Tzitzit, the Fringes on the Prayer Shawl

Fringes for four-cornered garments.


Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Israelites were commanded to put fringes on the corners of their garments: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make throughout their generations fringes (tzitzit) in the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:38).’ The tzitzit are now placed in the special tallit, or prayer shawl, worn during prayer.

The insertion of the tzitzit in the tallit is as follows. Four threads, one longer than the other three, are inserted in a hole at the corner of the tallit and then doubled over to form seven threads of equal length and one longer one at the right-hand side. The threads of the two sides are tied in a double knot. The longer thread is then wound around the others seven times and a further double knot is made. The longer thread is then wound around eight times and another double knot is made. A third winding is then made eleven times and a double knot is made, and then there is a winding of thirteen and the last of the double knots is made.

It is desirable that after the windings and the knots have been made, all eight threads are of equal length. Manufacturers of tzitzit make the longer thread of a length sufficient for this to be done.

What Could the Numbers Mean?

tzitzit on tallit

The symbolism of all this has been variously interpreted. Thus, on one view, the Hebrew word tzitzit has the numerical value of 600 (tzaddi = 90; yod = 10; tzaddi = 90; yod = 10; tav = 400; = 600 in total). When the eight threads and the five knots are added there is a total of 613, corresponding to the 613 precepts of the Torah.

In another version, the eight threads correspond to the eight days that elapsed from the Israelites leaving Egypt until they sang the song of deliverance at the sea (Exodus 15). The five knots correspond to the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch). The numerical value of the Hebrew for ‘the Lord is One’ in the Shema is 39 and this is represented by the total of the windings (7+8+11+13=39).

Since the tzitzit are on all four corners of the tallit they act as a reminder to Jews to acknowledge God and His Torah at every turn.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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