Halakhic texts relating to this article
Torah: Numbers 15:38
and Deuteronomy 22:12
Babylonian Talmud: Menachos 39-42
Mishneh Torah: Ahavah (Love): Tzitzit
Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chayim 8-25

Tzitzit [tsiˈtsit] (Hebrew: ציצית, Modern tsitsit, Tiberian sˤisˤiṯ; plural tsitsiyot) are specially knotted ritual fringes, or tassels, worn in antiquity by Israelites and today by observant Jews and Samaritans. Tzitzit are attached to the four corners of the tallit (prayer shawl) and tallit katan (everyday undergarment).

Other pronunciations include Biblical and Middle Eastern (i.e., Mizrachi): ṣiṣit (pl. Ṣiṣiyot), Spanish and Mediterranean (i.e., Sephardic): tzitzit; European and Yiddish (i.e., Ashkenazi): tzitzis; Yemenite (i.e., Temani): ṣiṣith; Samaritan: ṣeṣet.


The word may derive from the semitic root N-TZ-H.[1] The ending -it is the feminine adjectival suffix, used here to form a feminine singular noun. N-TZ-H comes from the root word for "flower" and originally meant a "tassel" or "lock," as in the Book of Ezekiel where Ezekiel is picked up by an angel and carried by a "lock" (Hebrew tzitzit) of hair. In English-language academic texts on Judaica the term is sometimes rendered "show-fringes."[2] In the Hebrew Bible the use is singular, but the feminine plural tzitziyot is found in later texts. The Septuagint translation is "tassels" (Greek plural kraspeda κράσπεδα, from kraspedon κράσπεδον singular).

Biblical origin

The Torah states in Numbers 15:38: "Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner tassel a blue-violet (Tekhelet) thread." Wearing the Tzitzit is also commanded in Deuteronomy 22:12: "You shall make yourself twisted cords, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself."

Tassels, Tzitziyot, today are attached to the Tallit and Tallit katan. The Tallit katan itself is commonly referred to as Tzitzit. According to the Torah, the purpose of wearing Tzitzit is to remind Jews of their religious obligations. In addition, it serves as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt (Numbers 15:40). The Talmud equates its observance with that of all the Mitzvot. Maimonides (Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:1) includes it as a major commandment along with circumcision and the Passover offering.

The blue thread is omitted by most Rabbinic Jews due to controversy over the dye-making process (see Tekhelet).

Kil'ayim permissive

Main articles: shatnez and Kil'ayim (prohibition)

Torah law forbids Kil'ayim (Sha`aṭnez) - "intertying" wool and linen together. Rabbinic Judaism, but not Karaite Judaism (or the non-Jewish Samaritans), makes an exemption to this law, the two exceptions being garments of kohanim and Tzitzit. Concerning Tzitzit, Chazal (the Rabbinic sages) permit using wool and linen strings in tandem only when what they hold to be genuine Tekhelet (extracted from a marine creature known as the Ḥillazon) is available, whereas Kabbalist sources take it a step further by encouraging its practice.[3]

Threads and knots

The tassel (tzitzit) on each corner is made of four strands, which must be made with intent. These strands are then threaded and hang down, appearing to be eight. (It is customary that each of the four strands is made of eight fine threads, known as kaful shemoneh). The four strands are passed through a hole (or according to some: two holes) 1-2 inches (25 to 50 mm) away from the corner of the cloth. There are numerous customs as to how to tie the tassels. The Talmud explains that the Bible requires an upper knot (kesher elyon) and one wrapping of three winds (hulya). The Talmud enjoined that between 7 and 13 hulyot be tied, and that "one must start and end with the color of the garment." As for the making of knots in between the hulyot, the Talmud is inconclusive, and as such poskim ("decisors of Jewish law") have interpreted this requirement in various ways.[4] The Talmud described tying assuming the use of tekhelet dye, however, following the loss of the source of the dye, various customs of tying were introduced to compensate for the lack of this primary element.

Though many methods exist, the one that gained the widest acceptance can be described as follows:

The four strands of the tzitzit are passed through holes near the four corners of the garment (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 11:9-11:15) that are farthest apart (10:1). Four tzitzyot are passed through each hole (11:12-13), and the two groups of four ends are double-knotted to each other at the edge of the garment near the hole (11:14,15). One of the four tzitzit is made longer than the others (11:4); the long end of that one is wound around the other seven ends and double-knotted; this is done repeatedly so as to make a total of five double knots separated by four sections of winding, with a total length of at least four inches, leaving free-hanging ends that are twice that long (11:14).[5]

Before tying begins, declaration of intent is recited: L'Shem Mitzvat Tzitzit ("for the sake of the commandment of tzitzit").

Blue and white tzitzit knotted in the Sephardi style, the all white is Ashkenazi. Note the difference between the 7-8-11-13 scheme and uninterrupted windings (between the knots) on the Ashkenazi, vs. the 10-5-6-5 scheme and ridged winding on the Sfaradi tzitzit.

The two sets of strands are knotted together twice, and then the shamash (a longer strand) is wound around the remaining seven strands a number of times (see below). The two sets are then knotted again twice. This procedure is repeated three times, such that there are a total of five knots, the four intervening spaces being taken up by windings numbering 7-8-11-13, respectively. The total number of winds comes to 39, which is the same number of winds if one were to tie according to the Talmud's instruction of 13 hulyot of 3 winds each. Furthermore, the number 39 is found to be significant in that it is the gematria (numerical equivalent) of the words: "The Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Others, especially Sephardi Jews, use 10-5-6-5 as the number of windings, a combination that represents directly the spelling of the Tetragrammaton (one of God's names).

Rashi, a prominent Jewish commentator, bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (in its Mishnaic spelling) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totalling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613, traditionally the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzyot reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments. (Rashi knots are worn by the majority of Ashkenazic- Eastern European- Jews)

Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi, pointing out that the Biblical spelling of the word tzitzit has only one yod rather than two (giving it a gematria of 590 plus 13), thus adding up to the total number of 603 rather than 613. He points out that in the Biblical quote "you shall see it and remember them", the singular form "it" can refer only to the "p'til" ("thread") of tekhelet. The tekhelet strand serves this purpose, explains the Talmud, for the blue color of tekhelet resembles the ocean, which in turn resembles the sky, which in turn is said to resemble God's holy throne - thus reminding all of the divine mission to fulfill His commandments. (Ramban(Nachmanides) knots are worn by the majority of Sephardic (Western European) Jews and Teimani (Yemenite) Jews)

Color of the strings

Traditional tzitzit


Main article: Tekhelet
A set of tzitzyot with blue tekhelet thread

Tekhelet (תכלת) is a color dye which the Hebrew Bible commands the Jews to use for one, two, or four of the eight half-strings hanging down (as interpreted in Rabbinic Judaism), or a number of cords ranging from one up to the same amount of threads as the non-Tekhelet threads (according to opinions in Karaite Judaism). At some point following the destruction of the Second Temple, the knowledge and tradition about the correct method of the dye was lost for Rabbinic Judaism in Israel and since then, most Rabbinic diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews as well have worn plain white Tzitziyot without any dyes.[6] Tekhelet, which appears 48 times in the Tanakh - translated by the Greek Old Testament ('Septuagint') as iakinthinos (Greek: ὑακίνθινος, blue) - is a specific blue-violet dye produced, according to the Rabbis, from a creature referred to as a Ḥillazon, other blue dyes being unacceptable. Some explain the black stripes found on many traditional prayer shawls as representing the loss of this dye.

Now, while there is no prohibition on wearing blue dye from another source, the rabbis maintain that other kinds of Tekhelet do not fulfill the Mitzvah of Tekhelet, and thus all the strings have been traditionally kept un-dyed (i.e., white) for many centuries. In recent times, with the (debated) re-discovery of the Ḥillazon in the Murex Trunculus mollusk,[7] some have noted that one cannot fulfill the Mitzvah of Tzitzit without the Tekhelet strand.[8] This position, however, has been strongly disputed.[9]

When Tekhelet is used, there are varying opinions in Rabbinic literature as to how many of the strands are to be dyed: one of eight (Rambam), two of eight (Raavad), four of eight (Tosafot). While the white threads are to be made of the material of the garment, Rabbinic law instructs that the Tekhelet-dyed thread must be made of wool.

According to several Rabbinic sages, blue is the color of God’s Glory.[4] Staring at this color aids in meditation, bringing us a glimpse of the “pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity,” which is a likeness of the Throne of God.[5] Many items in the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, such as the Menorah, many of the vessels, and the Ark of the Covenant, were covered with a blue-violet cloth when transported from place to place.[6]

Yemenite tzitzit, based on Maimonides' prescription

The other threads

The other threads in the tzitzit (all the threads, where tekhelet is not used) are described as "white". This may be interpreted either literally (by Rama) or as meaning the same colour as the main garment (Rambam). Normally, the garment itself is white so that the divergence does not arise.

Similarly the threads may be made either of wool or of the same fabric as the garment; again many authorities recommend using a woollen garment so that all views are satisfied.

Karaite tzitzit

A Karaite pair of tzitziyot

The Karaite Jews maintain that the Tzitziyot must be braided and have the appearance of chains, rather than being knotted as are the Tzitziyot of Rabbinic Judaism.[10]

Karaites Tzitziyot have blue-violet threads (Tekhelet) in them. In contrast to Rabbinic Jews, Karaites believe that the Tekhelet source can be any dye, except those produced from impure (a definition mostly overlapping "un-Kosher",or "Treif") marine species such as molluscs which would be prohibited by the Torah, proposing instead that the source of the dye was indigo or woad (the "Asp of Jerusalem" plant Isatis tinctoria, used as a fast dye in Ancient Egypt).[11][12] Karaites also consider synthetic blue or blue-violet to be acceptable for Tekhelet. Contrary to some claims, Karaites do not hang Tzitziyot on their walls.[13]

Samaritan tzitzit

The Samaritans are a mixed ethnoreligious group descendant from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levi of the northern Kingdom of Samaria and various other ethnic groups. They are a community of about 780 who are divided between Holon, Israel and Mount Gerizim outside of Shekhem (Nablus) in Samaria. They retain the Samaritan Pentateuch in a variation of Paleo Hebrew and maintain their own traditions. Their numbers fell to only 146 Samaritans in 1917 and over time some Samaritan traditions had been lost.

The Samaritans consider the 22 "buttons" on the right lapel of the gown they wear over their clothes during most holy days (considered the Samaritan Tallit) and the corresponding loops on its left lapel as their Tzitzit. The Tzitziyot are always in the same color as the gown, which is usually white. Another version of Samaritan Tzitzit is the simple fringes on the sides of the very large white Tallit worn by the priests when carrying a Torah scroll.

Similarly to most Orthodox Rabbinic Jews, the Samaritans hold that the blue-violet Tekhelet thread for their Tzitziyot was produced from a specific dye and claim that the tradition for producing it was lost

Contrary to some rumors, the Samaritans do not use either Rabbinic or Karaite Tziziyot.

In archaeology and secular scholarship

According to the modern documentary hypothesis, the reference to tzitzit in Numbers comes from the Priestly Code, while that from Deuteronomy comes from the Deuteronomic Code and hence they date to around the late 8th century BCE and late 7th century BCE respectively, some time after the practice began to be in use.[14] The custom however, clearly predates these codes, and was not limited to Israel; images of the custom have been found on several ancient Near East inscriptions in contexts suggesting that it was practiced across the Near East.[15] Some scholars believe that the practice among ancients originated due to the wearing of animal skins, which have legs at each corner, and that later fabrics symbolized the presence of such legs, first by the use of amulets, and later by tzitzit.[15]

See also


  1. Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
  2. A Theological Commentary to the Midrash: Song of Songs Rabbah - Page 243 Jacob Neusner - 2001 "The religious duties beautify Israel, now with reference to not shaving, circumcision, and show-fringes. ... The religious duties embody God's love for Israel: show-fringes, phylacteries, Shema', Prayer; then tabernacle, "
  4. Diagrams, Videos, & Explanations of Tying Methods
  5. Rav's Beautiful Ratio: An Excursion into Aesthetics, Mois Navon, B'Or Ha'Torah, Vol. 19, 2009
  6. On History, Mesora and Nignaz, Mois Navon, Threads Of Reason, 2013
  7. Threads of Reason, Mois Navon, Threads Of Reason, 2013
  8. Tekhelet in Tzitzit: A Choice Mitzvah or an Absolute Obligation R. Shmuel Ariel, Techumin 21 (5761)
  9. The Definition of Nullifying a Mitzvah R. Yehuda Rock, Techumin 24 (5764)
  10. "Tzitzit". The Karaite Korner. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  11. Hakham Meir Yosef Rekhavi, "They Shall Make for Themselves Sisith (Fringe/Tassel)", Kharaite Judasim
  12. Dr. Curtis D. Ward, "What is the True Tekhelet?", 5 January 2011, Ward blog
  13. Freeman, Joshua (July 5, 2012). "Laying down the (Oral) law". Jerusalem Post.
  14. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?
  15. 1 2 Peake's Commentary on the Bible

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