Tzitzit, Part 2: Messianics, Hebrew Roots, and Torah

Regarding tzitzit, where does the commandment end and tradition begin?

Recall from part 1 that tzitzit are the tassels that God commanded the Israelites to tie onto the four corners of their garments in Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12. Tallits are the prayer shawls to which Jews attach their tzitzit.

See Part 1 here: The Torah and the Rabbis. Make sure you read that before reading this article, because I make some references here that might not make a lot of sense if you haven’t.

The Messianic and Hebrew Roots Application

Messianic Jews, Hebraic Roots believers, and Torah observant Christians have a much wider range of beliefs regarding tallits and tzitziyot than the various flavors of modern Judaism do. Most people who describe themselves as Messianic Jews will tend to adhere to rabbinic Judaism’s rules, but that is far from universal. People who describe themselves as Hebrew Roots will tend to more liberal standards.

Like Jews, Hebrew Roots people often wear tallits for prayer and special occasions and will usually follow rabbinic traditions when they do. However, many believe that tzitzit can be made of any kind of thread, wrapped and tied in any pattern, although the Ashkenazi and Sephardic patterns are very common.

Their tzitzit could be any color, but white, black, and tan are most common, so long as there is a single blue thread. Some believe that the blue (tekhelet) thread must be colored with the traditionally identified dye, while others agree with the Karaites that the dye can come from any source.

Many Hebrew Roots people believe that tzitzit should be worn visibly at all waking hours, often interpreting “four corners” to mean four points or four sides of an outer garment. They might wear a tallit katan for this purpose or they might attach their tzitzit to the hem of a shirt or even temporarily attached to belt loops. A few will wear a small rectangle of cloth suspended on one hip from the belt, called a “micro tallit”.

Where Does the Commandment End and Tradition Begin?

The Material of the Tzitzit

The written Torah doesn’t say what tzitzit should be made of. The rule in Deuteronomy 22:12 is immediately after a rule against wearing garments of mixed fibers in 22:11. Mainstream Jewish rabbis believe this is intended to imply an exception to the mixed fiber rule for tzitzit, while Karaite Jews believe it is intended to underscore the importance of the tzitzit being of the same material as the garment.

The preceding rules in Deuteronomy aren’t just about mixed fabrics, but also about mixed crops and plow animals, while the following rules are about marital troubles, sexual sins, and people who are not allowed to be mixed with Israel. I don’t believe that verses 11 and 12 make up a discrete, separate unit from these other rules, but that they are a coherent whole.

Verses 9-11 forbid certain mixtures of plants, animals, and fabrics. These commands are literal, but are also object lessons against mixing the wrong kinds of people.

Verse 12 commands the wearing of tzitzit “on the garment with which you cover yourself”. It emphasizes “covering” to remind Israel that God’s commands are given for their protection. The tzitzit say, “Keep these instructions, because they protect you from danger.”

Verses 13-21 contain instructions on how to handle a dispute between spouses of very different moral character. The married couple and their families were not careful to keep the commandments against mixing diverse types, and they reaped sorrow because of it. If only they had worn their tzitzit, they might not be in this trouble.

Verses 22-30 forbid certain sexual relationships. The Talmud contains a famous story of a man who resisted temptation because of his tzitzit. I’m sure you can find it if you search.

Verses 1-8 in chapter 23 describe who may and who may not enter the assembly of Israel. This passage looks back to verses 9-11 in chapter 22. It concludes the series by forbidding the mixing of pagan foreigners with Israelites.

Tzitzit are ultimately about relationship between people and God.

I don’t believe the command concerning tzitzit is placed here to say anything at all about the material of the tzitzit. It’s about people. Those who keep the commandments, including wearing tzitzit, are suitable marriage and community material. Those who do not keep the commandments are not suitable.

I take a position somewhere in the middle between the Karaite and Orthodox: If you permanently attach your tzitzit to your garment, then they are a single garment and should be of the same material. If they are not permanently attached, but are removable, then I don’t think it matters what they are made of.

I also don’t believe that the strings used in your tzitzit need to be specifically manufactured for that purpose. That is purely a tradition of man with no Biblical basis.

The Source of Blue

Torah doesn’t specify any particular color for tzitzit and even many rabbis will say that white is only traditional. It’s a good tradition, but you are free to use whatever colors suit you. However, I would avoid using blue, so that the single blue thread that God commanded will stand out.

The Hebrew word for blue, tekhelet, might (or might not) be derived from the name of a particular mollusk that was used to create a blue dye in the Ancient Near East. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the word can only refer to that one, particular dye. In modern English we have many color words that were originally derived from the source of a dye or some object of that color. The words have evolved to refer to the color itself, regardless of the source of dye. Crimson, for example, originally came from the name for an insect used to create a deep red dye, but very few modern English speakers are aware of that etymology, let alone adamant about restricting the use of the word to that dye derived from that original source.

Other sources of blue were known in the ancient world. For example, woad and indigo were both used to make blue dye for clothing, and the Babylonians and Egyptians used a mineral-based blue pigment for paints and construction materials. Tekhelet is the only Hebrew word used in the Bible for the color blue, and it’s used in widely different contexts. The same word is used to describe cloth used in the wilderness Tabernacle (Exodus 25-39), in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Chronicles 2:7 and 3:14), in Persian curtains and robes (Esther 1:6 and 8:15), and in the courts and markets of kingdoms around the known world (Jeremiah 10:9, Ezekiel 27:7 and 27:24).

I think it is extremely unlikely that all of these things were only ever colored with a dye derived from a particular Mediterranean snail. More likely, the name for the color had long ago lost any real connection to the snail. Many centuries after the Torah was given at Sinai, someone mandated that a particular dye be used either because they had a financial interest in the industry or they felt a particular shade of blue was more meaningful than another.

The blue thread in the tzitzit is probably intended to remind us of the blue of the sky or else the sapphire pavement of heaven described by Moses in Exodus 24:10. Is it supposed to be the pale blue we know of as sky blue or is it the deep blue of the night sky? Probably sky blue, but the text isn’t explicit. If it’s blue and it reminds you of Heaven, that I think that’s sufficient.

Knots and Windings

Torah says that your tzitzit must be twisted or wound cord. I agree with the rabbis on this, that the exact manner of twisting is unimportant. It needs to be done so that it won’t come apart during normal wear, but otherwise, do it how you like.

Some people braid their tzitzit, while others like to get creative. I usually use the Sephardic winding and knots (see part 1 for a description of Sephardic and Ashekenazic windings) because it is derived from the four-letter name of God, YHVH, and so reinforces the purpose of the tzitzit and is easier to remember.

Tallits and Beltloops

Does “corners” literally refer to corners or to extremities? In the Bible, the Hebrew word kanaph usually refers to the wings of a bird or cherub, and twice refers to the extremities of either the land of Israel or the Earth. In none of those cases, can it be reasonably interpreted as a literal corner. It either means a pointed end (wing), or the farthest reaches (earth). When it is used in relation to clothing, it usually makes sense to translate it as corner, but does it necessarily have to mean that or can it be interpreted more loosely as in the four corners of the earth?

Most historians say that the outer garment commonly worn at the time was similar to a poncho, a simple rectangle of cloth with a hole in the middle for the head and a belt or girdle to cinch it around the middle. If the standard garment had been a wrap that was wound about the body instead of draped over the shoulder, would God have commanded Israel to switch to a rectangular outer garment or would he have told them to attach tassels on four evenly-distributed points on their hems or belts?

I don’t know the answer. The literal meaning of the command is to attach them to four corners, but I think it’s reasonable to attach them to four “sides” of your whatever outer garments are commonly worn in your time and culture rather than to adopt a new and foreign form of dress.

I don’t believe that the micro tallit fulfills the requirement of the commandment because all four tzitzit are on one side of the body. Torah says that they must be seen, and this purpose, plus the instruction to attach them to four corners requires that they should be seen from every direction. For this same reason, a tallit worn only on special occasions and a tallit katan worn completely hidden from the world are also insufficient.

I attach my tzitzit to my beltloops or to my belt because otherwise I would have to start wearing a tallit katan or else alter all of my shirts. Wearing a tallit katan doesn’t seem like a huge imposition for an office worker like myself, and I can imagine myself adopting that practice at some point.

I do not agree with the rabbinic rules about the minimum length of the garment or the percentage of separation in the seam to qualify as a valid corner. These are rules adopted as practical matters over the millennia probably because someone had an argument about it in the forgotten past, not because obedience to the command actually requires it.

Tzitzit Are Intended To Be Seen

And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.
Numbers 15:39-40

Tzitzit are not a ceremonial or “Levitical” command. They are moral. They are intended to help you and everyone around you to keep all of God’s Law, not just the sacrifices.

As I already pointed out, the Deuteronomy passage shows that they help protect against joining God’s people with unbelievers. The longer tzitzit command in Numbers 15:37-41 is similarly situated between descriptions of intentional, “high-handed” sins. The passage that comes before, Numbers 15:30-36, describes a man who despised the immediate presence of God and intentionally violated the Sabbath. The passage that follows, Numbers 16, describes the rebellion of Korah. The clear intent of placing the commandment concerning tzitzit between these two stories is, first, to illustrate that we need constant reminders to keep us focused on what is right, and, second, to point out that those, who commit blatant sins in the presence of constant reminders to the contrary, are not merely weak or mistaken, but are openly rebellious.

If everyone who believes in God and keeps his commandments is wearing tzitzit, then those people who do not and those people who sin in spite of the tzitzit are clearly marked by their behavior as unsuitable for marriage or leadership within God’s people.

I Don’t Need to Wear Tzitzit Because I Know the Torah

Recently, I saw a video of a discussion in which several nominally Torah-observant believers all agreed that they had outgrown the need to wear tzitzit because they had memorized the Ten Commandments and no longer needed memory aides. I was stunned that these people appear to have read and seriously considered Numbers 15 and Deuteronomy 22 and somehow came away with the impression that they were free to ignore one commandment because they had memorized ten others.

Tzitzit are not about memorizing anything. They are not training wheels. They are about resisting temptation. Everyone is tempted. Everyone needs reminders to resist temptation.

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.
Luke 4:1-2

And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment [his tzitzit], and immediately her discharge of blood ceased.
Luke 8:43-44

Yeshua, the Son of God and full of the Holy Spirit, was tempted and wore tzitzit. Only one man has ever lived a sinless life. So long as the unresurrected flesh remains to tempt us away from the path that God has laid out for us, we need every help we can get to remain faithful to our God and Savior.

I have studied the Torah for decades, yet I still wear tzitzit every day. I am still only human and need minute-by-minute reminders to keep my mind and heart focused on things above.

If you say that you have outgrown the need for tzitzit, then you are claiming to be above all temptation, and more righteous even than Yeshua.

Tzitzit Throughout the Bible

I could spend the next year writing about coverings and tassels from Scripture and probably not run out of material. Garment corners and fringes are a recurring theme in the histories and prophecies and even in the Apostolic writings. They reveal profound truths about the relationships between husband and wife, God and the world, Messiah and Israel.

I encourage you to look back at the words used in these commandments, to study other passages where they are used. Even if you are determined that tassel-wearing is a “Jewish thing” and not for you, I guarantee that you will gain valuable insights from the study.

Tzitzit, Part 1: the Torah and the Rabbis

When it comes to tzitzit, what traditions really matter?

See Part 2 here.

What Are Tzitzit?

Tzitzit are one of those distinctively “Jewish” things, like tallits and kippahs, that most Christians are aware of at some level, but don’t really understand. Tzitzit is the Hebrew name for the tassel or fringe that many Jews, Messianic Jews, and Hebrew Roots people wear on their clothing. The plural form is tzitziyot—tzitzit is singular—but most people today use the singular form for plural also, like a collective noun.

Tzitzit are also called tassels and fringes. Either of those words might be used in various places, depending on which English translation you are reading.

If you don’t know very many Jews or Torah observant Christians yourself, you’ve probably still seen some people—usually men—with white strings hanging from under their shirt or jacket on television or at the airport without giving it much thought. It’s just part of a religious or ethnic costume, so it tends to get lost in the overall picture of “those people”.

Tzitzit appear either explicitly or by implication in many passages in the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets, and in the Gospels. Despite this fact, churches rarely teach anything about them. As far as most Christian pastors and theologians are concerned, tzitzit are just one of those things that Jews wore to make sure they looked different than other nations, and since “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in Christ, we don’t need that kind of thing anymore.

Or so we are taught.

That’s really a shame, because tzitzit are connected to some really important spiritual principles. It’s also completely wrong. God didn’t give reasons for all of his instructions, but he did for this one, and it had nothing to do with looking different.

Tzitzit in the Torah

The primary passages that define tzitzit are Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12.

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”
Numbers 15:37-41 ESV

You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.
Deuteronomy 22:12 ESV

These commands were given to Israel in the Wilderness. The Numbers 15 command was given at the beginning of the forty years, right after the 10 spies brought a bad report of the land, and the Deuteronomy 22 command was part of a recap of the whole Law delivered by Moses just before the people began their conquest of the land.

What Do the Tzitzit Commands Actually Say?

Let’s examine the Hebrew words in these passages so we know what they are really saying.

Make, in both cases, is from the Hebrew word asah, which can be reasonably interpreted to mean make (as in manufacture) or attach. Some people believe this means you should make your own tzitzit, while others believe it’s fine to buy pre-made tassels as long as you attach them to your garment yourself.

Tassel

  • In the Numbers passage the Hebrew word is tzitzit. It refers to a corner or point, and comes from tzit, which means flower or petal. A tzitzit is the pointy end of a tzit.
  • In the Deuteronomy passage the Hebrew word is gedil. It’s only used twice in the Bible, here and in 1 Kings 7:17 to describe wreaths that were carved into the tops of pillars.

Garment is from the Hebrew word beged. It is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures to refer to all kinds of clothing.

Put is from the Hebrew natan. It means to give, put, set, assign, etc.

Cord is from the Hebrew patiyl, and means strand, lace, or ribbon. It is related to the word patal, which means to be twisted, implying that a strand in this sense consists of multiple threads twisted together.

Blue is from the Hebrew tekhelet. The word might have been derived from the name of a mollusk or snail which was used to make a blue dye. Many people believe that it only refers to that blue dye and no others, but there are good reasons to believe it can refer to the color blue, no matter where the dye came from.

Corner is from the Hebrew kanaph. It refers to a wing, extension, extremity, or border. Corner is a reasonable translation in context, but wing or extremity is probably more literally accurate. Since the standard outer garment of the time was probably a large rectangle with an opening for the head, “four extremities” and “four corners” would be synonymous.

A harmonized rendering of the command from the two passages might read like this:

Make/attach tassels on the four extremities of your garments. Include a strand of blue with the tassel of the extremities. When you look at the tassels, they will remind you of all the commandments of YHWH, so that you will obey Him instead of following your own desires.

Although the commandment seems straightforward, there has always been disagreement on exactly how to apply it.

The Traditional Jewish Application

Judaism has a very long history of cumulative interpretation and application of these commands, and has developed detailed regulations on how tzitzit are to be made and worn. Most of these rules are derived from implications of the Biblical text or from practical considerations at one or another time in history. Few of them are based on explicit instructions in the written Torah.

The Materials of Tzitzit

Tzitzit should be made of white wool, and may or may not have a blue thread, depending on whether or not you believe that the specific mollusk from which the dye was originally extracted in Biblical times has been rediscovered or not. The threads that make up the tzitzit must be manufactured specifically for the purpose and may not be used for anything else.

Karaite Jews believe the tzitzit should be made of the same material as the garment to which they are being attached and that any blue dye can be used for the servant thread.

The Form of Tzitzit

There are a few different traditional methods of winding or twisting a tzitzit. The only firm requirements are that there are four white threads doubled over to make eight, and one longer thread (the blue one, if you include it), called a servant thread, is wrapped around the others. These are the two most common patterns:

The Ashkenazi Tzitzit has a double knot, seven windings, a double knot, eight windings, a double knot, eleven windings, a double knot, thirteen windings, and a double knot.

The Sephardic Tzitzit has a double knot, ten windings, a double knot, five windings, a double knot, six windings, a double knot, five windings, and a double knot.

Both methods use five double knots, one between each set of windings and one on each end to secure the whole, with the loose strings at the end twice the length of the knotted section. There are other methods, but the vast majority use one of these two.

Ashkenazi (white) and Sephardic (blue and white) styles of tzitzit windings and knots. See  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tzitzith.jpg for source information.
Ashkenazi (white) and Sephardic (blue and white) styles of tzitzit windings and knots. See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tzitzith.jpg for source information.

The Placement of Tzitzit

Tzitzit must be attached to the corners of a four-cornered garment worn on the upper body. The garment can be made of any material, but wool and silk are preferred. In order to qualify as four-cornered, the garment must have a significant split along the side seam, usually interpreted as at least half the length of the garment or 18-24 inches. A full tallit gadol satisfies this requirement by being completely open on the sides and long enough to be draped over the shoulders so that the corners hang down in front and back.

The tzitzit must be permanently affixed to the corners, by a hole placed one to two inches from the edge. Tallits have a square of cloth on each corner as reinforcement for this purpose. Jews only wear the tallit gadol during prayer times or on special occasions, such as Yom Kippur and weddings.

A tallit katan is made more like a t-shirt but with the seams joined for only a short length under the arms in order to be sure there are four legitimate corners. Unlike the tallit gadol, it is intended to be worn as an undergarment during all waking hours. The tzitzit can be worn hanging out from beneath a shirt so they are visible or else completely hidden.

Do Women Wear Tzitzit?

In Orthodox Judaism, only men are required to wear tzitzit, but women increasingly wear them also, especially in Reform Judaism. Opinions on whether or not women should wear or are allowed to wear tzitzit change with time and culture. They rarely appear in ancient and medieval art as obvious tassels, but when they do, men and women are both depicted wearing them. Claims that women never wore tzitzit until the modern era are obviously false.

An image from the Codex Rossianus, dated 1453, showing men and women both wearing tzitzit.
An image from the Codex Rossianus, dated 1453, showing men and women both wearing tzitzit.

Most rabbis believe that women are not required to wear them, but may if they desire to do so. Strict Orthodox Jewish rabbis are likely to be more opposed.

Summary and Introduction to Part Two

In this installment, I examined the text of the two commandments to wear tzitzit and surveyed Jewish traditions about making and wearing them.

I know that this will seem dry and pointless to most Christians who do not themselves believe they should be keeping Torah, but we know from Paul’s instructions to Timothy that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine and reproof.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17

Joshua concurred and read the entire Torah to the native born Israelites and sojourners alike after they had conquered Jericho and Ai.

And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.
Joshua 8:34-35

If you desire to know the mind of God and the manner in which he wants his people to live, then even these seemingly minor matters should not be neglected.

In the next installment, I’ll describe the Wild West of Messianic and Hebrew Roots tzitzit and return to the Torah to add some historical and scriptural context. That is where you will see the real purpose and value of tzitzit.

Continue to Part 2.