclusion of Parshat Shelach, and again in the book of Devarim, in Parshat Ki Teitzei.

The first time, we read:

The L‑rd spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them, that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see them, you will remember all the commandments of the L‑rd to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your G‑d. I am the Lord, your G‑d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d; I am the L‑rd, your G‑d.1

This quote forms the third section of the three-paragraph Shema recited numerous times daily.

The second scriptural source simply states:

You shall make for yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.2

According to the Talmud, “This mitzvah [of tzitzit] is commensurate to all mitzvot of the Torah,”3 and one who is meticulous in its observances merits “to greet the presence of Shechina”—the Divine presence.4

Why is this mitzvah held in such high regard?

In the wording of the Sefer Hachinuch (a classical 13th-century work enumerating the 613 mitzvot):

The root of the commandment is revealed in the verse: It is in order that we always remember all of the commandments of G‑d. There is no better reminder in the world than carrying the seal of the Master on the clothes that one wears at all times, as a person is [constantly attentive] to their clothes.5

Moreover, the Midrash points out that the numerical value of the word “tzitzit” is 600. Add the eight strings extending from each corner of the garment, and the five knots with which the eight strands are tied, for a total of 613—an allusion to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.6

The Nature of the Mitzvah

These verses leave much unclear, including a fundamental question about the very nature of the commandment: Is the obligation on the person or on the garment?

1) If the obligation is on each garment, chovat tallit, this would mean that the mitzvah is to affix tzitzit to any four-cornered garment in one’s possession, regardless of whether or not it is worn.

2) If the obligation is on the person, chovat gavra, a person must ensure that there are tzitzit attached to any four-cornered garment he wears. But if he has no intention of wearing the garment, there would be no obligation.

This fundamental difference is the subject of dispute among the rabbis, illustrated by the following anecdote recounted in the Talmud:

Rabba bar Huna visited the home of Rava bar Rav Nacḥman and saw that he was wearing a folded garment and had affixed threads to the corners of the fold. The garment became unfolded, and the strings that had been on the corner of the fold now came and settled near his head (Rava bar Rav Nacḥman’s), [i.e., in the middle of the garment, as the two sides of the cloak were in the front and back of Rava bar Rav Naḥman.]

Rabba bar Huna said to Rava bar Rav Naḥman: “This is not the corner of the garment that the Merciful One writes about in the Torah.” Rava bar Rav Naḥman went and threw it aside, covering himself with a different garment.

Rabba bar Huna said to Rava bar Rav Naḥman: “Do you believe that ritual fringes are an obligation incumbent upon the man? That is not so. Rather, it is an obligation that pertains to every garment that one owns. Therefore, go and affix ritual fringes to it properly.”7

Rava maintained that the obligation is on the person, therefore upon being informed that his tzitzit were not valid he simply removed the garment in question. Rabbah, on the other hand, maintained that tzitzit are an obligation on the garment even if the garment is not actually being worn. As such, it would be insufficient to simply remove the garment. One must also attach tzitzit in the correct manner.

The Blessing

Another ramification of this dispute pertains to the timing and language of the blessing recited upon the tzitzit. Is it recited at the time of attaching the tzitzit to the garment, or at the time of wearing the garment?

If the obligation is on the garment, then the mitzvah is fulfilled as soon as tzitzit are attached. Therefore, in line with the general rule that a blessing is made immediately prior to the performance of a mitzvah, one would make the blessing at the time of attaching the tzitzit.

If, however, the obligation is upon the person—who must see to it that any garment he wears (that meets certain requirements, some of which will be explained below,) has tzitzit attached—it would follow that no mitzvah is fulfilled at the time of attaching the tzitzit to the garment. The mitzvah is performed only when one actually wears the garment, and, as such, the blessing would be made at that time.8

Moreover, the words of the blessing would vary depending on the nature of the obligation. If the mitzvah is to affix tzitzit to the garment, the blessing would be, “...Who commanded us to make tzitzit”(i.e to attach the tzitzit to the garment). But if the mitzvah is to actually wear the tzitzit, the blessing is, “...Who commanded us to wrap ourselves with tzitzit.”

The Talmud writes that the blessing is “...Who commanded us to wrap ourselves with tzitzit.”9 This is cited by Tosafot,10 the Baal Halachot Gedolot11 (a halachic work from the period of the Geonim), and other authorities,12 as proof that according to Jewish law the mitzvah of tzitzit is an obligation upon the person (chovat gavra), i.e., any four-cornered garment worn must have tzitzit.

This is cemented by the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law) and subsequent halachic authorities, who conclude that no blessing is said at the time of attaching the tzitzit.13

A Non-Obligatory Mitzvah

Positive commandments can generally be divided into two categories: obligatory mitzvot—mitzvot chiyuviyot—and non-obligatory mitzvot—mitzvot kiyumiyot.

Obligatory mitzvot include tefillin, lulav, shofar et. al. For example, one must ensure that he has access to tefillin daily, a kosher lulav must be acquired for the holiday of Sukkot, etc.

On the other hand, mitzvot kiyumiyot refer to mitzvot which obligate a person only in certain situations. For example, living in a house obligates one to have a mezuzah, and if one has a usable roof, he or she is required to build a fence around it—maakeh.14

The mitzvah of tzitzit falls into the latter category. The Torah does not state that one must wear a four-cornered garment with tzitzit attached. Rather, if one wants to wear a four-cornered garment, tzitzit must be attached. If one has no four-cornered garment, there is no obligation to obtain one to be able to attach tzitzit.

Nonetheless, halachic authorities agree that since tzitzit are intended to be a constant reminder of the 613 mitzvot, even though there is no actual legal obligation, the spirit of the mitzvah would deem it appropriate for a person to obtain a four-cornered garment in order to wear tzitzit and utilize this important sign.15

The widespread custom today is that a tallit gadol—a large four-cornered garment known as a “prayer shawl”—is worn during morning prayers, while a tallit katan—literally a small tallit—is worn throughout the day

In a responsum from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to his son Rabbi Dovid, Rabbi Moshe agrees with his son that since it has become a universal custom to wear tzitzit throughout the day, it would be Biblically forbidden for a person to opt out.16

What Exactly is the Mitzvah?

In Parshat Ki Teitzei, the mitzvah is described as, “You shall make for yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”17 Exactly how many threads, or how they must be attached, is not explained, leading to dispute amongst the Talmudists. Beit Hillel maintains that three threads are attached, while according to Beit Shammai four threads are required.18 Although generally the halachah follows Beit Hillel, in this case, it follows Beit Shammai and four threads are attached to each corner. These four strands are then doubled over, giving the appearance of eight threads on each corner.19

The verses in Parshat Shelach add some detail, including that some of these threads are to be dyed techelet, which is understood to mean either the light blue of the sky on a clear day,20 or a darker blue similar to the color of the sky at twilight.21 The Rishonim disagreed about how many of the threads need to be dyed. Rashi,22 Tosafot,23 and many others24 maintain that two of the four threads should be dyed. According to Maimonides, it’s only half a thread, so that when doubled over one of the eight appears to be blue.25 The Raavad, however, stipulates that it should be a single, whole thread. The halachah follows the opinion of Rashi and Tosafot.26

According to most authorities, we no longer have access to the required dye.27 But is that a disqualifying omission? The halachic conclusion is that no, these two obligations are entirely independent of each other; even if one does not have the correct dye, one can (and must) fulfill the other details of the mitzvah of tzitzit.

How Many Corners?

The detailed paragraph describing the mitzvah of tzitzit makes no mention of the number of corners the garment must have, but the earlier verse explicitly states that the fringes are to be placed “on the four corners of your garment.”

There remains, however, a dispute among the rabbis of the Mishnaic period (the Tanaim) whether or not garments with more than four corners are obligated in tzitzit. Some argue that when the Torah says “four-cornered garments” it is understood to exclude those which have either more or fewer corners.28

Others, however, maintain that garments with more than four corners are indeed obligated; the mention of “four corners” only excludes garments which have fewer than four.

How do they reach that understanding? The phrase “which you cover yourself” is seemingly superfluous, but—explains the Talmud—this teaches us that even garments with more than four corners are obligated in tzitzit.29 According to this view, when the Torah states that one should affix the fringes on four corners, it means that one only affixes fringes on four out of the total number of corners. Maimonides and subsequent halachic authorities write that the tzitzit are to be placed on the four corners which are furthest from each other.30

Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (Tosafist, 1115 – 1198) and Rabbeinu Simcha (a German Tosafist) rule in accordance with those who opine that garments with more than four corners are not obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzit.31

The vast majority of halachic authorities (including Maimonides and the Code of Jewish Law), however, maintain that garments with more than four corners are indeed obligated in tzitzit.32

Nevertheless, many latter-day authorities, including the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe, 1745 – 1812), rule that it is appropriate to ensure that one’s tallit has four corners and no more, so as to be able to make a blessing and perform the mitzvah in a manner that satisfies all opinions.33

Which Materials are Obligated?

According to one opinion cited in the Talmud, only garments made from wool or linen are Biblically obligated to have tzitzit affixed, while all other materials are obligated only Rabbinically. In the laws of leprosy (tzaraat), the Torah exclusively discusses garments of wool or linen. The Talmud infers from this that whenever the Torah uses the word “garment” it refers only to wool or linen.34 Maimonides and the Code of Jewish Law support this view.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as “the Rema” (1530 – 1572), rules in accordance with the second opinion the Talmud cites,35 that all garments are biblically obligated, regardless of the material.36

Why does it matter? If only wool and linen are Biblically obligated, it would be proper to make an effort to wear specifically woolen tzitzit (we don’t wear linen tzitzit for reasons beyond the scope of this article), ensuring that the mitzvah is performed on a Biblical level.

Ashkenazic halachic authorities, including the Alter Rebbe, rule in accordance with the Rema (that all materials are Biblically obligated). Nevertheless, these authorities add that one who wants to observe the mitzvah in the ideal manner should be careful to wear woolen tzitzit, thus performing the mitzvah on a Biblical level according to all opinions.37 This is in fact the custom of many individuals and is the custom in Chabad.

Kavanah - Intent

Proper intent (kavanah), being conscious that a commandment of G‑d is being performed,38 is halachically required whilst performing a mitzvah.

This principle applies to all mitzvahs and is—generally speaking—the only intent necessary. There is no halachic requirement to meditate or even be conscious of the mitzvah’s significance. For example, there is no requirement to contemplate the fact that the four species we shake on Sukkot represent the unity of the Jewish people.

The mitzvah of tzitzit is an exception to this rule. Both the Tur (Yaakov ben Asher 1270 – 1340, known as “Tur” after his work Arba'ah Turim) and the Code of Jewish Law rule that when donning a tallit (or tzitzit), one is required to bear in mind the purpose of this mitzvah—that the stringsserve as constant reminders of the rest of the mitzvot.39

Why is tzitzit different in this regard?

Many Achronim (latter-day authorities), most notably Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640, known as “the Bach” after his work Bayit Chadash), explain the rulings of the Tur and Shulchan Aruch as follows: Since, unlike other mitzvot, the purpose of tzitzit is explicitly stated in the Torah, “So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments,” there is the extra requirement to actually have that in mind.40

A number of halachic authorities maintain that although ideally it is required to bear the reasoning in mind, one who forgets does not invalidate the mitzvah.41 Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (1798 – 1871, known as “Aruch la-Ner” after his work by that name), on the other hand, implies that not having the proper intent would in fact invalidate the mitzvah.42

The halachah—as implied by the language of the Code of Jewish Law and subsequent halachic authorities including the Alter Rebbe—is that although one is required to bear the reasoning for this mitzvah in mind, failing to do so would not invalidate it.43

When is One Obligated?

As explained, the purpose of tzitzit is, “When you see them, you will remember all the commandments of the L‑rd to perform them.”44 According to Rabbi Shimon, the words “when you see them” indicate that garments which cannot be seen, i.e., night clothes, are exempt.45 The Rabonon (the other rabbis), however, disagree and maintain that nightwear—even if it cannot be seen while being worn—is included in the mitzvah.46

(Interestingly, even Rabbi Shimon concedes that a visually impaired person would be obligated, for although he himself may not be able to see the tzitzit, other people can, and the words “when you see them” therefore do still apply in some sense.)47

The halachah follows Rabbi Shimon, but there is some disagreement as to exactly how the exemption works.

According to Maimonides, the determining factor is the time of day. One must ensure that any four-cornered garment worn during daylight hours has tzitzit attached. At night, however, no such obligation exists.48

Rabbeinu Asher (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, 1250 – 1327, known by the acronym "Rosh"), however, argues that the determining factor is whether the garment is designed for day use or night use. If a garment is designed for day use, one must ensure that tzitzit are attached even if he chooses to wear the garment at night. Likewise, if a garment is designed for nighttime use, one is permitted to wear it even during the day without attaching tzitzit.49

How does this play out? Scenarios include:

1) Sleeping with tzitzit: There is a custom, primarily based on Kabbalistic sources, to wear tzitzit throughout the night .50 According to Maimonides, one who wears tzitzit throughout the night is required to recite a blessing in the morning—even if he is wearing the exact pair of tzitzit he wore the previous day and had already made a blessing on them then—since there was a period of time during which he was exempt from the mitzvah, necessitating a new blessing. However, according to Rabbeinu Asher, one would not be able to make a new blessing on these tzitzit, since he had been fulfilling an obligation the entire time.

2) Yom Kippur night: The custom is to wear a tallit during the nighttime service. According to Maimonides, one would not be performing a mitzvah at that time, since one is exempt at night. This would also mean that a person would not be able to make a blessing on the tallit unless he makes sure to don it before sunset. But according to Rabbeinu Asher, because the tallit is a daytime garment, the blessing is recited.

The final halachah remains undecided, so we act stringently, in accordance with both views. For the two cases above, we follow a general rule: In any situation where there is doubt whether or not one is obligated to recite a blessing, the blessing is omitted (safek brachot lekula). It follows, therefore, that in the case of one who sleeps with tzitzit, an additional blessing is not recited if he has already recited a blessing on this pair the day before. It is therefore advisable that one don a fresh pair of tzitzit and make a blessing on those. (One who wears a tallit gadol does not need to don a new pair, as the blessing made on a tallit gadol before morning prayers exempts any other garments he is wearing at the same time.)51

Similarly, we do not make a blessing on the tallit on Yom Kippur at night, rather, we don the tallit before sunset, making the blessing during daylight hours, in order to satisfy Maimonides’ ruling.52

Are Women Obligated?

The dispute between Rabbi Shimon and the other rabbis regarding the timing of this obligation leads directly to the question of whether or not women are mandated in the mitzvah.

Overall (although there are a number of exceptions), women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot.53

As such, if nighttime is included in the obligation—in accordance with the opinion of the other rabbis—there would be no reason to exempt women. But if nighttime exempts one from the mitzvah of tzitzit—in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, as is in fact the halachah—then women are indeed exempt.

Although not obligated, women are permitted to wear tzitzit, and according to Ashkenazic custom a blessing would be required. This follows the general rule that women are able to perform any mitzvah, even those from which they are exempt, and receive reward for doing so.54

In practice, women generally do not wear tzitzit, even though they are careful to perform other mitzvot in which they are not obligated, such as lulav and shofar. A number of rationales have been offered to explain why tzitzit is different in this regard, including:

1) When the Torah prohibits crossdressing, Targum Yonatan translates the verse to refer to tzitzit and tefillin. In his view, there would be a negative prohibition for a woman to wear tzitzit, since it is a uniquely male garment by virtue of the fact that only men are obligated.55 (It must be noted that this view is not reflected in established halachah, and a woman who chooses to wear tzitzit does not transgress the negative prohibition of wearing a man’s clothing.)

2) As mentioned above, even men are not actually required to wear tzitzit; rather, if they have a four cornered garment, tzitzit must be affixed. This being the case, for women to go out of their way to observe this mitzvah may be considered drawing attention to their extreme piety. This is in contrast to shofar, lulav,and the like, which are absolute obligations for men. As such, it would not be seen as pretentious for one who is not obligated to do them as well.56

Are Children Obligated?

On a Biblical level, children are exempt from performing mitzvot before reaching bar or bat mitzvah.57 On a rabbinic level, however, children are required to observe mitzvot from a younger age. This is known as the mitzvah of chinuch (education), which obligates a father to educate his children to be properly acquainted with the details of the mitzvot and to be in the habit of performing them. The age at which this obligation begins varies from mitzvah to mitzvah and in certain instances from child to child. Generally, a child becomes obligated in positive mitzvot at the age that he or she is capable of performing the particular mitzvah in its proper manner.58

With regard to this mitzvah, we know that even an adult is technically under no obligation to don tzitzit. It would therefore follow that a father, too, would not be required to buy his child tzitzit; the obligation of chinuch would apply only if his child happened to own a four-cornered garment.59

In fact, this is exactly what we find in the Babylonian Talmud, where it states that a child who is capable of wrapping himself in tzitzit is obligated in the mitzvah.60 The Talmud does not say that his father is obligated to buy him tzitzit. Many commentaries understand this in light of what was explained above: there can be no obligation on a father to buy his son tzitzit if even an adult is not obligated to do so.61

On the other hand, there is a version of the Jerusalem Talmud which maintains that the father is obligated to buy his son tzitzit.62 Interestingly, both the Tur and the Code of Jewish Law rule in accordance with the Jerusalem Talmud, that a father is obligated to buy his son tzitzit.63 This is difficult to understand, because:

1) In most cases of dispute between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, the halachah follows the Babylonian Talmud. Why in this case different?

2) What, in fact, is the rationale for this ruling, when even an adult is not obligated to acquire tzitzit?

A number of latter-day halachic authorities explain that there is in fact no dispute. Both Talmuds agree that there is no absolute obligation to obtain tzitzit for one’s son. When the Tur and Code of Jewish Law rule (in accordance with the Jerusalem Talmud) that a father is obligated to buy his son tzitzit, what they mean is that a child is to be educated to perform mitzvot in the same manner as adults. Since it is appropriate for adults to wear tzitzit constantly, a child should also perform the mitzvah in this manner.64

As mentioned, the age of obligation for a child is the age at which he knows how to wrap himself in tzitzit. This does not simply mean the age at which he can don the garment, rather it is the age at which he is able to ensure that two of the corners are at the front and two are at the back. He must also be able to hold them at the time of saying Kriyat Shema.65 Although one can technically perform the mitzvah without holding the strings during the Shema, the father is only obligated to educate the child when he knows how to perform the mitzvah in the proper manner.

An illustrative example is the mitzvah of lulav. Although one technically fulfils the mitzvah merely by holding all four species together, according to the Code of Jewish Law a father is only obligated to teach his son when the child is able to complete the maneuvers correctly.66

Halachic authorities disagree on when exactly most children reach this stage. Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Yosef of Corbeil67 says age six or seven, depending on the intellectual maturity of the child. The Magen Avraham, on the other hand, writes that the child would not be obligated until age nine or so.68

The Alter Rebbe seems to have changed his mind, first ruling in accordance with the Magen Avraham, writing in his Code of Jewish Law that a child is obligated at the age of nine.69 But in his Siddur, which he compiled later, he rules in accordance with Rabbi Yitzchak of Corbeil, that a child is obligated at the age of six.70

Notwithstanding the lack of a legal requirement, the widespread custom is for a child to begin wearing tzitzit at the latest at age three, around the time he starts speaking.71

Why No Tekhelet in Contemporary Times?

Today, our tzitzit look significantly different from what the Torah verse describes because of one vital missing element: the blue dye. The tradition regarding the source for this dye has been lost, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that there is in fact a deeper explanation which can serve as a lesson in our day-to-day lives.

The Rebbe refers to a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in which he explains that the blue threads of the tzitzit allude to service of G‑d performed out of reverence for Him. In Kabbalah, the color blue corresponds to the attribute of Gevurah (severity), which refers to the idea of desisting from sin. White, on the other hand, refers to Chesed (kindness). The white threads therefore allude to the service of G‑d performed out of love.72

The Rebbe explains that not being able to include the blue threads teaches us that today, when we are so close to the time of the final redemption, the emphasis must be on serving G‑d with love. Severity takes a back seat.73