According to Chazal, as reward for Avraham turning down the king of Sodom’s offer, and declining to take even a chut, a thread, his descendants were rewarded with the mitzvah of tzitzis.
Question #1: Silk Talis
“I grew up in a conservative home, and, prior to my bar mitzvah, I was given a ‘bar mitzvah set,’ which included tefillin and a silk talis. I have since discovered that the tefillin were completely non-kosher. Must I assume that there is a problem with the talis also, since it is made from silk?”
Question #2: Prefers Rayon
“What is the basis of the halachic controversy whether one may have a talis koton made of rayon?”
Question #3: Blended Tzitzis
“I have a talis koton that says that it is made of a cotton-polyester blend. Do I recite a brocha when I put it on?”
Twice each day, we recite the passage that obligates Jewish men to tie tzitzis to the four corners of their garments. The Torah states (Bamidbar 15:38): Dabeir el benei Yisrael ve’amarta aleihem ve’asu lahem tzitzis al kanfei vigdeihem, Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they should make tzitzis on the corners of their garments.
The topic for today’s discussion is: What type of material are we obligated to use in the mitzvah of tzitzis? Do the corners of all garments require one to place tzitzis? As we will see, the question involves both an issue of Torah law and of rabbinic law.
Only wool or linen?
The Gemara (Menachos 39b) records an early dispute whether the Torah’s mitzvah of tzitzis applies only to garments made of sheep’s wool or of linen. According to Rav Nachman, a four-cornered garment made of silk, cotton, or any other material that is neither sheep’s wool nor linen is not included, min hatorah, in the mitzvah of tzitzis. (For the balance of this article, “wool” will mean specifically wool of sheep. The word tzemer in the Torah means the wool of sheep. Therefore, a blend of linen and wool processed from camels, llamas, rabbits, goats [such as cashmere or mohair] or other animals is not shatnez min hatorah [Kelayim 9:1]. A garment made of a woolen blend containing no sheep’s wool is shatnez only because of rabbinic injunction.) According to Rav Nachman, there is a requirement to attach tzitzis to four-cornered garments made from other cloth, but it is only miderabbanan, so that people should be careful to wear tzitzis (Rambam, Hilchos Tzitzis 3:2).
All fibers are min hatorah
Rav Yehudah and Rava disagree with Rav Nachman, contending that, min hatorah, silk and all other fibers are obligated in mitzvas tzitzis (Menachos 39b). The Gemara notes that this dispute originates among the tanna’im, and that the dispute also affects whether other materials, such as silk, cashmere and mohair, are subject to the tumah of nega’im. According to Rav Nachman and the tanna with whom he sides, the telltale red or green blemishes of tzaraas only make garments made of either wool or linen tamei. Should a garment made of silk, cotton, cashmere, mohair, or other cloth display inexplicable red or green blemishes reminiscent of tzaraas, the garment remains tahor, since these materials are not susceptible to nega’im. However, according to Rav Yehudah and Rava, silk, cotton and other cloth are susceptible to the laws of tzaraas.
What is the halachah?
The Rambam (Hilchos Tzitzis 3:1,2) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 9:1) rule that only linen and wool require tzitzis min hatorah, and the Rambam (Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 13:1,3) rules that only cloth made of linen and wool are affected by the laws of tzaraas. On the other hand, other authorities rule that all materials require tzitzis min hatorah, and this is the way the Rema rules (Orach Chayim 9:1). (These authorities would also hold that all garments are susceptible to tumas nega’im, but they do not discuss the laws of tumah and taharah because, unfortunately, they are not germane in our day.)
Is there any difference in halachah? After all, both approaches rule that one is required to put tzitzis on four-cornered garments made of cotton, silk or cashmere. What difference does it make whether the garment is obligated in the mitzvah min hatorah or miderabbanan?
There can be several practical differences that result. The most obvious is that, since it is exemplary for someone to fulfill a mitzvah min hatorah when he can, is it preferable to wear a garment made of wool over one made of cotton. For this reason, Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one should wear a talis koton made of wool, even though it is more comfortable to wear a cotton talis koton in the summer, since one who wears a woolen talis koton thereby fulfills a mitzvah min hatorah, according to all opinions (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:1). On the other hand, other prominent authorities followed the approach of the Rema, contending that an Ashkenazi who is uncomfortable wearing woolen tzitzis in the summer may wear a talis koton made of cotton.
At this point, we can address the first question asked above: “I grew up in a conservative home, and, prior to my bar mitzvah, I was given a ‘bar mitzvah set,’ which included tefillin and a silk talis. I have since discovered that the tefillin were completely non-kosher. Must I assume that there is a problem with the talis also, since it is made of silk?”
The answer is that the fact that the garment or its tzitzis are made from silk does not present any halachic problem. However, there is another potential concern:.
The tzitzis threads must be spun with the intent that they will 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 is also performed lishmah. 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).
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).
The concern about the silk talis koton, then, is that we need to determine that the tzitzis tied to them were indeed made properly lishmah.
Polyester, rayon or nylon?
At this point, we can discuss whether the mitzvah of tzitzis applies to synthetic materials. Within the last century, mankind has successfully developed numerous fabrics that are lighter than cotton, and which some people find more comfortable to wear. The question is whether a four-cornered garment made from these materials is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis. Obviously, according to those who hold that only wool and linen are obligated in tzitzis min hatorah, these garments are not obligated min hatorah, and the question is whether there is an obligation miderabbanan. According to the Rema, who rules that all materials are obligated in tzitzis, the question might even be whether rayon, nylon or other polyester materials are obligated in tzitzis min hatorah.
Why should they not be? Answering this question requires its own introduction.
Tzitzis on leather ponchos
Notwithstanding the conclusion that silk and other materials require tzitzis, a different passage of Gemara (Menachos 40b) assumes that leather garments are exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. The Gemara cites a dispute among amora’im regarding whether a garment made of material obligated in tzitzis, but whose corners are made of leather, is obligated in tzitzis. It also cites a dispute whether a garment made of leather whose corners are made of cloth is obligated in tzitzis. Rav and Rav Zeira contend that, in both instances, the main part of the garment is the determinant — a cloth garment with leather corners is obligated to have tzitzis tied to its corners, whereas a leather garment with cloth corners is absolved from the mitzvah of tzitzis. Rav Acha’i disputes with Rav and Rav Zeira, contending that the material comprising the corner determines whether the garment requires tzitzis. Clearly, all the amora’im are in agreement that a garment made completely from leather is exempt from tzitzis.
Why is hide outside?
Why is leather different from all the other materials mentioned that are obligated in tzitzis? We will need to answer this question and then see whether synthetic materials are treated like leather and absolved from the mitzvah of tzitzis, or whether they are like silk and the other materials that are obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis.
I found two basic approaches to explain why leather is treated differently from other materials. One approach is that leather is not woven, but is cut to size, and that the mitzvah of tzitzis applies only to woven material. This approach is implied by several acharonim (Levush, Orach Chayim 10:4; Graz 10:7).
Nylon and tzitzis
I found several responsa which discuss whether synthetic materials are obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis. In each case, the questioner “preferred” that the synthetic garment be obligated in the mitzvah. In other words, since one is rewarded for wearing tzitzis daily, the questioner was interested in fulfilling the mitzvah by wearing tzitzis that are on a four-cornered garment made of polyester, nylon or rayon, desiring to wear a cooler material than wool or cotton.
One responsum on the subject is authored by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Shu”t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim 1:9). He understands that leather is exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis because it is not woven, and that any four-cornered garment that is not woven is exempt from tzitzis, whereas a woven four-cornered garment is obligated in tzitzis. He then notes that there are two types of nylon garments, one made from woven nylon thread, which he rules would be required to have tzitzis, and one made from sheets of nylon, which are not woven and therefore absolved from the mitzvah of tzitzis, just as leather is.
Other authorities reach a different conclusion, for the following reason. In another context, several earlier authorities explain the distinction between leather and other materials in a different way. While discussing the minimum size for a garment to contract tumah, the Mishnah (Keilim 27:1) teaches that leather clothing is not susceptible to become tamei unless it is larger than the halachic category called arig, which refers to woven material. In their commentaries on that Mishnah, the Rash and the Bartenura both explain that, were one to slice leather into very thin slices and weave them into a garment, the garment thereby produced would still have the halachah of leather and not that of a woven garment. These authorities recognize that the distinction between leather and woven materials is not the process of weaving, but something more basic.
Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that “woven cloth” means material that is a natural fiber that is spun into thread and then woven into cloth. Neither leather nor synthetics meet this definition. Rav Moshe contends that a fiber that can be woven into material is included under the category of arig for tumah purposes and for the obligation of tzitzis. Therefore, Rav Moshe concludes that a four-cornered garment made from synthetic material is exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. Wearing tzitzis tied onto such a garment does not accomplish any mitzvah, and reciting a brocha prior to donning this garment is a brocha levatalah, one recited in vain. Furthermore, according to Rav Moshe, wearing such a garment on Shabbos might violate carrying, since the tzitzis are not part of the garment. (The details of this topic are beyond the scope of this article, but see the correspondence and dispute of the Shu”t Meishiv Davar 1:2 with the Mishnah Berurah.)
The Rambam’s commentary
In his commentary to the Mishnah in Keilim, the Rambam seems to explain the Mishnah differently than do the Rash and the Bartenura. Nevertheless, Rav Moshe understands that all three of these authorities understand this aspect of the topic in the same way, but that the Rambam was emphasizing a different point. Thus, Rav Moshe concludes that all early authorities would exempt these synthetic materials from the mitzvah of tzitzis and that this is the halachah.
Tzitz Eliezer and tzitzis
Rav Moshe’s approach is disputed by Rav Eliezer Yehudah Valdenberg (Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 12:3), who disagrees with Rav Moshe’s understanding of the Rambam. Whereas Rav Moshe understands that the Rambam is explaining the difference between leather and woven materials the same way that the Rash and the Bartenura do, the Tzitz Eliezer explains the Rambam to be making the same distinction as do the Levush, the Graz and the Har Tzvi, i.e.,that leather is not considered arig because it is not woven. As we mentioned above, in the opinion of these latter authorities, anything woven is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis. The Tzitz Eliezer understands that the Rambam is making the same distinction germane to what is considered arig for the laws of tumah. Since the later authorities accept this distinction, Rav Valdenberg concludes that four-cornered synthetic garments, which are woven, are obligated in tzitzis, and that those who are uncomfortable wearing other cloth may fulfill the mitzvah by wearing rayon or polyester tzitzis. Because there are early authorities who dispute this conclusion, namely the Rash and the Bartenura, Rav Valdenberg rules that those who wear these tzitzis should not recite a brocha when putting them on.
At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “What is the basis of the halachic controversy whether one may have a talis koton made of rayon?”
The answer is that it depends on why leather is exempt from tzitzis. If leather is exempt because only woven fabrics are obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis, then a rayon four-cornered garment is obligated in the mitzvah, and one fulfills the mitzvah by wearing it. On the other hand, if leather is exempt because only naturally fibrous materials are obligated in tzitzis, then rayon is exempt from tzitzis, and nothing is accomplished by tying tzitzis to a four-cornered rayon garment.
This author would like to note another situation, although today uncommon, which should result from the dispute between Rav Pesach Frank and Rav Moshe. According to both approaches, if someone makes a four-cornered garment from metal plating, the garment is exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. According to Rav Moshe, it would be exempt because it is not made from material that is naturally fibrous, whereas according to Rav Frank, it would be exempt because it was not woven. However, already in the time of chumash, metal was sliced into filaments which were woven into clothing. Is a four-cornered garment woven from metal filament obligated in tzitzis? According to Rav Frank, this garment should be obligated in tzitzis since it is woven, whereas, according to Rav Moshe, it should not, since this material is not naturally fibrous.
At this point, let us examine the last of our opening questions:
“I have a talis koton that says that it is made of a cotton-polyester blend. Do I recite a brocha when I put it on?”
When a thread is spun from a blend of fibers, the halachic status of the thread is determined by what composes most of the thread’s fiber content and ignores the existence of other fibers inside the thread (Mishnah Kelayim 9:1). The minority of fiber is halachically bateil, or nullified, to the majority fiber content in the thread. Thus, threads spun from a mixture that is mostly cotton fiber with some linen fiber are considered cotton and may be woven in a woolen garment without creating a prohibition of shatnez. Similarly, a garment consisting of threads made of a blend of mostly mohair, but including some sheep’s wool fiber, that is woven or sewn with linen threads is not shatnez and may be worn.
The same law is true regarding the mitzvah of tzitzis. A garment made of threads that are a blend that is mostly rayon or polyester fiber and includes cotton fiber will have the halachic status of a rayon garment and be exempt from tzitzis, according to Rav Moshe’s ruling. Of course, according to Rav Frank, this garment is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis.
Rav Hirsch notes that the root of the word tzitzis is to “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 idea; 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.