A Woman’s Guide to Tzitzis

The Torn Hole

Question # 1

Mrs. Friedman wants to know:

“The hole on my son’s talis koton in which the tzitzis strings are inserted is torn. Does this invalidate Yanki’s tzitzis?”

The Unraveled Knot

Question #2

Mrs. Weiss notices that the knots on her son’s tzitzis have untied. Are his tzitzis still kosher?

A Bicycle Casualty

Question #3, from Mrs. Goldberg:

“My son’s tzitzis got caught in his bicycle and several strings were torn. Are the tzitzis invalid?”

The Woman’s Tzitzis Guide

Why write a woman’s guide to tzitzis, when women are not required to observe the mitzvah, and, according to many authorities, are not even permitted to wear them? (See Targum Yonasan to Devarim 22:5, that a woman wearing tzitzis violates the prohibition of wearing a man’s garment.) In addition, some authorities contend that because women are exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah, they should not attach the tzitzis strings to the garment (Rama, Orach Chayim 14:1 and commentaries). (The Rama concludes that if a woman did attach the tzitzis to the garment, the tzitzis are kosher.)

The reason for this guide is that women are often responsible for the purchase, supervision, upkeep, and laundering of the tzitzis of their boys and men. Indeed, women often ask me questions relevant to these halachos. Men will also find this guide very useful.

In order to answer the above questions thoroughly, we must first understand some basics about how tzitzis are produced.

Please note that throughout this article, “tzitzis” refers to the strings placed on the corners of the garment; the garment itself will be called a “talis koton.”

Special Strings

Tzitzis are not manufactured from ordinary thread, but only from thread manufactured lishmah, meaning that the threads were spun with the intent that they be used to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis.

After completing the spinning, one takes several of these specially-spun threads and twists them together into a thicker string. This twisting, called shezirah, is also performed lishmah, with the intent of producing string for the mitzvah of tzitzis. Although, to the best of my knowledge, no early halachic sources discuss how many threads one needs to twist together, some have the custom of twisting eight such threads, which are called kaful shemonah.

The authorities dispute whether attaching the tzitzis strings to the garment and tying them must also be performed lishmah. In practice, we are stringent (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 14:2 and commentaries).

Combing Lishmah?

Some authorities require that even combing the fibers — the process that precedes the spinning — must be performed lishmah. The authorities conclude that this is not required, although some recommend manufacturing or acquiring tzitzis with this hiddur (Mishnah Berurah 11:3).

Articulation

Many authorities contend that when manufacturing an item lishmah, one must articulate this intent (Rosh, Hilchos Sefer Torah Chapter 3). This means that the person spinning or twisting the tzitzis must say that he is doing so in order to make tzitzis for the sake of the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 11:1 and Mishnah Berurah, ad locum). Once one made this declaration (leshem mitzvas tzitzis) at the beginning of the spinning, it is unnecessary to repeat it (Mishnah Berurah).

Hand or Machine?

Regarding whether to buy hand- or machine-spun tzitzis, there is much discussion among authorities as to whether one may rely on machine spinning with the machine operator declaring that the tzitzis are being made lishmah (see for example, Achiezer 3:69; Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim 1:10). This is similar to the dispute concerning whether one may fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzoh on Seder night with machine matzoh, an issue that involved a huge dispute among the halachic authorities of 19th century Poland.

As far as I am aware, a talis koton sold for children’s use is probably made using machine-made tzitzis. (At the time I first wrote this article, I saw a talis koton meant for children with a hechsher describing that it was made by having the beginning of the spinning done by hand, as a hiddur on the regular machine-made variety.) Both hand- and machine- spun types are readily available for men’s tzitzis,  for talisim kotonim and for talisim gedolim. One should consult his Rav if he is uncertain whether to purchase the more expensive hand-made variety.

What Material Should Be Used?

Although one may make tzitzis threads from other material, universal practice today is to use sheep’s wool.

The Garment Does Not Require Lishmah

The law requiring that the tzitzis be manufactured lishmah applies only to the tzitzis strings, not the garment to which the strings are attached. This garment, the talis or talis koton itself, does not need to be made for the sake of the mitzvah – any cloth may be used.

For reasons beyond the scope of this guide, the custom is to make the talis gadol, that is worn for davening, from wool. Some have the custom to insist on woolen material for the talis koton also, though most are satisfied with a cotton talis koton. Authorities discuss and dispute whether the talis koton can be made of polyester or other synthetic materials, and I leave it to our readers to discuss this issue with their halachic authorities. Perhaps one day I’ll have a chance to write an article on this fascinating topic.

To review:

Before spinning wool to be used for tzitzis, the spinning machine operator, or the hand spinner, should say that he is spinning the threads with the intent that they will be used for the mitzvah of tzitzis. After spinning the wool into threads, one twists several tzitzis threads together into a thick, strong tzitzis string. This latter process also requires lishmah. There is no requirement to make the talis or talis koton garment lishmah.

Inserting the Tzitzis

Having completed the tzitzis string manufacturing process, we are now ready to learn how to insert the tzitzis strings into the garment. One takes four of these specially lishmah-made strings and inserts them through a hole in the corner of the garment, in order to fulfill the verse’s requirement that the tzitzis threads lie over the corner of the garment. The hole must be not so distant from the corner that the tzitzis are considered to be hanging from the main part of the garment (rather than on the corner), and yet not so close that the tzitzis hang completely below the garment (Menachos 42a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 11:9). Thus, the hole should be placed in a way that after attaching the tzitzis to the garment, only the upper part of the tzitzis rests on the garment.

Where Should the Hole Be?

The Gemara explains that the hole through which the tzitzis are placed should be closer to the corner than “three fingerwidths,” which means three times the width of a finger. Whose finger and which finger?

Most poskim conclude that a fingerwidth is the width of an average-sized man’s thumb at its widest point.

Measure this distance, multiply it by three, and you have “three fingerwidths.” Now, measure three fingerwidths from the two sides of the garment near the corner (not from the actual right-angle corner of the garment) and you can create a square in the corner of the garment (Rama, Orach Chayim 11:9). If the tzitzis are attached beyond this area, they are not considered to be on the corner. Although there is a range of opinion as to exactly how much area this is, most poskim conclude that it is about six centimeters,* or about 2 1/2 inches, from each side.

Others follow a different interpretation of which finger is used to measure this distance, and according to their opinion, the area is a bit smaller (Artzos Hachayim; Mishnah Berurah 11:42).

Closest Hole

The closest the hole should be to the sides of the talis or talis koton is the distance from the end of the thumb nail to the thumb joint, measured by the thumb of an average-sized man. (This measures less than two centimeters or less than .75 inches.) If the hole is made closer than this, the tzitzis are not kosher, because the tzitzis strings will hang below the garment and, as I explained above, they are required to be resting partly on the garment itself. However, if one inserted and knotted the tzitzis threads in a hole that was in the correct place, and then subsequently the garment shrunk or was shortened, or the hole tore, resulting in the tzitzis being closer to the corner than they should, the tzitzis are nonetheless kosher (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 11:10).

To sum up:

To determine where the hole should be, one can examine the corner of the talis or talis koton and mark inward from the two adjacent sides that form the corner. Within two centimeters of either side is too close to the edge of the garment to attach the tzitzis, and more than six centimeters is too far.

Yes, Mrs. Friedman

Although we have not finished our description of tzitzis production, we have sufficient information to discuss Mrs. Friedman’s question. The hole through which the tzitzis strings are placed tore, and, as a result, the tzitzis are now closer to the corner of the garment than they should be. Does this invalidate the tzitzis?

Since the tzitzis strings were originally inserted into a hole that was correctly located, the tzitzis remain kosher.

I advised Mrs. Friedman to mend and reinforce the garment before it tears so badly that the tzitzis strings fall off, which will invalidate the garment, requiring sewing the clothing and undoing and restringing the tzitzis again to make it kosher.

Four in One

Let us now return to tzitzis production. After making the hole in its correct place, one takes four tzitzis strings that have been spun and twisted lishmah. Three of the threads are the same length, but one of the strings is much longer than the others since it will be coiled around them. After this string is wrapped around the others, it should be about the same length as the other strings.

The strings should be long enough that when they are completely coiled and tied (as I will describe) the free-hanging eight strings should be the length of eight fingerwidths (as described above), which is about 16–20 centimeters or about eight inches.

The Torah requires that there be exactly four tzitzis strings per corner. Using fewer or more strings invalidates the mitzvah and, according to some opinions, violates the Torah prohibitions of bal tosif or bal tigra, adding to or detracting from a Torah commandment (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 11:12 and commentaries).

Pulling Strings

At this point, one pulls the four strings through the hole in the talis or talis koton until the three shorter strings are halfway through the hole. The longer string should be pulled through so that on one side it is the same length as the other strings, but the other side is much longer, since this extra length will be wrapped around the other strings.

After the four strings are threaded through the garment, there will be eight strings hanging off the garment, which are then knotted together in a tight double knot. This permanent knot is Torah-required. This knot is made by tying a set of four strings from one side with the set of four strings from the opposite side.  To make sure that the two sets of four strings stay together throughout the process of coiling and knotting, one takes the four strings from the side that does not include the long string and loops them together at their end. We will soon see why we perform this step (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 12:1).

The longer string is now coiled several times around the seven others and then the two sets of four strings are knotted tightly. The coiled tzitzis strings are called the gedil.

The accepted custom is to tie the eight strings together in five different places, each separated by an area where the long string is coiled around the others several times. Thus, there are four areas of coiled tzitzis strings, each held in place by double knots.

Remember the Mitzvos!

The five knots help us remember all the mitzvos. As Rashi writes, the gematriya (numerical value) of the word tzitzis (when spelled with the letter yud twice) equals 600. When one adds eight for the eight hanging tzitzis strings and five for the five knots that tie them, adds up to 613. Additionally, the five knots remind us of the Torah’s five chumashim.

The Torah, itself, did not require all these coilings and knots, but required only one knot and one coiled area. The other knots and coilings are only lichatchilah, the proper way to make the tzitzis. However, if one failed to make these coilings or knots, the tzitzis are nevertheless kosher, provided there is at least one coiled gedil area and at least one knot.

Similarly, if the coiling unravels in the middle — not an uncommon occurrence — the tzitzis are still fully kosher, as long as one gedil area remains.

This will help answer Mrs. Weiss’ question about some of her son’s tzitzis knots being untied. As long as one knot remains, and there is some area where the tzitzis strings are coiled together, the tzitzis are still kosher. Of course, one should re-wind the longer tzitzis string around the others and retie the knots, but in the interim the tzitzis are kosher.

Jewish Labor

The person attaching the strings to the garment must be Jewish (Menachos 42a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 14:1). There was a major scandal a few years ago when unscrupulous manufacturers were discovered to have hired non-Jews to make tzitzis. Hopefully, this problem has been resolved, but one should check that the tzitzis have a reliable hechsher. Based on shaylos I have been asked, I have discovered that many people are unaware that children’s talisim kotonim must also be reliably kosher.

By the way, it is preferable that women not be the ones who insert the tzitzis strings onto the garment and tie them, since women are absolved from fulfilling this mitzvah (Rama, Orach Chayim 14:1 and commentaries).

How Many Coils?

The number of coils between the knots is a matter of custom. (Based on the Arizal’s tradition, common practice is to coil the thread seven times between the first two knots, eight between the next two, eleven between the third and fourth, and thirteen times between the fourth and fifth knots.

To recap, we twist the longer string around the others and tie the tzitzis strings into knots in a way that creates five knots and between them four areas of tightly coiled string that resemble a cable. Torah law requires only that we tie one knot and that there be some area of coiled string.

Hang Loose!

After completing the coiling and tying, the rest of the strings are allowed to hang freely. The free-hanging strings are referred to as the “pesil.” As I mentioned above, when making the tzitzis, the pesil should be at least eight fingerwidths long, which is about eight inches (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 11:14). However, if the strings become torn afterward, the tzitzis are still kosher, if even a very small amount of pesil remains – long enough to make a loop and knot it, which is probably about an inch (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 12:1).

Tear Near the Top

If the tzitzis strings become torn above the first knot, the tzitzis are invalid.

As I explained, tzitzis are made from four strings inserted into the garment, and then knotted and coiled. The Torah requires that each of these four strings be attached and hang from the corner of the garment and be included both in the gedil, the coiled part, and the pesil, the loose, hanging strings.

If the thread tore at the top, then it is no longer hanging from the corner of the garment, but held in place by the other threads.

Torn String

We can now explain whether tzitzis become invalid when the tzitzis strings are torn, which depends on where the strings tore. If only one of the eight strings tore and only below the first knot, then the tzitzis are still kosher. This is because all four of the original tzitzis still have both gedil, the coiled part, and pesil, the hanging part.

If two of the eight strings tore at a point that there is no pesil anymore, then whether the tzitzis are still kosher depends on whether these were part of the same original tzitzis string or not. If they were two sides of the same original tzitzis string, then the tzitzis are invalid, because one of the four original strings now lacks pesil. This is the reason why one should be careful to loop four of the strings together before beginning the coiling and knotting, since this helps keep track in case two or more strings tear, whether they are the two parts of the same string, which will invalidate the tzitzis if no pesil remains, or parts of two different strings, in which case the tzitzis are kosher, if the other end of the string still has pesil.

If a tear takes place somewhere between the first knot and the pesil, we treat the remaining part of that string as nonexistent since it no longer hangs from the garment, but is being kept in place by the coiling and knotting. Thus, if this happens to only one string of the eight, the tzitzis are still kosher, because all four original tzitzis still have some pesil. However, if this happens to two or more strings, one must be concerned that it was two sides of the same original string and the tzitzis may be invalid, because only three of the original strings now have pesil.

Conclusion

Rav Hirsch notes that the root of the word tzitzis is “sprout” or “blossom,” a strange concept to associate with garments, which do not grow. He explains that the message of our clothing is extended, that is, sprouts and blossoms, by virtue of our tzitzis.

The introduction of clothing to Adam and Chavah was to teach man that his destiny is greater than an animal’s, and that his responsibility is to make all his decisions according to Hashem’s laws, and not his own desires. Introducing tzitzis onto a Jew’s garments reinforces this message; we must act according to what Hashem expects. Thus, whether we are wearing, shopping for, examining, or laundering tzitzis, we must remember our life’s goal: fulfilling Hashem’s instructions, not our own desires.

* All measurements in this article are approximate. One should check with a Rav for exact figures.