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Tzitzit (Ashkenazi pronunciation: tzitzis) are fringes or tassles (Hebrew: ציצת (Biblical), ציצית (Mishnaic)) found on a tallit worn by observant Jews as part of practicing Judaism. In current Orthodox Judaism it is usually only worn by males.


Origin and practice

The Torah states in Numbers 15:38: "Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of blue (Hebrew: תכלת - tekhelet) on the fringe of each corner."

Tzitzit are also commanded in Deuteronomy 22:12, which says: "You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself."

Tzitzit are attached today only to Jewish religious garments, such as a tallit gadol (large prayer shawl). This is due in part to the fact that today's typical garment does not have the required 4 corners, and thus the fringes are not necessary. Traditional Jews wear a tallit katan (small prayer shawl) in order to fulfill this commandment at their own volition (although some consider it a transgression to miss a commandment that one has the ability to fulfill).

Various reasons are given for the commandment. The Torah itself states: "So that you will remember to do the commandments". In addition, it serves as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt (Numbers 15:40).

Loss of the source of tekhelet

Sometime near the end of the Talmudic era (500-600 CE) the industry which produced this dye collapsed. It became rarer and rarer; over time the Jewish community lost the tradition of which species of shellfish produced this dye. Since Jews were then unable to fulfill this commandment, they have since left their tzitzit (tallit strings) white. However, in remembrance of the commandment to use the tekhelet dye, it became common for Jews to have blue or purple stripes on their tallit. This blue on a white background became accepted as a symbol for the Jewish community, and was the inspiration for the development of the Flag of Israel.

Threads and knots

The fringe (tzitzit) on each corner is made of four strands, each of which is made of eight fine threads (known as kaful shemoneh). The four strands are passed through a hole (or according to some: two holes) 1-2 inches (25 to 50 mm) away from the corner of the cloth.

There are numerous customs as to how to tie the fringe. The Talmud explains that the Bible requires an upper knot (kesher elyon) and one wrapping of three winds (hulya). The Talmud goes on to explain that the Rabbis enjoined that between 7 to 13 hulyot be tied, and that the inital and final winds must be the color of the garment, the interving ones being the color tekhelet. As for the making of knots in between the hulyot, the Talmud is inconclusive, and as such poskim throughout the ages have varyingly interpreted this requirement. The Talmud described tying assuming the use of tekhelet, however, following the loss of the source of the dye, various customs of tying were introduced to compensate for the lack of this primary element.

Though many methods have been proposed the one that gained the widest acceptance can be described as follows:

The four strands are put through the hole in the corner of the garment, thus making two sets of four threads (one set on each side of the hole).

Before tying begins, a blessing is said: L'Shem Mitzvot Tzitzit (For the sake of the Commandment of Tzitzit). Some Rabbis are of the opinion that one should instead say Baruch atah Adonai Elohainu Melech HaOlam, asher kiddishanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu la'asot tzitzit (Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to make tzitzit).

The two sets of stands are knotted together twice, and then the "shamash" (a longer strand) is wound around the remaining seven strands a number of times (see below). The two sets are then knotted again twice. This procedure is repeated three times. A commonly formed pattern of windings is 7-8-11-13 (totalling 39 winds - the gematria of the "God is One"). Others, especially Sephardim, have 10 and 5 and 6 and 5, a combination that represents directly the spelling of the Tetragrammaton.

Rashi, a prominent Jewish commentator, bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (in its Mishnaic spelling) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totalling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613, traditionally the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzit reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments.

Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi, pointing out that the Biblical spelling of the word tzitzit has only one Yod rather than two, thus adding up to the total number of 603 rather than 613. He points out that in the Biblical quote "you shall see it and remember them", the singular form "it" can refer only to the "p'til" (thread) of tekhelet, and that the reason for remembering the mitzvot is the color of the tekhelet, which resembles the ocean, which in its turn resembles the sky or heaven.


According to Rabbinic tradition, tekhelet (תכלת) which appears 48 times in the Tanach - translated as "blue" - is a specific dye of blue produced from a creature referred to as a "hillazon", other blue dyes being unacceptable. Karaites, who reject the Oral Tradition of the Jews, maintain that any blue dye may be used. Since the source of the dye was lost, Jews wear plain white tzitzit without any dyes. Some explain the black stripes found on many traditional tallitot as representing the loss of this dye.

The advent of the 19th century has seen a number of attempts to identify the ancient source of the dye using relevant Talmudic sources. On the whole, Orthodox Jews have been slow to accept the findings of this research. Many poskim (decisors of Jewish law) maintain that it is better to use no dye at all rather than rely on evidence, though they agree that there is no transgression involved with wearing colored strands. Some also claim that tekhelet was removed for a divine purpose to be revealed by the Messiah at the time of the ultimate redemption. However, a small but growing number of Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox are now using this dye.


The chilazon is the animal from which the tekhelet dye was obtained by the ancient Israelites. The four primary criteria for the chilazon come from the Talmud (tractate Menachot 44a, PDF):

  1. The color of its body is like the sea.
  2. Its form is like a fish.
  3. It raises to the surface once in 70 years, its "blood" is used for tekhelet, (therefore:)
  4. It is expensive.

Additional criteria

Other criteria (with Talmudic references):

  • The fishers of the chilazon are from Haifa to Tyre (Shabbat 26a)
  • The color of the chilazon dye is identical to that produced from the dye of the kela ilan plant (Indigoferra tinctoria), which served as a counterfeit source of the dye (Baba Metzia 61b)
  • One who cracks open the shell of the hillazon violates Shabbat (Shabbat 75a)
  • The shell of the chilazon grows with it (Midrash Shir ha Shirim Rabbah 4:11)
  • The blood of the chilazon is the color of Tekhelet (Rashi, Chulin 89a)
  • The blood of the chilazon is black like ink (Maimonides Hilchot Tzitzit 2:2)
  • It has tentacles bent like hooks (Keilim, Ch. 12 Mishna 1)
  • A sickness which causes red flesh-like warts and forms a snake-like shape in the eye, is called "snake" or "chilazon" (Brachot 38a,b)
  • The chilazon buries itself in the sand (Megila 6a)
  • It is a boneless invertebrate (Yerushalami Sabbath 1:3 8a)

Sepia officinalis

In 1887 Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner (the Radzyner Rebbe) embarked on an extensive research program and found the Sepia officinalis (Common Cuttlefish) to meet many of the above criteria. This new tekhelet produced from this animal quickly caught on amongst the Rebbe's followers and within a year, 10,000 Radziner hassidim wore the colored tzitzit. The dye also became popular amongst Breslover Hassidim (followers of the Breslover Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov). The vast majority of orthodox Jewry, however, did not accept the Rebbe's findings.

Murex trunculus

The Murex trunculus, a sea snail, is currently advanced as the source of the coveted dye. Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1889-1959), the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote his doctoral thesis in 1913 on the subject and named the Murex snail as the most likely candidate for the dye's source. Though the Murex fulfilled many of the Talmudic criteria, his inabilty to consistently obtain blue dye from the snail precluded him from proclaiming decisively that dye source had been found.

However, in the 1980's a chemist from the Shenkar College of Fibers by the name of Otto Elsner discovered that if a solution of the dye was exposed to sunlight, blue instead of purple was consistently produced. Eventually, in 1993, the Ptil Tekhelet Foundation was formed for mass production of this tekhelet, as well as to continue further research. Approximately 30 Murex are needed to produce enough dye for a single garment's strands.

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Last updated: 10-10-2005 08:28:15
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