Most people don’t think of Judaism as a fringe religion. Yet that’s our uniform. Under their shirts, Jewish men and boys wear a poncho called a tallit katan (literally: small cloak), with fringes hanging from each corner, just as the Torah prescribes (Numbers 15:37–40), “They shall make fringes on the corners of their garments . . .”

These fringes, called tzitzit, are coiled and knotted to remind us of all the mitzvot. The numerical values of the letters that comprise the Hebrew word tzitzit add up to 600. Add the eight strings and five knots of each tzitzit, and the total is 613. Now you understand why it’s customary to let the tzitzit hang out at the waist, in plain eyesight. Having a tangible reminder of the 613 mitzvot, in turn, strengthens our mastery over the temptations of the heart.

These fringes are coiled and knotted to remind us of all the mitzvotOnly garments with four (or more) corners require tzitzit, and few garments today (other than ponchos) are four-cornered, so we wear a special four-cornered tallit just so we can perform this mitzvah. During the morning prayers, men don a tallit gadol—a larger version of the tallit katan.

Traditionally, young boys begin wearing a tallit katan at the age of three.

Technically, tzitzit is a daytime mitzvah. According to the Kabbalah, however, tzitzit should be worn even while sleeping at night.

Donning a Tallit Katan:

Inspect the tzitzit every day and disentangle them. If they become shortened or torn, show them to a rabbi to ascertain whether they are still kosher.

Before donning the tallit katan, say:

Blessed are you, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the mitzvah of tzitzit.