For the week ending 10 February 2007 / 22 Shevat 5767

The Wrap on Tzitzit

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ben Cohen

Dear Rabbi,

I saw your response to a recent question on the shins of tefillin. I have a similar question on tzitzit: What is the significance of the strings, knots and windings on the fringes of the tallit?

Dear Ben,

The tzitizit are intended to remind us of the commandments and to express our commitment to do them: “Speak to the sons of Israel that they make tzitzit on the corners of their garments for all generations and they shall place a [specific] blue thread there…And you shall see it and recall all My commandments and do them…and be holy to your G-d…I am your G-d” (Num. 15). The number of strings, knots and windings, and the way they are tied thus reflect this idea.

Before going into more detail, a word on the blue thread. Our sources require that the blue thread be obtained from a creature referred to as the chilazon. We are not certain what this creature was/is, nor how to obtain its special blue dye. However, since the verse initially mandates making tzitzit for all generations, and only later mentions the blue thread, the mitzvah of tzitzit is not dependent on this blue string. Therefore the use a blue string has generally fallen out of use and the knots and windings are all with white wool threads.

Each corner of the four-cornered tzitzit has a small hole through it. Four strings are threaded through it and folded over to form eight threads. These eight strings are tied in two half-knots (like the knot tied before the bow when tying shoe laces), and then one of the eight threads is wound around the others a specific number of times. Then two more half-knots are tied, and the string is wound around again. This process is performed five times so that on each corner there are eight strings and five knots with four winded sections between the knots. These winded sections are comprised of 7,8,11 and 13 windings respectively.

As mentioned above, tzitzit in general, and the way they are tied in particular, are intended to remind us of the miztvot and to perform them. This is emphasized in the following teaching: The word tzitzit is spelled with the Hebrew letters tzadee, yud, tzadee, yud, taf. Since each Hebrew letter has a numeric equivalent, tzitzit equals 90+10+90+10+400, or 600. Together with the eight strings and five knots, tzitzit have the numeric equivalent of the 613 mitzvot they are intended to recall.

If the strings and knots make the connection between tzitzit and recalling the mitzvot, the 7,8,11 and 13 windings resonate the verse’s juxtaposition of tzitzit and “I am your G-d”. There are a total of 39 windings, which is the numerical equivalent of “Hashem Echad” – G-d is One. The windings of the tzitzit thus allude to G-d’s Unity that binds everything together. This is particular to the specific windings as well: The 7+8 (=15) windings correspond to the first two letters of G-d’s Name, yud (10) and hey (5), (=15), while the 11 windings correspond to the last two letters of the Name, vav (6) and hey (5), (=11). The final 13 windings corresponds to the word “echad” and denotes the way in which His Unity is expressed in the world through the 13 Divine Attributes of Mercy.

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