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Fringes ('Tzitzis') - affix to see, to remember, and to do

"Speak unto the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make for themselves 'tzitzis' on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the 'tzitzis' of each corner a thread of 'techeiles'. It shall constitute 'tzitzis' for you, that you may see it, and remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them and be holy to your God (Num. 15:38-40)".
"You shall make for yourselves twisted threads on the four corners of your garments with which you cover yourself (Deut. 22:12)".
These verses provide the specifics of, and rationale for, a seemingly simple, but particularly potent, mnemonic measure, serving as a sort of sacred "string around the finger". As a constant reminder of their religious obligations, Jews were commanded in antiquity to affix fringes to the four corners of their then blanket-like, commonly-worn garments. And with each of these four fringes was a further reminder - the turquoise blue thread -indicatingf the source of that commandment. The Talmud notes that 'techeiles' was similar to [the color of] the sea, the sea to the sky, and the sky to [God's] Throne of Glory (Men. 43b).
'Techeiles' was also prominently featured elsewhere. The lowest coverings of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary in the Desert) were woven with multi-stranded dyed thread, including 'techeiles'. So, too, the special garments of the High Priest (Ex. 28:4-5), the partition demarcating the Holy of Holies (Ex. 26:31) and the Mishkan entrance screen (Ex. 26:36). The High Priest's special head plate, inscribed "Holy to the Lord", was held tightly in place by wholly 'techeiles' cords. The 'techeiles' thread on the 'tztzis' thus seems to present a reinforcing reminder of the responsibilities of membership in a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6).
Much has changed in sartorial fashion since antiquity. Jews no longer wear cloaks, dressing like everybody else. Already in Roman times, as well, the traditionally ascribed source of 'techeiles', an acquatic creature called 'chilazon', harvested along the northern coast of the land of Israel, from Haifa to south of Tyre in Lebanon, essentially disappeared. That was due to overproduction of a dye much favored by the Imperial Court. Knowledge of the specific source gradually was lost. Nonetheless, the Scriptural verses are explicitly addressed to all generations.
These dilemmas were addressed by introduction of two garments: the tallis, a large body-covering prayer shawl, used during morning prayers, in conjunction with tephillin (phylacteries), and by the prayer leader at the afternoon service, and in some congregations, during the evening service as well; the tallis katan (small tallis), also called an 'Arba Kanfos (Four Corners)', has an head aperture and is worn during the day under upper body clothing, with the tzitzis possibly being left visibly hanging out. Not knowing what precisely constituted 'techeiles', the Rabbis long ago determined that, in its absence, white, the color of the other strings, would be acceptable. Though not religiously required, tallesim (pl. tallis) traditionally have been wholly woven from wool or linen, white in color, with black or blue striping patterns. The tallis katan tends to be all white. In recent times, considerable innovations have been introduced in terms of
color and design. All that is really necessary, though, are the attached 'tzitzis', which are inserted through a small aperture near the edge of each of the four corners.
Both these garments are normally purchased with the required fringes attached. If, over time, any of the strings become sufficiently damaged, that will require replacement. How is that done? Packages of ritually acceptable strings can be purchased. Four would be selected, one extra long, for 39 windings around the others. These strings are doubled over and, all but one, aligned in length. The two groupings of four will then be tied together with a double knot. The longer string will then be round seven times around the other strings. Another double knot is made after again dividing the strings into two groups, followed by eight windings. There are then another double knot and eleven windings, followed by yet another double knot and thirteen windings. A fifth, final, double knot completes the process. The great Biblical commentator, Rashi, intuits a deep meaning into this process: Each Hebrew letter has an numerical equivalent. The summed value of
the five letter word, 'tzitzis', is thus 90+10+90+10+400= 600. Adding five knots and eight strings, yields 613, the traditional number of Torah commandments. The 39 windings may be intended to correspond to the number of Sabbath-prohibited activities, or to the numerical value of the two words 'HaShem Echad' (the Lord is One), in the 'Shema'.
At morning services, while holding the tallis, the blessing: "to wrap ourselves in tzitzis" is recited. The tallis is then pulled over the head and wrapped around the body. The tallis is separately grasped near its left and right corners and then each side draped over the respective shoulders. The tallis katan will have been put on upon rising, with the blessing: "regarding the commandment of tzitzis", for those will not be putting on a tallis later. The 'tzitzis' do not just rest passively at one's side throughout this service. Over the opening prayer, 'Baruch SheAmar':(Blessed is He Who spoke), the two front fringes are held. At the former and latter 'Ashrei's, arm and head tephillin boxes are separately touched with one fringe, while reciting "You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing". At the recital of the 'Shema', all four fringes are gathered together, and kissed at each mention of 'tzitzis' in its third paragraph,
of the commandment (Num. 15:37-41).
Beyond its daily use in prayer, the tallis plays a large symbolic role in Jewish life cycle events. At birth, chief participants at a circumcision ceremony wear tallesim. On the Simchat Torah holiday, a tallis is held aloft over the congregation's young children at their special aliyah. Among Ashkenazim, a tallis is not usually worn by men until marriage. Many grooms then wear that tallis at the marriage ceremony; a tallis also could be employed to form the chuppah (wedding canopy). At death, Jewish men are buried in their tallis, with one of the fringes cut off.
Remarkably, the centuries old mystery concerning the source of 'techeiles' may now have been resolved. In the 1980s, Dr. Otto Elsner of Tel Aviv's Shenker Institute discovered that the liquid extracted from the Murex Trunculus snail, when exposed to air, turns purple in color. However, during the dyeing process, when exposed to direct sunlight, it turns into a bright, indigo blue. Moreover, it didn't fade or become discolored. Providing some additional corroborating evidence, archaeological digs on Mt. Zion have yielded a number of Murex Trunculus shells. Particularly intriguing, too, is that the dye obtained from that species has a sharp peak in the color spectrum at exactly 613 nanometers. Nonetheless, despite such indications, this solution has been slow to receive acceptance.
Beyond their religious import, tallis and 'techeiles' have figured prominently in modern Jewish political life. They were the source of inspiration behind the design of the State of Israel's national flag, celebrating the modern rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Its creator, David Wollfsohn, recalled: “At the behest of our leader Herzl, I came to Basle to make preparations for the [1897] Zionist Congress. Among many other problems that occupied me then was one which contained something of the essence of the Jewish problem. What flag would we hang in the Congress Hall? Then an idea struck me. We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The tallis with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallis from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that
flew over Congress Hall [and was later adopted by the State of Israel], came into being.”
How appropriate, then, that the tallis, a cloak bearing those fringes of remembrance, should have thus been chosen to represent the third Jewish commonwealth, reborn after nearly two millennia of remembrance and longing for Zion.

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