What Does Tzitzit Mean?

The word tzitzit is literally defined as “fringes,” and refers to the strings attached to the corners of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. It also refers to the poncho-like mini-tallit that is worn throughout the day, often under a shirt. Here’s how the mini-tallit came to be.

Tzitzit: The Mini-Tallit

G‑d commanded the Jewish people to affix fringes to the corners of their clothing so that they would constantly remember Him and His commandments.1 At that time, the common garment was a simple sheet of cloth, and the mitzvah was to affix fringes to each of its four corners. But styles changed over the centuries, and the simple garments of biblical times were replaced with robes, jackets, trousers and shirts. What would happen to the tallit? Jewish men then began to fulfill the mitzvah in the following two ways:

a) During prayer, we drape ourselves in a tallit gadol (“big tallit”), which has essentially remained the same since ancient times. (Read about the Tallit here.)

b) We wear a little poncho called a tzitizit, tallit katan (“small tallit”), or arba kanfot (“four corners”). For most of us, it fits neatly under a shirt.

Tzitzit: The Tassles

The fringes attached to the tallit of either size are called tzitzit. They are almost always made of white wool, and must be spun with the sacred intention that they be used for the mitzvah. So if you need to replace a snapped thread, make sure that you purchase special tzitzit threads.

On each corner, four threads are threaded through a hole and looped over, so that there are eight strings hanging down. A series of double knots and coils then join the first few inches of each corner’s tassel into a single cord. The remainder of the eight threads are then free to hang down.

What the Tzitzit Mean

The eight strings and five knots are a physical representation of the Torah's 613 mitzvahs. It works like this: Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value (gematria). 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.

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